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Angels dance at Red Shield

There is, perhaps, no more unlikely program at The Salvation Army’s inner-city Los Angeles Red Shield Youth and Community Center than the City of Angels Ballet academy.

Here, under the instruction of Artistic Director and President Mario Nugara, 130 at-risk youth ages 7 to 15 receive instruction up to six days a week in classical ballet at four skill levels.

“It’s very hard work,” says Nugara, who trained at the School of American Ballet and was a member of the Boston Ballet. “They don’t just put on a pretty costume and bounce around. They are all being trained to dance.”

Many, he says, have become as proficient as ballet students of similar age in the professional academies associated with the major ballet companies across the country.

Most of these dancers, however, reside in Pico-Union or other nearby neighborhoods in central Los Angeles, and almost all are from low-income Latino families. Many come from high-risk families and have siblings involved with drugs, gangs, delinquency, school failure, and teen pregnancy.

Ballet has made a significant difference in their lives. “School teachers and administrators have told me they can pick out our students. Their training shows in their discipline, in how they carry themselves,” he explains. It’s even affected their choice of music. “The kids tell me they mostly listen to classical music now.”

Nugara’s dream is for the school to develop into a resident company for the City of Los Angeles–which currently has none. “The New York City Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet–they all started as ballet schools,” he explains.

Through Nugara, the students are exposed to the best in ballet.

“I love bringing friends in to teach classes. They love the students and can see their progress.” Guest instructors have included Royal Danish Ballet principal Mette Bøtcher (whom Mario met when he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Copenhagen and danced with the Royal Danish Ballet), Stephanie Saland, a former principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet, and current NYC ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Mario himself has danced on Broadway with ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev.

Now in its eighth year, the school reflects the Red Shield’s willingness to partner with the community. Nugara first approached the principal of the Tenth Street School about the possibility of starting what he dreamed would be-come a fully professional performing company in classical ballet. She referred him to Red Shield Executive Director Irene De Anda Lewis at the youth center, located directly across the street.

“Irene has been extremely supportive,” says Nugara. “She was one of the few people who could see the value of my starting the school there. She trusted me.” It was trust well placed.

In the beginning, obtaining students was a challenge. Mario visited city schools, talking to students about ballet–sometimes up to 700 students a day. He even recruited students from off the street. “I used to stand on the corner at 11th Street,” he recalls, “and I would stop families and check their children’s feet to see if they had the proper bone structure and then tell them to come to ballet classes.” He doesn’t need to do that anymore.

Students currently practice at the Red Shield in two rooms equipped with a sprung wooden floor, mirrors and bars. Soon, they will move into a new facility next door, now under construction, that will contain a movement/dance studio on the second floor of nearly 3,000 square feet, which will allow more students to obtain instruction.

Funding for the $150,000 budget comes from individuals, corporations or foundations. Nugara is looking for a “guardian angel” to set up an endowment. He explains that with increased funding the second instructor, who is now part time, could teach full time. The school provides all the equipment for the students: leotards, tights, shoes, and pointe shoes for the older students. They all receive a scholarship for instruction.

This December, the City of Angels will dance for the third time at the University of Southern California–the result of a developing relationship between the ballet academy and the nearby university. That’s part of another dream Mario has: for USC to eventually provide educational scholarships for his dancers. “They can’t dance forever. Someday they’ll retire. They’ll always need an education,” he says.

He speaks from experience, having earned both a Bachelors and a Masters degree in Fine Arts from New York University.

–Sue Schumann Warner

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