Local Ballet Limps Along as Arts Center Looks to Big Names : Troupes Tripped Up by Lack of Funds, Talent

Times Staff Writer

Nobody is likely to mistake Orange County for a thriving dance capital, least of all Thomas R. Kendrick. Nevertheless, as president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, he is determined to turn Segerstrom Hall into a mecca for ballet enthusiasts.

"Our goal is to be the leading presenter of dance on the West Coast," he said in a recent interview.

Kendrick can sound almost obsessive on the subject, rattling off attendance figures for American Ballet Theatre's two-week engagement last December as though they couldn't have been better, and he can purr with satisfaction about the technological wonders of the hall's "state-of-the-art portable floor"--while glossing over the perception that the Center's ballet programming has been feast or famine.

This season the Joffrey Ballet appeared in September and ABT in December. The National Ballet of Canada and the Paris Opera Ballet won't appear until June, a lapse of five months. Still, Kendrick said, "with companies like those, we have a very good shot at being the leading presenter."

A more accurate description of Segerstrom Hall's current role might be that it is just another pit stop on the big-league ballet tour. As for the local dance scene, when you ask Kendrick whether any troupes have caught his eye, he draws a blank. "I'm not familiar with them," he said. "The cost and scale of this hall are too great for them."

What Kendrick doesn't say--but what others will--is that there isn't a ballet company in the county good enough to merit professional consideration.

"Let's face it, we have so many so-called 'companies' that the word has lost its meaning," scoffed Jonette Rettig, who heads the Villa Park School of Ballet. "They're not serious. They wouldn't know ballet from Bali Ha'i."

"The stuff you see around the area gives ballet a bad name," James Jones, a UC Irvine ballet instructor and choreographer, concurred. "It looks like a dead art. But how good can you be when you use weekend dancers?"

And Olga Maynard, the dance historian, draws a darker picture. "What is true here is true for all of Southern California. Except for the Joffrey, which resides in Los Angeles in name only, and the San Francisco Ballet, which is a truly resident company, there are no professional ballet companies in the whole state of California."

Ironically, the Center is said to have turned down large donations to launch the development of a resident company, which might have spearheaded a change in the parochial quality of the local dance scene.

"I know several people who have offered millions of dollars to have one," Stewart Woodard, president of the Center Dance Alliance, said. "But the Center said, 'No, we do not want a resident company.' "

Woodard declined to reveal their names, and Kendrick dismissed the offers as rumors. "To my knowledge, the subject has never been broached," he said.

Kendrick argued that the Center's reasons for not wanting a resident company have less to do with short-sighted intentions, as critics contend, than with fiscal realities. The Center operates at a deficit despite its lavish image, and even the most successful ballet companies must be subsidized--a burden the Center believes it cannot take on.

In fact, the cost of keeping a company is so high that the Dance Alliance's entire annual contribution to the Center--about $50,000--would have financed only two performances of the Costa Mesa-based South Coast Ballet, a small but promising troupe of professional dancers that folded last year for lack of funds.

Jones, who founded the on-again, off-again troupe in 1981, said it cost $45,000 to mount a weekend engagement at UC Irvine in March, 1986, which proved to be the troupe's swan song. An annual "bare-bones budget of $150,000" was needed to maintain a minimum standard of professionalism for a concert group such as his, he said.

"I could never raise the full budget," recalled Jones, who resigned as artistic director last July. "I had only eight dancers, but most of them had been with major companies in the U.S., Canada or Europe. I couldn't keep them together without paying them. They asked for $350 a week and 16 weeks' work."

Before Jones quit, he had gone as far as to book a two-performance date at Segerstrom Hall in October, 1986. "I knew what it would mean for our reputation to appear there," he recalled. "The Center agreed, but I couldn't get the money together to guarantee the house."

