Mothers of Reinvention: The Lab Pivots as Studios Close

It is a scary time to be running a dance studio anywhere, and perhaps nowhere more than Los Angeles. The strain of protracted shutdowns and plunging enrollment, magnified by the city’s rising rents, proved too much for several prominent dance centers during the pandemic. The North Hollywood hub Movement Lifestyle, the choreographer Ryan Heffington’s Sweat Spot in Silver Lake, and the longtime Hollywood training mainstay Edge Performing Arts Center were among those forced to shut their doors. (Edge hopes to reopen in a new location in 2022.)

These were creative homes for thousands of dancers, places where they could not only train but also find connection in Hollywood’s otherwise fiercely competitive dance scene. “This is probably one of the hardest things I’ll ever have to do,” said Shaun Evaristo, a founder and the creative director of Movement Lifestyle, in a tearful Instagram video announcing the studio’s end. “We’ve always been fighting” to run the studio, Evaristo added, “for the community and for each other.”

In August, the Los Angeles-area stalwart the Lab also closed its dance space, a 12,000-square-foot location in West Covina. Known for its vigorous, “Olympic-style” coaching of young dancers, a crew of which won the second season of the NBC television show “World of Dance,” the studio saw 70 percent of its business vanish during shutdowns.

But the Lab is no pandemic casualty. Instead, it has transformed from a dance studio into a “creative agency and lifestyle brand,” as its website says — a feat of survival, and a strategic one.

Over the past few months, the Lab has thrived in its new incarnation, attracting an array of commercial and entertainment clients with services ranging from choreography and dancer management to video production and hair design. Its head choreographer, the 20-year-old phenomenon Sienna Lalau, has been busy creating dances for Jennifer Lopez and the singer Ozuna — most recently for his sleek Latin Grammys performance) — and also appearing in social media spots for Vita Coco and Instagram.

This past week, 30 dancers cast and managed by the Lab performed alongside the K-pop superband BTS at the SOFI Stadium in Los Angeles; later this month, the group will debut a campaign for Nike’s Air Jordan, featuring Lab artists both behind and in front of the camera.

Soon, the Lab will have a new headquarters. In January, it plans to move into a smaller space in the arts district of Los Angeles — not a dance training center, but a flexible-use production studio. The Lab’s creative director, Valerie Ramirez, sees the site as an embodiment of the organization’s new identity. “We’re really trying to merge all the worlds of art and entertainment in that one space,” she said. “I want it to feel different every time you walk into it.”

It’s a big shift for an organization that, for nearly two decades, offered a day-in, day-out haven for hundreds of dance students. But Ramirez, 38, said it’s also in line with her earliest visions for the Lab. “The whole reason I opened a studio was because I wanted to give opportunities,” she said. “I didn’t think I was the best dancer or the best teacher, but I knew I was good at finding good dancers and good teachers. So the Lab has always had that kind of mind-set: putting together the right team to give more artists more opportunities.”

Ramirez, who studied dance growing up in the Los Angeles area, opened her first studio at 17, in her grandmother’s garage. She then bounced rather unsteadily to other West Covina locations. In 2008, Carrie Calkins, a dancer Ramirez had formed a deep connection with on the competition circuit, came on board, handling logistics and planning so Ramirez could focus on artistic direction. (“My superpower is keeping people in their zone of genius,” Calkins, 39, said.) By 2011, the studio, now officially known as the Lab, had upgraded to the large West Covina location where it would remain for the next decade.

The Lab found a solid clientele of 12-and-under students, from which it built strong, well-drilled competitive hip-hop teams. In 2014, Ramirez and Calkins were invited to take over West Covina High School’s foundering hip-hop dance program. Under the Lab’s direction, the school’s team went undefeated for five years, earning the Lab national recognition.

Ramirez also proved she had a good eye for talent. She developed some of the West Covina High School teenagers into professional-caliber artists — including the dancer and choreographer Andrew Elam, now 25, who still works with the organization. As the Lab’s reputation grew, Ramirez began scouting farther afield. After a friend showed her a video of Lalau, then 16 and living in Hawaii, Ramirez knew she’d found her muse.

“Sienna was one of the few people I’d ever seen who could fully execute, physically, whatever she could think of,” Ramirez said. “I was like: ‘Fly her out here right now.’”

