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CENTER OF ATTENTION: A Decade at the O.C. Performing
Arts

Reviewing the Center's Performance

Commentary: After 10 years of ups and downs, the facility and its users, for the most part, need not apologize.

September 02, 1996|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Any critic's overview of the Orange County Performing Arts Center has to acknowledge that it is a private facility with a dual nature.

It books and subsidizes its own events. And it is a rental hall for local groups, primarily Opera Pacific, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Pacific Symphony, the Pacific Chorale and the William Hall Master Chorale. The quality of their performances and presentations reflects on the center too.

Neither the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts nor the California Center for the Arts in Escondido--two close competitors--has to function in this way. Moreover, because they receive public money, it isn't surprising they offer many more populist events than does the Orange County center, which remains focused on four disciplines--music, dance, opera and Broadway shows.

In any case, all three facilities--and the local groups--are part of a larger system that has suffered major convulsions during the 10 years since the Orange County center opened.

The biggest problems stemmed from ongoing recession and a crisis in arts funding. The effects on dance companies were especially noticeable in Orange County, where dance has been the center's biggest claim to fame. The American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, all of which had made Southern California a regular stop, nearly went bankrupt.

Meanwhile, such Soviet companies as the Bolshoi and the Kirov were hard hit after the breakup of the Russian superstate.

Local flash points included Maurice Allard's abrupt resignation as head of the Master Chorale in 1987; the ouster of founding music director Keith Clark from Pacific Symphony in 1988; the hotly debated, ultimately aborted mergers of the the Pacific Chorale with the Master Chorale (1988) and the Pacific Symphony with the Philharmonic Society (1991); and the 1993 resignations of Erich Vollmer as head of the Philharmonic Society and Thomas Kendrick as head of the center.

*

It hardly was the center's fault that a promised 1991 ABT premiere of a new "Nutcracker" was postponed because of the company's fiscal problems--and that when it did arrive (in a Kevin McKenzie staging in 1993), it was such a letdown. Nor could the center be blamed when the Joffrey canceled a scheduled 1995 engagement because of money woes, leaving the center scrambling to fill the dates.

Still, these were major disappointments, and local audiences were the ones who felt them.

The center couldn't have known that the world premiere of Mikhail Baryshnikov's "Swan Lake" in 1988 would be so dismal. But couldn't it have anticipated that the Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev's Hollywood version of "Cinderella" that same year would be so silly?

Shouldn't it have realized that standards at New York City Ballet were declining so markedly in the Peter Martins years (1986, 1990 and 1993)? Or that Peter Schaufuss, then-new artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, had savaged the company's "La Sylphide" (1995)?

Despite these setbacks, the dance series had some wonderful successes: the glorious, pre-Schaufuss Danes and heavy-hitting Paul Taylor Dance Company (both in 1992), the powerfully creative Nederlands Dans Theater (1994 and '96), Twyla Tharp's kaleidoscopic blend of ballet and modern dance in "In the Upper Room" and "Brief Fling" for ABT (1990).

The center also sponsored the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in a wonderful production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" and the prized Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan (both 1990) and the impressive Met Orchestra led by James Levine (1995).

We should have had more modern dance companies, and had them sooner, but when the center did book them, local audiences responded indifferently. World dance, irrationally, fell by default to the Philharmonic Society, which partly filled the gap.

*

Of the resident groups, Opera Pacific consistently was the biggest disappointment. John Pascoe directed a sleazy staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" (1990); Dorothy Danner gave us a vulgar staging of Lehar's "The Merry Widow" (1994). The company's whole decade was marked by uneven casting, subpar direction or staging and risible choreography.

Still, Opera Pacific sponsored the Houston Grand Opera's production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" (1987), benefit recitals by Luciano Pavarotti (1987) and Placido Domingo (1992), Ealynn Voss as Puccini's "Turandot" (1990) and Jane Eaglen among others in Wagner's "Die Walkure" (1994). (The center brought back "Porgy," unfortunately in an amplified version, in 1995.)

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