She keeps them on their toes: Tita Boulger and the Peninsula School of Performing Arts

Peninsula School of Performing Arts director Tita Boulger at Abalone Cove with dancers Elina Mertens, Cammi Malicse, Malaya Paterson, Diane Anderson, Amelia Anderson, Reese Tomaro, Elena Thomas, Sierra Hickey, and Juliette Belke.

story by Bondo Wyszpolski and photographs by Richard Horn

Some people have a calling, almost from birth, and they not only pursue it but stick with it. Tita Boulger appears to fit into this category. She’s the founder and director of the Peninsula School of Performing Arts. She opened her studio in 1985. For those a bit slow on the math, let me help: That’s coming up on 37 years. Asked a very simple question, What keeps you going, Boulger doesn’t hesitate: “I love what I’m doing, and that is the big key.”

The big key has a beginning, and we don’t have to leave the Peninsula to find it.

Ballerinas emerging from the sea (left to right) Sierra Hickey, Cammi Malicse, Reese Tomaro (hidden), Juliette Belke, Elena Thomas, Diane Anderson, Elina Mertens, Malaya Paterson, and Amelia Anderson.

Like mother, like daughter

“My earliest memories were when my parents were in shows with the Palos Verdes Players,” Boulger says.That was in the mid-1950s when the theater company staged its productions in the Malaga Cove School Auditorium. The family was living in Torrance at the time, but in 1961 they moved to Palos Verdes. Boulger, a Miss Bryson back then, attended Malaga Cove School for three years and then went to Palos Verdes High School. I promised not to say which year she graduated, but our homework assignments were still being chiseled on clay tablets.

Not only were her parents local thespians, they’d actually met on Broadway, in New York, in the late 1940s. They were in the same show, it was probably love at first sight or maybe first rehearsal; they married, had one child, then another, and moved to California when Boulger was three. “They were in a lot of shows with the PV Players,” she says, “and I actually did a couple of shows when I was a kid, too.”

Boulger’s interest in dancing — go ahead and reread the first sentence of this story — began at a very early age.

“My mother was a dancer and I would follow her around to her rehearsals. Then I started taking classes at the old Phyllis Moore Dance Studio that used to be on Redondo Beach Boulevard. I always took dance, and my mom taught dance, too, at the same time.”

Boulger was a song leader at PV High, with many years of ballet and tap dancing already behind her. While most of her peers were still in the dark about whether to become doctors or lawyers, Boulger had started teaching dance. “I had work experience, and I was teaching the things my mother taught me, ballet and tap to beginners. I did that from the age of 16 on, and I found I enjoyed teaching more than performing.” She’s quick to point out that she still likes performing. “I performed as a professional dancer clear into my 60s with a jazz band, and that was really, really fun.”

Being a dance teacher is one thing, but opening a dance studio of one’s own is quite another.

“I worked for seven years for the South Bay Conservancy,” Boulger says. “They were a music school, but I started a dance program with them and built it up. At some point I knew I wanted to run a business of my own. So I rented one room down there in Lunada Bay, and I started with a few students who had followed me over the years.” And then, as now: “I really like the business end of it; I love running the business and planning the shows.”

Boulger, of course, had some inside help.

“My mother was so creative, she wrote all our shows. We did years and years of shows at the Norris, and we still do, but she would write musicals that we would put our dance numbers into. We worked very well together.” Boulger, looking back, also considers these musicals to be part of her company’s legacy. “When she passed away I wrote several of them afterwards, and I loved that that was different than anybody else’s — we were original in doing musicals as part of our recitals.”

Boulger also likes the balance between her office work — scheduling, seeing that programs get printed, etc. — and teaching in the afternoons. “It’s not just doing one thing all the time. I like a variety of things in my life.”

High on that list would be travel: “My husband Rick and I have been all over the world.” They even took a year off, from 1999-2000, and backpacked everywhere you can think of, and some you can’t.

Elina Mertens performing a majestic grande jeté.

