After taking a five year hiatus from viewing dance in Los Angeles, I attended the performance of Celebrate Dance 2012 produced by Jamie Nichols at the Alex Theater in Glendale, CA. I was not prepared for, but so very proud of the incredible talent that performed on the stage that night. The level of dancers had elevated to a point of professionalism that I had not been aware of. It isn’t surprising, really, when one considers that in California there are several universities and colleges that have excellent to outstanding dance departments. Among them are the University of California, Berkeley, UC Irvine, UCLA, Mills College, Loyola Marymount University, California State University, Long Beach, CSU Dominquez Hills, University of Southern California; CalArts and CSU San Diego. These institutions are graduating more and more well trained dancers each year. Some become professional dancers and many become teachers. As my former boss, Joan Schlaich, said “Those who don’t go on to become professional dancers or teachers will at least be well-educated dance audience members!”
Rosanna Gamson in on the Dance faculty at CalArts. Stephanie Zaletel graduated from there as did two members of BODYTRAFFIC. John Pennington teaches at the Theater and Dance faculty at Pomona College and on the dance faculty at Cal-State University, Long Beach. Lillian Barbeito is on the faculty at Loyola Marymount Los Angeles and the other artists all teach classes throughout the LA area.
When I mentioned to Deborah Brockus, Artistic Director and Lead Choreographer of Brockus Project Dance Company, that there was a lot of buzz in New York about LA dance, she smiled and said, “That’s because the New York Times has been writing about us. There is among the presenters a lot of buzz about dance in LA. It’s about the people who moved out here from New York that are getting the press. It doesn’t have to do with the homegrown companies with the exception of BODYTRAFFIC. They still have a nasty attitude about LA dance, as was shown in Dance Magazine. They think that all LA dance is what they see on TV or what they see with the cash poor dance companies here.”
For example, I found this direct quote from a September 2012 Dance Magazine article by Joseph Carman about Benjamin Millepied working with LA Dance Project: “Right now, however, Millepied is fixing his focus on the L.A. Dance Project. But why Los Angeles, a city historically indifferent to dance?”
Indifferent to dance? Says who? Ask the dancers who worked with Lester Horton’s company in Los Angeles or the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. Tell this to Lynn Dally of Jazz Tap Ensemble whose LA based company toured nationally and internationally. What about Rudy Perez who has had his company based in LA since 1979 or Lulu Washington whose company has been in LA for over 35 years. Put that statement to the 12 artists that I interviewed for this article.
The majority of the artists I interviewed agreed that the main reason for the lack of a cohesive dance community is the geography of the Los Angeles area. Unlike New York, Los Angeles is spread out for miles; connected by a maze-like network of overly crowded freeways that make traveling difficult even on a good traffic day. People can move around easily in New York City. That is impossible in Los Angeles. New York has an excellent subway and bus system, whereas Los Angeles is just getting around to developing its MetroLink system. It is easier but some of the train lines still do not connect or reach all areas of LA and its sprawling suburbs. Bus service has improved, but the average wait for a bus to arrive is close to a half an hour or more. This effects how often people in the dance business actually go to see their colleagues perform, but let’s be fair, traffic is definitely used as an excuse not to attend more performances.
“If you look back to the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, and you look at the records of what people said about making art here, it’s been much the same. Even Lester Horton, Ruth St. Denis, and Bella Lewitzky – all looking for ways of supporting their works, because support was scarce.” Said John Pennington, Artistic Director of John Pennington Dance Group and A Room To Create (ARC). “It’s the same now, but I think that more people went to see work between the 40s and 60s. You look at what Horton did with the Dance Theater; people were flocking toward it because of the work. In the 60s we had the advent of the NEA that funded many companies to tour and create infrastructure. Bella [Lewitzky] was able to support her dancers because of the many granting institutions that valued dance as an art form.”
