Continued from Part 1, October 27, 2015
A key objective of these articles is to identify what choreographers in Los Angeles do to launch, maintain and promote their companies. Having the business side of an artistic organization in place is arguably as important as the product. A choreographer can create amazing dances in a studio and perform locally once or twice a year, but if there is no one working on the promotional end of things, then the artist’s choreography will never be seen by a larger audience. To be clear, these 12 artists represent only a fraction of the Dance Community in Los Angeles, but most likely do represent the hurdles that dance companies of any genre, concert or commercial, face in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Merce Cunningham began his company in 1953. I joined the company in 1967 and in October of 1968 The Saturday Evening Post published an article featuring the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham’s face was on the cover in strange make-up for his dance Nocturnes (1956), and written next to the photo was, “Who Is This Man?” That article was read by millions of people all over the country and gave the Cunningham Company the kind of exposure that it needed to increase bookings. Prior to that, the company was performing once or twice a year in New York and touring was sporadic, with the exception of the 1964 World Tour financed largely by Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings. That was 14 years of hard work on everyone’s part before the company “broke through.”
Los Angeles dance artists are fighting an uphill battle with few or no dance critics writing about their work, a very small grant pool, high studio rental fees, a lack of affordable performance venues and presenters who aren’t willing to take a chance on supporting local talent. When theater owners do step forward to present an LA company, it is only after it has been written about favorably by a New York Times dance critic. One or two LA presenters are now attending performances of local companies, but we wish that it were more.
John Pennington built his own studio and performance space in Pasadena just outside Los Angeles. “I wanted the space for me, but I also wanted to share because other people’s work isn’t going to get better unless they have a space too. One of the things that I talked to the Board about was subsidizing rental space.” Pennington said. “I have commercial rental rates, other kinds of rental rates, but for local choreographers, for the local groups that aren’t commercial, I’m willing to work out payments because I know what that’s like to make work when money is tight. There are choreographers making really good work in the area and if we’re all working together, it is going to make all the work better.”
A few of the theaters that have better stages, professional lighting equipment, ample parking and a house that seats over 300 patrons include Royce Hall on the UCLA campus, the Eli and Edythe Broad Theatre, the Nate Holden Theatre, the Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, RedCat, the Alex Theatre in Glendale, the Annenberg Wallis Center for the Performing Arts, and The John Anson Ford Theatre. Of course, it is very expensive to self-produce in any of these theaters. When a company does manage to raise the funds and the venue helps with promotion, the company usually can only afford to perform there for one night. Best scenario is that they will break even.
On the subject of performing in different venues in LA, Laura Karlin said. “Whenever you’re renting a venue you have to learn a whole new landscape of people, personal relationships to their audience base, geographic surroundings and their crew. You’re constantly having to adapt to the different spaces you’re in and you’re asking your audience to adapt to the different spaces. They don’t know what parking is going to be like; they don’t know what the seats are going to be like or if they’re going to like the space. You have to build a trust with your audience and you have to listen to them if you get a lot of feedback. We were at a venue in Hollywood and parking was abysmal. We got a lot of feedback about ‘I just don’t want to go to this space.’
“You can’t let the audience determine all these things for you, but you do have to listen. Their time, and who they are supporting your work. It can feel really frustrating as an artist when you’re just trying to find a space to either make the work or to show the work. I would say that it is one of the biggest challenges facing LA choreographers; at least the biggest challenge that we face. It’s the thing that has caused me the most grief – people always say fundraising. Of course fundraising is difficult. That’s a given. But, if there’s nowhere for you to go, it doesn’t matter how many wonderful ideas or how many beautiful dancers you have. That’s what has caused me the most curled-up-in-the-fetal-position-on-this-rug moments.”
John Pennington said that the dance community in the LA area is too compartmentalized and people don’t interact enough. “We don’t rub up against each other artistically speaking. If you don’t rub up against each other, watching each others work, helping, etc., then the work doesn’t get better.”
“Artists are just looking for a place to be and exist and to set up powerful programming.” said Ana Maria Alvarez. “I would love to see our city and our county, and our region take on that; giving artists space to call home and to create work.” Maybe it would take a partnership with Wells Fargo or a group of committed citizens. I would love to see local presenters presenting seasons; not only seasons but runs, like what CAP UCLA is doing with us right now; giving us a two week run of our new work.
“But I think that someone like RedCat, like the Broad Theater could do those larger runs. I think that if they did do them, as an investment, that they world actually get a return on them because I think that they would build a momentum.” She added.
Laurie Sefton thinks that some of the smaller venues in LA are over-priced. “The problem with spaces in LA is that we need something like the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater on the New Roads campus, but with a sprung floor and a Marley floor. We need a 300 seat theater. It doesn’t have to have a proscenium, but it has to have a decent floor. There are a lot of alternative spaces.”
Sefton also thinks that more theaters in Los Angeles should present local companies. “We need the Broad and the Wallis to present at least one LA based company a year. Even if it is only one, we need them to step up and support the community; and they don’t realize how many working companies that there are in Los Angeles.”