Amateur companies also bear a burden of high costs for far less ambitious programs. Lois Ellyn, who recently founded the "pre-professional" Nouveau Chamber Ballet in Fullerton, said she spent about $5,000 on the company's two-show debut in January at the Brea Civic/Cultural Center. And Ballet Unlimited was forced to cancel several performances this year because it couldn't afford to present them.

"Two years ago we were doing five or six weekends," said Kristen Potts, who founded the Orange-based company eight years ago. "Now we're down to two."

The only troupe in the county that has managed to thrive in semiprofessional style is Ballet Pacifica, founded 27 years ago by Lila Zali. That venerable Laguna Beach company has a $168,000 budget--with in-kind contributions it comes to more than $200,000--for productions and salaries for 10 dancers who earn $125 and $150 a week for 50 weeks a year.

"Surviving as a ballet company is difficult anywhere," Zali said, "not just in Orange County. We are the only company in the area, including Los Angeles, that pays its dancers all year long. We never miss a pay check. We earn close to 65% of our budget from our subscription series and concert fees. That's much higher than usual. Most people around here start out with big ideas. They pick up dancers, raise money for a few performances, and then where are they?"

But while age and reputation are emblems of survival, they do not assure unquestioned artistry. Ballet Pacifica, despite its impressive longevity, received a mediocre rating last year from the California Council on the Arts, which turned down its application for a $20,000 grant. The reason, said council president Harvey Stearn, was "weak technique and choreography."

"It was very strange," Zali recalled. "Only three weeks before they turned us down we were named by the National Assn. of Regional Ballet as one of the four major regional companies in the country."

It may be more revealing of the limitations of the local dance scene, however, that Ballet Pacifica was the only ballet company in the county to apply for a council grant. The others either didn't think they would rate consideration or didn't know how to apply.

Potts described the grant problem as a sort of Catch-22: "When you're a little company in Orange County, you don't get reviewed. Without reviews, you can't get grants because the panel wants to see reviews to judge your seriousness."

(For the record, the Relampago del Cielo in Santa Ana, a Mexican folk-dance troupe, received a council grant of $2,424 this year. It asked for $8,050. The Dunaj Art Dance Ensemble in Huntington Beach, a European folk-dance troupe, applied for $2,000. It was turned down.)

Given the difficulty of drumming up support, most ballet companies depend for a considerable portion of their income on traditional holiday productions--principally "The Nutcracker" at Christmastide--which customarily draw their largest audiences.

But now that the Center is importing big-league ballet, several local companies are fearful their audience is being siphoned off. Said Zali: "When the Center brought in ABT's 'Nutcracker' last year, it affected us. That was the first time we didn't sell out our own performances."

Kendrick denied being a threat. "In each and every case where a major arts center has opened, those fears have been unwarranted," he said. "The opposite is true. New centers encourage an explosion of the arts, and the net result is that most local companies will flourish."

Anthony Sellars, who heads Ballet Repertory Theatre in Huntington Beach, agreed. "It hasn't drawn away our audience," Sellars said. "Our 'Nutcracker' did very well while ABT was here. I would say that importing big names creates a potentially larger audience."

Steve Rabago remains unconvinced. As board chairman of the recently reorganized South Coast Ballet (a two-month-old merger of Ballet Repertory of Capistrano and Emerson Dance Theatre), Rabago finds it as difficult as ever to raise both funds and awareness.

"I don't know that the Center has done anything to help the small companies," he said. "And I don't think there will be any expansion or education of the audience until the Center gets involved with the companies."

The Center Dance Alliance hopes to do that, according to Woodard. It plans to put together a consortium of local troupes for presentation at Segerstrom Hall--but not for another year at the earliest, and for one night only.

In the meantime, except for the big-time imports, the Orange County ballet scene is likely to remain as provincial, fragmented and poverty-stricken as ever.

David Cohen certainly believes that. A third-prize winner in the 1987 Marguerite Amilita Hoffman National Ballet Competition at UCLA's Royce Hall, the 16-year-old ballet student from Villa Park High School has already left the county to further his training.

"I don't think anything serious will happen here," he said.

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