The Little Girls Understand

At the Ballet Pacifica Academy one balmy Friday afternoon, more than 100 girls and boys in regulation attire perspire profusely during rehearsal for their end-of-summer performance. The 11-year-olds, all spindly legs and long, arching necks, point their pretty toes; the 14- and 15-year-olds, exhibiting that natural weight shift of adolescence, adjust and readjust their white elastic waistbands in the mirror. A couple of older dancers glint with raw talent: one strawberry blonde's long arms flow limpid and boneless; another executes fouettes with punctual musicality.

They want to dance, but they really want to dance for one of their idols: real, honest-to-goodness ballerina Amanda McKerrow, who, with husband John Gardner, new academy director Lorin Johnson and artistic director Ethan Stiefel, exemplifies Ballet Pacifica's newfound ambition.

Its sights are set on becoming a world-class company; as a first step, Stiefel, a 32-year-old principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, brought in McKerrow, Gardner and Johnson to help shape up the school. They hope to hire a company of 18 soloist-level dancers this season and will begin performing next winter at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

However, in the true tradition of quality ballet, their motto remains "first a school"—incidentally, the most famous quote about Balanchine ever. McKerrow and Gardner will teach full-time their first year before focusing their energy on the company.

"This year, we will raise the level of the training, take it to a higher level," McKerrow says; already this fall, they've added point and technique classes to build strength and endurance—plus an emphasis on teaching a technique that reflects the range of American dance. "Today's American dancer has to be prepared to do a diversity of styles," McKerrow explains. Eventually, the school will act as a feeder for the company.

And after their first week of teaching, the couple seems 100 percent engaged. When the students hit a trouble spot in the pas de deux section of a new ballet the couple designed to mimic ballet class, McKerrow, 41 and maybe 100 pounds in leg warmers and leotard, jumps up to dance with her husband. She threads her long legs into "attitude back" while he holds her by the wrist and they both look into the mirror, questioning, appraising. When the choreography is deemed danceable, she returns to the front of the studio and the rehearsal continues.

She and Gardner are full of praise. "Good!" she cries out when the dancers must hop in arabesque while facing each other. Then she adds, "Say hello! Say hello!" and the little girls break out into helpless smiles as they glance at each other mid-movement.

No wonder they gaze at her with awe and adoration. A 23-year ABT veteran, McKerrow is also the first American woman to win the Moscow International Ballet Competition—and this was in 1981, just after the Olympic boycott. She also danced with Baryshnikov in the '80s and took her sensitive artistry to work with nearly every major choreographer in the art form. And she's humble about her accomplishments: "It's just an honor to be allowed to give back. I just want to get kids excited about dancing," she says, stretching out after the rehearsal.

Starting a ballet company is never easy, especially in Southern California, which is littered with the twisted carcasses of such false starts. But Stiefel brings his passion for the art form and a certain degree of name recognition—he was the guy on the motorcycle in Center Stage. And he's got the right people in his corner: from greats like Gardner and McKerrow to Johnson and executive director Thomas Gulick, who earned his stripes with San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera. From a business perspective, the company hopes to follow that of Jet Blue: starting small, keeping quality high, saving expansion and expensive ticket prices for when they can meet demand.

It starts with the school, which in turn is where dance appreciation begins. Because even if a student doesn't make pro, he or she will still make up the next generation of fans.



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