Sefton thinks that instead of theater stages sitting empty, that they should be rented out for rehearsals. “Why aren’t they charging people $10 an hour to rehearse there? They could be making $10 an hour instead of making nothing. I was just reading that the Broad now has a new Program Director, and they present over 200 performances a year. I was blown away. I didn’t know that. Same thing with the Wallis. How many nights for dance? How many local dance?”
I followed up on Sefton’s question. From September 2014 through September 2015 there were exactly two dance companies that performed at the Broad Stage. BODYTRAFFIC performed for two nights and Diavolo Dance Theater performed for three nights. So, in twelve months only two dance companies were presented at that venue. The good news is that both companies are based in Los Angeles. The Annenberg Wallis Center of Performing Arts has two dance companies listed on its 2015-2016 season; the LA Dance Project and the Ezralow Dance Company. It is nice to see the support for Dance from these two venues. UCLA’s Royce Hall, however, has a large dance series but it isn’t often that they book a local company. The last one that I remember was the Los Angeles Ballet. UCLA CAP (UCLA Center For the Art of Performance) does present in Royce Hall and at the Frued and Kaufman Hall.
Deborah Brockus wonders if presenters are unaware that they equate what is on their stages with money. “They dabble in the arts and they’re not acute enough to see it, even with the reviewers. The theater owners, and the critics a little bit too, they don’t realize that they see money onstage.” Said Brockus. “Right now it is very hip to book European companies and I agree, the works are stunning. The multimedia and everything, it’s phenomenal. They don’t realize how much money has been put into the rehearsal set and that the creative process is subsidized by the government and that they’re just paying the presenting cost.”
When the discussion turned to booking conferences, Brockus related how at the Senarz-CINARS Booking Conference in Montreal (which includes Europe, Canada, China Asia and Australia) the works were fully produced. “The works that were showcased were phenomenal and it became very clear that we were plain Americans. We just go onstage and dance. I did a series a while ago called “Why Dance Matters”. This was just before the recession and funding in Europe was around $5 per capita, New York was $2.50 and California was $0.26! So, that speaks to it right there.” She said.
“We’re about 60 to 65% individual donors and we’ve always been that way. In the beginning, actually, we were more like 97% individual donors and 3% grants.” Laura Karlin said. “So, you start with your friends and family, and friends of friends. You start asking people to donate based on faith, and we’ve actually build up a solid donor base because we’ve been doing this for 8 years. For some people that’s like, ‘That’s so long!’ and for others it’s ‘You’re just a baby!’”
I asked Rosanna Gamson if she self-produced in Los Angeles. “I don’t rent theaters.” She answered. “They pay us to perform. I don’t self-produce. I did self-produce twice. Once when I came to LA and I did one other season at the Aratani/Japan America Theater. I don’t want to ever be worrying about that again. We do sell out, but that has to be a mutual effort with the venue. They pay us. We come. We dance. We go home!”
Not many companies in Los Angeles can make that claim so I asked Gamson how she managed to do it.
“I’m damn good!” She said proudly; followed by us both laughing. It’s true! She is that good!
I encouraged her to go on. “Thirteen years I had been making work in churches and alternative spaces, and auditioning for Fresh Tracks at DTW (Dance Theater Workshop in New York), and doing all that before I got here. Then I had a remarkable success. Highways, I think, was what they call a co-produced production. I probably didn’t make a cent on that. The Getty paid. Grand Performances paid. The next piece that I did was at the Skirball; they paid. Then we started touring. I would have been back to New York in a flash had things not gone so well at the beginning here in Los Angeles.”
Christine Suarez put it nicely. “What I like about the LA dance community is that they’re spunky and that they look outward and that they go outside the norm. There aren’t many venues for someone at my level. I’ve been knocking on RedCat’s door for a really long time, and it’s just not happening yet, or maybe forever. My work deserves to be shown here! I have been thinking about where can dancing happen? Rather than thinking ‘where does my work deserve to be seen?’”
Connected to this, of course, is the cost of rehearsal space. As stated before, studio rentals in LA are very expensive. Dance companies sometimes barter for rehearsal spaces by teaching master classes, offering free classes or doing residencies in exchange for studio space. Laurie Sefton’s Clairobscur Dance Company rehearses at the Los Angeles Ballet Studio. Several companies use the Brockus Project Dance Studios. Versa-Style Dance Company rehearses at the Evolution Dance Studios in West Hollywood. There are also studios for rent at Westside Ballet in Santa Monica and at LA Arts Live in Eagle Rock just on the edge of LA.
Harry Weston told me that the people at Evolution Dance Studios have been very supportive of Versa-Style Dance Company. “We’ve worked out great deals with them. They give us nice discounts because we come so regularly; we live there, our Friday classes and our rehearsals. But we’d love our own building someday, especially because of all the community work we do. We feel that it’s ideal. We feel that we have the potential to not only teach classes, but to also bring in other teaching artists that we’ve worked with in other fields. Because of our relationship with the Flourish Foundation we feel that it would be great to have a building for that to work out of as well. So, I think that the future of us is definitely for us to have a center. Just finding that building and finding just one or two more funders who could come together and help us with the financing. The Rosenthal Foundation has been incredible in funding our work.”
