On a recent morning in a bright, pristine studio near Downtown, dancers with the City Ballet of Los Angeles rehearse an upcoming piece. Their studio is in a Salvation Army community center in the Pico-Union district, not far from Staples Center and L.A. Live. Company founder and artistic director Robyn Gardenhire, 45, is a picture of urban chic in jeans and motorcycle boots as she presides. She is rigorous with her dancers, but the mood is friendly and collaborative.
Gardenhire grew up in the Lynwood area and began dancing when she was four years old. At 15 she moved to New York to audition and got into the Joffrey Ballet's second company, then moved to the Cleveland Ballet. After touring with Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project, she came home and started the City Ballet of Los Angeles. The non-profit's school provides children in Pico-Union with a low-cost place to learn ballet. In 2003 she added a company of professional dancers that has performed at the Ford Amphitheatre and in the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway.
Upcoming is the "Concerto Project," named in honor of CBLA board member and architect Doug Hanson's new residential building at 9th and Figueroa. Gardenhire calls the program a chance for CBLA's dancers and choreographers to "step outside the box" of their usual repertoire. "Concerto Project came about last year and focuses on the architectural aspects of dance," says Gardenhire. "In working with these different dancers, they always have brilliant ideas and I just found that they also want to choreograph. I can't offer them the pay they deserve but I can give them a beautiful stage to create on."
The performances will fulfill Gardenhire's desire to "put dance in places people wouldn't normally experience it." After a workshop preview at CBLA's studios in the Salvation Army center on West 11th Street, the Concerto Project will move into a public space Downtown. Three performances will be staged in the lobby of the City National Plaza, just outside Chaya Downtown and Drago Centro. "We're joining forces with these two restaurants," Gardenhire said. "They'll be hosting a pre-cocktail hour and then a post-performance supper." A percentage of the proceeds will go to the CBLA School scholarship fund.
Diners will be able to see CBLA dancers perform a range of new works, including Gary Franco's tribute to Michael Jackson, Cindy Ricalde's interpretation of the famine in Ireland, and Gardenhire's modern take on "Giselle" called "Death and the Maiden."
"I want to build a company for this city," Gardenhire said. "Being Downtown, I think is just a stroke of luck. I always wanted the studio to be somewhere kids could walk to...When I started the company the re-vitalization of downtown was just happening. More people are living down here, there's life down here and I just want to be a part of it."
LA Observed video: Gardenhire working on "Death and the Maiden" with dancers Mary Tarpley, Raquel Cordova, Jessica Taylor, Perris McCracken, Susan Vishmid and Tein Tan.
Concerto Project: June 5 at the CBLA Studios; July 8, 15 and 22 at City National Plaza. Ticket information
Video and photos: Judy Graeme / LA Observed