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THE BIG MIX : Dance : An Ethnic Eclipse? : Among local ethnic dance troupes, the challenges range from authenticity to visibility to finances

February 05, 1989|CHRIS PASLES

For many local groups specializing in European, American Indian and Middle Eastern dances, the '80s have been a decade of retreat from the heights of popular interest and support seen in the '60s and the '70s.

The Greeks, for instance, appear to have fully retreated into their communities: There are no local major Greek dance groups performing for a general audience, but church-sponsored participatory groups flourish at an annual competition that pits as many as 65 such troupes against one another.

Parallels can be found among other L.A. ethnic groups ranging from the Armenians to the Ukrainians.

"The folk dance movement is dying among the non-ethnics," says Armenian folk dance teacher and performer Tom Bozigian. "But it's strong in the ethnic communities."

Community Support

Yet this community commitment may not be an unalloyed blessing, says Richard Duree, artistic director of the Huntington Beach-based Dunaj International Dance Ensemble.

"Ethnic communities support the groups that represent their own material. They are not interested in someone else's," Duree says.

"My company's biggest problem is that we don't appeal to any particular group because we do (the dances of) so many different countries. So we don't get specific community support."

Among groups supported mostly by performances for their ethnic communities, a sampling would include the following:

Jora Makarian's Hamaskayin Sevan Dance of Montebello, a four-year-old group of high school and college students, which performs largely in the Armenian community on a project-by-project funding basis.

Israel Yakovee's Sinjan, a Yemenite group of 14 members, which performs monthly at Jewish organizations and community centers.

The Waverly Dancers, a group of 20 members, which offers the Scottish community dances choreographed by James Lomatch.

Donna Tripp's 12-member Scandia performs dances of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland largely within the Scandinavian community.

Joseph Hirnda's 30-member group Millennium performs for the local Ukrainian community.

Two local American Indian groups--Lamont Laird's Los Angeles Intertribal Dancers and John Dowson's Intertribal Dancers of Southern California--have essentially become ad hoc organizations. But continuing to perform mostly in schools, museums or at local, Southwest or national powwows are three family-centered troupes--Joe WhiteCloud's Hermosa Beach-based American Eagle Indian Dancers, the Pico Rivera-based (Henry) Hale Family Dancers and Melvin Ahhaitty's Hacienda Heights-based Red Tipi Descendants.

The exceptions to the implosive (community-only) trend are the two majors:

The AMAN Folk Ensemble, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. An ensemble of 36 people, AMAN operates on an annual budget of approximately $500,000 and gives about 300 performances a year (counting its educational concerts).

Anthony Shay's AVAZ International Dance Theatre, founded in 1977, will "pass the $100,000 mark (in budget) this year," Shay said. "We have opted to have a fairly specific range because we want to be able to be authoritative. We can do a general program for Eastern Europe, Middle East, North Africa and the U.S. But we can also do a specific program of just Yugoslavia or Iran."

On the other hand, Julie Nelson's 16-member troupe Gypsy, which specializes in Romanian dance, has found a solution by performing within the Los Angeles school system. Nelson says that she tries to be authentic but must vary the dancing to suit the audience.

"When we dance for a strictly ethnic audience, we try to be more accurate and dance as you would see in the villages," Nelson says. "For most American audiences, the music is very foreign and they are not used to the dance materials, so you have to find a way that is entertaining as well."

Concern for authenticity is an issue that all the groups must address.

Richard Unciano, director of the 15-member Eastern European group Koroyar based in Pomona, says: "You can't do straight village-style because audiences would get bored . . . But if a dance has to be changed radically, then I won't put it on stage. Then it is not, say, a Turkish dance, but an Unciano dance."

In agreement: Charlie Kyricou, director of the fledgling Greek group Ellas. "Certainly we wish to represent the culture that we are performing," he says. "On the other hand, if we did dances as done in the villages, people would get bored very quickly. We try to find a middle ground."

Middle Eastern dancer Marie Silva, who performs nightly in a Hollywood restaurant, says that she dances the same steps and patterns seen in the villages, but makes them "much more complicated and more intricate, and improvises within those patterns."

Keeping Culture Alive

Authenticity, however, is not a big concern of Eugene Ciejka, who directs the Garden Grove-based Polish troupe, Polski Iskrie. "I am not too thrilled by the ethnic traditional dances," Ciejka says. "They are not exciting enough--most of them."

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