All but one of the companies that I interviewed have a Non-Profit 501 (c) 3 status. The one company that doesn’t has not made the decision to spend the energy, time and money to incorporate. “Not yet.” Said Stephanie Zaletel, the Artistic Director of SZALT. “We are still learning what exactly we are, so I would prefer to wait until things are clearer.”
Zaletel is well aware that not being incorporated limits her ability to apply for grants or to get tax deductible funding, but right now she is raising money through the Internet. “…through this bizarre millennial thing that’s happening, we’ve had three online Crowd Funded projects. We’ve used KickStarter and Indiegogo to get our funding.” Her company is also getting donations from friends and family members who aren’t, for now, concerned about the tax deduction.
Rosanna Gamson, Artistic Director of Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, laughed and said, “I have an active, yet poverty stricken Board. I have a terrible Board, but they’re wonderful. They like me, they come to meetings and they commiserate, but none of them are in the position to give me a lot of money, which is what I need.” She, and her Board are working hard to expand their members now that the national recession has passed.
The John Pennington Dance Group, BODYTRAFFIC and others have active Boards with a Give or Get Program. This means that their Board members have agreed to donate money, to raise money or both. Rosanna Gamson called it “Give, Get or Get Off!”
Lillian Barbeito, Co-Artistic Director of BODYTRAFFIC, told me that their Board of Directors is very active. “In fact we just had a Board meeting this week and the emphasis was on creative fundraising; brainstorming with them on innovative ways to fundraise instead of the typical.” She said.
“A few Board members are really passionate about our Invert/ED program or our Dancing Through Parkinson’s Program or our performances.” Stated Laura Karlin, Artistic Director of Invertigo Dance Theatre. “Everyone is different. They each have different strengths and things that they are excited about.”
Laurie Sefton, Artistic Director of Clairobscur Dance Company, said. “All of my Board Members donate to the company and bring their associates and friends to our events. If I get in a really bad place [financially] and I can’t cover things; either I will come up with a little money or the Board will.”
Heidi Duckler, Artistic Director of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, described her Board of Directors as a “hands-on” Board that meets regularly. “We had a Staff/Board retreat about a month ago that was really great. I think that we have fourteen members right now. It’s a fundraising Board.”
When I asked the directors if they were paid a salary, the answer was almost a unanimous “No.” The few of them who are paid ran their company for five or six years before drawing a salary. All were emphatic, however, when it came to paying the artists working for them.
Laura Karlin, “Yes! And aside from wanting to do work on my own terms, the other reason I started Invertigo was that I looked around at the concert dancing in Los Angeles and thought ‘Nobody’s paying dancers!’ And that blew my mind! I get it,” she continued. “You have to pay for studio space or you have to pay for theater space; or you have to pay your Stage Manager. A lot of dancers will do it for free. I get that some people really want to make work in any way possible. I’m asking them to do it for not enough, but I’m asking them to do it as employees, paid hourly for rehearsals and a stipend for every performance that’s not a direct fundraiser for the company. I don’t believe in artists being the ones who donate. I also think, for me, if you’re not paying the artists, then you’re not a professional company.”
Right now, some of the dancers in BODYTRAFFIC are on salary and according to Lillian Barbeito, by the end of 2017 they hope to have all the company members on salary. “It started with the first commission.” Barbeito said. “That was the very first commitment that Tina (Finkelman Berkett, also a Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of BODYTRAFFIC) and I made to each other. We were going to pay dancers a minimum of $500 per week. We weren’t going to have a company if we couldn’t offer compensation to our artists.” Until recently, both Barbeito and Finkelman did not get paid but worked, as Barbeito called it, “…pro bono for over 6 years…”
Rosanna Gamson pays the dancers in her company, but says that the company doesn’t work all the time. “We only work when I can pay them. I’m trying to get to $15 an hour for rehearsal and we generally pay $500 for performances and when we tour; that plus we pay per diem and travel expenses on the road.”
