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PERFORMING ARTS | COMMENTARY

Hometown Ballet? Dream On

There's a message in the demise of John Clifford's Los Angeles Ballet: It's about money and demographics.

July 28, 1996|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Since dreams always prove more seductive than reality, it's no surprise that John Clifford's wildly unrealistic plans to form a new Los Angeles Ballet generated major excitement in the national and local dance communities a year ago.

At a time when just about every ballet organization in America was scrambling for funds, Clifford announced an $11-million budget for his first year of operation--unprecedented for a new ballet company in America. It sounded like a dream come true, and even those experienced in the grim realities of dance subsidy grew enthusiastic.

"We all got our adrenaline up, hoping," says Don Hewitt, director of the annual Dance Kaleidoscope series. "We needed something positive to happen."

However, no major funding for Los Angeles Ballet ever materialized, no performances took place and a legal action by the dancers' union late last month resulted in a judgment against Clifford for more than $1 million in unpaid salaries and benefits.

There's no evidence that the L.A. Ballet debacle changed the landscape of local classicism--a landscape in which performances are few and far between, usually in small venues, often for a core audience of friends and colleagues. But Clifford's failure does help dramatize key problems facing our struggling ensembles: a decline in arts support from both the government and private sectors, a shrinking audience base for ballet and the inability of the companies themselves to generate enough public interest to change the picture significantly.

Obviously, mere survival can be considered heroic under these circumstances. Raiford Rogers, who directs the 14-year-old Los Angeles Chamber Ballet, says that keeping his company in "a holding pattern" represents a victory in the current financial environment. He blames what he calls "the Clifford fiasco" and the media (including this newspaper) for supporting "the general perception out there that there's not much happening with ballet in this city."

In response to both the funding crisis and the search for new audiences, Cynthia Young, head of the 21-year-old Pasadena Dance Theater, is changing the direction of that company to focus on educational projects and community outreach rather than performances. She wishes Clifford had succeeded: "His company would have developed audiences for everybody," she says.

Veteran impresario James A. Doolittle, who currently produces dance at the Music Center, believes "there are many people out there who would like to support [local] dance but they want to know there's responsibility and stability to the organization in question. There's no organization right now that people have enough confidence in. They haven't been operated or managed properly."

But he also raises the larger issue of audience base: "Each season I bring in the best-known companies in the world and can only play them for a week here," he says. "How could you sustain a resident company with that small an audience?"

Points of comparison: The 63-year-old San Francisco Ballet typically sells enough tickets to justify 10 or 11 weeks a year in its home city. In Southern California, it seems that no dance attraction besides "The Nutcracker" can sustain itself for even two full weeks.

Late last month, American Ballet Theatre returned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for six performances of a rep program featuring a new Twyla Tharp ballet plus a newly restaged "Don Quixote." "Ticket sales were just under 70% of capacity," Doolittle says, "with a lot of discount tickets in there." He estimates he'll lose roughly $175,000 on the engagement.

He takes no pleasure in his conclusion: "We don't have the dance audience at this point to support a major [resident ballet] company. There isn't the demand."

Others in the community agree with him: Hewitt, for instance, who faults lack of education in the arts. And veteran ballet teacher and Royal Ballet alumnus Stanley Holden.

"The public itself is to blame," Holden says. "Our audiences want [star] names--it's part of Hollywood. If they don't recognize the names, forget it."

It can also be argued that shifting cultural demographics have taken the spotlight off ballet--that most of the residents of Southern California are linked by birth or heritage to other traditional dance forms.

Some of those forms are older than ballet and have an equal claim to be called "classical." Many are preserved far from their places of origin by companies popular in our minority communities and increasingly visible to everyone else in such series as "Dance Kaleidoscope," which showcased 12 such groups earlier this month--nearly a third of the companies participating.

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