Lila Zali and the Laguna Beach Civic Ballet will reclaim the stage during the next Laguna Beach Historical Society program Tuesday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. at the Laguna Beach City Hall Council Chambers, 505 Forest Ave.
Presenting the program will be Kathy Kahn along with two former company dancers, Merilee Magnuson Blaisdell, Mary Hanf Monzingo, and the mother of one of the dancers who was also a friend of Lila’s, June Budd.
The program will include a 20-minute documentary “A Loving Tribute” produced and directed by Jennifer and Steve Baker. The public is invited and there is no charge. The documentary will include footage of Zali dancing in the film “Gaby” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight.” These were only two of many films she appeared in including “An American in Paris.”
Kahn, who directs the Laguna Beach Ballet Studio, was formerly a soloist, ballet mistress, and resident choreographer for the Laguna Beach Civic Ballet, which Zali founded in 1962 and went on to became Ballet Pacifica.
Zali, who died 2003, danced professionally in the Mordkin Ballet, Ballet Theatre and as the principal dancer on the CBS television show “Balleretta.” Zali organized and choreographed a trio of dancers who toured the United States during World War II. The Three Debs included Barbara Stuart, who also was a founder of the Laguna Greenbelt.
Zali moved to Laguna Beach in 1959 with her husband Kolia Levienne. She served as director, choreographer, costume maker and fundraiser for the Laguna Beach Civic Ballet as well as teaching ballet to children and adults at her South Coast Highway studio. She continued to teach until four days before her death at the age of 84.
The daughter of classical opera singers, Zali auditioned and was offered a contract at 17 in 1938 with what is now New York’s American Ballet Theater. She danced for three years.
The beginning of her history in Southern California began on a vacation with her mother to Los Angeles, where she auditioned for Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company and met cellist Nicholas Levienne, who became her husband. Zali continued performing on stage and screen when she fell in love with and subsequently moved to Laguna Beach.
“Kolia (Levienne) was remodeling a house in Laguna and took me down to see it before we were married. It was love at first sight. I knew I wanted to live there some day,” said Zali when she was still alive.
Moving did not deter the two from continuing their life of music and performances. Zali established the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society and in 1962 founded the Civic Ballet. Over the years, the petite dance school grew from its small budget of $1,500 a year with the help of Zali’s teaching and her refusal to take a salary. The company changed its name to Ballet Pacifica, and in 2003 amassed 750 season subscribers, an annual budget of about $1.7 million and up to 60 performances a year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We survived by persevering and not making the mistake most ballet companies make of starting too big,” Zali said in 1985.
Zali is buried at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar.
The program will be videotaped and is to be televised on the local Cox Cable channel 30.
Photos courtesy of the Laguna Beach Historical Society from the Kathy Kahn Collection.