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Ballerina Clown Kicking Again

Ballerina Clown. (Photo by Margaret Sharpe)

Ballerina Clown. (Photo by Margaret Sharpe)

Update 5-28-14: After a couple unsuccessful attempts to see Ballerina Clown kick at his scheduled time from 1-6 pm, we checked back with Harlan Lee, and he tells us that they're waiting for some new replacement parts. It's turned off temporarily and will be working again in a couple weeks.

After 25 years frozen in dégagé, Venice's iconic Ballerina Clown dances again at the corner of Rose and Main. The 30-foot figurine perched atop the CVS entrance at the Venice Renaissance Building appears in every short list of local landmarks, but a little known fact about the sad-faced, androgynous clown donned in white gloves and wire mesh tutu is that artist Jonathan Borofsky also designed him to kick.

It was commissioned for the building by Venice housing developer Harlan Lee in 1989 for $300,000, a fraction of the $30 million project. Originally appearing as a 12-foot gallery-scale sculpture at MOCA, Borofsky's Ballerina sang a dreary rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." At the time, the artist was coincidentally working on another project in Venice and showed the clown to Lee and a few other people who would decide on the public art installation. His intention was to illustrate the dichotomy of Venice's character:

“Of course, the Venice Boardwalk is full of all kinds of people in all sorts of outfits and the atmosphere is very festive with many live street performances taking place, especially on weekends. This sculpture is an accommodation or resolution of opposites in one. Not only does this image bring the male and female together into one figure, but also, two opposite types of performers are represented: the formal classical ballet dancer and the traditional street performer. Of course, this public sculpture pushes the envelope in "taste", but if you have ever walked the Venice Boardwalk on a Sunday afternoon, you might understand why this figure is right at home.” –Jonathan Borofsky

It resonated with Lee immediately. "[Borofsky] showed the Ballerina Clown and it hit me so hard," says Lee. "My head started spinning like crazy. The beauty of the body is the beauty of Venice, the Pacific Ocean and the Boardwalk, and the sad face is the sadness of the homeless wandering around Venice. 25 years later, it's still valid."

Lee says that his interpretation at that moment is misunderstood by a lot of people, but that's a good thing for art. People are supposed to see whatever they want to see. "But I still see in it the same thing." As the richest country in the world, he says, it's terribly sad and frustrating that we still haven't resolved the housing crisis. He urges new developments in the area to include more low-income units to accommodate the diverse community. When the Renaissance Building opened, 21 were designated for low-income seniors.

Harlan Lee's favorite interpretation of Ballerina Clown hangs in his home. It was a gift from a friend who found it at a garage sale for $2.

Harlan Lee's favorite interpretation of Ballerina Clown hangs in his home. It was a gift from a friend who found it at a garage sale for $2.

Soon after Ballerina's unveiling, however, the mechanical leg was purposely turned off as tenants complained of noise – not from pedestrian activity on the street, but from the creaky kicking knee. For decades the mechanical joint and wiring hidden within the soapbox on which Ballerina Clown stands in red pointe slipper rusted and deteriorated in the salty sea air. Lee sold the building a year later in 1990, and today the building's housing association are the custodians of Venice's giant dancer.

Over the years, Lee has enjoyed watching his beloved Ballerina stir emotions, inspire interpretations and become a permanent fixture of Venice, not just in the guidebooks, but in the heart of its culture. As a Venice native who grew up at the beach, Lee remembers a childhood of modest means. "I ran wild on the beach and wild on the pier. It was an incredible way to grow up," he says. His parents rented their home for $35 a month on Breeze Ave., and he attended elementary at Westminster. Today, he lives in the Marina and frequents his favorite spot in Venice, which also happens to be the first restaurant that opened in the Renaissance Building, Chaya Venice.

April 24: Notice the electrician huddled inside Ballerina Clown's soapbox repairing the wiring a couple weeks before the big debut.

April 24: Notice the electrician huddled inside Ballerina Clown's soapbox repairing the wiring a couple weeks before the big debut.

An avid art collector now, Lee was at a party last year and ran into friend Jeffrey Deitch, who had recently stepped down as the director of MOCA, and he raised the question about Ballerina's broken leg. Deitch insisted that the work was incomplete and urged him to figure out a way to get it kicking again. With that, Lee reached out to Renaissance's housing association and it was a quick decision – Ballerina would be restored to working condition and perform her dancing debut at the annual Venice Art Walk, which was held on May 18.

She's scheduled to kick every day from 1pm to 6pm, which may change says Lee, depending on what the tenants decide, but that was the initial plan. For the record, we watched and waited for a while, but didn't catch the matinee. Ballerina held up his left hand, touching together his thumb and index finger to form a circle. Some say that it's the Buddhist gesture of debate or discussion. We saw Ballerina showing us that he's all good, and happy for the love.

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