SAN DIEGO — Known as the city that cannot support its own ballet company, San Diego finds itself playing host to at least 15 touring dance troupes in a year's time.
The local California Ballet and the modern dance troupe Three's Company cannot put on a 20-week season between them because of a lack of audience support. But this year, local dance aficionados may be excused for thinking they have died and gone to terpsichorean heaven. The city has an embarrassment of imported dance riches.
This month alone, almost as many visiting dance companies will perform as used to tour a decade ago through San Diego in an entire year: the Mark Morris Dance Group at the East County Performing Arts Center, the National Dance Company of Senegal at UC San Diego, and Murray Louis Dance Company (with the Dave Brubeck Quartet) at the Spreckels Theatre.
And this week, the San Francisco Ballet struts its acclaimed and gussied-up version of "The Nutcracker" for seven performances at the Civic Theatre.
Over the next six months, Rudolf Nureyev, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Nikolais, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Laura Dean, Pilobolus, U-Zulu, Samul Nori, the National Ballet of Canada and the Tandy Beal Dance Co. with Bobby McFerrin will all make forays into the San Diego dance market.
So much dance may mean unbounded happiness for audiences--if they can afford all those tickets. But local dance companies are eyeing the increasingly large droves of visiting hoofers with a certain skepticism. They say the visitors could further stunt the growth of the struggling local dance scene.
California Ballet Director Maxine Mahon--whose dancers will present "The Nutcracker" in December--thinks "we've bitten off more than we can chew" with the increased number of visiting troupes.
But others think the competition is healthy.
Four of the top touring groups will be presented in the new San Diego Performances. Its co-founder is Suzanne Townsend, who has played a major role in bringing big-time dance to San Diego over the past five years.
Townsend is responsible for adding four of the most prestigious dance companies to this year's list: the San Francisco Ballet, Pilobolus, Twyla Tharp and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
In an interview last week, Townsend suggested that the added competition, rather than hurting the dance scene, would benefit everyone.
"I think competition is a healthy thing," she said. "I think competition forces you to do your best."
Mahon agreed in principle, saying, "Artistically, I think it's great. The community gets to see more activities. But I don't think the community's average dance buyer is up to seeing two and three companies a month."
The California Ballet lost $50,000 earlier this year on its production of "Coppelia" at the Civic Theatre when the show was caught between visits of two of the country's biggest ballet companies.
"We never should have lost (the money) because it wasn't a losing show," Mahon said. "We had the Joffrey two weeks before and then (the American Ballet Theatre) afterward. We were booked months before we knew about the other bookings."
Mahon fears that this week's San Francisco Ballet production of "The Nutcracker" could contribute to the California Ballet's debt because of its impact on California Ballet's own "Nutcracker."
"Everybody knows that "The Nutcracker" is the one thing that is a positive cash flow thing," she said. "It constitutes a third of our annual budget. It does give us the profit margin that allows us to do the other productions every year."
California Ballet's "Nutcracker" opens Dec. 11, two weeks after the visiting production closes.
Townsend noted that there are nine companies performing "The Nutcracker" in the Bay Area between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"I don't think (the San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker") will have that much of an effect."
Townsend's entry as a presenter radically changes the dance scene. A year ago there was only one major dance presenter or importer in town: the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts, which Townsend co-founded in 1982 and served as executive director of until December, 1986. UCSD and the East County Performing Arts Center also bring in three to six dance companies between them. But the biggest dance companies, such as the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, have been brought by the foundation.
Townsend launched her own nonprofit dance-presenting organization after parting ways with the foundation last December.
While the foundation will present five dance companies this year, executive director Diane Annala said the plan is to shift its focus to other entertainment areas that are not well-served.
Beginning next season, it may move away from presenting just dance, adding other "types of entertainment, absolutely high-quality acts" such as the Salzburg Puppets or Shanghai Acrobats, Annala said.
But getting through the current season, with the two major dance presenters bringing nine dance companies to San Diego, poses a problem for the local companies.