Malu Rivera-Peoples is taking her suburban California school to new levels with pre-professional ballet training.
The music can barely be heard from the foggy courtyard, where Malu Rivera-Peoples and Cristina Fargas-Newell (“Miss Tina” to the students) allow a visitor to observe through the windows of a spacious studio as 20 or so youngsters dutifully execute grands battements in Cuban ballet star Jorge Esquivel’s ballet class. “That’s much better,” says Rivera-Peoples, the school director, nodding toward a young girl who is stretching into a long arabesque line. “She’s improved a lot this summer. They all come back mid-August, because we start rehearsals right away, so they’re working hard to be in shape for the fall.”
Westlake School for the Performing Arts is the bustling home to nearly a thousand students who soak in a rich tapestry of classes that reflects the vibrant cultural backdrop of the surrounding neighborhood. Founded in 1991 by Rivera-Peoples and Karen Dycaico, Westlake has six studios housed in the Doelger Arts Center in the Westlake district of Daly City, just south of San Francisco. The quiet, well-manicured suburb is only a stone’s throw from the ocean in an area that is largely made up of families of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
It’s a school that has taken honors at events like the Youth America Grand Prix, where it’s won the “Outstanding School” award four times, as well as at the International Dance Challenge, the American Dance Awards and the North American Dance Championships. This summer, the WSPA dancers garnered special attention at the New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, where 11-year-old Jasmine Cruz took home the National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer trophy.
A trim, compact woman in her mid-50s, Rivera-Peoples is given to speaking expressively with her hands, and her eyes sparkle with a warmth that belies her no-nonsense attitude. A native of the Philippines, she trained with Felicitas “Tita” Radaic, one of that country’s top dancers, and as a teenager she joined Ballet Philippines, while simultaneously running her own one-room studio in Manila. By the time she was in her early 20s, Rivera-Peoples was not only dancing professionally and teaching, but also working on her college degree. The stress, she says, led to burnout.
So in 1983, she quit dancing and joined her father and sister in the Bay Area where she and Dycaico, a former student, started a summer program with 35 students under the auspices of the Daly City Parks and Recreation Department. “We didn’t even have a phone—I forwarded the Parks and Recreation public phone next to the clubhouse to my home, so that when we weren’t there I could still receive the calls,” she says.
By 1994, the program had outgrown the facility, and the city offered her 14,000 square feet in a former primary school that she now leases. Her husband Paul, WSPA executive director, personally installed dance floors, mirrors and barres.
With 960 students, Westlake now employs a 22-member teaching staff in a range of genres, including ballet, tap, contemporary, hip hop, musical theater, voice training and Polynesian dance. Ballet classes, which have a total enrollment of 426, make up the bulk of the school’s offerings. WSPA supports four youth companies: a classical ballet-based dance company, a musical theater troupe, a hip-hop crew and a Polynesian company called Te Orama or “The Vision,” led by respected Tahitian Kumu Hula Anthony Waipa Manaois. Annual revenue is slightly more than $1 million.
Over two decades, three programs have evolved: A General School caters to 580 recreational students, who take class once or twice a week and perform only in a final recital; a more rigorous performance program, open by audition, is geared toward another 390 dancers who want to participate in more performances and competition; and the professional division, which is open by invitation only and designed for dancers pursuing a serious career in classical ballet.
Rivera-Peoples added the professional division in 2010 after a dancer won a Hope Award in the pre-competitive division of Youth America Grand Prix and was invited to the New York finals. WSPA had for years been competing at the YAGP regionals, with students acquitting themselves modestly, but the director realized that a schedule of once- or twice-a-week classes was not enough to prepare her student technically for what she would face in New York.
That year, Rivera-Peoples met Viktor Kabaniaev at YAGP. Kabaniaev, who had danced with the Eifman Ballet, was teaching and choreographing for Miko Fogarty, the dancer featured in the film First Position. Rivera-Peoples invited Kabaniaev to create a program for WSPA.
“She told me, ‘I want my students to be trained like yours,’” says Kabaniaev, who at the time was co-director of Diablo Ballet’s Apprentice Program in Walnut Creek, CA. He received his training at the famed Vaganova School in St. Petersburg. “Malu is a very strong woman and very straightforward. At one point, she said perhaps I should go a little easier on these students, but I said I have to do what I do, or you can fire me.”