I liked what Gamson said while we were discussing the lack of financial support for the arts from the city of Los Angeles. “I really think that we need to make a better case for the fact that we are the marrow of the cultural economy in Los Angeles. That the artists are generating the red blood cells that go around and nourish the big muscle and bones of the entertainment business. We are the incubator. If we were not here, you would not have all those people here to steal ideas and performers from.”
Ana Maria Alvarez, Artistic Director of Contra-Tiempo Dance Theatre, answered me with. “I’m the child of union organizers so we started paying the dancers very early on which meant making sacrifices. I didn’t necessarily get paid. We pay them for rehearsals and touring; for any engagement that we do.”
Harry Weston is a dancer in and the Company Manager for Versa-Style Dance Company, a company which specializes in Hip Hop and whose Artistic Directors are Jackie Lopez and Leigh Foaad. It is a non-profit incorporation and has a Board of Directors, but at this point cannot pay its dancers for rehearsals. Weston told me that, “Jackie and Leigh have gone a long way to pay us for every show that they can. So, rehearsals, not yet; but we take a lot of pride in paying the dancers for all of our shows, always getting our accommodations booked; always getting our travel booked and giving our dancers per diem.”
Deborah Brockus said that she was very honest with the dancers in her company. “If I don’t get paid for the gig that I have to keep putting this work into the showcases and the presenters who barely make the door; I will guarantee them a certain amount for the show. If I make money, I’ll divide it with them.”
Christine Suarez, the Founder and Artistic Director of Suarez Dance Theater, told me that her company is a Not-For-Profit Corporation and it has an active Board of Directors “When I engage them” but that she is the driving force behind her company. “I work hard to engage the collaborators that I work with and with the Board, but I am the one looking at creating our grant cycle and writing stuff and soliciting. But when we do a crowd sourcing fundraising, the Board is totally there and they’re really helpful.”
I asked Suarez if she paid the dancers. Her answer was a very enthusiastic “Yes! Yes! At the very least we agree on a stipend. I contract them for X number of rehearsals and performance, but my ideal sense is to pay them for performances.”
Jamie Carbetta, Founder and the Executive/Artistic Director of Pony Box Dance Theatre, says that her company has a very active board, but no Manager or Booking Agent. She is looking into finding grants which target hiring someone to help her with those functions. Her company consists mainly of men who are paid for both rehearsal and performance. “Which is why there’s no money for anything else.” She said with an honest laugh. “When I first started the company, we were accepted to perform at WAA (Western Arts Alliance), the presenters conference and I had no idea what that was. But, I thought ‘heck’ we were accepted so we’ll go do it, right? Wow, that was a shock! I learned a few things, but I mostly learned that it was going to take some time to be in that realm of dance as a business.” Carbetta said.
Heidi Duckler was very emphatic about paying her dancers for rehearsal and performance. “We pay all of our professional artists. All of our staff is paid. We do have volunteers on the production end and we couldn’t survive without them. They are key to the running of our organization.”
Like Invertigo Dance Theatre, Contra-Tiempo Dance Theater and others, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre also supports an education program. “We have our DuckEd programs and we have our Duck Truck, a 1961 camper vehicle. We are focused on South LA and East LA, and it travels to sites after school and some inner-city schools. We have excellent teachers and we have developed a curriculum. DuckTails, is our inter-generational program with teens and seniors. We also have DuckWorks, which is our residency program, teaching site work on short, one day residencies and up to a week.” Duckler explained.
After listening to the dance artists speak of their company’s infrastructure, it became clear to me that they are working hard at accomplishing what it takes to make a business succeed as well as creating good work. They are incorporated, have a Board of Directors and reaching out to their communities for support. Now what is needed is the same kind of financial support from the county, city and state similar to that bestowed on the artists in New York.
PART 2 and 3 of Making Dance Work In LA will cover how these artists keep their companies afloat. Other subjects discussed are performing venues in LA, rehearsal studios, media coverage and the LA dance community.