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At the barre, a Cuban beat

A former attorney and a 1994 defector are using a spicy style to put a Venice ballet company on the map.

October 25, 2008|Diane Haithma | Haithman is a Times staff writer.

Former civil rights attorney Mark Blankenship and his wife, Bertha Suarez Blankenship, use the word "bravura" to describe the ballet dancing characteristic of Bertha's native Cuba.

"It's very strong -- the girls can do the boys' steps," says Bertha Suarez Blankenship, a former member of the National Ballet of Cuba who defected in 1994. "When we were in Cuba, it was the only freedom we had, so we danced with a lot of bravura."

Says Mark Blankenship, with signature ebullience, "It's kind of an electric electricity, like a zest, like the Mazda commercial, zoom-zoom-zoom. It's quicker, faster, with a little more gusto. The males are very virile. The Cuban ballerina is not a Balanchine ballerina -- very thin, emaciated. The Cuban ballerina is strong and muscular."

"Bravura" may also be a good word to describe the Blankenships' recent joint effort: turning a Christian Science church near the beach in Venice into a community arts center and headquarters for a fledgling professional ballet company drawing on Cuban ballet traditions, the Blankenship Ballet Company of Venice.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 05, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Blankenship Ballet Company: An article in the Oct. 25 Calendar section on the Blankenship Ballet Company said that Mark and Bertha Blankenship had reopened a long-unused 1905 Venice building that once had housed a Christian Science Church, implying that the church was no longer using the building. Although the Blankenships did reopen and renovate a long-unused portion of the structure, the church has continued to hold services in another part of the building since 1905.

There's a certain gutsiness to a creative partnership between a 44-year-old ballerina who still stars in company performances and a self-described controversial Riverside attorney whom the local press dubbed "lawyer for the underdogs" and who abandoned the profession in 2006, six months into a nine-month suspension from the practice of law.

Mark, 48, a non-dancer who sports a braid that reaches to his mid-back, says he is now channeling his relentless energy not into the courtroom but into establishing a "world-class" professional company.

"It's like being on a ship, and the sails are up, and you really can't navigate it because the wind is pushing it and you just hope you can hang on," he says, employing one of the many elaborate metaphors that pepper his discourse. (Another favorite: "It takes a fiery personality to build a campfire with wet logs in the pouring rain.")

The Blankenships reopened the Venice building, constructed in 1905, in October 2007 after almost a year of renovation. The structure, which the company leases, is available for community events but is usually occupied with classes, including ballet taught by Bertha, salsa, Argentine tango, Afro-Cuban, flamenco, ballroom and capobale (a blend of the Brazilian martial art capoeira and Cuban ballet). There's also something called "ecstatic movement" on Wednesday nights.

In the freewheeling community of Venice, "unusual" is a relative term. But in recent months, locals have been struck by the bright red coat of arms emblazoned on one side of the long-unused church. It bears the Latin phrase "ex animo" (from the heart) and is topped with the silhouette of a ballerina. The silhouette is a scan of Bertha performing "The Dying Swan."

The crest, with its cheeky blend of ersatz tradition and reinvention, is an apt introduction to what a visitor encounters inside. Instead of the usual stark studio adorned with nothing but a wall of mirrors and a ballet barre, picture a crystal chandelier, Rococo furniture, rich draperies, velvet and gilt -- a style that Mark describes as part Degas salon, part Louis XIV.

"This is like a bunch of old stuff -- it looks more expensive than it is," he says. "Imagine this whole space as a production and you're in it. You're playing a role in it now."

As yet, the company, which tonight will offer its fourth monthly Cuban Ballet & Dance Exhibition, includes only two full-time dancers: Bertha, who also serves as artistic director, and Raydel Caceres, 26, another Cuban native. A third Cuban defector, Annia Hildago, 23, who came to the U.S. only recently, has moved to North Hollywood and is likely to become a full-time member.

Other visiting performers based around the country, most of Cuban extraction, will round out the cast for tonight's show and have been regular guests with the company, which has existed in a less-active form since the late 1990s, performing mostly in and around Riverside, where the Blankenships live, and on YouTube. The couple met in 1996 when Bertha was a guest artist with the Redlands Festival Ballet, which Mark was involved with as a supporter. But as a Venice entity, the company is brand new, having given its first exhibition in June.

Also part of the company, and serving as its second artistic director, is Vibeke Muasya, a Danish writer, producer, director, dancer and choreographer who saw the company sign on the way to a meeting, later came in looking for a class to help her stay in shape and, in a sense, never left.

"I have worked with very good ballet companies in Europe, and I am honored to be choreographing for these dancers," she says. "It really is amazing -- it's a pearl in a very crazed community. This is more fun than yoga."

Another walk-in who has become a regular at the studio is actress Megalyn Echikunwoke, a new cast member on "CSI: Miami" who performed in the June exhibition and regularly takes classes.

"I live really close by, and I happened to see it -- magically, there was a ballet company right here," she says. "And it's not just a dance company. It's an all-encompassing center for the arts, which is something I think the community really needed."

The studio area serves as the performance space, an arrangement that aligns with the Blankenships' commitment to bringing ballet to the community in an intimate manner, with the dancers almost close enough to touch.

"We get more nervous because they can feel and hear everything, the breathing when you get tired," Bertha says.

"But I kind of like it, because they are really looking at you. People come to me and say, 'This is exquisite,' " she adds. "We have more connection with the audience."

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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Blankenship Ballet Company of Venice

Where: 132 Brooks Ave., Venice

When: 7 tonight

Price: $20 ($15 in advance); children 11 and younger free

Contact: (866) 922-5538 or www.blankenshipballet.com

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