You can't keep a good choreographer down. Francisco Martinez brought his Los Angeles-based contemporary ballet troupe to Orange County for the first time seven years ago. But the gig at the Curtis Theatre in Brea didn't spark a local wildfire.
"We did fairly well," Martinez said. "But it didn't pan out in any other direction. I contacted several other smaller Orange County theaters, but it's hard to self-produce."
Now he's coming back with a two-day engagement this weekend at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove. This time, things look a lot more promising.
Martinez has the backing of theater artistic director Kevin Cochran and executive director Charles L. Johanson. The three talked recently about their plans while seated around a small wooden table in the venue's upstairs lounge.
"Presenting dance is a new departure for us," Cochran said. "But we've wanted to for a long time. We've really liked Francisco's work. It was just waiting for the right combination of pieces and dances and available space that we had. What we see as the big win of the space here is that the audience feels very connected to the stage."
Said Johanson: "Our subscription audience and our patrons are adventurous. I think they'll experiment with seeing dance. There's a lot of support for the arts in this area.
"In the big, long-term picture, I would love to see Francisco spearhead a dance festival here that maybe incorporates either other choreographers under his guidance or other companies. We want him to become our dance liaison."
Martinez was equally enthusiastic.
"There's no venue in L.A. to compare this to. This one has such an open feeling. A lot of my works would work in such an intimate space."
Martinez has picked three pieces to make his Gem Theater debut. All three were inspired by music, the choreographer's typical launching pad for ideas.
"Songs From a Quiet Place," which opens the program, is set to Janet Baker's recording of Mahler's five "Ruckert" songs.
"I felt I needed to put that voice into dance," Martinez said. Performed by three men and two women, the 1992 piece "reflects the emotional content of the songs."
"Dark Corner," a work for seven dancers, is performed to Alberto Ginastera's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.
"It's a piece that explores the dark corners in people's lives," the choreographer said of the 1998 work. "I was going through a trying time personally when I created it." A person he loved was just diagnosed with cancer.
"We had to deal with 'what if?' questions," he said.
After all that serious stuff, the program will end on a lighter note with "Fostering Dreams," a 1993 tribute to seven songs by Stephen Foster. It is danced by three couples.
The spark for that piece was a collection mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani made of the American tunesmith's songs.
"Hearing it, all of a sudden this feeling of my childhood came back," Martinez said. "I went back to my seventh-grade class, when I first came to this country and didn't know English. My teacher taught us Stephen Foster songs. I sang them phonetically, not knowing what they meant."
Martinez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and danced with the Nevada Dance Theatre until a severe hip injury sidelined him in 1978. He formed his company in 1981 in a 16-by-22-foot garage in West Hollywood.
By 1988, he had joined the teaching staff at Plaza de la Raza in East Los Angeles, where his troupe became--and remains--the resident company at the Latino cultural center. The troupe was an official participant in the 1991 Artes de Mexico Festival in Los Angeles and has appeared regularly in the City of the Angels.
But it's still a financial struggle to survive. Martinez has a full-time teaching position at Plaza de la Raza. Those duties leave him a lot less time in the studio than he would like.
"Since 1995, I've been able to do only one concert a year," Martinez said. "This is the first time I'm able to do two concerts a year. It's nerve-racking, not having the time to perform and create.
"There's still some person inside me that wishes he had the luxury of time and money to afford to go into the studio and say for the first four or five weeks, we're going to take time to develop a work.
"I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way."
The future includes appearing Jan. 15 at the annual "Dancers for Life" benefit for the Inland AIDS Project at Riverside Community College and being part of the BalletFest 2000, Aug. 17-19, at the Luckman Theater at Cal State Los Angeles.
And coming back to the Gem.
"We certainly want to make this an annual event," said Cochran, the artistic director. "We'd like this theater to become the Francisco Martinez Dancetheatre Orange County home. And we'd like to see him choreograph for this space too."
* Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Francisco Martinez Dancetheatre, Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Grove Theater Center's Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. $18.50, general admission; $16.50, students and seniors. (714) 741-9555.