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DANCE

Treading Lightly

Despite the high mortality rate of Southland ballet companies, small troupes hope by growing slowly they'll beat the odds.

April 25, 1999|JENNIFER FISHER | Jennifer Fisher is a regular contributor to Calendar

On a mid-April afternoon in Santa Barbara, tourists on their way to the trendy shops of State Street stroll by a recessed storefront studio, unaware that inside, the perpetually adversarial Montague and Capulet men are battling it out once again in one of ballet's most action-packed scenes. Nestled between a bike shop and a boxing club, this is Santa Barbara's resident State Street Ballet, brushing up its scaled-down version of "Romeo and Juliet."

Directing the rehearsal is ex-American Ballet Theatre soloist Rodney Gustafson, who founded the company in 1993. As the "Romeo and Juliet" fight scene progresses, Gustafson explains that many of the dancers tossing off expert pirouettes and buoyant leaps have come from prestigious training institutions and much larger companies, with whom some of them still perform. "But more and more of our dancers are making their homes here in Santa Barbara, because this is such a great place to live," he says. "I wouldn't have started a dance company just anywhere--you have to be in a good spot to attract quality people. And it's close to Los Angeles, where we'd eventually like to have a base as well."

And there it is--the dream that the Los Angeles area might at last home-grow its own world-class ballet company, where dancers can make a living and audiences can get to know a classical company for more than one touring week a year. But, if you want to set eyes rolling in the Southern California dance community, just mention that a new ballet company is trying to get established. In a dance landscape littered with carcasses of failed ballet ventures, it's a bit like saying there's this great new unsinkable ocean liner everyone's booked passage on, and its name starts with a T.

The pervasive skepticism is perhaps summed up best by Stanley Holden--the internationally known dance teacher who has served as advisor to umpteen budding ballets since coming here from London's Royal Ballet.

Another Southland ballet? "I feel sorry for them," he says. "Everybody thinks they can do it, but they can't. I wish them luck, but this has gone on for the last 30 years!"

Holden's frustration has increased with the last decade's disappointments--after the Joffrey's failure to establish a second home at the Music Center through the '80s, there was the demise of the Los Angeles Classical Ballet in Long Beach in early 1998, and, perhaps most notably, John Clifford's 1996 ill-starred attempt to raise $11 million to fund his L.A. Ballet. The latter debacle left an especially bitter taste after stranded dancers took a devastating financial loss.

"If I was a [ballet] dancer now, I wouldn't touch L.A.," Holden says resolutely. "I really push my students to get out of here by the time they're 16. We have to send them where there are opportunities."

In fact, Los Angeles remains perhaps the sole major North American city without its own large classical company. Nevertheless, ballet companies continue to be born here, gasp for breath and occasionally survive. Three such companies--the burgeoning State Street, Irvine's 37-year-old Ballet Pacifica and the fledgling Inland Pacific Ballet in Montclair--are hoping that a sense of proportion may prevail where more inflated ventures fail. No trumpeted announcements of big stars, no promises of costly, lush sets and costumes, no projected budgets in the gazillions (or the inevitable concomitant debt). Instead, the idea is to sink roots in a community, find a niche and develop in due time.

"I think one of the traps that people fall into is that they try to start at a level that's far too high," Gustafson says over coffee between rehearsal and a company board meeting. "But just because that's happened in the past doesn't mean a ballet company can't succeed now."

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State Street Ballet may have come the furthest of any recent regional start-up in the small-is-beautiful mold. In addition to performing in its hometown Granada Theatre, the company has also performed in Santa Rosa, San Jose and, closer to home, Thousand Oaks, Redlands and Palos Verdes. Last summer, the company made an auspicious Los Angeles debut with Johan Renvall's spirited "Tango" on a Dance Kaleidoscope program at the Ford Amphitheatre. Today, it returns to L.A. with Robert Sund's "Carmen" and Gustafson's "Bolero" on a program shared with Inland Pacific Ballet at the Luckman Theatre.

The sandy-haired Gustafson, 47, has an affable manner and a combination of credentials rare among artistic directors--experience as a dancer during the '80s heyday of American Ballet Theatre; a teaching background at the University of Arizona, as well as his own studio in Tucson; and perhaps most importantly, a master's of business administration.

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