It's often true that a successful festival begins with a passionate and possibly obsessed founder who has a dogged work ethic. Those attributes thread through the history of the respected Santa Barbara-based festival known as Summerdance.
Kicking off its fifth season Monday and running through July 28, Summerdance has been driven by founding director Dianne Vapnek. Vapnek, a former dancer, grew up in Massachusetts not far from the venerable summer dance festival at Jacob's Pillow.
"I spent summers going to the Pillow for many years," Vapnek said, "and just found it an amazingly wonderful, summery experience. It provided dancers with an opportunity to study with great teachers, and it provided dance performances in a very intimate setting that most people just didn't get a chance to enjoy in other venues."
After moving to Santa Barbara 10 years ago, Vapnek thought the experience of Jacob's Pillow, or North Carolina's American Dance Festival, another summer institution, might travel well. "I thought this was perhaps a place where something like that could take root," she says.
And, on a smaller scale than either of those examples, it has. Summerdance essentially narrows its sights to making modern dance more accessible to its prospective audience.
"People who aren't too familiar with modern dance sometimes lump it all together, but the flavors are as different as the flavors of ice cream. Some will approach it from a more classical tradition, some a much more contemporary feel, using street dances or martial arts influences."
She points to the example of one of this year's guests, Urban Tap. Its leader, Herbin "Tamango" Van Cayseele, Vapnek says, "doesn't like to choreograph at all. He just likes to improvise."
Summerdance 2001 plays host to two disparate New York-based companies, embodying the festival's determined diversity. On Friday at the Lobero Theatre, Urban Tap gives the West Coast premiere of "Caravane," liberally blending elements of tap and other strands of African American culture from jazz, funk and hip-hop, and African roots.
Two weeks later on the same stage, Doug Varone & Dancers will perform the world premiere of choreography to George Antheil's infamous percussion piece "Ballet Mecanique," which startled 1926 audiences with its use of anvils, bells and buzzers. This will be the third Summerdance appearance for Varone's company, which was founded in 1986. As Varone points out, his ensemble's monthlong residency at the first Summerdance in 1997 meant "we were the festival."
Varone's as-yet-unnamed dance to "Ballet Mecanique" is nakedly ambitious, involving Varone's choreography and the work of scenic projectionist Wendell Harrington, who will provide a kind of light show setting for the dance.
Speaking from his home in New York, Varone described the dance-plus-visuals as an attempt at building "a changing environment that complements the work, as opposed to distracting from it. To be able to take a physical dance environment and change it into a visual dance environment is compelling. I'm really interested in finding out what else is possible, to take a dance past the proscenium to a viewer and to take a viewer past the proscenium into the dance."
A different agenda challenges Urban Tap. Tamango spoke on the phone last week from French Guyana, where he was born and where Urban Tap recently performed. His family moved to Paris when he was a child, and he studied dance there before landing in New York City. Improvisation is at the heart of Urban Tap, which Tamango started six years ago. He explained that the group has "always been a work in progress. It took six years to really shape itself as an entity."
He has been critically acclaimed for his innovative approach to tap. The New York Times praised his "astonishing elegance and virtuosity, a blend of swaying curved form, lightning speed and skimming floor rhythms." Beyond his apparent dance skills, though, Urban Tap involves a unique mix of dancers (some on stilts), percussionists and practitioners of the Brazilian martial arts tradition of Capoeira.
"For me, it's not just for the dance," Tamango says. "It's about us all, the videos, the music, the dance, the audience, the light and sound designers working together to create something that is a nerve, that is concrete, something that is pure. It's all of us."
What audiences will see in the Santa Barbara performance of "Caravane" will be site-specific and situation-specific, Tamango said, "because 'Caravane' is about traveling. It's about a journey. It's about constant evolution."
In his work, Tamango relies strongly on the element of spontaneous energy and of-the-moment impulses. "When we work with energy, what you see is what you get. It's pure. I don't like to work something to please a crowd. I just like it to be pure, especially if it's about dance and music and visuals and all those connections. For me, it's also a very spiritual journey through my roots, which are quite complex."
The performances of these two companies may be pillars of the festival, but what happens around them is also central to the festival's mission. The Summerdance schedule includes workshops, classes, lecture-demonstrations and ancillary events such as an Urban Tap performance at an art opening at UC Santa Barbara and an "Urban Tap Jam" at the Soho nightclub.
During its stay, Varone's company will also perform with the Santa Barbara chamber group Camerata Pacifica, a first-time collaboration between the two arts organizations. For this event, Varone explained, he and Camerata Pacifica head Adrian Spence have settled on several pieces of music around which "the company and I are building small, open-ended works that will breathe in the moment."
The fact that dance settles into Santa Barbara for a summer stay is particularly important to Vapnek.
"If people attend two or three events before the [main] performance, they know the dancers and they've developed a relationship with them. So they're invested in a performance. When a company just comes in and out of town, it's not the same."
Vapnek calls Summerdance the prime event of its kind on the West Coast, although the organization is still getting the word out. "When we started, I would tell people what we were doing and there would be blank stares. People didn't quite understand it. Now, I don't' know that we're a household word, but there is general recognition about what we're doing.
"We're not bringing in the Alvin Aileys, for the obvious reason of being able to afford them. But I like the intimacy that we're able to have, in the sense of connectedness with the dancers, which they also get from the community here, from the people who participate in the events. It's not so large that it becomes a blur."
SUMMERDANCE, various venues in Santa Barbara. Dates: Monday-July 28. Phone: (805) 962-2329. Also: Main performances: Urban Tap, Friday, and Doug Varone & Dancers, July 27, Lobero Theater, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara, $18-$38, (805) 963-0761.