On a brisk Saturday morning in November, the corner of 13th Street and Pacific Avenue is buzzing with excitement. Young dancers ranging from toddlers to teenagers shuffle through the studio doors of San Pedro City Ballet, eager to rehearse their parts in this year’s silver anniversary production of The Nutcracker.
As a blur of tutus and tiaras fill the newly renovated studio dance floor, Patrick Bradley stands silent, like the eye of a hurricane, patiently waiting as his dancers are called to attention.
“Ok, let’s start with the left foot,” he says, smirking. “The other left.”
As Tchaikovsky’s legendary score plays, a group of ballerinas file into position and begin, some more polished than others, but all with the same determination to get it right. They’re rehearsing the final number in the show, which includes nearly the entire cast onstage. It’s a daunting task, but one Patrick is used to. In the corner, Cynthia Bradley stands observing.
“They’re so good,” she whispers to me smiling.
Cynthia’s excitement is so infectious you’d think they were producing this for the first time. As co-artistic directors and co-founders of San Pedro City Ballet, the husband/wife team of Cynthia and Patrick Bradley (along with hundreds of volunteers) have worked tirelessly to produce a professional-level Nutcracker production for the community every year, and every year San Pedro has thanked them in kind by showing their support and filling the seats of the Warner Grand Theatre in December.
“It really feels like yesterday,” says Patrick, when asked about the 25th anniversary. “The only difference is instead of 70 in the cast, we now have more than 200.”
When the Bradleys put out a call for auditions for their newly formed ballet company’s production of The Nutcracker in the fall of 1994, they weren’t expecting much of a turnout (no pun intended).
“We had eight girls and needed a cast, so we put up flyers everywhere,” Cynthia recalls. She and Patrick, who had just moved to San Pedro, were teaching classes in a studio in The Terraces shopping center. “We didn’t think anyone was going to show up, but we had 60 com-munity members.”
With only a few months to rehearse and a full, eager cast, the Bradleys needed to find a venue for the show. They talked with San Pedro High School stage crew teacher Don Hughes about using the school auditorium, and created an internship program with his students, which is still thriving today.
With the help of a grant, the entire show’s worth of costumes and props came together in parents’ living rooms. Patrick, who will be retiring next year from teaching at SPHS, was tasked with designing and building the sets. The night before the first dress rehearsal, he was up until 5 a.m. painting a snow scene on the back wall of the auditorium. Tickets for the inaugural show sold almost as fast as the production came together.
“Eight hundred people showed up and we were flabbergasted,” Cynthia recalls. So began a San Pedro holiday tradition.
The San Pedro City Ballet would move its production to El Camino College and the Warner Grand Theatre, gaining popularity each year. In 1998, the Bradleys bought a former Norwegian bakery building on 13th Street and Pacific Avenue where the ballet school is still based today.
THE MISTY EFFECT
In 1996, a then 14-year-old Misty Copeland, a prodigy discovered by Cynthia when she taught a free class at the Boys & Girls Club, danced the role of Clara in that year’s Nutcracker production. Copeland would end up living with the Bradleys for three years and go on to dance in the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, where she gained worldwide fame as their first African-American soloist in decades. Today, Copeland is a household name, inspiring girls of all ages and ethnicities to take up ballet.
“My time spent training under Cynthia and Patrick was incredibly nurturing,” Copeland told San Pedro Today in 2013, on the production’s 20th anniversary. “Being a part of the company was like a tight-knit family that structured my foundation as a dancer and person today. The Nutcracker was the first ballet I was ever a part of, and to do that in my hometown of San Pedro made it all the more special.”
“We have teenagers coming to us who were obviously exposed to us through Misty,” says Cynthia, who was recently featured with Copeland in People magazine. “I just love them. They’re older. They start late, just like Misty did.”
Copeland’s rise in stardom, including her film debut in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms last month, continues to shine a spotlight on the school as young dancers seek out the place “where Misty got her start.”
An exciting addition to this year’s production is Enrique Anaya, a 19-year-old dance prodigy who Cynthia calls her “male Misty.”
“Enrique is amazing,” she says. “He flew out from New York City, where Misty has been mentoring him, to come in and play most of the male roles. He has that talent. I knew it the minute I saw him.”
Performing the role of Clara this year is 15-year-old Helena Ghekiere, another talent that Cynthia believes will go far in ballet. “She embodies the role of Clara perfectly,” she says.
The most notable difference between this year’s production and years past is for the first time ever, San Pedro City Ballet has not hired any professionals for the main roles. Every cast member has been homegrown through their company.
“We try to keep a certain professional standard,” says Cynthia. “This year, we have such a talented group, we haven’t had to hire any professionals like in years past. We have returning alumni that have worked professionally, but we didn’t hire any guest artists.”
This year’s cast is a testament to the talent they’ve cultivated through the years, and the hard work and dedication of their students.
2018 was an important year in the history of the school. In addition to the added notoriety through their affiliation with Copeland, SPCB was granted a much-needed $50,000 donation from Dr. Joseph Adan, which went to brand new studio floors, upgraded facilities and general maintenance.
“He’s an angel,” says Cynthia. “We were going to have to take a loan out for all the work that had to be done, but he came in and just wanted to help. He’s the sweetest man.”
Reflecting on 2018, Patrick says, “This has been a really fun year. I’m hoping to be here 25 years from now for our 50th anniversary.”
“The community has been with us through thick and thin,” adds Cynthia. “We always have community members in the cast every year, even if they think they can’t dance. I always tell people, everyone can dance, and even more, everyone should dance.” spt
The Nutcracker performs Friday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets $39/$29/$19 at the Warner Grand Theatre (478 W. 6th St.). For more info & tickets, visit sanpedroballetschool.com.