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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Sad last act for Ballet Pacifica

The demise of the 45-year-old company comes as no surprise after hobbling for years.

March 28, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Ballet Pacifica has canceled so many projects and seasons in the last few years that the announcement Monday of the imminent closure of its school and the indefinite "hiatus" of its performing company didn't come as a shock but rather as just one more stage in its well-documented free fall.

Indeed, you might argue that the 45-year-old Orange County institution never recovered from the resignation of artistic director Molly Lynch in 2003 -- the same year that founder Lila Zali died. Everything since has been nothing more than increasingly desperate life-support strategies, including the never-realized plans (unveiled in 2005) for American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel to upgrade the company to full professionalism.

Those plans collapsed for the same reason that Ballet Pacifica will close its academy on Friday and indefinitely suspend performances by its company: insufficient funds. "There is just enough money to close the operation, including the sale of the company's assets, while continuing a short search for new funding to try to find a way to continue the performing mission of the organization," read a statement issued by the Ballet Pacifica board.

The problem with that statement is that the company really had no mission that it could act upon since Lynch's departure, just wishin' and hopin'. When Zali founded the company, it served a valuable function: raising the visibility of ballet in Orange County and helping develop an audience ready for the world-class classicism that would be available on a regular basis with the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1986.

But Zali's subprofessional company could scarcely compete with the stellar dancing in Segerstrom Hall, so it reverted to the bottom line of regional ballet: training Sis and Junior to dance and then showcasing them for family, friends and neighbors in "The Nutcracker" and a few repertory afterthoughts.

Enter Lynch in 1988 with a new mission: choreographic development. She never fully upgraded the level of Pacifica dancing, but she did put the company on the map -- nationally and internationally -- by inviting emerging dance-makers to create works for her Pacifica Choreographic Project, an annual three-week workshop launched in 1991.

Under Lynch, Ballet Pacifica became the area's most prominent dance company, with 15 dancers and a $1.5-million budget. But conflict with the board (reportedly over contemporary versus conservative repertory) led to her leaving after 15 years and to a revolving door regarding artistic directors ever since.

After Lynch, Pacifica went back to the bottom line: training and showcasing Sis and Junior, etc. Some excellent people worked there (not even counting the worthies supporting Stiefel in his short-lived pipe dream). But rep seasons were canceled in 2004 and 2006 -- and simply getting from one "Nutcracker" to the next may not be mission enough to generate the $500,000 to $750,000 the board says it must raise in the coming month to forestall Pacifica's extinction.

The death of any arts organization inspires regret as well as questions about the importance of the arts in our lives. But Ballet Pacifica isn't Dance Theatre of Harlem, a now-defunct company that had a vital role to play in American culture. No one is assuming that role today, while Ballet Pacifica's role is of negligible importance to those outside its immediate orbit. What's more, any deep sense of loss was already caused by the departure of Lynch and then Stiefel. So if an official notice of once-and-for-all termination arrives in a month or so, it will almost seem like deja vu, and any regret will be over the institution's failure of vision as much as its funding.

lewis.segal@latimes.com

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