How the Local Dance Scene Might Change in the Decade Ahead

Photo by Jerry Li/Backhausdance

A moment Dwight Rhoden's "Scene Unseen." This piece was a big success for local dance company Backhausdance,.

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Arts & Culture Series:

THE DECADE AHEAD

At the end of last year, it seemed like every beat journalist in America was making grand summations of the previous decade. We opted not to follow that trend. Instead, the arts team at Voice of OC has decided to look ahead and make some predictions about what’s going to happen in Orange County between now and the end of 2029.

This month, we focus on the county’s dance scene.

SERIES SCHEDULE
February: Theater/big stages, by Paul Hodgins
March: Visual Arts, by Richard Chang
May: Music, by Timothy Mangan

Despite the fact that I am “sheltering in place” as I write this, this is, indeed, a story about what dance in O.C. could look like in the decade ahead. But there’s no getting around that a worldwide health emergency alters your perception.

It’s making my crystal ball fog up more than usual. I joke … sort of … not really.

We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We don’t know how many people will be sickened or die. The health care system could buckle and the economic damage already is enormous. Like everything else, the arts are severely strained. Canceled performances, dance seasons abruptly ended, and loss of revenue are all having a deleterious impact on companies, theaters and performers.

Yet, even with that troubling casualty list, I remain hopeful, for us and for dance. That might sound Pollyanna-ish, but experience encourages me to be optimistic. I have witnessed the arts’ ability to help us rebound, to provide solace and to create community. I believe in the arts as a necessary vehicle of human expression. Art is more than a luxury; it’s a human need.

Before too long — but not so soon as to be unsafe, please — we will gather together again in a theatrical setting to witness soul-nourishing performances. And that will be a time to celebrate.

My sense of what might happen to our dance community in the next 10 years has shifted and is shaped by these new unknowns. But my insights are also informed by the state of the dance community pre-Covid-19. It’s important to consider that dance occurs on multiple levels — we have performances featuring top national and international groups; there’s excellent dance education available; and we have some mini-festivals and homegrown companies. These differing institutions are not monolithic, and some are more mature than others. 

Local Dance

Children and young adults, for example, have access to outstanding training at a plethora of studios in every corner of the county. Thanks to the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center, youngsters get top-flight training and the ability to perform alongside ABT’s dancers on the stage of Segerstrom Hall; the school has expanded its teaching to youngsters as old as 18. The performances are a rare opportunity. In Santa Ana, The Wooden Floor makes dance accessible to hundreds of children, free of charge. Orange County’s college and university dance programs are strong, too, particularly at UC Irvine and Chapman University.

On the other hand, Orange County has few professional homegrown companies. This is the category in which we lag behind and the current economic peril will make it that much harder to catch up. By my count, only Backhausdance, which choreographer Jennifer Backhaus founded in 2003, rehearses and pays its dancers on a regular basis. Ballet Pacifica closed down in 2007; Festival Ballet Theatre combines students, area professionals and guest artists for its shows.

There was hope and excitement when National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Skylar Campbell announced he was bringing a pick-up company to the Irvine Barclay Theatre for two performances in late June. A Laguna Beach native, Campbell has local donor and artistic support, and his intention was to test the waters for an eventual move back to his hometown. The coronavirus crisis has forced a cancellation. We can hope it’s just a postponement.

Photo courtesy of the Skylar Campbell Dance Collective

Members of the Skylar Campbell Dance Collective

I asked Backhaus what she thinks budding artistic directors most need if they are to establish companies here. She mentions money, studio space, and more public awareness of dance. But the most urgent demand is for a small theater, 250 to 400 seats, that a young company could afford to rent, she said.

“Where the disconnect is, I think there are not a lot of theaters to produce work here that are not prohibitively expensive. That’s one of the reasons we struggle to perform here,” said Backhaus, who has opted for renting the 750-seat Irvine Barclay Theatre once a year. 

Backhaus said she will be able to pay her 10 company members through their contract, which ends in May. Backhausdance will survive this disaster, she said, but she may have to downsize for a while. In the meantime, the group zoomed into the studio before the shutdown to produce videos for BD online, conditioning and technique classes for the public, something she’d been wanting to do for a long time. 

She has a few other things she’d like to get done in the years ahead, including “providing opportunities for local choreographers to do work. One of things on our agenda is I want to bring some young L.A. choreographers to make work on the [company for performances] here and up in L.A. I want us to be more bi-county.”   

Presenting Dance

What we lack in local companies, theaters are making up for with performances by big-name groups from across the country and the world; even presentations operate on the one-step-forward-two-steps-backward principle, however, because I remember a time when there was even more variety. (I’m thinking of Saddleback College and Orange Coast College, both of which used to bring in first-rate contemporary dance.) We have had a recent entry among the presenters, thanks to Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University. 

The older stalwarts are Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts and Irvine Barclay Theatre, which have been unwavering in their commitment, despite some lean times. Representatives of both organizations assured me that dance will remain fundamental to their mission. That’s reassuring.

Segerstrom Center has one of the best dance series anywhere, thanks to its deep-pocketed donors (dance is expensive) and to executive vice president Judy Morr, who has been with the center since before it opened its doors. Chances are, she will retire sometime in the next decade, a milestone I haven’t wanted to think about. The Mariinsky Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Ballet, Nederlands Dance Theater, Hamburg Ballet — Morr has made Costa Mesa a prime tour stop for the very finest, and it sounds as though we should be able to expect that to continue.

The Segerstrom Center has helped dance thrive in other ways, as well, such as giving employment to local dance companies through its education programs. In addition, it has commissioned 36 new ballets, which is a bold investment in the future of the art form. 

Photo courtesy of Gene Schiavone/ABT

Chaereas (Aran Bell) and Callirhoe (Catherine Hurlin) celebrate their wedding in American Ballet Theatre’s world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Of Love and Rage” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

We have two smaller but significant institutions that, hopefully, can survive and grow to make a bigger local impact, defying the roiling storms. The National Choreographers Initiative is a vital program that spawns new dance and gives dozens of dance-makers a chance to create without expectation of producing a finished piece. Sixty-four choreographers have gone through the program and 29 pieces created there have had official premieres with companies. NCI is run by Molly Lynch and a forward-thinking board of directors that is mostly female. It would be lovely if this important institution could find a way to integrate itself even more fully into the local landscape (besides the one-night workshop performances). Same with Laguna Dance Festival, which has made important contributions to public awareness through its lecture-demonstrations in addition to its performances.

Let me also mention that the world dance community — Indian classical, folklorico — also must continue to thrive because it is so important to the diverse populations in Orange County. 

Remember: The world is still spinning. And so are the dancers. They’re just doing it in their kitchens or living rooms, using their computers to take daily barre with a Zoom app or Facebook Live. They’re readying themselves physically and emotionally for the next rehearsal and the eventual resumption of live performances. We have a role to play in this relationship as well. If the dancers have resilience and hope for the future, we should, too. 

Laura Bleiberg is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at laura.bleiberg@gmail.com.