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Folk Dance Festival Taking Its Last Kicks

Times Staff Writer

About 44 years ago, while watching Trinidad’s ethnic dancers celebrate in the streets at carnival time, Los Angeles impresario Irwin Parnes had a brainstorm. Why not create a folk dance festival back home, where there was an equally rich diversity of ethnic groups?

He dispatched a special delivery letter outlining the plan to his friend, Paul Erfer of the Southern California Folk Dance Federation. But the reply was discouraging. The federation had no money to sponsor such an event, Erfer wrote, and in any case, “Folk dancers like to participate, not watch (others).”

Undaunted, Parnes launched the Los Angeles International Folk Dance Festival in 1947 at the old Philharmonic Auditorium, an annual phenomenon that has lasted 42 years. But Saturday’s performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Music Center will be the finale.

“This is a time of financial subsidies for various cultural events,” Parnes said recently in his Beverly Hills home. “The folk dance festival has never received one dime from anybody, and we’ve come to the point where we can’t compete against all these thousands of dollars that are going to various other festivals and street programs.

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“In San Francisco, the Ethnic Dance Festival uses the hotel tax to do the very same thing we are doing here strictly based upon our box office.”

Parnes said the event is now budgeted at between $30,000 and $40,000, primarily for rental costs at the Music Center. The dance groups--which together total as many as 600 to 700 performers--are paid expenses only. (“We see that all of their costs are covered, whether it’s travel or baby-sitters or costume repairs.”)

Remarkably, although he never signed a contract with any of the groups, none has ever failed to appear. His practice of avoiding auditions and simply taking each company at its word yielded some unfortunate surprises in the early years, however. One company promised an Iranian fire dance but performed a classical pastiche in toe shoes.

About 10 years ago, the festival finally began to limit participation to performers with a decade of onstage experience. But as Parnes insists, “In the world of folk dance, the amateur is king.”

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So along with such seasoned ethnic dancers as Devi Dja, Rosa Montoya, Lola Montes and Tokuyae Hanayagi, the festival showcased hundreds of ordinary folk who simply enjoyed celebrating a foreign heritage--their own, or someone else’s.

The 1961 program struck one reviewer as primarily “an aggregation of American folk dance enthusiasts who called themselves by a different name according to the country from which their dance originated . . . with slight shifts in personnel and appropriate costume changes.”

The festival also featured animal acts from time to time because, Parnes said, “We have a public we must entertain.”

In 1963, a horse named Top Hat trotted out pulling a cart and proceeded to dance a polonaise, polka, schottische, clog dance, hora and tango. Accompanied by a recording of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a “chorus line” of trained pigeons painted red, white and blue flew out of the carriage.

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At another festival, eight women do-si-doed with a group of French poodles--all in Western costume. Billed as an American square dance, this act drew indignant mail from the French consul general, according to Parnes. The gentleman insisted the poodles be credited to his country.

A Haitian voodoo ritual with a live chicken was the piece de resistance one year, Parnes recalled. Tossed around in an unusually strenuous sacrificial ceremony, the animal expired. Parnes asked a performer, one Le Roi Antoine, if he’d like to take the chicken home and eat it. Antoine was appalled. “I will not eat a fellow performer!” he cried.

The festival also didn’t limit itself to folk material. In 1958 Cuban ballroom dancers offered a sultry mambo and in 1965 Los Angeles teen-agers demonstrated the barbaric rites of the twist, Watusi, mashed potato and jerk.

Modern dancers also occasionally shared the bill, beginning in 1947 with Ruth St. Denis in her Asian-inspired “White Jade” dance.

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St. Denis was in her mid-80s in 1964 when she appeared in the festival for the last time. Although a review describes her as “gliding grandly across the stage” in the role of Kwannon, Japanese goddess of mercy, she was actually unable to walk. An assistant carried her as she used gestures and facial expressions to conjure up the essence of the young goddess.

"(St. Denis) was an incredible actress,” Parnes’ wife Joy recalled. “Of course, she was the mother of modern dance, which she hated. She would say it was a ‘put’ school: you put your hand here, you put your foot there. Because everything she did was flowing, like the scarfs she used.”

Modern dancer Charles Weidman, a pupil of St. Denis’, performed in the festival three years later, billed as “America’s dance mime,” in a number called “A Chinese Actor Prepares for the Role of God of War.” A reviewer remarked tartly that in this “arty exercise” Weidman “writhed and postured incomprehensibly.”

“Weidman was a tremendous mime,” Joy Parnes said. “He was, I think, the equivalent of Harpo (Marx), and no one ever realized it. They always presented him as a modern dancer and that was death at the box office in those days.”

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During the first few years, reviewers tended to complain about the epic length of the program. Eventually, a six-minute rule was instituted, but getting dancers to abide by it could be a challenge--particularly when stirred into a frenzy by live drummers.

An aid in pacing the show and conveying basic information about the dances, Joy Parnes’ festival script was narrated by a different celebrity each year, beginning with Vincent Price. (Other Hollywood luminaries cajoled into service included Greer Garson, Ralph Bellamy, Ricardo Montalban, Eartha Kitt, Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson and Ruby Keeler, who bravely hoisted herself to the podium while recovering from a stroke.)

“We have one company offstage and one company on, so I’m allowed about four lines to introduce the next company,” Joy Parnes explained. “Meanwhile, there’s a mad dash backstage and then the chorus comes in and sings one verse--and by that time, God willing, the curtain comes up.”

This year, the curtain is supposed to go up for the last time on the Jora Makarian Sevan Armenians, the company scheduled to end the final program. But the dancers are officially in mourning for their kin killed in the Armenian earthquake and may not be able to participate.

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What if they can’t? “We’ll find a group that will be maybe not as great, but good,” said Parnes, who retires with the festival.

For the most part, however, the festival has insulated itself from the problems of the real world. Parnes presented Japanese dancers a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He says he also ignored Red-baiters’ phone calls in the ‘50s.

“This is about brotherhood,” Parnes said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”

The important part, added his wife, is “keeping our cultural heritage alive in a day when basket-makers keep their braid in Tupperware and Irish folk talers listen to the radio.”

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