Leading to discipline, and self-confidence

By her own admission, “I am not the most fantastic choreographer,” Boulger says, “but I hire really good choreographers to work for me.” Even so, and not surprisingly, she’s mastered this aspect of dance as well, and points to the 20 years she spent teaching summer programs at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Each year for four years she choreographed a musical—“West Side Story,” “Anything Goes,” “42nd Street,” and “The Mikado.” During the other years, “we did a song-and-dance program where we would do songs from different musicals. I like musical theater choreography, so that was fun.” Naturally, when Boulger goes to a live show and the rest of us are looking at costumes or the scenery you can bet she’s carefully watching all those dancing feet. And the same thing applies when she’s attending a ballet, especially one of the half-dozen in her own company’s repertoire.

If there’s one full-length ballet that Boulger must know backwards and forwards, even in her sleep, it’s “The Nutcracker,” which she’s been presenting for 32 years. Do you make it a little different from time to time, she’s asked, simply to keep it interesting for you?

“We do,” she replies. “We change things. It’s pretty much the same, but it’s a little different each time. And people come back and say, Oh, you changed that, but I love this part. They all notice the changes because we have a lot of people who come back year after year.”

But not last year, when the doors of the Norris Theatre weren’t open. Some dancers, perhaps dreaming of being in that show, never got the opportunity because of COVID.

“That was tough,” Boulger says. “There were some kids who didn’t make it through. But we kept 90 percent of our kids who were really serious dancers. We had six girls that were seniors in high school dancing in our ‘Nutcracker.’ They all stuck with it, all the way through high school.”

All together, five different shows were canceled due to COVID, so this past November’s “Nutcracker” was a joyous return to live theater.

While it’s always a pleasure to see so many young and enthusiastic dancers on stage, there’s also a great deal of competition ahead for any of them who hope to make a career out of their dancing ability. The vast majority of them will fall out of the spotlight, sooner than later. In the meantime, though, how does their dancing and being on local stages help with their self-confidence and self-esteem?

“I have kids come back to me who did not become professional dancers,” Boulger replies, “but who have told me that their years of ballet training, and their dedication and learning to be efficient with their time, has been a great asset. Ballet dancers are very disciplined. You have to be, because you need to spend three or four hours daily, maybe six days a week, to really hit those top levels.” On top of which they need to keep up academically. “It’s a challenge, and not only do they appreciate the ballet training, the love of music, and the knowledge to become a good audience for ballet, but it really does help their self-confidence and the ability to accomplish things.”

In other words, at the very least the young dancer has learned focus and discipline, perhaps grace and poise. And furthermore, just because one misses out on a professional career with the Bolshoi or the Paris Opera Ballet, that doesn’t mean the dancing shoes have to go into the attic. “A lot of them keep taking ballet for exercise,” Boulger says. “We have mostly kids in the school, but we have four adult ballet classes a week, and many people continue on in their 40s and 50s, and do it for fun.”

You’re probably picturing girls, young women and older women, and not boys or men. That’s because the number of boys who take ballet classes are but a drop in the bucket, maybe one percent. “It’s too bad,” Boulger says, “because a lot of times boys love it and they come and do it. But as soon as one of their friends teases them they decide they can’t do it anymore, which is a shame. Boys, when they’re young, like it as much as the girls. You have to have a lot of support at home if a boy is going to dance.”

Now, if I was the parent of a young boy I’d point out that his odds of finding a little girlfriend will never be higher, let his pals tease him all they want. Even better, I’d introduce him to Matthew Bourne’s all-male “Swan Lake.” See? You can bet none of their friends are calling them sissies.

A classic ballet pose at the tide’s edge with (front row) Diane Anderson, Amelia Anderson, Elodie Paterson, Malaya Paterson, Sierra Hickey, and Cammi Malicse, and (back row) Elena Thomas, Juliette Belke, Reese Tomaro, and Elina Mertens.

The great outdoors, and other milestones

“‘Shades of 2020,’” says Tita Boulger, “is one of the best things we’ve done in the last few years. It’s classic choreography that’s been adapted [for] trails and hillsides. That interaction between outdoor scenery and classical dancing to me is fascinating.”

Coincidentally, before either of us knew anything about “Shades of 2020,” photographer Richard Horn and I thought so as well. For the shoot that accompanies this story, the dancers initially had to be coaxed into the water, and in some ways the result complements “Shades of 2020,” which is a 12-minute-plus video that can be watched on the Peninsula School of Performing Arts website.

