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Selling the Shirts Off Their Backs

In a period of belt-tightening, the Aman dance troupe auctions off many of its folk costumes.

November 21, 1999|VICTORIA LOOSELEAF | Victoria Looseleaf is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The heavy wool black apron has a row of 1925 silver coins dangling above an intricately hand-embroidered, multicolored hem. It's Greek-Macedonian, and a rare piece of cultural history. Indeed, this apron, part of a one-of-a-kind costume that also includes a long vest and brightly colored accordion-pleated skirt, might be worth up to $1,000.

Its exact value in today's market will be determined soon enough: The apron's owner, Aman International Music and Dance Ensemble, will shortly add it to a cache of other such treasures that it is already offering on the virtual auction block EBay (

Aman, Southern California's oldest major professional folk dance troupe, has been acquiring Bulgarian aprons--not to mention elaborately carved Kwaquitl masks from the Pacific Northwest, Afghan coats and loads of interesting footgear--for all of its 35 years. In the early 1990s, as arts funding dried up, Aman also started acquiring a large debt. Its problems were compounded by the Northridge earthquake, when the organization's storage, rehearsal and office space in downtown Los Angeles was declared unsafe. The company is still trying to recover.

Now some $60,000 in debt, and down in numbers from a high of 30 dancers to nine, the Aman board decided that paying rent on the company's huge costume collection was no longer an option. A core group of costumes would be saved, but the rest would go to the highest bidder.

"We will always keep a collection to exhibit," explains Romalyn Tilghman, Aman's executive director since 1996. "But even if we had all the money in the world, there is a question as to whether some of the costumes ought to ever be danced in, sweated in, or stretched in again. We care a lot about them, but we're not a museum."

"The issue is to protect the legacy of the authentic costumes by putting them into loving hands," agrees former Aman executive director and current board member Michael Alexander. "It's sad we can't be the repository, but it's a reality."

In the case of the less valuable costumes, Tilghman says, the costume "house cleaning" is also a matter of streamlining operations. "It doesn't make sense to keep 30 reproductions for any one [dance] suite, since we now only have nine core members," she points out.

Currently the costumes are housed in 2,000 square feet of retail space in Santa Ana, with rehearsal space upstairs. Tilghman calls the rent reasonable, but the $1,600 nut is still too much for Aman to handle. When the costumes are whittled down, the company's rent will drop, and the sale, it's hoped, will generate some money toward retiring the debt.

In the storage space, dozens of wardrobe boxes line the shabbily carpeted floors and racks of garments crowd the margins. The styles and fabrics attest to Aman's wide range as a company. On the racks, where the reproductions are stashed, hang grass hula skirts and suspendered tweed trousers and flounced frocks from an early California waltz suite. Some of the racks have already been picked over during monthly weekend tag sales that began in August.

The high points of the collection are inside the boxes--not exactly curatorially pampered. If the company's repertory overall was wide-ranging, its greatest emphasis over the years was on the rich vein of Balkan dances, and most of the best costumes come from that troubled region. Geopolitical history, in fact, is one of the reasons these are likely to have the most appeal: They are rare, in part because they come from countries and cultures no longer in existence.

"We needed to find a fair market value and to make them as accessible as possible in an auction format," Tilghman says. "After many months of soul-searching, the board finally chose EBay. It provided the widest universe of potential buyers, including costume collectors, museums and folk dance companies.

"The entire de-accession process will take about a year," she said. That gives Aman time to go through the storage room and decide what to keep and what to sell. Appraising the costumes, which are insured for $75,000, takes time. So does tracking down all the elements that make up the most elaborate outfits.

Once a costume has been assembled and it has been decided that it will not be used again, Aman photographs it for EBay, where it can be found by searching the sellers databank--keyword "amancostumes." (The company is posting items off and on; Aman will alert interested parties when items go on the block.)

The first items featured, six Serbian vests, went on the block a few months ago, and sold for about $200 each. To date, approximately $4,000 worth of garments have been sold.

No matter the care involved in the sale, there are many in the folk dance community who are unhappy about Aman's plans. Chief among the critics is Anthony Shay, founder and co-director of Avaz International Dance Theatre. Shay originally began Aman with Leona Wood and spent 15 years with the company, many of those helping to build its costume collection.

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