Revived interest in L.A. dance invites a look at the region’s peculiar past
Nearly every major city in the U.S. has its top-tier company: Seattle has the Pacific Northwest Ballet; Chicago hosts The Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street; there’s the laser-footed Miami City Ballet. In the history of ballet here in Southern California, insider drama, a capricious L.A. audience with plenty of alternative entertainment, bad luck and lack of support adds up to a prominent—if not weird—dearth of dance.
Benjamin Millepied might change all that. Though he may be coy about it, he appears to taking baby steps toward forming a company for Los Angeles—one as marquee as Dudamel’s L.A. Phil or Domingo’s Opera—that’s populated by local dancers and brings together big minds from music and filmmaking to attract massive crowds.
Is the former New York City Ballet principal, star and choreographer for Black Swan, and father of Natalie Portman’s wee one, up to the challenge? We’ll get a sneak peek this month when the Ballet du Grande Théâtre de Genève brings two of his creations to the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Then, Millepied’s official Los Angeles Dance Project will premiere in September.
Los Angeles is littered with the corpses of dance companies. John Clifford, who had a decade run in the ’70s and early ’80s with his own Los Angeles Ballet, hopes the next person to start a company understands “that they are building an institution, not fulfilling an artistic vision.”
Like Millepied, Clifford also had a successful career as a dancer and choreographer with the New York City Ballet. While still performing with the NYCB, the L.A. native was approached by a group of balletomanes, Jean Stone (author Irving Stone’s wife), Marvin “Marta” Holen, John F. Kimberling and several others, to found Los Angeles Ballet. LAB performed Clifford’s works and Balanchine ballets, liberally using guest stars from around the globe (including Alicia Alonso, Gelsey Kirkland, Allegra Kent and Peter Martins). They even employed a live orchestra made up of studio musicians, offered eight years of free performances, a full summer season of 23 dates and toured the U.S. five times, as well as internationally.
Clifford cautions that you can’t forget the entertainment factor. “Balanchine used to say, ‘You are court dancers—your audience paid money. They could have gone to the movies, but they come to see you.’” During his first season in 1974, Clifford crafted a version of La Création du Monde with two performers stark naked. “We had lines around the block,” he chuckles.
Survival would have meant playing the political game, explains Clifford. He believes that influential patrons Dorothy Buffum Chandler and Nancy Reagan were not on his side when the Music Center contacted LAB (along with several other groups) about becoming the resident company in 1982. It also may have been bad timing. According to The Joffrey Ballet’s then-Executive Director Dr. Robert Hesse, Nancy Reagan asked Armand Deutsch to bring the New York-based Joffrey Ballet to Los Angeles, and they recruited billionaire real estate developer and arts patron David Murdock to make it happen. At the time, Reagan’s son Ronald Reagan Jr. was in The Joffrey II company, and a move would mean he’d be closer to her when she moved back to Los Angeles after the White House. The Joffrey also needed the Music Center if they wanted to survive financially. Incidentally, once the Music Center invited The Joffrey to become bi-coastal, tobacco giant Phillip Morris pledged a significant sponsorship.
“One problem with Joffrey was that if you’re not the home base, you’re second banana,” says Jane Jelenko, who was a member of The Joffrey board at the time. She is currently the president of CDA, the Center Dance Arts at the Music Center (which works to help build an audience for dance—not a specific dance company). The Joffrey’s official residency Music Center, structured with performances in both Los Angeles and New York, lasted eight years. Bound by constraints such as the company’s deadline to move all operations to Los Angeles by August 20, 1984 (which never happened), difficulties balancing an East Coast board and a West Coast one, and a strict schedule for performances, the board fractured in 1990 over a deficit of approximately $2 million due to strange bookkeeping errors and a failure to pay back taxes. In 1991, the company ended its contract with the Music Center; today, The Joffrey is based in Chicago.
In 2006, the CDA hired a consulting firm to explore what type of company could survive in the basin. The Cultural Planning Group came back with two models for L.A.: a double-metropolis solution which had already been attempted with The Joffrey; and the second, which Jelenko calls the “Miami City Ballet” choice. The idea was to partner with three other concert halls in the region, perhaps Palm Springs, South Santa Barbara and Orange County. A board would draw from all four regions, and the size would be manageable: 25 dancers, not 100.
Around the same time, American Ballet Theatre principal and current artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ethan Stiefel, was testing an O.C.-based project along those lines. It sounded fabulous: Stiefel had name recognition from starring in the movie Center Stage; his fiancée, ABT principal Gillian Murphy, was part of the package; and two additional ABT stars, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, relocated to the Ballet Pacifica school to teach. Music Center patrons Jelenko and Liane Weintraub (founding chair of the CDA), drove down to Orange County to woo in earnest, hoping to share between locations. But before they entered serious talks, Stiefel asked for a guarantee from his funders to pay his dancers. The board balked and the deal fell through. “I personally did not feel comfortable with asking the people who had potentially the most to lose, to take the biggest risk,” Stiefel says. “In the end, the organization just came up short in a key area: money.”
On the positive side, Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen have achieved a modest success with their regional version of the “Miami City” model. “We tour L.A.,” as Neary puts it. Their Los Angeles Ballet (yes, it’s the same name) visit five different theaters in L.A.: Redondo Beach, UCLA, Long Beach, the Valley and Glendale. Now in their sixth season, the troupe employs 30 dancers and launched a full-length Swan Lake in March. They have also borrowed Sonya Tayeh, perhaps best known for her “So You Think You Can Dance” choreography; Kitty McNamee, formerly of Hysterica Dance Company; and Josie Walsh, to dabble in contemporary works.
The LAB understands the idea of slowly building an institution. “Creating a dancer takes a long time. It takes eight to 10 years,” says Christensen. And their technique of touring rather than having a home base has worked for them.
At the Music Center, the support for smaller companies such as LAB does exist. “The more quality regional companies we have, the better. You need to have communities where dance is part of the fabric. It cannot just be done from the top level; you have to have both,” says Weintraub. She is involved in her daughter’s performances with the semi-pro Malibu Ballet & Performing Arts Society, for example. “My daughter’s in The Nutcracker, and for most little children who get passionate about ballet, that’s their gateway drug, so to speak.”
But the path to big-name ballet is perilous. At least Millepied has several checkmarks on his list: notoriety as a former dancer and choreographer, Hollywood connections and the Music Center behind him, particularly with Glorya Kaufman’s $20 million gift in 2009. “Kaufman really wanted to send a statement during the recession that art matters—that dance matters,” says Weintraub.
“For a long time, those of us in the L.A. dance world felt that we had to apologize for dance here,” adds Renae Williams Niles, director of programming at the Music Center. In November, the Center announced that they expected to back Millepied’s project for two years. “Dance is yet another way to support our community.”
And if Millepied’s baby steps don’t turn into grande jetés, there are others waiting in the wings. Desmond Richardson of New York’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet is contemplating a move to Los Angeles. “We practically sell out every time we come to L.A.” Richardson says. “We’re very commercial, and we are not afraid to entertain.” ELIZABETH KHURI CHANDLER [C Culture, April 2012]