Sweet Dreams of a Latino Dance Group : Francisco Martinez remains undaunted by lack of funding and performance visibility

Choreographer Francisco Martinez first heard Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" when he crossed into Texas from Mexico at the age of 12.

"I didn't understand English, but I remember hearing it. The melody stuck in my head," he said. Indeed, Martinez later choreographed the ballet "Sweet Dreams" (1983) as a tribute to Cline for his Van Nuys-based Francisco Martinez Dance Theatre. But he had no idea how accurately the lyrics, about unrequited love, would mirror his career.

Martinez is a quiet man of medium stature whose vision is to establish a company along the line of Arthur Mitchell's predominantly black Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company "for Hispanics, primarily."

His goal has proven to be elusive, but at 38, the Monterrey, Mexico, native remains undaunted by the dual obstacles--funding and performance visibility--he has faced since first starting the company in 1981.

For almost nine years, Dance Theatre has survived on donations, ticket sales and Martinez's own money (he works in a law office and as a dance teacher at Plaza de la Raza in downtown Los Angeles). The troupe will perform next Sunday as part of The Dance Gallery Presentations of Works in Progress at the Gascon Institute in Culver City.

The company's last performance (October, 1989) cost about $5,000, Martinez said. About $2,000 came from private donations, $225 from the proceeds of a spring performance, $2,000 from Martinez's own pocket and "the other $800 came from our ticket sales. If we sell 250 seats at the Norris Theatre in Palos Verdes, that means I can keep some money in a cushion fund for the next performance," he said.

"When money's good, we can have three performances; when it isn't, two--one in the spring and one at the end of the year."

A lack of funding has not only limited the number of performances Martinez can give, it has kept the Van Nuys resident "from performing in my own back yard. I can't afford to dance in the Valley. I don't think the theaters are so expensive, but the insurance is what's keeping me from making my debut here," he said.

"They have wonderful facilities at Pierce College and Northridge, but I would have to carry my own insurance, which is very expensive. Every time I perform at the Norris or at Plaza de la Raza, I buy into their policies for 48 hours, and for my budget that is more convenient." (The two public colleges do not carry liability insurance for outside performance events.)

Other costs for Martinez include theater rental ($1,500 for the Norris Theatre) and a total of $1,500 to his dancers for the performances.

"On Sundays when we rehearse, I bring them breakfast in lieu of payment," he said. "That's all I can afford and still they keep coming back to dance with me."

For each performance he spends about $2,000 for costumes, technical assistance, flyers, programs and postage.

Last year for the first time, Martinez received a matching grant of $1,000 from the National/State/County Partnership Award. Although the grant will not facilitate an appearance in the San Fernando Valley or additional payments to his dancers, it has allowed him to pay the 14 members of his company a modest salary for their 10 hours of rehearsal per week for six months.

Scheduling has been the other deterrent to high visibility. When his company made its debut in 1984, the only dates he could book at the Norris Theatre happened to coincide with the Olympic Arts Festival. The result: no press coverage. Since then performances have competed with heavyweights such as the Joffrey, American Ballet Theatre and, last Oct. 28, an evening with former Alvin Ailey star Judith Jamison. "There isn't much I can do about that because I have to take the dates the theaters have available, but knock on wood, things will change," he said.

Change has been a major factor for the fifth of 10 children. Born into a Seventh-day Adventist family, he found at 20 that dance was his great love. Martinez performed with the Fort Worth Ballet from 1975-79, graduated in 1978 with a bachelor of fine arts in dance from Texas Christian University and studied with such dance luminaries as Alwin Nikolais, Jose Limon and Murray Louis.

He finds it amazing that with an eclectic repertory that includes the classical "Pas de Quatre," contemporary ballets such as "Sweet Dreams," "Flowers" (a tribute to painter Georgia O'Keeffe) and the work-in-progress "Hunter Suite" (based on the blues songs of Alberta Hunter), that people "come up to me and say, 'Oh, we thought you did Mexican hat dances, not ballet and modern.' "

His point of view is precisely what helped his troupe earn a spot on the Works in Progress program. Barry Glass, artistic director of Aman Folk Ensemble and one of six panel members who helped select the companies that will appear in the Works in Progress, said, "We chose everyone who is in the series because we felt the artist's work was of interest, was significant and that the artist was able to articulate his point of view."

Martinez wishes to keep furthering a Latino influence in ballet. He is researching " Luna en Octubre ," "an ethnic ballet based on rural Mexican folk songs and childhood games. It's my interpretation of my life in Mexico that I'm trying to recapture through movement."

The ballet classes he teaches at Plaza de la Raza are part of his dream for his company.

"I have some wonderful students, five boys and 10 girls," he says of the children of Lincoln Heights with whom he not only communicates bilingually but " alma a alma " or "soul to soul."

"I hope some day to be able to draw from my students. They'll be used to me as a teacher and a choreographer and make that logical step into my company." But he added, "right now I want them to have fun, to be proud of who they are and to learn to follow their dreams--no matter what--as I am."

Francisco Martinez Dance Theatre will perform Jan. 21 in a double bill with choreographer Rudy Perez as part of The Dance Gallery Presentations of Works in Progress at the Gascon Institute in Culver City, 8735 Washington Blvd. Tickets are $10 for the general public and $8 for seniors and students. For information call (213) 627-5666.

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