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In Step With New Talent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Opportunities for American freelance choreographers to create new work have been drastically reduced over the past few years because of funding cutbacks.

The famous Carlisle Project, national in scope and founded in 1984 in Carlisle, Penn., to support such work on a budget of about $300,000 annually, was shut down in 1996, leaving a vacuum filled only by a handful of large companies that commission individual works on a sporadic basis.

But for the ninth summer in a row, Orange County has become a magnet for new choreography thanks to Ballet Pacifica’s Choreographic Project.

Its $50,000 budget is small compared with that of the Carlisle Project. Still, over this week and next, four choreographers selected from 25 applicants nationwide will create works for the Irvine-based company. The dances will be presented as works-in-progress on July 24 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

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This year’s four choreographers:

* Ann Marie DeAngelo, most recently associate director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago;

* Amy Seiwert, a principal dancer with Sacramento Ballet;

* John Selya, a corps dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York;

* Leigh Witchel, founder of the New York-based Dance as Ever company. Both Witchel and his company received this year a Choo-San Goh Award for Choreography.

“I’ve always tried to keep some fairly new choreographers in the loop and some more experienced ones as well,” Ballet Pacifica artistic director Molly Lynch said recently.

“These four represent a wide range of approaches to dance. Some have a more modern background, and some are classically trained.

“Ann Marie has done works utilizing a cross-section of dance--break-dancing, jazz and ballet--as well as more traditional works. I like her philosophy of incorporating a lot of styles.

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“Amy Seiwert has a very strong, powerful attack in her work, an interesting vocabulary and interesting use of arms and hands--different from any I’ve seen from other choreographers.

“It’s also interesting to encounter a younger choreographer who is a woman,” Lynch added. “There are not as many women choreographers freelancing as there are men. I don’t know why that is. Maybe women are working more as teachers or retiring out of dance completely.

“John Selya has a pretty classical background and takes a classical approach but also has a contemporary view in his choreography.

“I got a videotape of Leigh Witchel’s work a couple of years ago,” she said. “Things didn’t work out then, but I kept his tape on my shelf. I re-contacted him and wanted to see what he’s done more recently. He’s got a good working vocabulary and has done some very interesting work.”

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To apply for the workshop, choreographers submit a proposal with the music and dance ideas they want to explore. But Lynch doesn’t necessarily hold them to it if their interests have changed.

“I try to remain flexible and open to their process,” she said. “I don’t want to say, for instance, ‘Well, this isn’t what you wrote about in your proposal’ because they need to be able to grow. So I’m a little bit anxious.

“I’ve had people change their music, for instance, which then maybe takes them in a different direction than the one they had been originally planning on when they submitted the proposal in February or March.

“I want to give them full freedom, but it has to be organized in some way. My concern is not to control what their music is, but I want to make sure that we’re not having two choreographers using the same music or that they’re choreographing to a piece of music for which we already have a piece that we already like.”

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Most of the time, changes in music aren’t a big problem, however.

“It is a case of contacting the publishers and letting them know about the workshop,” Lynch said. “Because it’s not a full production, usually they’re more lenient.

“I haven’t had anyone say, ‘Absolutely, no, they can’t do a work to that music.’ But they can be specific that [a] piece must be used in its entirety.

“But since any of these pieces could come into the [company’s] repertory, I don’t want problems later and not be able to use the music.”

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The most famous example of that happened in 1992 to New York choreographer Eliot Feld, who had created a ballet to Strauss’ Four Last Songs but then was denied permission by the Strauss estate to use the music. The work was danced that year at UCLA, but in silence.

*

With this year’s project just getting underway, Lynch said she’s nervous on a couple of fronts.

“Will they like the company? Will they like the dancers? I hope it will be a good, positive experience for them. What I’ve learned is that every year is different. Every choreographer is different.”

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The project also lets the choreographers interact with each other.

“Oftentimes, they’ll ask each other to come in and give feedback,” Lynch said. “There’s no official critique, but it’s a chance to work with other choreographers.”

Although the workshop makes for a busy start to the summer, Lynch is happy to put in the time and effort.

“It’s high energy and exhausting in many ways,” she said. But everyone is looking forward to it.

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“It’s good to do it. You want to keep busy and keep moving the art form on. This is one of my favorites.”

* Ballet Pacifica’s Choreographic Project ’99 runs through July 24, culminating with a “Works-in-Progress Showing” at 8 p.m. at South Coast Repertory, 650 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $10-$20. (949) 851-9930.


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