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Dance Camera West steps in a new direction

The international dance-media festival seeks to strengthen ties to the popular entertainment industry among other steps to enhance its future.

June 24, 2012|By Laura Bleiberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Tonia Barber is the executive director of Dance Camera West.
Tonia Barber is the executive director of Dance Camera West. (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Dance Camera West, the international dance-media festival, opens Thursday for three days of experimental short films, documentaries, discussions and casual partying, a recipe that has made it popular with film buffs and dance lovers of all stripes for 11 years.


Dance Camera West festival: An article in the June 24 Arts & Books section on the return of the three-day dance media film festival said the organization has a budget of $119,000. The budget is actually $150,000.

Outwardly, it looks like business as usual. The festival even settles into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the first time (along with events at the Westwood Library and the Hammer Museum). In its reliably eclectic fashion, highlights include a panel discussion on the burgeoning growth and impact of dance on popular culture and two anticipated documentaries: one about the musical variety show "Soul Train" and the other about Britain's leading choreographer, Wayne McGregor.

Behind the scenes, however, the situation has been anything but normal. The organization has been going through an existential crisis. Shortly after the celebratory 10th-anniversary festival a year ago, co-founder Lynette Kessler sent the nonprofit organization's board of directors a letter announcing that she could not continue overseeing it all — day-to-day administration, fundraising and artistic decisions.

"What I did with Dance Camera West was really put it on solid ground," Kessler said. "Even though the vision was for the art form and contributing to culture, it was tied to my vision. It was time for the organization to expand and change. It was time for new leadership."

Kessler began the festival with co-founder Kelly Hargraves as a two-night showcase in partnership with the Getty Center. It quickly ballooned into a monthlong event, but it has always been a shoestring operation. (Co-founder Hargraves left to pursue her own directing work and other projects after the 2005 festival.)

Kessler's letter came as a shock to the board, several members have admitted. In addition, the 10th-anniversary festival left the organization with a $24,000 deficit.

"It took everyone by surprise," said Sarah Elgart, a respected choreographer and film director and producer who was then board president. "She kind of announced that she couldn't continue in her present form. She was tired. Even the office was at her house. She poured her hard work and resources into it for many, many years. There had to be change."

The board members met for the next several months, having what Elgart described with dramatic flourish as "a lot of visionary, come-to-Jesus discussions." They decided they couldn't let the organization die. A new leadership structure was instituted, with Elgart as director of artistic development, and new board member Tonia Barber, a former dancer and independent film producer and director, as executive director.

They plan to steer in several new directions, which they hope will ensure greater stability. They have inaugurated education initiatives and, more significantl, say they want to strengthen the festival's ties to the popular entertainment industry. The latter development has raised eyebrows, but both Elgart and Barber quickly assert that they will never abandon Dance Camera West's mission to support all dance media, including its experimental, avant-garde wing.

"It's about striking a balance," said Barber, who had danced with the Joffrey Ballet and on Broadway before she moved into the independent film business. "When I look at the list of the 10 [short] films playing on opening night, every single one of them made me jump up and down. Some of them are experimental, and some lean toward the commercial side."

In addition, they want the festival to program more special, live-dance events, with so many films available on the Internet, Elgart noted, that it threatens to "eradicate the genre of film festivals as we know them." To counteract this, the festival must offer unique, community-building events, she said. Along those lines, a "Dirty Dancing"dance-along was co-presented Friday night with Grand Performances and Los Angeles Film Festival.

The popularity of such shows as"Dancing With the Stars"has ushered in a flood of new dance-related shows, moving dance into the mainstream spotlight; how or if that will translate into help for the art of dance is unclear. Board President Matthew Diamond, a former modern dancer who is now an Emmy Award-winning director, noted that it would be naive and unrealistic to think that the producers of the most profitable TV shows are going to get involved — they don't need it for their own well being, and they haven't shown themselves to be that philanthropically minded. Still, a community cross-fertilization exists, he said, and it's healthy for both entities.

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