In a classroom steamed up from the efforts of the students, Kabaniaev gives a grueling, somewhat unorthodox ballet class to a score of dancers ages 11 to 17. The level of discipline and focus in the room is impressive. The dancers have memorized the set combinations, moving quickly through the standard pliés and tendus, dégagés, battements and stretches in a sequence devised by Kabaniaev to develop strength with movement quality. His barre eliminates certain traditional staple steps that he has deemed as less useful to modern ballet training. “When I was in school,” he says, “we did all the time flic-flac. Why? I never used it on the stage.”
His barre takes the legs high in développés and grands ronds de jambe and penchées early in the class, then returns to smaller movements like frappés before going back to développés in a back-and-forth sequence that emphasizes both speed and flexibility. There is no talking among the students at all, and they barely stop for breath in between combinations for two and a half hours.
Rivera-Peoples acknowledges that while Kabaniaev’s class might seem somewhat unconventional to ballet purists—she herself was trained in the methodical Royal Academy of Dance curriculum—it accomplishes what she had hoped. “You can’t argue with the results,” she says, noting that the level of technical ability in her students has risen considerably.
“It’s not for everyone,” she says frankly. “These are kids who want more, who are willing to embrace the work. In the beginning I was trying to weed out those who didn’t have the turnout or the facility. But in reality, often it’s the dancers who don’t have those things who become professionals because persistent ones will work for it. And the ones with all the facility tend to just drop out. When auditioning now, we consider the work ethic of the child.”
After the class ends, 11-year-old Jasmine Cruz and 12-year-old Tristan Brosnan rehearse the pas de deux from The Flames of Paris. Kabaniaev has coached the diminutive Cruz for two years, cultivating an aplomb that many a professional dancer would envy. “Jasmine was always talented, but when she first came here she was not polished,” he says. “So I thought about what the most efficient way was for me to help this kid, and that was to make her extremely precise, work on the way she closes to fifth, how she takes a hand.”
Both children drew notice at the 2013 YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance this past summer. In addition to winning the National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer title, Cruz was awarded a scholarship to attend the American Ballet Theatre Young Dancer Summer Intensive.
“Jasmine was a little fireball,” says Kate Lydon, director of ABT’s Studio Company. Lydon taught Cruz in a class at NYCDA. “She had so much energy and ability beyond her years. She had a particular professionalism, seriousness and drive that came through, and she was incredibly passionate. More than her young age, what struck me most was that she had a love and a drive and seemed to soak up every word and opportunity to dance we offered her.”
Cruz and Brosnan hurdle the technical challenges in rehearsal with apparent ease, though both Kabaniaev and Rivera-Peoples correct details with a seriousness tempered by praise. Discipline and a commitment to hard work are values that she and Kabaniaev are keen to foster in all their students.
“These competitions can be very helpful,” says Rivera-Peoples. “They really set goals for them every year. But every time we compete, I tell the kids, you compete against yourself. It’s not about dancing better than the others, it’s about pushing yourself to a different level every time. We’re not into the plaques or the trophies. Of course, that’s nice, but even if you don’t get a placement, if you performed on that stage better than you did in the studio, you’ve already won. And when they don’t perform the way they should have, even if they win, we tell them, ‘It’s a good thing these judges recognized what you had done, but I didn’t think that was your best.’ They have to understand that, and who else will tell them the truth but us?”
After suffering a brain stem hemorrhage a few years back, Rivera-Peoples now teaches only two days a week. Even so, she stays on top of how all her students are doing and promotes an open-door policy with parents.
“If they have a concern about anything, parents can come in to talk,” she says. “I know not everyone likes talking with parents all the time, but I’m always open to parents working with us and letting us know if a child isn’t happy. I tell them I don’t know your child as well as you do—I only see her a few hours, but I would like to know her. Dancing and training is a very personal thing, they’re not just numbers in a class.”
“In the bigger picture as educators, we are building the whole person, not just teaching them dance,” she continues. “They carry that to adulthood. If they’re not in a company, they’ll be the supporters, the philanthropists, the audience. So we are building in them a love of the art.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a dancer-turned-teacher who also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photos (from top): courtesy of Spotlight Competition; courtesy
of WSPA; Lem Abdon, courtesy of WSPA; courtesy of WSPA; Visual Arts Masters for YAGP, courtesy of WSPA