SOLANA BEACH — Nestled in an industrial pocket on the outskirts of La Colonia de Eden Gardens, hidden in plain sight, is an award-winning ballet school that has staked its claim in the San Diego dance community.
Directors Sara Viale, 48, and Erlends Zieminch, 53, took over Ballet Arte in 2004 after retiring from their careers as professional ballet dancers in Indianapolis. Fifteen years later, Ballet Arte has won several Outstanding School Awards from the Youth America Grand Prix — an international dance competition — and nurtured a handful of students now pursuing professional careers in dance at prestigious institutions like the School of American Ballet in New York, and Pennsylvania Ballet.
They currently put on six performances per year — four renditions of “The Nutcracker” in December, and two rotating performances in spring.
But despite their current level of acclaim in the community, the directors have endured their fair share of trials and tribulations to get the studio to where it is now.
Viale, originally from Torino, Italy; and Zieminch, from Riga, Latvia, both trained in their respective native countries before taking their careers to Indianapolis — where they crossed paths in the 1990s. The pair have an extensive repertoire of leading roles in ballet productions, as well as teaching experience at various schools in the country.
But when Viale faced a debilitating back injury, and Zieminch was on the brink of retirement, the spouses set their sights on California.
The modest, 3,500-square-foot space they found in Solana Beach was already home to a dance school when they took it over, though it was “geared toward commercial ballet” at the time, Viale said.
They were able to keep the original school’s name — “Ballet Arte” — as well as many of its prior pupils. Yet the directors met an uphill battle for their first several years.
Zieminch remembers having to learn accounting and advertising on top of their full-time teaching roles, and the couple sewing the studio’s costumes early on.
“The transitional time was very tough,” Viale said. “The first two years were years of change.”
The pair has embraced a “tough love” approach to teaching, a style that hasn’t always proved popular with some students.
“We had to re-establish discipline, which was hugely lacking,” Zieminch said. “It took … five or six years until we could get the studio where we wanted to. It takes time.”
But Viale and Zieminch’s demand for discipline goes hand in hand with their love and passion for the craft. And their proclivity for quality and technique has served them well — they now have about 75 students, and mostly rely on word-of-mouth to bring in new ones. They have also taken on a few additional instructors to teach a ballet class for adults, and additional classes in contemporary dance and Pilates.
Because they’ve worked with a handful of students since they were just 4 or 5 years old, the directors see them as family — they have a stake in their personal growth and success. As a result, they endeavor to push students to “the best of their abilities,” Viale said.
“It’s not just the doing it, but the doing it well that brings satisfaction,” she said.
Viale and Zieminch’s teaching methods have certainly left a mark on their students. Solana Beach resident Lucia Sgarbossa, who has danced with Ballet Arte for 13 years, said her teachers have taught her “perseverance and dedication.”
“They only want what is best for the kids that pass through their door,” she said. “They want us to not only be the best ballet dancers we can be, but to also be the best version of ourselves outside of the ballet studio.”
Sgarbossa, 16, who now dances at the advanced level, ranked among the top 24 dancers in the classical dance category at this year’s Youth America Grand Prix, where she competed with about a dozen other Ballet Arte dancers. Sgarbossa calls Ballet Arte her second home.
“All the dancers are very close and we see each other as one big family,” she said.