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Making room for dance in a cultural palace

Times Staff Writer

Up to now, dance at the Los Angeles Music Center has always been born amid high expectations only to die amid deep disappointment. However, that pattern could be changing.

The recently announced 2003-04 season in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion marks a new beginning in the center’s 39-year history: the first time the staff has produced its own dance events rather than relying on outside specialists. And its success could make a major difference in access and artistic discovery for an audience that has previously had to rely on university dance series.

Yes, such institutions as the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the Irvine Barclay Theatre do their share -- and the upcoming dance season at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is one that any theater in the world would be proud to present.

But every survey on the subject says that audiences don’t want to travel more than 20 to 30 minutes for a performance.

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For Angelenos, that rules out a lot of dance. Getting downtown in rush hour is bad enough, but the prospect of spending two more hours on the freeway to witness the decline and fall of French diva Sylvie Guillem, or the latest dance-theater provocation by Russian maverick Boris Eifman, alarms everyone but a few die-hards.

As far-flung as the major Southland dance venues, our resident dancers and choreographers could well find the Music Center dance season a valuable meeting point and opportunity for comparing their dreams and plans with what others are putting on stage. The recent Music Center debut of Diavolo Dance Theater proved that local artists are on the institution’s radar -- and that alone changes the landscape for a community too often isolated and sometimes nearly invisible.

But dance won’t succeed at the Music Center simply because of that institution’s location, prominence or civic virtue. A core audience needs to be carefully cultivated with long-term development projects, and that’s a complex endeavor -- as is the sustained fund-raising necessary to sponsor the best-known international companies on a regular basis.

Besides occasionally finding time for these kinds of guests, the center tried twice in the past to nurture resident classical ensembles.

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In the 1960s, it created Ballet of Los Angeles (often better remembered as the Western Ballet Assn., the name of its parent company). In the 1980s, it imported the Joffrey Ballet in a bicoastal experiment that ended with the company’s forsaking both coasts for its current berth in Chicago.

Both attempts failed for a number of reasons -- but neither company really caught the imagination of L.A., its voracious appetite for high-profile media events and stars, its wide demographics. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion audience has also imposed its own obstacles, being notoriously resistant to contemporary art whether in classical music, opera or dance.

Ticket holders always seem to grow 20 years younger as soon as you walk away from the Pavilion toward the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre -- and it’s those younger audiences that supported Diavolo, Pilobolus, Complexions, Twyla Tharp and the three unconventional Matthew Bourne dance dramas in their Ahmanson engagements.

Predictably enough, the upcoming season will feed the Pavilion audience’s taste for conservative, full-evening story ballets with productions of “Don Quixote” and “Romeo and Juliet.”

But contemporary and even experimental work is also scheduled, and that’s risky, given an economic downturn when even “The Nutcracker” is no longer a sure thing.

Indeed, for better or for worse, the season supplies a kind of action painting of what American dance is like at the beginning of the century.

American Ballet Theatre represents the 800-pound gorilla of the lot: an always-floundering international-level company with some of the worst home-grown productions of the classics anywhere but an unparalleled roster of stars.

San Francisco Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem often outdance ABT and can afford to be more artistically daring because they don’t have the crushing overhead of all those star salaries. They’re models of how to succeed in ballet by building strong home constituencies before seeking international acclaim.

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Similarly, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre develops its own stars, but it also uses the undimmed appeal of the Ailey masterworks to sustain a multi-choreographer modern-dance repertory company, still a novelty in the dance world. Body worshipers, seek no further -- but there’s also plenty to admire if choreographic ingenuity and emotional heat interest you.

Paul Taylor, of course, belongs on the very short list of candidates for Greatest Living Choreographer, and his work has frequently been seen at the Pavilion -- but danced by ABT and the Joffrey. Now here’s his handpicked ensemble, virtuosi committed to an inimitable and sometimes startling personal vision.

Finally, there’s the local debut of the New York-based Shen Wei Dance Arts, an example of all the creative discoveries in American modern dance -- and of the artists who still flock here from other cultures to define themselves and enrich our society.

You’d better be brave and seize the moment with this one, L.A., because it will be on view for only two nights and by the time you read the reviews, it’ll be gone. It wouldn’t be dance, at the Music Center or anywhere else, if you could tape it for viewing at your convenience or rent it on DVD six weeks after it opened. Combining Western modern dance with influences from Shen Wei’s native China, it sounds as if it belongs on the UCLA Live season (normally adventurous, though a mite stale next season), but here it comes, to be flanked by crystal chandeliers and burnished wood in the culture palace we call home.

There’ll be new dance movies this year, and a dance-related TV series too, but they’re just sideshows. The six-pack of dance at the Pavilion offers a varied sampling of the real thing in a centrally located theater with excellent sight lines and a lot of smaller dance-presenting venues in the immediate vicinity. The potential for high achievement is obvious, even if the recipe for success isn’t.

Lewis Segal is The Times’ dance critic.


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