Studio Focus: California Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Kim Maselli

California Dance Theatre offers southern California dance students world-class ballet training and performance opportunities.  With diverse classes, extraordinary teachers, and an exclusive, pre-professional training platform, the school allows young dancers access to high-caliber dance education without having to leave the area to attend a boarding program. The World Dances spoke with CDT Artistic Director Kim Maselli about the school, the creation of its original, full-length ballets, advice for studio owners, and more.

Please tell us about your dance background.

The studio has been in existence since 1986. My mom, Lori Swanson, and I were the three founders. My mom and Lori both retired a few years ago so now I’m the sole owner. We’ve all been very classically inclined, even though we’re in Los Angeles and the commercial scene is big here. My mom was my first teacher. She had a studio in Vermont. At 16, I went to the Washington School of Ballet and to New York after that. I was with the Joffrey on scholarship for two years then joined the ABT studio company. Then I moved to California. My family had moved from Vermont while I was in NYC. I did West Side Story with a theater group that summer and ended up staying to see what else would come. I danced with L.A. Ballet for a season before they folded. Then I started auditioning for more commercial work. I did the Baryshnikov Nutcracker TV special. I was on the TV show Sing in the ‘80s dancing with Debbie Allen. I got to experience a great cross section of different styles of dance. I got to do everything. When we opened the studio we were more diversified to start but ballet was always a huge component of our programming. My love has always been classical ballet. As the studio has evolved, we’ve swung back into our classical roots. That is what we are most known for and where we really excel.

What distinguishes your pre-professional program?

In southern California there aren’t many serious classical studios. I realized in our region there was a real lack of opportunity for the dedicated ballet student who really wants to pursue a career but doesn’t want to leave home at the age of 14 or 15. I’ve seen many dancers do that before they’re ready and end up burning out before they’re 16. I started thinking about creating a program where these students could do our afterschool curriculum but have something supplemental in the early afternoon in order to get three to five hours of dancing a day. Our staff includes Patrick Franz, who was with the Paris Opera Ballet, along with Colleen O’Callaghan, who danced with American Ballet Theatre, and Romy Karz, who was with New York City Ballet. They provide a great cross-section of European and American ballet with different stylistic backgrounds. The dancers train from 1:30 to 3:30 in the pre-professional program, then they do our afterschool curriculum later in the afternoon or evening. I see it really fostering this generation of dancers and I’m proud of it.  We’re providing that missing link so dancers don’t have to leave home to get that accelerated training. 

What performance opportunities does CDT offer?

We just moved to a new facility at the first of the year. We’re now five minutes away from the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, where we have been the resident ballet company, as Pacific Festival Ballet, for about 15 years. The stage is comparable to the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion! The residency status requires us to do three seasons each year. We do The Nutcracker every year.  Tiler Peck and Ganzalo Garcia are our Sugarplum and Cavalier, and have been for the past eight years. Having them on stage with us inspires everyone to amp it up about 10,000 notches!  In the spring, we perform traditional ballets such as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or original works. I’ve been working with composer Eric Allaman to create new ballets. We’re working on our third full-length ballet now. Our original works are a mix between classical, contemporary, and neoclassical. I’m also a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil, so we incorporate some aerial dance as well. I have done some creative thinking for the spring ballets to encourage audiences to come for more than only The Nutcracker. That pushed me into creating these new ballets. It’s a lot of fun. There’s room to think outside the box. 

What was it like for you to take on the role of choreographer?

I grew into the role of choreographer after the studio opened. My mother always used to throw me music and ask me to choreograph, so it felt natural to me, especially for the story ballets. I love story telling. I write the libretto first before we even work on the music. The final stage is choreographing steps to the score. It all feels very organic.

The first original ballet we did was called The Sea Princess. I remember sitting back in the sound booth opening night watching the audience watching my ideas on the stage and it was really surreal!

Noah’s Ark was my second original ballet. We’re presenting it again this spring [tickets available here]. We are in the process of creating Camelot now. Eric went to Macedonia to record the score with a 50-piece orchestra. We will begin workshopping it in the summer.

Will other companies be able to perform your ballets?

A production company wanted to take Noah’s Ark on tour. They were more musical theater people though, and they wanted me to scale it down a lot. It doesn’t quite work as well when you’ve only got ten animals. So I stepped away from that, but I realized through that process that I want the productions to stay solidly in the ballet genre if I do license these.

How did you develop the relationship with Tiler Peck and Ganzalo Garcia?

Originally it was through Gonzalo, who is Tiler’s partner. Prior to working with Tiler Peck as Sugarplum, we worked with Tina LaBlanc, who was with Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Gonzalo and Tina used to partner together at San Francisco, so when she was on the verge of retirement and Gonzalo was at NYCB, he suggested Tiler. She was only 20 at the time but you could already tell she was special. Of course she was brilliant on stage and just the sweetest person—not an ego bone in her body and such a great model for dancers.

How do you see the professional dance world changing, and how do you change your studio’s curricula in order to prepare dancers for careers accordingly?

I think the professional scene has become more diversified, which has created more opportunities for dancers with different talents to find their own dance niche. In my generation it was sort of black and white. You either went into a ballet program right out of high school, or even before, or you went to college, where the opportunities weren’t great. Now there are so many fantastic university dance programs. I’ve had a lot of amazing students get their degrees and go on to dance in companies professionally. There are more stepping stones now where there didn’t used to be.

Our studio curriculum definitely has to parallel and keep up with that diversity. Even if you’re a dancer who is really interested in classical ballet, you have to also be able to do contemporary and modern—at least. Even classical companies now have more diversified repertoires so you need to be well rounded. We have ballet technique and pointe every day, but we also have an elective program. So the last class each day will be a different movement style. We encourage everyone to create packages for themselves that will build diverse skills.

What role does the floor play in dance?

It’s so important for your dancers to have good floors! When we announced that we were moving, many of the dancers were a little upset because they’d grown up in the old studio. They felt so much better when I told them we were taking all of our Harlequin floors with us to the new studio. We got everything re-installed, and that first day when everyone came in they were like, “Oh, it’s our floor!” It gave them such joy and comfort to know that the floors on which they felt comfortable were staying with them.

What advice would you offer greener studio owners?

I think having a very organized administrative team is crucial. A studio is a business and it has to run like clockwork. It’s a service industry—you’re offering families a service. 

Sometimes dealing with high volumes of people and families is a challenge. It really helps to understand families’ needs and expectations, and vice versa—help them to understand our goals as teachers. We’re developing young adults, not just dancers, and there are life skills that come with and go into all of this. We’re open with communication. When parents have concerns, we sit down and talk about them. We try to help them understand that sometimes they have to trust our expertise when we’re training their kids. Sometimes they see dance training as more short term and we’re seeing a longer view.

Photo: CDT's company Pacific Festival Ballet in The Nutcracker