“I did a deal with Jacque Heim at Diavolo Performance Space to be his dramaturge on the last piece he made, Cubicle, in exchange for rehearsal space. I get to use that nice big studio. That is my pay for being his dramaturge.” Gamson explained.
My interview with Christine Suarez took place in a small, but ample sized studio in Camera Obscura overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica that she was able to rehearse in as part of a residency. Companies rehearse in the studios of universities and colleges where they are on faculty, but they can only do this when there are no department classes in session. The Dance Department at Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles has been a supporter of local dance companies for many years, allowing local companies to rent their studios at a low cost.
Making the decision to form a dance company is a very individual decision. I asked most of the Artistic Directors why they made that decision. Before answering me seriously, Christine Suarez said boldly, “I like to boss people around!” We both had a good laugh but I feel that there is a hint of truth in that statement for all choreographers.
“I wanted to make a body of work. The main thing for me is that I’m very interested in the expressivity of dancing and the narrative.” Suarez added.
“I didn’t really. I’ve just always enjoyed creating work.” Was Stephanie Zaletel’s answer. “I love writing, I love dancing, and I love choreographing. I’m very interested in a lot of things and CalArts was a perfect environment for that. After graduating I did a KickStarter to raise funds for my first project out of school, and by 80 online donors and a few miracles, we made it happen.”
Laura Karlin said that there was room in Los Angeles for her company and that she didn’t want to make work on other people’s terms. “I wanted to make the work that I wanted to make. Perhaps it was very naive, but I just didn’t want to wait for people to give me things.”
Deborah Brockus started her company because she “got mad!” “I was working at a performing arts high school and the Director thought that I wanted her job, and so she told me that I couldn’t put any pieces in the concert. I already had pieces in my head and I said fine, I’ll make my own show, and I did!”
Ana Maria Alvarez always knew that she wanted to be involved in the Arts. “Dance was always my greatest self-expression. At the university I ended up creating a piece dealing with immigration and resistance and using Salsa as a metaphor for resistance.”
After she graduated from UCLA Alvarez turned to two of her mentors, Jawole of Urban Bushman and Rennie Harris of Pure Movement for advice on which direction to take. “Their suggestion was ‘it sounds like you want to start a company and continue to create work and to build work.’ So, that is what I did.” Alvarez has built up quite a business around her company Contra-Tiempo.
Many choreographers don’t necessarily set out to form a company. “I found myself in the rehearsal process being critical of the production, choreographer, or director; thinking how I would do things differently. Always striving to contribute to the room in a positive way, this was a clear indication that it was time for me to try on my own projects. At that point, I could not have fathomed how much work it actually takes to produce, choreograph or direct!” said Lillian Barbeito of BODYTRAFFIC.
“I really thought about it a long time,” said John Pennington who had performed with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company and others. He had lived and worked in LA, his roots were here and he is well-known and respected in the California dance community. “…because I knew the many problems and challenges that were coming my way. I did not start the group without some caution. I knew what I was in for. But I decided that I wanted to start making work and certainly making work more deeply. I think at that time I was 38; my choreographic voice started to emerge. I could really feel the voice of desire emerging and I thought, well if that’s the case then you have to take the step. So, that’s the step that I took.”
Like Laurie Sefton, a few dance artists start a company because they know that choreography is where their talents lie. “When I was very young it became very clear to me that I would not be an incredible professional dancer. I don’t quite have that stuff in my body. When I was in school, realizing that was a heartbreak. I’m a great performer, but my body is not going to do all the things that I want it to do.” She stated.
Heidi Duckler’s reason was very clear to her. “I started my company because I wasn’t aware of anyone doing what we do, making immersive work in urban environments. And still, perhaps there isn’t anybody doing what we do in terms of community connection and site specificity on a full time basis. And, because of the nature of our work we look for joint ventures and partners, it’s not a solo kind of activity.”
Jeff Slayton & Dancers had its incubation period within the Department of Dance at CSULB. I had been putting together dance phrases for students for over ten years and decided that I had something to say as a choreographer. Jamie Carbetta Adjunct Professor at West Los Angeles, Cerritos and El Camino Colleges, and after working with students for a long time she too decided that if she had a company that she could do so much more. “We could reach so many more people. I’m sort of old school in that I feel that dance is for everyone, beauty is for everyone, art is for everyone; and as a non-profit, a 501 (c) 3 you have more opportunity to do that.”
Now that the decision to form a company has been made and the dancers have been hired and the legal paperwork is done, the next step is to get the word out to the rest of the world that you exist and that you think that your work is worth charging people money to attend your performances. Grant organizations need to be located and applied to and the proper staff has to be assembled to make all that happen.
PART 3 will take a look at the hurdles these 12 artists faced and what their hopes are for the future of their companies, and for the future of Dance in Los Angeles.
If you missed Jeff Slayton’s Introduction or Part 1 of Making Dance Work In LA, go here. https://seedance.com/news/introduction-to-making-dance-work-in-la/ and https://seedance.com/news/making-dance-work-in-la-part-1/