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DANCE / EILEEN SONDAK : The Year Saw Good News and Bad on Home Front

Aglance at San Diego’s busy dance calendar for 1988 would suggest that it was a very good year for dance on the home front. More big-league ballet companies, mainstream moderns and even cutting-edge postmodern dance troupes made stops in San Diego than ever before. And, despite the unprecedented onslaught of quality imports, local dance managed to hold its ground and even make a few small strides.

But the year-end announcement by the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts (one of the city’s leading presenters) that it was canceling two scheduled concerts and drastically curtailing operations in the wake of growing deficits, caused dance watchers to take a closer look--and had some insiders wondering whether the recent dance boom was headed for a bust.

“I think maybe we did too many events this year,” said the foundation’s guiding force, Danah Fayman. “We’re presenting ‘KODO,’ and we’ll still do ‘David Gordon’ (a collaborative project with UC San Diego), but there might not be a season next year, or we might just have isolated performances.”

Suzanne Townsend, founding director of San Diego Performances, is more optimistic.

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“The only disappointment we had at the box office last year was with the Martha Graham concerts. The rest did very well, and we have $100,000 in proposals out for next year,” she said. “Of course, if none of them came through, we’d be in trouble.

“We don’t need a great deal from the community,” she said, “only about $400,000, and we hope to get the funding since we do so much community outreach with local schoolchildren.”

Sushi’s Lynn Schuette has presented some of the leading postmodernists in the country in her no-frills studio setting over the past few years, and, from her vantage point, the prospects for new dance in San Diego are very promising.

“This year, everything has been up over last year. We only have 100 seats to fill,” she acknowledged, “but we’re still building audiences and are very satisfied with the response to our programs--not just dance, all across the board.”

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Meanwhile, there were signs that support is growing for the local product. California Ballet extended its season and imported its first long-term guest artist, although among the ranks of home-grown dancers, the quality still varies considerably. Three’s Company’s two critically acclaimed appearances in San Francisco, and its commitment to a spring concert in New York--a first for any local dance troupe--improved its image at home.

And two newcomers joined the ranks of area dance groups, most notably John Malashock’s tight little modern dance troupe. Unfortunately, while female dancers are beginning to come of age, the small pool of accomplished male dancers in town continues to cause serious imbalances, and limits the choreographic range of grass-roots efforts. Among other things, local dance needs a few good men before it can move ahead.

For years, the San Diego Area Dance Alliance cast a rather skimpy shadow on the local horizon. Only its bimonthly calendar of events and those marathon dance festivals attested to its existence.

But 1988 brought the alliance out of obscurity. First, it hosted a successful statewide meeting of dance professionals, which went a long way toward putting San Diego on the California map. Then, the alliance came up with the Performing Arts Laboratory project--to showcase all levels of dance on a regular basis.

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The PAL project will present its third concert Jan. 15. at Sushi’s downtown gallery. True to its original intent, this PAL concert will feature a potpourri of local dancers performing works by several choreographers.

This time, Los Angeles-based Laurie Sefton will join the home team with her own Clairobscur Dance Company. Judith Sharp, Alison Cutri, Sandra Mangusing and Terry Sprague will make PAL debuts this Sunday also, while both Al Germani and Darshana Ellis return for their third PAL-sponsored appearances.

“The intent of PAL is to offer a space in which to present works in progress as well as polished pieces, without the pressure and financial obligations full evening concerts afford our independent artists,” said Sharp, coordinator of this innovative program. “The costs are minimal and so far have been absorbed by the alliance.”

PAL has even generated several new members for the alliance, and, according to Sharp, the fringe benefits keep growing.

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“The success of PAL is not only because of the excitement generated among the dancers, choreographers and artists involved, but in the variety of the audience members,” she said. “And I personally hope to spread the word among the other arts for an increased cross-section representation.

Since there is no screening process for the artists, and experimentation is encouraged, the quality of PAL performances can vary as much as the programming, but that hasn’t discouraged sellout crowds. Sunday’s performance will begin at 3 p.m., followed by an informal reception and discussion with the artists.

Atlanta-based Celeste Miller bills herself as the “Talking Dancer,” so expect some patter in her solo performance when she makes her local debut at Sushi on Friday and Saturday evenings. Storytelling, zany graphics, offbeat props and contemporary dance motifs are part and parcel of Miller’s “Lost and Found in America: Some of the Stories,” the series of three semi-autobiographical pieces headed our way this weekend.

Like the recent Sushi visitor Tim Miller (no relation), Miller culls her material from the innocent and painful memories of growing up in America.

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