Lifelong ballet instructor JoAnna Jarvis retires

JoAnna Jarvis, left, with Susan Becht of the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Calabasas, where Jarvis' students performed as part of an outreach program.

The former owner of Malibu Ballet by the Sea has been the driving force behind performances of “The Nutcracker” at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theater.

By Betty Bailey / Special to The Malibu Times

When JoAnna Jarvis took her first ballet class, she went home and proudly announced, “Mama, I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a ballet teacher.”

Her mother replied, “You mean, you want to be a ballet dancer.”

“No.” Jarvis said resolutely. “I want to be a teacher.”

Jarvis never wavered from her goal. For 50 years, 33 of them in Malibu, Jarvis has guided the lives and careers of young dancers. Now, at 63, Jarvis is retiring.

“I’m devastated. She’s an extraordinary talent,” said Deborah La Gorce Kramer, Malibu resident and mother of 11-year-old dancer Gabriella Grahek. “It was only a couple of years ago that she (Gabriella) had an opportunity to begin working with JoAnna but I’m honored to have witnessed what she can do as a teacher, if only for a brief moment. The first time my family ever saw a performance that she had produced and directed, we were touched and amazed that such phenomenal quality and beauty could be cultivated in this small community.”

Jarvis’ career as a teacher began shortly after her 13th birthday, when she received two technical manuals on the art of teaching ballet. She quickly went to work at her home in Atlanta, Ga.

“I started teaching in our screened-in porch,” Jarvis said. “I taught the local kids for 25 cents a class.”

Her early training was with Dorothy Alexander, a pioneer in the world of dance, who believed smaller communities could support ballet companies. Alexander founded the Atlanta School of Ballet and started a dance company that would eventually become the Atlanta Ballet.

When Jarvis was 15, Alexander took the teenager under her wing, adding her to the staff roster at the Atlanta School of Ballet. Jarvis’ primary job was demonstrating technique in classes but she soon had her first opportunity to teach.

“One day, Miss Dorothy was late and I took over teaching,” she said. “When she arrived, I was panic stricken but she just told me to continue on.”

“She basically taught me how to teach,” Jarvis said. “She explained what she wanted and would check in occasionally.”

One of Jarvis’ proudest moments was when Alexander introduced her to George Balanchine, one of the most prominent and successful choreographers in ballet history.

“She introduced me to George Balanchine as the only natural born teacher she’d ever met,” Jarvis said.

As a dancer, Jarvis trained with the Royal Ballet in London, the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, Vera Nemtchinova and Robert Joffery in New York, and Bronslava Nijinska in Los Angeles. She danced professionally with the Atlanta Ballet, the New Jersey Ballet and the Radio City Ballet. While in New York, she met the man who would become her husband, actor Graham Jarvis.

The couple moved to Los Angeles when Graham secured the role of Charlie Haggars in the hit series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Jarvis opened the Ballet by the Sea studio in Malibu and the couple raised their two sons, Matt, 33, and Lex, 29, in their Pacific Palisades home. In 2003, Graham Jarvis died of multiple myeloma, at age 72. Soon after, JoAnna Jarvis sold her studio but remained on staff as a teacher.

As artistic director of the Malibu Ballet and Performing Arts Society, and director of the Malibu Civic Ballet, Jarvis has been the driving force behind 33 performances of “The Nutcracker” at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theater.

With a reputation for hard work and discipline, Jarvis has watched her students develop technically through the years, but said her passion for teaching is also rewarded by the confidence and emotional depth that emerge with the art form.

“It makes them more in touch with the body and with emotions,” she said. “You can’t dance well in a vacuum. You have to have some sort of mental and emotional component. Arts education is vital to give them a sense of humanity and humility, in order to see beauty in other things and beauty in other people.”

In addition to “The Nutcracker,” Jarvis has produced and directed a spring recital each year in which her young dancers have performed numerous legendary ballets for local audiences.

“Recitals forge a bond between the dancers and the program,” Jarvis said. “I think ballet by itself demands follow through before it gets to be fun. The dancers see the pay-off in the future, if they stick with it as an art form.”

Many of Jarvis’ students did stick with it. Some have even gone on to professional careers in the world of dance. One such dancer is Nicholle Rochelle, a former Webster Elementary School student who, in 1999, was awarded a medal at the Adeline Genee Awards in London and received the prestigious Princess Grace Award in 2002. Rochelle currently performs with the North Carolina Dance Theater.

Jarvis teaches the syllabus of the Royal Academy Dance, an organization formed in London in 1920 by some of the top dance professionals of the time. The result was a unique style of dance that combined the principal ballet methods of that period, which were French, Italian and Russian. Jarvis said she prefers the continuity of teaching within the confines of a method.

“It keeps you honest,” she said. “You have to teach the steps you don’t like as well as the steps you like.”

The Royal Academy also offers yearly examinations so dancers can mark their progress.

“The exams help in that you know by the exam date that you have to have your double pirouette, or whatever you need, depending on the level,” Jarvis said. “You know you have to have it perfect by that date.”

Jarvis said she was nervous about retirement and afraid she might not have enough to do, but that fear has proven to be unfounded. This month, she will travel to the Arctic Circle for an environmental expedition, to learn about global warming. In the fall, she is planning a trip to France. As for the future, Jarvis said she would continue to teach private lessons and hopes to do some outreach work in downtown Los Angeles. Although her retirement marks the end of an era for Malibu ballet, “It is also a new beginning,” Jarvis said. “A very exciting beginning.”