The dance of perseverance

Special to The Times

Amid the sweltering afternoon heat of a deserted Lincoln Park, there is little sign of movement -- not the rustle of a palm frond nor the ripple of water on the small lake. Nearby, inside the dance studio of Plaza de la Raza, is a different story: Francisco Martinez, dressed in black and not brooking anything slack, is put- ting five dancers through some pretty tough paces.

But sweat and soaring temperatures be damned, these performers clearly love what they’re doing. They are Francisco Martinez Dancetheatre, and they’re rehearsing for their Ford Amphitheatre debut Friday, with another concert scheduled for next month at downtown’s California Plaza.

Martinez, at 52, is also passionate about what he does. Having founded the company in 1981, he’s determined -- in a city not exactly known as a haven for concert dance -- to still be on the boards when the troupe reaches its quarter-century mark.

“I want to rise to the challenge, no matter what,” says the ponytailed Martinez, whose imposing countenance doesn’t necessarily scream “dancer.” “Hopefully the funding, especially since Sept. 11, when a lot of foundations changed their priorities and policies, will be kinder to all of us, because too much of my life has been invested in this company to just simply let it fade out.”


Martinez, who has more than 65 works under his choreographic belt, received Lester Horton awards for both “The Colorado” (1999) and “Miniatures” (2000). He was also named artist of the year in 2001 by the California Dance Educators Assn. These validations, he says, have provided him impetus to carry on.

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, he began studying dance at age 8 and moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1968, when he was 17. He continued dance training at the University of Arizona, then went to New York, where he studied with choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Hanya Holm as well as at the Martha Graham School.

In 1973, he returned to L.A. to audition, albeit unsuccessfully, for modernist doyenne Bella Lewitzky. A three-year stint at Texas’ Fort Worth Ballet followed, but the City of Angels -- and two more auditions with Lewitzky, in 1976 and 1978 -- lured him back. Of the last audition, Martinez recalls, “It was down to three men, and she only picked two. But she was gracious. She said: ‘It doesn’t mean a

It was only a few years before he founded his own company, where he could stretch his choreographic muscles. He also discovered the joys of teaching: In 1988, he began directing the ballet department at Plaza de la Raza, a multidisciplinary cultural arts center for Latinos in L.A.


Martinez also holds teaching posts at Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, Cal State L.A. and Occidental College, but it’s Plaza for which he feels a special affection. He has sometimes taught 150 students a year there, three times a week.

“It’s a strange thing in the Hispanic community,” he notes, “because ballet is seen as something only the wealthy folks can afford. After a certain age, the parents take them out and pursue other things, like a paying job. But the average student stays four or five years. What the kids get out of it is discipline. One student went to law school, and one is now dancing with a professional ballet company in Ohio.

“For me, Plaza has been the birthplace of every ballet I’ve created since 1988. What’s special, and what keeps me there, are the students, because when I get them they have wonderful, inquisitive minds, and I challenge them. The facility is in this beautiful setting. When I go there to teach or to choreograph, everything that’s bothering me stays outside and I’m focused on that place.”

In 2000, Francisco Martinez Dancetheatre was honored by the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department for its education programs (including an annual workshop at the Central Library for skid row youth), and although Martinez stopped dancing in 1995, he continues to take his show on the road, bringing dance to more than 25 schools a year throughout the city.

These concerts introduce students not only to dance but also to music by composers such as Gershwin and Copland. Music, in fact, is one of the driving forces of Martinez’s work and testament to his eclectic taste.

The Ford concert, billed as “Love, Loss and Lullabies,” is to feature a trio of Martinez classics: “Sing to Me of Love,” with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams; “Fostering Dreams,” set to Stephen Foster tunes; and “Places,” to Mendelssohn.

Created in 1987 and chosen by Lewitzky in 1990 to open her dance series “In the Works,” “Places” deals with relationships and loss. Writing about it in 1992, The Times’ Lewis Segal called it “perhaps Martinez’s most compelling work.”

It is this piece the company is rehearsing. There are six chairs, five dancers (Martinez stands in for newcomer Bernie DelGado) and lots of emoting, whether through hotblooded arabesques, intense partnering or the inherent drama of balancing on a caned chair.


Veronica Caudillo, 32, first became Martinez’s student when she was 12 and has been with the company since 1992. (Like many working L.A. dancers, she also performs with other troupes, most recently with Raiford Rogers L.A. Chamber Ballet.) Rowdy Metzger, Noune Diarbekirian and Courtney Combs have danced with Martinez off and on for the last four years.

Gary Franco’s ties to the troupe go back further. Franco, 36, performed with it from 1986 to 1988 (including in the premiere of “Places”) and again in 1991. For the last two years, however, he’s been on tour with the dance musical “Contact,” including at the Ahmanson.

“To be dancing with Francisco, it feels like I’m home again,” he says during a rehearsal break. “Especially doing ‘Places.’ There’s something about his choreography -- Francisco has a way of externalizing his internal emotions. They’re like meditations or feelings that arise, and if you relax and listen to the music, you get an understanding of his vision.”

Besides embracing the importance of both art and education, that vision includes supporting dancers who leave the Martinez troupe and form their own companies. Cases in point: Michael Mizerany, whose MizeranyDance has been a local fixture for the last several years, and Diana MacNeil, who recently launched her PostHouse Dance Group.

“I’ve known Francisco since the early ‘80s,” says MacNeil, who danced with Martinez for six years beginning in 1991 and has since had a baby. “He is a great artistic director, and I love his work. It’s so beautiful, and he is so musical. He’s been fighting the good fight, trying to do excellent contemporary dance in a city that’s not terribly friendly to that. I think he’s set a great example for the rest of us.”


Francisco Martinez Dancetheatre

When: Friday, 8:30 p.m.


Where: John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2850 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

Price: $12-$20

Contact: (323) 461-3673


When: Sept. 19, noon

Where: California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave.

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 687-2159