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Blazing a Path for Black Repertory Troupe

November 22, 1987|DOUGLAS SADOWNICK

These days, Jon Johnson, director of Repertory Dance Theater of Los Angeles, is feeling very optimistic about the support he is first beginning to sense in the United States.

Still, he'd like some explanation for the years of relative obscurity he experienced here after his mostly black dance company had enjoyed international acclaim abroad.

"I have no right to complain," he says, sitting cross-legged on the dance floor of the Inner City Cultural Center after a three-hour rehearsal with his co-director, Lady Helena Walquer, and six dancers.

"Thanks to the European and Asian market, it's not so hard to get work. My dancers have had a chance to see the world and to perform in the world's most prestigious dance festivals."

"But I do get a little angry," Johnson says, "when, after out-boxing the Joffrey and Merce Cunningham (troupes) in Europe, American sponsors ask, 'Why haven't I heard of you?' "

Still, Johnson says he would rather focus on the present rather than the past. He discusses the expectations he has for the premiere performance of his "Apart of the Tide" on Dec. 5 at the Japan America Theatre. The program will also include a performance of "Graffiti," accompanied by Billy Childs' live jazz ensemble.

"I really do hope," Johnson says, "that this concert will get the word out about our growth and enable us to build a more secure home in L.A. "I've invited representatives from corporations like AT&T, governmental funding agencies and the black community, whose support we need if we're to fulfill this dream to cultivate a firm base in L.A. and give something back to the black community here. Everyone tells me to be cool with the funders. But why? We have so little support in L.A., there's really nothing to lose.

"I'm joking, but the situation's not funny. There is not one major funded black arts organization in L.A. Lula Washington fights like mad to keep her studio going--considering what she's doing for the community, it shouldn't be that way. There is a drastic situation in the L.A. black dance community. Where's our dance center?

"Besides, it concerns me that Alvin Ailey is the only black dance company that comes through L.A."

While Johnson admits to feeling "indebted" to Ailey, he believes it's "time to show America, and especially L.A., just how textured and full of variety the black experience in dance expression can be."

"When you think of Ailey's 'Revelations,' you think of something traditional, the slavery experience, the whole 'I've been 'buked and I've been stoned.'

"But I was born in the '50s, did my living in the '60s and early '70s, so therefore I'm a product of another generation of the black experience and it's not physical slavery I want to point to in my work, but mental slavery--a more contemporary voice for the '80s."

Johnson found this voice nearly 10 years ago when teaching in Los Angeles inner-city schools. He traded the technique he learned as a student in the UCLA dance department for the street dancing his students performed around their lunch tables. Their ability to isolate various body parts, precursors of what would later be known as break dancing, had not been part of Johnson's modern dance training.

But that all changed in time. His "Graffiti" is a 75-minute, high-energy, percussive synthesis of "Lacosta" (a form of street dancing), jazz, modern and balletic movement idioms. Johnson demonstrates: Palms lock in place in mid-air, are upturned, then reverse position; hands join at the thumbs into a thrust that begins as a disco movement and evolves into a slow, undulating wave.

"Overseas," Johnson says, "this work speaks to people because it's concert dance with a specifically multicultural idiom."

But why not here? Do oversea audiences "buy" uniqueness over quality?

"If America," Johnson says, "paid attention to either our skill or uniqueness, I think it'd be proud too.

"We were appointed ambassadors to the Athens Festival in Greece by Mayor Tom Bradley. We were sitting around the reception gala with all these officials and all of a sudden a reporter asked me: 'How well are you supported in L.A.?' I was stunned. And afterward, I guess, a little hurt. I mean, it cost $100,000 to bring us over to Greece and our own city wouldn't give us $5,000 for costumes and a set."

Making matters worse for Johnson is the fact that he believes he doesn't just speak for himself. "The entire black dance community in L.A., has been neglected."

The treatment he says he received by the Los Angeles Festival this past spring was, "the last straw."

Organizing a group of black artists under the banner Dance Umbrella, Johnson tried to contact the festival coordinators, not, as he says, "to demand they place a local black artist on the program, but to engage in dialogue with them about the needs of the black community in L.A."

When he did contact Leigh Drolet, associate director and general manager of the Los Angeles Festival, Johnson says he was asked by her: "Why should we meet with you?"

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