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Judy Morr: A quiet force behind Segerstrom Center for the Arts' dance program

Judy Morr may not be well-known outside Southern California dance circles, but the arts administrator at O.C.'s Segerstrom Center for the Arts has developed the dance program there for the center's quarter-century existence, and it shows.

September 18, 2011|By Christopher Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Judy Morr in August with young dancers in the American Ballet Theater Summer Intensive Class presented in partnership with the ABT and the Segerstrom Center each year on the campus of UC Irvine.
Judy Morr in August with young dancers in the American Ballet Theater Summer… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The arts world craves star power. Locally, we're covered. Opera? No problem — Plácido. Classical music? Dudamel. Dance? There's ... well, anyone there? Anyone at all?

This s explains why perhaps the most important dance figure of the past quarter of a century in Southern California is largely unknown. She's not a dancer — in point of fact, she hasn't been en pointe in half a century.

Instead, Judy Morr occupies a comfortably cluttered and modest office, basking happily in as little attention as she can possibly get, quietly programming dance, especially ballet, for as many people she can get to come see it. She is backed by worldwide contacts, an up-to-the-minute knowledge of hot versus not and, most important, the considerable resources of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which turns 25 this month.

Morr, 70, the center's executive vice president, is the sole arts administrator who has worked at the Costa Mesa cultural institution through its entire existence. She is also the person who has made local mavens aim their dance compasses — or GPSes — toward Orange County for a ballet fix. According to center records, 789 dance performances from 1986 through the end of the 2010 season have generated attendance of 1.8 million.

Dance has been available here, in large part, because Morr is a consummate professional and also passionate about dance. "I want to be in that beautiful hall and be dazzled by the physical movement and the musicality of great choreography that takes you over," she said quietly, during a recent interview.

While the Los Angeles Music Center experienced a dance drought lasting more than a decade and local colleges presented modern companies of erratic quality at an erratic pace, Morr unfailingly brought a world-class dance series to the center that, year in and year out and no matter the economic vagaries, avoided the miasma of "nothing but 'Nutcracker.'"

Instead, dance diversity in many guises has been on display, as has a robust run of talent from around the world. Review the 50-plus companies that have played the hall and, beyond ballet, one finds stylistic perennials like tango, flamenco and folk. Ballet itself has arrived from six continents, and Russia alone has provided plenty of steps from the steppes in traditional and modern variations.

A constant has been New York-based American Ballet Theatre. Its 21 visits are three times as many as the next most frequently seen company. "The center has been incredibly faithful to us," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie.

Faithfulness in relationships generally leads to trust, and McKenzie says the level of "trust and honesty" ABT has with Morr and Segerstrom management is unique.

"Most presenters focus on selling tickets," said McKenzie. "And since most dance-goers come to see pieces they already know, these institutions prefer companies like us to bring them familiar titles. But the center has a sophisticated audience — its dance series mixes the familiar with new works. That's big for us, because if we only go around dancing 'Swan Lake,' as nice as it is, we stagnate.

"And Judy, she gets all that."

Morr grew up in a rough postwar Irish Catholic neighborhood in South Chicago. Dance lessons came as a respite. And a mid-teen birthday present was tickets to see a first ballet at the downtown Opera House — inevitably, "Swan Lake" — and it was an eye-opener, revealing "an aesthetic that was just at a level so far beyond what I could imagine."

After college, a preoccupation with theater supplanted dance, and while Morr's adult aspirations didn't include acting, the allure of the workings of theater had taken hold. After college she juggled jobs at Boston's oldest theater, the Colonial, married and had two daughters. But it was a move to Washington in 1971 to work at the newly opened Kennedy Center that focused her direction. D.C. brought Morr into contact with its chairman and guiding force, Roger L. Stevens, one of America's postwar arts visionaries. Appropriately enough, Morr acquired vision and a mentor.

While not given over to superlatives (asked for the first word that came to mind at the mention of a ballet superstar she worked with over the decades, she thought a moment, and then described Mikhail Baryshnikov as a "hard worker"), the mention of Stevens dropped her soft-spoken voice to a near-whisper: "a genius."

An example of what she learned: "After Roger had made aesthetic decisions, he absolutely allowed the artists to take that concept and let them develop it and then supported their choices."

Skip ahead to 2009. Vaunted up-and-coming choreographer Trey McIntyre was commissioned by the center to create a piece that ended up being called "The More I See You." He was pleased, but cautious — big venues tend to try creative souls.

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