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Throwing Dance Into L.A.’s Melting Pot

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As the photographer tries to capture Deborah Brockus leaping across the darkened stage of Hollywood’s Ivar Theater through a stop-action strobe light, the metaphor is apt: The tall redhead is a seemingly endless fount of energy--dancer, choreographer, costume designer, teacher, founder of Brockus Project Dance Company, master class organizer and, more recently, concert presenter.

On this occasion Brockus, 40, is rehearsing her new evening-length work, “Quest,” a collaboration with Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble, a one-night performance Brockus will squeeze in before her latest production, “Spectrum Dance in L.A. #11,” bows next Sunday at the same theater, once home to another type of dance--the striptease.

“Spectrum” was conceived in 1997 as a showcase series to bring together all genres of dance. Brockus, who was born in Utah and wound up studying dance and English at UC Irvine, is drawn to ballet, modern and jazz. She sees Los Angeles as not only a melting pot of people, but a caldron of dance styles, which is why “Spectrum” shows include hip-hop, tap, ballroom, Irish, Brazilian, swing, salsa, folklorico, flamenco, Armenian and tango. Each event averages from 50 to 80 performers in 12 to 16 pieces per evening.

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“I love to move and move hard,” she says, by way of explaining her multitasking persona. As for “Spectrum,” she says, someone had to do it.

Her company, which she founded in 1991 after years as a dancer with Lula Washington Dance Theater and Louise Reichlin and Dancers, needed more exposure.

“We did a lot of performances, benefits and festivals,” she says, “but one of the stumbling blocks is that performers need to be stronger--to perform more--and the audience needs to be more informed. I began ‘Spectrum’ when I invited a bunch of dancers and choreographers to present work after I took a look at some of the local dance series. I figured out what I liked and didn’t like. I vowed not to repeat their mistakes.”

Among the things Brockus found not to her liking were festivals that charged performers, bad programming (she limits performance time to three to 10 minutes), and seeing the same people in show after show.

“‘Spectrum’ is free to everyone. My company produces ‘Spectrum,’ and we take the risk. Since doing a full concert is very difficult, I decided to give other people the resources to do shows. I’m encouraging new work, and there’s no audition process. I either know choreographers’ work, or they come recommended and I watch videos.

“I try to have a stylistic balance,” she says. “I want all forms of dance to dance beside each other. Ballet dancers may end up beside Afro-Haitian dancers who are beside tap, and everybody is seeing each other’s work.”

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Brockus has made good on her word. Last year she hooked up with Daisy Kim, a retired classical musician, to co-produce the events, which, Kim says, barely break even, with tickets from $12 to $20. The upcoming “Spectrum #11,” however, also received the series’ first L.A. County Arts Commission grant. The stipend--$1,500 each for 2002 and 2003, in matching grants--will help Brockus pay for “#11,” “#12” and beyond.

Among the dozens of dancers and choreographers appearing in past “Spectrums” have been Middle Eastern fusion performer Banafsheh Sayyad, Regina Klenjoski Dance Company, Pat Taylor’s JazzAntiqua, the Ballet Collective and Jamie Nichols’ contemporary ensemble Fast Feet.

Nichols won three 2002 Lester Horton Awards, presented by the Dance Resource Center of Los Angeles, for restaging and reviving her 1998 work “El Trabajo Solo Progresa,” for “Spectrum” last year. She considers Brockus a dance hero.

“The thing that’s good about ‘Spectrum’ is that she provides choreographers, individuals and dance companies an opportunity to perform in a venue where there’s an extremely broad-based audience,” Nichols says. “That helps those people who ordinarily wouldn’t be going to see a contemporary dance company and might open the doors for that audience. It’s educational and enlightening.”

It used to be that Dance Kaleidoscope, Los Angeles’ long-running annual summer showcase, filled the dance presenting gaps. But its founder, Don Hewitt, retired last year, and Kaleidoscope has been fading; talks are in progress but it may not happen at all this summer. That means Brockus is in a position to help keep dance alive in a town that has been notorious for not nurturing its own.

“Artistically speaking, it’s as varied as the artists involved,” says Renae Williams, grants manager for the L.A. County Arts Commission. “Some works are gems, some are mediocre, some are being tried for the first time and might be uneven--but how else would they know unless they’re given the opportunity to show the work? It’s a necessary outlet that definitely serves a purpose.”

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“Everybody supports each other here; they’re in it for the love of dance,” Brockus says. “I’m not consciously trying to fill the gap of Dance Kaleidoscope, but I think we have something special in L.A. All of us are smooshed together in this town, and out of all these styles colliding, there’s going to be an L.A. style. I’m already starting to see it in ‘Spectrum.’ It’s vibrant, it’s what’s happening in music. It’s the technique of ballet with the depth of modern, the spice and energy of jazz, and the textures, rhythms and different flavors of ethnic dance--all blending together.”

Brockus admits she has heard that some people think ‘Spectrum’ is too commercial. “I don’t really care. I think that Alvin Ailey and David Parsons get similar comments. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago used to, and none of us knew where Hubbard was trying to go. When you’re creating, you have to deal with what’s available at the time.”

Brockus is in the midst of expanding ‘Spectrum’ from two to four concerts a year (the third and fourth for 2002 are slated for August and November). Last month, she experimented with a high school showcase, featuring dancers 12 to 21, and she wants to repeat that experience. She continues to create dances for her own company, hold master classes and she will take “Quest” and the five-dancer troupe to Florida in mid-May.

But there is a lot left on Brockus’ to-do list.

“For my own company, I want to tour internationally,” she says. “I would love to have a building where artists are making art, where people can rehearse. I also would like a theater dedicated to dance. So many artists in this town need to work. I want to build a strong dance community in L.A. and profit from it by having great dancers.

“But my first goal is to pay my dancers and get health insurance so that they can keep dancing. Because dance,” she adds, “only really comes alive when it’s on stage. Pieces are born and something happens on stage that doesn’t occur in a studio.”

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“SPECTRUM DANCE IN L.A. #11,” Ivar Theater, 1605 Ivar Ave., Hollywood. Date: Next Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Prices: $12-$20. Phone: (310) 645-9419.

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Victoria Looseleaf is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

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