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Local Ballet Limps Along as Arts Center Looks to Big Names : Troupes Tripped Up by Lack of Funds, Talent

January 24, 1988|JAN HERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Nobody is likely to mistake Orange County for a thriving dance capital, least of all Thomas R. Kendrick. Nevertheless, as president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, he is determined to turn Segerstrom Hall into a mecca for ballet enthusiasts.

"Our goal is to be the leading presenter of dance on the West Coast," he said in a recent interview.

Kendrick can sound almost obsessive on the subject, rattling off attendance figures for American Ballet Theatre's two-week engagement last December as though they couldn't have been better, and he can purr with satisfaction about the technological wonders of the hall's "state-of-the-art portable floor"--while glossing over the perception that the Center's ballet programming has been feast or famine.

This season the Joffrey Ballet appeared in September and ABT in December. The National Ballet of Canada and the Paris Opera Ballet won't appear until June, a lapse of five months. Still, Kendrick said, "with companies like those, we have a very good shot at being the leading presenter."

A more accurate description of Segerstrom Hall's current role might be that it is just another pit stop on the big-league ballet tour. As for the local dance scene, when you ask Kendrick whether any troupes have caught his eye, he draws a blank. "I'm not familiar with them," he said. "The cost and scale of this hall are too great for them."

What Kendrick doesn't say--but what others will--is that there isn't a ballet company in the county good enough to merit professional consideration.

"Let's face it, we have so many so-called 'companies' that the word has lost its meaning," scoffed Jonette Rettig, who heads the Villa Park School of Ballet. "They're not serious. They wouldn't know ballet from Bali Ha'i."

"The stuff you see around the area gives ballet a bad name," James Jones, a UC Irvine ballet instructor and choreographer, concurred. "It looks like a dead art. But how good can you be when you use weekend dancers?"

And Olga Maynard, the dance historian, draws a darker picture. "What is true here is true for all of Southern California. Except for the Joffrey, which resides in Los Angeles in name only, and the San Francisco Ballet, which is a truly resident company, there are no professional ballet companies in the whole state of California."

Ironically, the Center is said to have turned down large donations to launch the development of a resident company, which might have spearheaded a change in the parochial quality of the local dance scene.

"I know several people who have offered millions of dollars to have one," Stewart Woodard, president of the Center Dance Alliance, said. "But the Center said, 'No, we do not want a resident company.' "

Woodard declined to reveal their names, and Kendrick dismissed the offers as rumors. "To my knowledge, the subject has never been broached," he said.

Kendrick argued that the Center's reasons for not wanting a resident company have less to do with short-sighted intentions, as critics contend, than with fiscal realities. The Center operates at a deficit despite its lavish image, and even the most successful ballet companies must be subsidized--a burden the Center believes it cannot take on.

In fact, the cost of keeping a company is so high that the Dance Alliance's entire annual contribution to the Center--about $50,000--would have financed only two performances of the Costa Mesa-based South Coast Ballet, a small but promising troupe of professional dancers that folded last year for lack of funds.

Jones, who founded the on-again, off-again troupe in 1981, said it cost $45,000 to mount a weekend engagement at UC Irvine in March, 1986, which proved to be the troupe's swan song. An annual "bare-bones budget of $150,000" was needed to maintain a minimum standard of professionalism for a concert group such as his, he said.

"I could never raise the full budget," recalled Jones, who resigned as artistic director last July. "I had only eight dancers, but most of them had been with major companies in the U.S., Canada or Europe. I couldn't keep them together without paying them. They asked for $350 a week and 16 weeks' work."

Before Jones quit, he had gone as far as to book a two-performance date at Segerstrom Hall in October, 1986. "I knew what it would mean for our reputation to appear there," he recalled. "The Center agreed, but I couldn't get the money together to guarantee the house."

Amateur companies also bear a burden of high costs for far less ambitious programs. Lois Ellyn, who recently founded the "pre-professional" Nouveau Chamber Ballet in Fullerton, said she spent about $5,000 on the company's two-show debut in January at the Brea Civic/Cultural Center. And Ballet Unlimited was forced to cancel several performances this year because it couldn't afford to present them.

"Two years ago we were doing five or six weekends," said Kristen Potts, who founded the Orange-based company eight years ago. "Now we're down to two."

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