Lalau was ready to fly. She grew up in Honolulu studying “waacking, vogue, hip-hop, any street style you could name, I just loved it all so much,” she said. By 2017, when she moved to Los Angeles to work with the Lab, Lalau was already fairly well known as a dancer in the competitive hip-hop scene. But Ramirez suggested she try choreographing. “There was clearly so much creativity in her,” Ramirez said.

Lalau started small, coaching the studio’s youngest students and creating routines for the West Covina High team. Her kaleidoscopic organizations of large groups, and her ability to hone a collective’s movements to razor-sharp synchronization, made even her earliest efforts startlingly commanding. In early 2018, footage of one of her West Covina High School routines — with Lalau dancing front and center — went viral.

A few months later, the Lab had its major break on “World of Dance,” with its team of young dancers earning the show’s $1 million prize — and the approval of the producer and judge Jennifer Lopez. “When you have J. Lo co-signing your win, that’s a different level,” Calkins said. “That was the first big accomplishment we had that you could really tell grandma or grandpa about.”

Suddenly, a world of professional doors opened. The Lab began choreographing and dancing for major players in American music, including Lopez, Justin Bieber and Ciara. “Sienna and her crew are some of the most talented dancers I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Ciara said in an email. “They always bring fresh energy and innovation to a performance.”

The Lab also gained entry into the K-pop world, collaborating with some of its top acts, most notably Blackpink and BTS. Lalau, a K-pop obsessive since her early teenage years, brought an impressive knowledge of Korean pop culture to the work. Her intricately patterned choreography for BTS’s “On” video earned the Lab a 2020 MTV Video Music Award. “Sometimes I wonder if I manifested these jobs into being,” Lalau said. “It was like a dream.”

Then came the coronavirus. Despite the Lab’s rush of choreography and performance projects, the studio remained its primary source of revenue. That income stream took a big hit when the pandemic made in-person instruction impossible.

“Our business nearly crashed, like everyone else’s,” Ramirez said. “The question was, did we want to spend five years rebuilding back into a training center, like we’d always done? Or did we want to dream a little differently?”

Rebranding as a creative agency allowed the Lab to focus fully on professional projects, which in turn helped it keep working through Covid-19 shutdowns. (Small shoots on closed sets are far easier to conduct safely than open dance classes.) It also prompted a reconsideration of what services the group — which had cultivated a raw, yet cannily styled look on its popular social media accounts — might have to offer.

“I started to realize that the Lab was as much about an aesthetic as it was about movement,” Ramirez said, “and that that aesthetic might be valuable to other artists and brands.”

The ever-changing list of Lab offerings includes choreography, dancer casting, performance direction, music production, filmmaking, photography, fashion design, and hair and makeup styling. Calkins manages the group’s core talent, including Lalau and Elam; Ramirez’s girlfriend, the barber and visual artist Sofie Pok, offers film, video and hair services. Depending on the project, the group will bring in additional help from a network of creative experts, built over their years in the dance and entertainment scene.

Training remains a part of their business, but a small part. Elam often travels to teach or work with high school or college dance programs on behalf of the Lab, and Lalau might teach the occasional Lab master class. But regular classes will not be offered at their new downtown Los Angeles hub, which the team envisions instead as a shooting location, event space and creative workshop.

“Family” is a word that comes up frequently in conversation with Lab artists. Both Lalau and Elam are talented enough to have carved their own professional paths in Los Angeles, but they remain loyal to a group they’ve come to see as surrogate kin.

“The Lab has always had that big family feel to me,” Lalau said. “And out here, it’s so, so rare to find people you really, truly connect with.” That’s a bond forged during hours spent together in sweaty rehearsals at the Lab’s old location. As a dance studio, the organization also built strong connections to its local West Covina community. Leaving their training space, Ramirez and Calkins acknowledged, felt bittersweet.

What is a dance family without a studio to call home? Larger and more creatively diverse, Ramirez hopes. And still supportive: Ramirez said she’s committed to helping the frequently underpaid and overworked artists of the professional dance community, who also need champions in their corner.

“Going forward, representing dancers will be a big part of what we do, and fighting for better treatment of those dancers is super important to me,” Ramirez said. As the Lab builds clout through its high-profile commercial jobs, she plans to push for improved baselines for dancer pay and working conditions.

The Lab’s successful reinvention is both an uncommonly happy ending to a pandemic story and a classic example of necessity mothering invention. “I’m not grateful for Covid — nobody likes people getting sick,” Ramirez said. “But to be hit with a hard stop, to be forced to think about where we were going and why, that was the best thing that ever happened to us.”