The girls always come up with the names for the “Choreographers Ball”, and I do suggest concepts for themes and sometimes the girls go, “Yay!” and sometimes they go, “No way!”, and then I have to think of something else. So we collaborate in this way. But they liked this one, so I didn't have to change it!
The audience knows to expect superb choreography and performance from every show from your Dance Conservatory. Does it feel different this final time? Are you trying anything new for this show?
I definitely feel the camaraderie between the girls and me. So it's been really great. In the past, during shows, I would walk into Pike and go in and worry about this or that, but now I walk in and I know that whatever problems we’ll have, we’ll figure it out together. The students always help me figure this out.
As far as something new, I did bring in a piece that I choreographed many years ago to this show that was challenging. It’s with fabric and it's a little bit more of a modern piece. I definitely have a modern influence in my training. So I will say that this piece is more of an avant guard one. But it's not that long. I mean, it's the shortest piece in the show, you blink your eyes it's over. I choreographed that for a professional dance company many years ago, and it's one of my favorite pieces ever that I got to work on. And so for my last show at Mayfield, I wanted to see if I could get the dancers to relate to it a bit.
Everything you touch shows your expansive experience with dance, but also illustrates a keen sense of a broad artistic perspective too. What were you doing before you came to Mayfield?
I danced professionally for many years. For a while, my main job was at Edge Performing Arts center. It's a professional studio. It’s a major training program to take young people and launch them in their professional dance careers. I live in Sherman Oaks. So I would get up in the morning, and I would drive to Hollywood to teach at Edge. Then I'd get in my car, and I'd drive all the way across and teach at Santa Monica college. Then I'd finish my class there and get on the 405 and go all the way up to Loyola Marymount University. At seven o' clock, I would drive home. It was a small thing that I was excited about when I took this job at Mayfield, but for the first time in my entire career, I just go to one place!
You arrived at Mayfield in 2015 and you’ve been such a fixture since then. We would love to hear more about your Mayfield origin story…
When Denise Darnell (Mayfield’s past Dance Conservatory teacher) called me in to Mayfield, it was not to teach dance, but as a photographer! This may have been three to five years before she decided to retire. So I came there and in what we call the “Green Room” in Pike. I had the weirdest experience. I was crying on Friday night because I was reflecting on this. I just walked up the stairs, the Pike stairs, and I walked into that room and something hit me, and I had this weird sensation. I was looking at the costume and her office and stuff. And I was very established in my job at that time. I wasn't looking for anything else, but I got this feeling like “you're going to work here one day.” And that was five years before Denise Darnell decided to retire! So strange. That really was how this all started.
You seem to have a real knack for finding your performers’ strengths and highlighting them in the best way possible. How do you manage that?
When I worked at Edge, we had a big show every year. It was for all of the agents and people would come to that to look at the dancers they may want to use. When I was making dances for that show, I wanted to feature everyone, so everyone had the best showing for that. I also worked with high schoolers at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) from 2006 to 2011, training students who expected to go on to Juliard and places like that. But also, I'm a parent of two performers, and I think that lends itself to making sure that everybody gets seen on the stage. I know what I'm looking for. So I'm looking at it through the kids’ eyes, but I'm also looking at it through the parent's eyes too.
“Music” is part of the name of your final project and anyone who is familiar with your work knows they won’t just be exposed to several types of dance in your performances, but several genres of music as well. What kind of role does music play in your life?
Absolutely. Music just was in my life, all my life. My mother was a musician, not by trade, but definitely a musician. She actually sang in the choir at our synagogue. And so I went every Friday night to services with her. And it was the music that I loved. And my brother is a musician—both my sons are musicians—one of them is a professional musician, so we go to numerous music concerts. We see a lot of music. It's just an important part of my life as I was growing up. And raising my family, music was always in our house, always. And, I like all kinds of music. There's no one genre that I stick with.
The work you mount appears so poised and confident onstage—effortless somehow—was it like that from your early days at the school as well?
Oh no! My first year was terrible (Denise laughs). And I had no idea what to do, how to start.
When I first got here, my first instinct was that I wanted to nurture. I wanted to just be a mentor and nurture these young people. But the girls really missed their old teacher.
Kasmira Buchanan ‘05 really helped me. And if it weren't for her, I don't know what I would've done that first year. Kazzy is an alum and was Denise's assistant and has stayed on with me this entire time as my assistant too. And I knew her before I even knew what Mayfield Senior school was. Kazzy was my student at Edge performing arts center for a very long time. She made it easy for me to transition to Mayfield because she was able to stay on. The first year it was hard getting the students to trust me. And when it didn't happen the first year—well, at least I didn't think it did then—it was horrible for me. But when I started to feel that that trust was starting to happen, I had to start listening to them and I had to learn to be flexible. I needed to compromise, not compromise my vision, but build with them, compromise with them.
The generosity of the Holy Child mission permeates your work and your temperament, and you worked at Loyola Marymount University for some time too. Were you raised with a similar, incarnational idealogy?
I was raised Jewish. My whole family is Jewish. When I had my first interview at Mayfield, the former Head of School asked me howI felt about going to Mass and stuff like that. And I remember the first words that came out of my mouth were all about a sense of belonging and community. And with the Holy Child approach, I love the sense of community. I love prayer. Whatever religion it is, whatever the tradition is. It speaks to me, because it all comes from the same place, as far as I'm concerned. And I loved the service component. I plan to continue on with that in some way in my retirement. I loved learning about the retreats. I really enjoyed going to Kairos. It was all so cool. I will take those experiences with me in the future!
You’ve taught your students so much over the years. What sort of things do you think you have learned from them?
I look at the girls every day now and I think, I just feel gratitude for having had this experience. I never felt that Mayfield was just a job for me. Ever. Just being in this beautiful place, you know?.
When it comes to lessons learned—over time, I learned to really, really listen to my dancers. Even if I have a strong idea, and I present it to them, I have to really hear them. I've learned from their energy, their adorableness, their spirit, their vibrance.
What else have they taught me? I've learned a lot about Instagram from them for sure!
What does retirement look like for Denise Leitner? We can’t imagine you will slowly down any time soon…
My goal is to wake up in the morning, have my coffee, pet my cat, read the paper and paint and paint and then have the afternoon to myself. I've got an arts studio in my house, a photography studio as well. And down the street, I have a dance studio available to me. That’s what I will do.
And you know, when I met with (Head of School) Kate Morin and told her my plan to leave, I made it clear: I still wanna do something here. If there is something that I can still do, name it, because I don't want to leave. At this point, I have some photography projects lined up at the school already, and hope that will be ongoing. Because I'm definitely not done with Mayfield!