In the bearded-and-sandaled '60s, folk dance was right up there in popularity along with tie-dye and macrame. But in an age of consumer chic, royalty has more appeal than peasantry. How does a 24-year-old international folk troupe keep up with changing times?
Barry Glass, the relentlessly upbeat artistic director of Los Angeles-based Aman International Music and Dance Company, agrees that social trends have influenced his company's fortunes.
"In the late '60s and early '70s especially, (ethnic dance) was really the thing," he says, his cheerful voice counterpointed by the boisterous stamps and shouts of male dancers and the honking sound of a zurna (a Turkish horn) during an evening rehearsal at a junior high school in Santa Monica.
"Then, of course, when high tech and yuppie came in we were not in vogue at all, and that was really rough." (During the mid-'70s, revenues were barely enough to keep Aman going, and a financial crisis four years ago resulted in reorganization of the company, with the dancers temporarily performing for free.)
"But what we're seeing now is a definite move toward traditional values, and we're finding there is more interest in what we do.
"If you look at the design element in high tech, it's so angular, so cold. It's distant. And as Americans, we are a distant people. (But) I believe it'll change because I believe in human nature and I think that's what Aman reflects more than anything else: people and their basic values."
It has also come to reflect '80s-style fiscal prudence and increased professionalism, with an annual budget of about $400,000 and an earned- to contributed-income ratio (60% to 40%) that is the nonprofit arts world's equivalent of a triple-A bond rating.
Recently--just before embarking on a cross-country tour that includes a performance tonight at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont--Aman's musicians released a new cassette of instrumental and vocal works from Syria, the Ukraine, Hungary, the Balkans and Louisiana's Cajun culture. The studio recording will be available through the company.
Next fall, Aman begins celebrating its 25th anniversary with full-company Los Angeles performances (the touring group is smaller), including several premieres and revivals. Future plans also include a weeklong institute for folk dancers (dates are still undetermined) and the presentation of other Los Angeles-based ethnic arts troupes.
"We want to become pivotal in making Los Angeles the center of this kind of dance," Glass says.
If typical Aman fanatics tend to be older and decidedly non-yuppie, an offshoot of the company is actively seeking out the audience of the future.
The Members of Aman group runs a vigorous program (between 200 and 300 shows each season) of lecture-demonstrations in the Los Angeles public schools. The approach has little in common with the earnest classroom internationalism of the previous generation, when foreign nationals were presented as simple folk, eternally smiling and parading their decorated costumes.
"(That was) reflective of the kind of insular feeling we had then in the United States," Glass agrees. "You know, They are there and We are here, and They are separate.
But I think now we know better. I think the Vietnam War did a lot to change that--you know, I heard on TV the other day that Mass on any Sunday is celebrated in Los Angeles in over 46 different languages. And so there is a tremendous focus on cultural identity in this town.
"We have a show (in the schools) this year that is totally based on the importance of immigrants in this country and cultural identity and how it has made us unique in the world. The kids are interested in it because right about the middle of the show they realize, wait a minute, he's talking about us.
"If our kids can grow up at least understanding that other people look at the world differently than we do, I think we're a jump ahead for the future. That isn't why Aman exists, but it doesn't hurt."