That Los Angeles is more an entertainment mecca than a fine arts hub is a rarely disputed notion. If one aspires to be a film actor, one makes a beeline for Hollywood; but if one wishes to be, say, a concert dancer, New York and even San Francisco seem to have it all over Los Angeles. There are dance companies here, but only a handful, and most of those aren't even close to being full-time gigs for the choreographers or the dancers. There are venues that welcome dance, but no strongly defined dance scene.
This state of affairs is no surprise to 32-year-old Kacy Keys, a native of L.A. who danced professionally with San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet and Boston Ballet. Keys abandoned performing for the law and economic development more than a decade ago, returning to Los Angeles in 1997.
But once a dancer, always a dancer. For the last few years, Keys has been working on a sidelight, Praxis Project, that would allow her to dance and, she hopes, will jump-start the dance scene in her hometown.
"I wanted to merge my various skill sets," says Keys, who has a bachelor's degree and a law degree from UC Berkeley and a degree in urban planning from UCLA. "I've lived in New York for short periods of time and in the Bay Area, and the ability of folks to pursue dance in a more serious way is enhanced in those cities. I don't see that here. Because of the dominance of sports and the entertainment industry, any extra resources that might go to modern dance or other fine arts endeavors are limited."
Keys' Praxis Project ("praxis" is Latin for "practice"), a monthlong series of classes and workshops, will culminate in performances at downtown L.A.'s California Plaza on Friday and Saturday as part of Grand Performances' summer season. The project got its start in 1998, when she worked in then-Mayor Richard Riordan's office in urban development. Ensconced downtown, Keys began thinking about ways to help build a dance presence in the urban core. Her first goal, she said, is to strengthen "the L.A. modern dance community. The second part is that the arts in general act as a catalyst for the community at large, that they have the ability to improve neighborhoods."
Praxis started with a $10,000 grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department in 1999. By then, Keys was pregnant with twin daughters, and she delayed the project for a year. But at the end of 2000, Praxis sponsored its first series of master classes and workshops at the historic Palace Theater on Broadway, where Anna Pavlova and Fred Astaire once danced. Taught by a group of professional choreographers, including Bay Area-based Janice Garrett and locally based Ronald Brown, workshop attendees paid nominal fees for participating and were selected by audition to dance in the pieces, which were then performed at a weekend's worth of concerts.
"We set up the workshop format for those folks who want to pursue performing in some capacity, or to increase their training in modern dance and to be able to do so in an intense, concentrated effort," Keys said. "It's also a way to put dancers and choreographers together without having or being in a company."
In 2001, Keys received a second grant, but instead of putting on another set of choreographer-dancer sessions, she took time to incorporate, get nonprofit status and devise a more permanent infrastructure for Praxis. The class-workshop-performance format started up again this month, with Garrett, who heads an eponymous company in the Bay Area; Brown, a Lester Horton technique teacher and independent choreographer; L.A. resident Dorcas Roman, whose works have been performed by companies in Brazil and Argentina; and brothers Frit and Frat Fuller, who head L.A.'s Kin Dance Company. About 50 dancers have participated in the classes and workshops; 25 will perform this weekend.
This year, in addition to three works created or restaged during the workshops, Praxis will showcase one piece in the repertory of Garrett's company (her dancers are traveling to L.A. to participate) and a Kin repertory work as well. One Praxis dancer, Johnny Tu, will also get a chance to present a work created outside the Praxis process.
Two-and-a-half weeks into the project (classes and rehearsals are held daily), Keys was among nine dancers at work at the Dance Arts Academy in Mid-Wilshire. They were being introduced to Garrett's "Hither Thither," a rhythmically intense number commissioned by England's Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Garrett was reconfiguring the piece for the Praxis Project. Think "muscle line, and the motivation of feeling frantic," she told the dancers during the 90-minute rehearsal. Demonstrating various moves, she watched, delighted, as the dancers willingly took her lead, scuttling across the room backward, hips swiveling, before turning to create constantly shifting formations. The work yielded 35 seconds of what will be a six-minute work.