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Love dance? Now's your time

October 07, 2006|Jane Jelenko | JANE JELENKO is the president and a founding member of the board of the Center Dance Assn.

ALL OVER THE U.S. this summer, people fell in love with dance. We scheduled our Wednesday evenings or set our TiVos to watch "So You Think You Can Dance" -- a competition featuring exciting choreography and a group of dancers we came to know and root for. Their passion and dedication electrified us; 70 million votes were cast for "America's favorite dancer."

That TV experience didn't happen in a vacuum, at least not in Los Angeles. As the president of the Center Dance Assn., which raises funds for dance presentations at the Music Center, I've been gratified to watch the L.A. fan base grow in numbers and enthusiasm for all varieties of dance -- doing it, watching it at home and attending live performances. I believe we're at a cultural tipping point in Los Angeles, when support for all kinds of dance can be marshaled to achieve a worthy goal: a top-tier, resident dance company.

L.A. is blessed with plenty of talented dancers, dance academies and small local troupes. But what I have in mind is a ballet-based contemporary company that can sustain a multiweek season -- including a blockbuster "Nutcracker" -- attract star power in its dancers and its leadership and do it in L.A. style. We don't need to re-create San Francisco Ballet or American Ballet Theatre (as marvelous as those companies are). We need a company that's unique, innovative and speaks to our diverse audience.

There is good evidence that dance has been embraced in our cultural life, and we're ready for more. Close to 10,000 people have shown up on the Music Center plaza for "Dance Downtown" nights. Ticket sales have been climbing for presentations at the Music Center. Three years ago, average attendance was 2,400 per show; last season, it was about 2,600. Sellout crowds have cheered for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as well as the lesser known Nuevo Ballet Espanol, a contemporary flamenco company. Story ballets have made a comeback in contemporary settings, and you often have to beg for tickets to see ABT and the Kirov perform -- dare I say it? -- full-length ballets.

The time is right for practical reasons as well. When the L.A. Philharmonic moved to Disney Hall, it freed up time in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for dance. But that's a big hall; a resident dance company would also need something smaller, easier to fill regularly and tailored to its programs. With the burgeoning downtown revival, there could be room in one or another redevelopment plan for just such a facility.

It's true that attempts have been made to develop a major L.A. company. The famed modern dancer and choreographer Bella Lewitzky attracted a following, but she couldn't meet the challenge of growing a performing company and institutionalizing it. Former New York City Ballet dancer John Clifford tried once to build a ballet company but couldn't hold the pieces together (he's trying again). In the 1980s and '90s, the Joffrey Ballet pioneered a bicoastal model in New York and L.A. It built a loyal audience here, but the company ultimately decamped for Chicago.

The missteps of the past must now provide lessons for the future.

The Center Dance Assn. has studied financially viable major dance companies, and we understand the success factors that must be in place. We believe various models have promise. For example, the well-regarded Miami City Ballet in Florida is "shared" by other nearby cities. In L.A., such a scheme could spread the impact of a company and the risks of making it succeed.

Recently, The Times' dance critic, Lewis Segal, ranted against traditional ballet in a piece titled "Five things I hate about ballet." He faulted its supposed elitism, anorexia and disproportionate funding requirements. The New York Times' critic, John Rockwell, slyly pointed out that Segal might feel different if L.A. had its own major league company, with young dancers he could follow, as sports fans do Nomar and Kobe.

At this pivotal moment, dance lovers must come together with civic leaders, artists, teachers and developers to create a blueprint for the art form in our community. The goal will be to give L.A. access to the greatest dance companies in the world, with our own among them. To that end, Center Dance Assn. and the Music Center are planning a series of community forums, starting this month, on the future of dance here.

The tipping point for L.A. Opera was arguably when Placido Domingo took the helm. The Museum of Contemporary Art became a reality when the Community Redevelopment Agency required the developer of California Plaza on Bunker Hill to put up the money to build a museum there.

For dance lovers, the moment will be the birth of our own world-class resident dance company, under the direction of a world-class artistic director. Los Angeles deserves no less.

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