“I think that when you take something as beautiful as a dancer,” Boulger says, “the way they can use their arms and their legs and their head, and put them in a natural setting, it so enhances it. It’s lovely at the theater, and we’ve done years and years of theater productions, but this outdoor mix of ballet and the outdoors is really fabulous.”

Peninsula School of Performing Arts dancers strike a pose at Abalone Cove.

Twenty-five ballerinas participated in the filming.

“We took those kids who were on Zoom for six months,” Boulger continues, “and brought them to the outdoors so they could perform in the open air, and it was amazing to see how excited they were.”

“Shades of 2020” (or “Kingdom of the Shades”) probably would never have happened if COVID hadn’t disrupted the supply line, so to speak, and led to the cancellation of “The Nutcracker.” The scenes of the dancers on the clifftops towards the end of the video are quite impressive.

Boulger says she’s very proud of her former dancers who’ve gone on to achieve accolades on the larger stage. Lauren Hunter, for example, auditioned for the Prix de Lausanne, a noted international ballet competition, was given a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. She is now an apprentice at Dutch National Ballet. Bret Coppa, another former student, also excelled at the Prix de Lausanne competition and he’s dancing with Atlanta Ballet. And currently there’s Jacqueline Lane, headed over to Lausanne in January where she’ll be competing against 35 other girls from around the world for a ballet scholarship.

Furthermore, as Boulger proudly points out, Athena Nikolakopulos is a lead dancer with San Diego Ballet, and Chrystyn Fentroy is with Boston Ballet. Raquel Smith is a member of Richmond Ballet, and Isabelle Walsh is dancing in Copenhagen. Additionally.Four other former students (Saela Chin, Kara Sandberg, Kimberly Jones, and Kathleen Mastan) went on to join the famed Radio City Rockettes. Mastan is currently a dance instructor at Palos Verdes High School.

Elena Thomas, Cammi Malicse, Diane Anderson, and Juliette Belke.

Some girls clearly stand out early, and Lauren Hunter was one of those.

“I think it was five years ago that we were doing ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” Boulger says, “and we had a professional from England who was going to do the lead. She had to go back to England to get her visa renewed to come back and do it, and they did not let her back into the country without waiting a longer period. With four weeks before showtime Lauren learned the choreography and stepped in and danced the lead. So, she’s a gutsy girl at 14. At 15-1/2 she won the prize at Prix de Lausanne.”

Producing a full-length ballet from scratch is a monumental feat, and while there are many that Boulger and her company would love to do, those in their repertoire will probably have to suffice, at least for now.

Tita Boulger in her Peninsula Center dance studio. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“There are a lot of ballet shows that we have not done,” Boulger says, “but it takes a lot to put on a new one. ‘Don Quixote’ was the last one we did, and now we have six full ballets that I can put on, and so we rotate them. The kids will say to us, When are we going to do ‘Coppelia’ again or When are we going to do ‘Swan Lake’ again? So, six major classical ballets, with all the scenery and all the costumes, is a lot. At this point I don’t know if I’m adventurous enough to take on another one.”

In the meantime, the company is gearing up to do “Sleeping Beauty,” which they were preparing to do in 2020. Two months into rehearsals it was canceled. Now it’s set for this coming May. “I’m already thinking of casting and scenery and layouts and costumes, and all of these things are rolling around in my head. It always takes a lot of preparation, but I’m a very prepared person. Each week I schedule all the rehearsals, and it has to do with making sure we get the whole thing done and rehearsed in time. I like scheduling; that’s part of it.”

And, flipping the calendar months and maybe years ahead?

“Who knows what’s in the future,” Boulger replies. “I’ve got very talented people working for me. Vera Ninkovich is one, and Briana Fields, who’s teaching here, also choreographs new things for our shows. I have an incredible faculty of very talented people, and that’s what keeps taking us to new heights.”

Peninsula School of Performing Arts has two locations, one in Lunada Bay and the other at Peninsula Center. Learn more about them at pspadance.com. PEN

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