It started as an impromptu group assembled for the sole purpose of helping a San Francisco University graduate student named Graham Hempel present his master’s thesis on ethnic dance. That was 1971. Today, the ensemble is a full-fledged dance company, without Hempel, who left long ago and is a dance professor at San Diego State University.
The group he unwittingly founded is Khadra, which has grown to include 35 dancers and 10 musicians who play specialized instruments from Eastern Europe. Khadra’s traveling ensemble--16 dancers, 6 musicians--will appear this weekend at the University of Judaism.
Khadra boasts one of the three professional cimbalom players in the country. The cimbalom is “like the concert grand of hammered dulcimers,” said Ellen Dale, the group’s general manager.
“It started as something for fun,” said Dale, who has been with the troupe, first as a dancer, then as an administrator, since 1978. With the help of a series of artistic directors, Dale transformed Khadra into a highly regarded professional dance company. “You could say we decided to take ourselves seriously,” she said.
Others began taking Khadra seriously, too. It is the first outside dance company invited to rehearse in the same quarters as the San Francisco Ballet, which allows the group to work in the only building in the country designed from the ground up specifically for dancers.
The current artistic director, David Boyet, is a specialist in Russian character dance, and the troupe has a longstanding reputation for expertise in dances from all over the Soviet Union.
“We’re most well-known for our Georgian dances,” Dale said. “They are very difficult to do--the women look like they’re gliding on ice, and the men dance on their toes.”
The company also performs ancient Scottish and Appalachian clog dances, especially when the dancers perform for school children as part of Khadra’s arts education program. This weekend’s show will consist mostly of dances from Soviet republics, with one suite from Poland and one from Hungary.
“What we do isn’t strictly authentic,” Dale said. “You wouldn’t see village peasants doing all the moves in our dances. But that’s because we model ourselves after the state folk dance companies, which embellish on the villagers’ steps. The dances become more difficult, more energetic and more showy.”
Khadra performs at 9 p.m. Saturday and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the Gindi Auditorium at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. Tickets range from $12.50 to $18. For information, call (213) 476-9777.