One of the oldest ballet schools in Southern California, Westside’s program includes a studio in Santa Monica where the nation’s top ballet pre-professionals are given the tools to pursue professional dance opportunities
With a ballet legacy as powerful as the dance form itself, Westside School of Ballet enters its new academic year stronger than ever.
One of the oldest ballet schools in Southern California, Westside’s program includes a studio in Santa Monica where the nation’s top ballet pre-professionals are given the tools to pursue professional dance opportunities. For the 2023-24 academic year, Westside is offering a new free boys ballet program, and the school also partnered with Los Angeles Ballet in a new trainee program for advanced ballet students.
The boys-only program consists of three divisions, two introductory classes for ages 5-7 and ages 8-10, as well as a third division for intermediate and advanced male dancers with at least 4 years of previous ballet training. The program focuses on Allegro, Pirouettes, variations and pas de deux, and emphasizes qualities such as posture, alignment, proper execution and fundamentals.
“They’re all hard-working and talented,” said Adrian Blake Mitchell, associate executive director at Westside of Santa Monica. “It’s special for the school … it’s very rewarding to help facilitate (their growth), and we continue that legacy of training great young dancers who represent male dancers in companies around the world.”
Mitchell leads the boys division and lends his considerable experience for new generations to glean from. The first Black graduate in the 284-year history of St. Petersburg, Russia’s legendary Vaganova Academy, Mitchell then became the first Black man to join a major Russian ballet company in 2015 with the Mikhailovsky Theater. In early 2022, Mitchell and his wife fled from St. Petersburg after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and he initially joined up with Westside through his open-access ballet workshop Dance to Dreams. He then extended his role to associate director to lead community outreach efforts and facilitate programs like the boys’ ballet.
“After leaving my career in Russia, I felt welcomed with open arms to the school, and I wish the same for young students who hope to learn this incredible art form that we all have the privilege of being immersed in daily,” he said.
The boys’ program lineage at Westside has been impressive, with the latest crop of burgeoning ballet stars ready to make their mark. At just 16 years of age, Santa Monica resident Dylan Weinstein has already separated himself from most peers, receiving a top placement at the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest international student ballet competition. Weinstein was one of four male cast members to receive the honor, and is now in his final days in Santa Monica after receiving a full scholarship to American Ballet Theater (ABT)’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City.
“I was first interested because my sister did ballet, and then I came to Westside, and they told me my feet could point,” Weinstein said. “Then I (said) ‘I’ll keep doing this, it’s fun,’ and I (enjoyed) it. I just started to love it more and more.”
What started as a couple of classes per week eventually turned to six days per week of tough training, as he was one of Mitchell’s chosen pupils that the instructor saw professional potential in. Weinstein and fellow Santa Monica resident Sawyer Jordan were standouts in Westside’s 2023 Spring Showcase, where they performed Balanchine’s “Emeralds Pas de Trios” from “Jewels,” staged by former New York City Ballet principal Nilas Martins. The two also shined during Westside’s 2023 production of “The Nutcracker,” performing a Russian dance that featured high jumps and ballet technique.
Weinstein was able to pass an early graduation test at Santa Monica High School after his sophomore year, and credits Samohi teachers and counselors for being supportive of his professional pursuit. Finishing up his time on the west coast, he has been preparing for the “hard transition” to ABT, saying goodbye to friends and buying items for his dormitory. Mitchell and the Westside team have been aiding the star pupil with physical strength required for the demanding program, as well as the mental toughness.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Mitchell said of the next level. “You have more responsibility to think about yourself and make sure that you’re training on your own. You don’t necessarily have a teacher that’s known you since you were 8 years old to help mold you. It’s a lot more cutthroat. (We’re) trying to teach him self-sufficiency.”
Much of the same training mechanisms can also be applied to the trainee program, led by Mitchell and Melissa Barak, a Westside alum and current Artistic Director for Los Angeles Ballet. Barak is a protege of Westside’s co-founder, the late Yvonne Mounsey, and adds another trove of experience for young dancers to learn from. As a choreographer, she has created original works for the likes of New York City Ballet and Richmond Ballet.
“I love teaching, I love finding potential in dancers and trying to pull more out of them,” Barak said of the trainee program. “I’m very detail-oriented, so I like to hone in and make sure everyone is doing things correctly. It’s a joy to be able to really help grow and assist in a dancer’s growth. Whether they become a dancer professionally or just they are another person in the world, they really developed a sense of discipline and work ethic, and what it is to really dedicate yourself to something.”
Barak allows students to “explore their artistic side,” including trainees and identical twins Francisca and Isabel Bugacov. The multi-talented twins joined Weinstein and Jordan in the “Emeralds Pas de Trois” performance, and the 16-year-old Venice residents are also skilled pianists and violists, adding to their artistic repertoire they hone in on at Westside.
“It isn’t only about the technique (with ballet); it is about the artistry and the style you pair with that technique,” Francisca said.
Those that have the skill and drive to dive into the trainee program can submit a resume and video audition on the Los Angeles Ballet website, losangelesballet.org. More information on the boys’ program can be found at Westside Ballet’s website, westsideballet.com.