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Remade in America

Robin Rauzi is a Times staff writer

For more than 30 years, the Aman Folk Ensemble built its reputation on authentically recreating dances and music from around the world.

Then the world changed.

The Iron Curtain parted. Inexpensive travel brought dance companies from overseas. Major record labels started selling world music. We all took a step toward becoming a global village.

Aman’s dance and music concerts began to feel less like new discoveries and more like museum pieces. It was time for a change.

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“We’re beginning to develop an artistic expression that is uniquely ours. And it’s based on the idea of Aman as an American company,” said music director Vic Koler. “We’re steeped in immigrant cultures here. We don’t have to go to Europe to find folk art.”

The difference is subtle, perhaps, and the transformation will not happen overnight. But Aman’s performance at the Charles E. Probst Center in Thousand Oaks today--their first large venue show in the Los Angeles area in nearly two years--indicates the direction in which the company is headed.

Some Aman chestnuts remain, like dances from the state of Nayarit in Mexico, and the Hungarian village of Mehkerek. But also in the mix there will be salsa, born in the barrios of New York, and a contemporary dance from South Africa called gumboot.

Romalyn Tilghman, who took over as Aman’s executive director in 1996, explained that the company is moving away from straight-from-the-village reproductions. Instead, they want to look at what has happened to folk dance and music once immigrants brought it to the United States. What has remained? What has evolved? How have traditions blended together?

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“There’s a real sense now that this is . . . a company that reflects what happens in Los Angeles every day when cultures bump up against one another,” Tilghman said.

Aman has had to reinvent, or at least reinvigorate, itself before and has done so successfully. In 1996, however, things were looking dire. Grants were drying up. Presenters had more international dance to choose from than ever before. The company found itself $75,000 in the red.

But it wasn’t just money, said Koler, who joined Aman in 1990 as a musician. “There had been highs and lows--times when the artistic side was low, or the morale, or the business side. And at that time [1996], it all fell at the same time.”

Barry Glass, who had been artistic director since 1985, left the company--not entirely by choice. Tilghman, who had been hired as a consultant to help Aman get back on its feet, signed on in the new position of executive director. The artistic control has been divided between Koler and two dance directors, Rosina Didyk and Istvan Szabo.

At 28, Didyk is younger than the company itself. She grew up in the Bay Area, and started folk dancing with her parents at age 4. She still remembers going to see Aman as a child, and thinking, “Take me with you.” She realized that dream at 19 when she joined the troupe.

When Glass left, she and Szabo, 33, took over to get Aman through an out-of-state tour it was contractually obligated to complete. After that, no one knew for sure what the future of Aman would be, or if it even had a future. But with some new, younger dancers and leaders, Aman found a renewed energy.

“A lot of the performers who had been there for a while were a little spent,” Didyk said. “They’d given so much and felt like there wasn’t much coming back. I think all nonprofits, especially dance companies, go through that.”

While the three directors admit that Aman was not at its best in recent years, they refuse to criticize prior leadership or members. As Koler put it: Aman can only grow into a renowned company using the strength and reputation of its 34 year history.

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“The company has made a really big commitment to being a world-class dance company,” he said. “And I’m not saying it’s there yet, but it’s improved thousands of percentage points in the last two years.”

The only Los Angeles audiences who have seen the new-and-improved Aman, however, have been school children. The company’s nine core performers tour 200 schools a year, as they have for more than a decade, said Lindsey Nelson, managing director of the Music Center education division, which includes Aman among its stable of outreach performers.

“They’re an absolutely vital part of the artistic ecology of this area, and the fact that they’ve been off the radar screen for a few years is a pity for all of us,” Nelson said.

After seeing the new school programs, though, he’s excited to see the full concert version. The dance and music have a wonderful interplay, he said. The juxtaposition of dances, too, reveals some of the connections between different cultures. It’s like the difference between reading a book and taking a comparative literature class.

“The best example of that is the transition between a Hungarian dance and the South African gumboot dance,” he said. “They move from one to the other in a way that is extremely graceful, that shows how these cultural traditions are connected but separate, and yet how they express many of the same feelings.”

The fact that Amam can delve into these cultural links, Nelson said, shows that audiences are more sophisticated than they were even five years ago.

That’s the kind of assessment that would make the artistic triumvirate smile. They want Aman performances to not just show you dances, but to teach you something about them.

Another case in point is Didyk’s new work “Dances of Rhythm,” which is part of a larger work-in-progess called “The Immigrants.” On a smaller scale, Didyk’s work does for Irish step dancing what “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” does for tap. Without narration, she traces the steps from Ireland through the Cape Breton region of Canada, to the Appalachian Mountains, where it is now the thriving--and distinctly American--form of dance called clogging.

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“We’re really aiming for material that’s thoroughly based in cultural traditions, but that takes it places that it’s never been,” said Didyk.

As executive director, Tilghman’s goals are more down to earth.

“Solvency,” she said, then added others: chipping away at the $75,000 debt, building a strong board of directors, preserving the company’s valuable costume collection, and drawing in more grant money. Currently, grants from the city, state, National Endowment for the Arts and private corporations make only 25% of Aman’s $325,000 budget.

Yet for all their grand ideas, Koler knows that criticism is inevitable, that some will charge that Aman is abandoning it’s mission. He’s heard these things before--most loudly when the company commissioned a modern dance piece from choreographer Laura Dean in 1994.

“We’re not going to be able to please all of the old Aman fans,” he said. “But I also think that people who never took Aman seriously before will start to take us seriously.”

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AMAN FOLK ENSEMBLE, Charles E. Probst Center, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Date: today, 2:30 p.m. Prices: $15-$25. Phone: (805) 449-ARTS, (213) 480-3232.


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