Orange County Cutting In on L.A.'s Dance : Touring: The recession, shrinking subsidies and the rise of other venues are keeping major companies away and making the city a wallflower.


Maybe it's the economy. Maybe it's that major theaters in Los Angeles are overbooked. Or that the number of sponsors there willing to subsidize dance is shrinking.

Or maybe it's the emergence of Orange County as a major force in dance presentation.

Whatever the reasons, some of the most important and familiar dance companies are bypassing Los Angeles, dropping the city from their tour schedules or coming far less often, and playing Orange County instead.

For instance, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre used to perform in Los Angeles every other year, but the company played Irvine instead last year and won't be in Los Angeles again until 1993--three years since it last danced there.

What's going on? Mostly recessionary cutbacks in one form or another.

"We're not presenting ballet (this season) because we perceived it was difficult to make ends meet when most companies require five, six or seven days," says David Hulme, director of performing arts at Pasadena's Ambassador Foundation.

"It's not my experience that you could sustain that level of ticket-buying at the moment." Some companies have found that sponsors now offer only half the number of performances that used to be possible.

From the dance companies' viewpoint, shorter runs force them to offer fewer programs and changes of cast. "It's expensive to tour in America," explains Ron Protas, general director of the Martha Graham company, whose programs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in January of 1991 were its first in the area since 1988, when it played UCLA. (On its most recent American tour, the troupe bypassed both Los Angeles and Orange County).

"In order to make a viable package in terms of air costs, you have to have many dates in a region," Protas continues. "There aren't that many presenters, and I don't think it helped us when the National Endowment for the Arts discontinued the Dance Touring Program (in 1983).

"We'd love to be seen in L.A. If someone wanted to present us or give us a second home in Los Angeles, we'd be on the next plane. However, our board will not let us tour unless there is a guarantee that our basic fee will be met."

Like Protas, Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell has opted for more international touring in a period when "in the U.S., the money is down and the arts are suffering."

"Normally we are presented by a not-for-profit organization, a college or university or maybe another ballet company," Mitchell says. "Those sponsors offer us a weekly fee, a guarantee that we wouldn't have if we presented ourselves."

This guarantee becomes a safety net, ensuring the maintenance and ultimately the survival of a company.

"Subsidy is mandatory for dance companies," declares Thomas Kendrick, president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. "The venue pays a fee to the company, and it may include transportation, housing, stagehands, the orchestra--just about everything--and then the risk of the engagement shifts to the venue.

"If not--if the venue kicks in a little or nothing--then the company is self-presenting at its own risk. Generally speaking, in the field of ballet, you're lucky if you can cover 75% of the costs of an engagement (through the box office). You can lose very large amounts of money."

OCPAC dance subscriptions number "roughly 10,000," Kendrick says--close to 50% of his theater's capacity for a seven-performance engagement. More than 1,500 of those subscriptions, he says, come from Los Angeles County. And though single-ticket sales from Los Angeles County always vary, depending on whether an engagement is exclusive to OCPAC, Kendrick says that increasingly the Los Angeles dance community looks to Costa Mesa for world-class dance attractions that used to appear downtown.

Kendrick acknowledges that the recession has curtailed the length of some OCPAC dance engagements "in this very difficult year," and thus limited the number of different productions companies can perform.

And "the impact of the recession is cumulative," Kendrick adds "and the decline is becoming more and more rapid and steep. "Corporate grants are down because profits are down, and government grants are the least reliable of all.

"The number of venues willing or able to support touring dance companies is rapidly shrinking, as are the investment capabilities of companies to mount new productions. Those conditions are going to remain long after the economy turns up."

The recession has proven especially cruel to the Los Angeles Music Center Unified Fund, which supports a family of resident performing companies that, until last March, included the Joffrey Ballet. This year, a Unified Fund shortfall of $3 million caused across-the-board cutbacks for the resident companies.

The Music Center's relationship with the American Ballet Theatre remains impenetrably murky. ABT went from annual Los Angeles seasons to a three-year absence from the city, during which time it did play in Orange County.

Kimberling says the Music Center came up with "some of the money, a partial guarantee" of $150,000 for a two-week Pavilion engagement last August. However, after brochures were mailed, ABT co-director Jane Hermann canceled. Hermann was skeptical, Kimberling says, about potential ticket sales for a crucial gala benefit that would be competing for attention with the Royal Ballet--in Costa Mesa.

Hermann remembers the situation differently. "The Music Center was asking ABT to self-present," she says. "They do not give you a fee against which you can play, and you bear the brunt of the burden of very high advertising costs. You're looking at a half-million (dollars) a week to present a major ballet company with orchestra--that's a very ballpark figure, but it gives you some idea of the risk.

"Somebody has to subsidize that. If you have a heavy sellout you can realize that at the box office--but very few boards of directors are willing to take on that kind of gamble, especially in a recession."

Hermann says that ABT would be happy to have "a good solid season every year in L.A." but that "the future depends on how the Music Center changes after Disney Hall opens and how much audience interest there is."

"I still look forward to them coming back," Kimberling says. "They belong here."

In the meantime, there's the Orange County Performing Arts Center, "one of the last theaters in America that is a true presenter," in Hermann's words. Once again, the issue is subsidy.

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