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Late for the dance

With government support down sharply, local companies are struggling, maybe folding.

August 08, 2004|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Two seasons ago, the locally based Avaz International Dance Theatre spent more than $189,000 in earned and donated income (including $69,600 from the California Arts Council) on staging, rehearsing and performing "Guran," an ambitious full-evening dance drama that helped move the company out of the realm of folkloric vaudeville and onto a new creative plateau.

Now, however, it looks like curtains for the award-winning, 28-year-old ensemble. With the slashing of the California Arts Council budget from a peak of more than $30 million (2000-01) to the current $3.1 million, the state now ranks last in the nation for per capita arts funding: just 9 cents per citizen compared with the U.S. average of $1.15. As a result, Avaz and a number of other companies that rely on government funding are on the verge of extinction.

With only $12,000 in grant support confirmed for 2004-05, the co-directors of Avaz have canceled all performances (though one may be possible down the line), called for the resignation of most of the company's board members and implemented plans to keep rehearsing with a small cadre of dancers (perhaps six of the 14 to 20 the company formerly used) in a donated rehearsal space until the situation resolves itself one way or the other.

Artistic director Jamal hopes that three possible grants totaling as much as $55,000 will come through, along with community support, enabling the company to resume its ambitious, aborted schedule of activities.

"The sadness is that I'm starting to blossom, to deeply enjoy the process of making dances," he says. But founder Anthony Shay speaks darkly of moving away from the company, dance -- and Los Angeles.

He'd be leaving a dance community now and forever passionate, fragmented, experimental, self-indulgent, ready to embrace the Next Big Thing, determined to find its own way, on the verge of breakthrough achievements and always criminally underfunded.

Avaz's paralysis is thus the latest example of a fiscal crisis that has left much of the local dance community in suspended animation: barely able to afford renting rehearsal space -- which typically costs $35 to $45 an hour -- and utterly incapable of coming up with the high rentals, crew fees and marketing costs needed for performances at major local dance venues. Think $12,000 to $15,000 upfront for a couple of weekend nights at such places as the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood or the Japan America Theatre downtown.

In the recent past, grants and donations gave companies access to that kind of venue. But the current economy offers only low-interest investments for wealthy individuals and institutions -- bad bets for contributions to the arts. Moreover, our governor's attitude toward arts funding is reflected less by the catchphrase "I'll be back" than by "Hasta la vista, baby," leaving dance companies scavenging for places to perform.

Last year, for example, choreographer and company leader Terry Beeman staged one of his visionary, Jungian abstractions at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. This April, he rented the small Lillian Theatre in Hollywood on the midweek nights unused by the theater production then performing in the space.

Also in April, choreographer Kitty McNamee staged a 19-part, multicompany benefit at the FOCUSfish studios in Hollywood. Without the $2,200 she made from that event (minus the studio rental), there would have been no local 2004 season for her Hysterica Dance Company, she says, no premiere of her high-energy, full-evening "Victorious," which recently played two weekends at the 99-seat Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood.

Far from mitigating the pain of the crisis and providing leadership, the Dance Resource Center -- the Southland service organization that produces the annual Lester Horton Dance Awards -- nearly collapsed during "a year when there was no grant money whatsoever," explains Arianne MacBean, a choreographer, festival producer and until recently president of the organization.

Passing the hat to members and laying off the organization's two paid employees (the administrative director and financial officer) helped the DRC make it through June, MacBean says. But even with the prospect of grants, she doesn't expect to regain the "comfortable" $50,000 budget of two years ago.

Nevertheless, she takes pride in the dance community's rallying to help prevent the destruction of the downsized L.A. Cultural Affairs Department, a planned budgetary action averted in May. "Survival for the DRC is a victory," MacBean emphasizes. "Survival for Cultural Affairs is a victory. It's pathetic, but it's all we can hope for."

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