Leona Wood, a painter, teacher and expert in Middle Eastern dance who co-founded the Aman Folk Ensemble -- once the largest and best-known dance company in Southern California -- died in her West Los Angeles home Feb. 7. She was 86.
Wood always liked to say that she had two careers in the arts, gaining renown as a painter starting in her teenage years and later working as a designer and illustrator in New York City.
But her early ballet studies ultimately led her in another direction, and along with her teaching activities, she developed performing and staging skills that led her to form and direct Aman with choreographer Anthony Shay. They worked together for 15 years.
"Leona Wood was a pioneer in the field of staging traditional Middle Eastern dances," Shay said this week. "She had exacting standards in both her visual and choreographic productions and always displayed sensitivity to the cultures which her dances represented."
Wood was born near Puget Sound in Washington on May 21, 1921. She had an athletic childhood but learned to play the piano and studied ballet in Seattle with Ivan Novikoff (who later taught Robert Joffrey). She also learned her first folk dances at that time but soon abandoned dance for painting. Early in that career, she had a one-woman exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, then received a fellowship to study design in San Francisco and later exhibited in Europe, New York and on the West Coast.
In 1939, she married Alaska-born physicist Phillip Harland and soon moved to New York City, working as a designer for Dorland International, Pettingell and Fenton. After World War II, she came West to head Fenton's Los Angeles office.
In the 1950s, her paintings adorned the De Beers "A Diamond Is Forever" ad campaign, and she also exhibited widely, with the Lane Galleries in Los Angeles serving as an outlet for her work for more than a quarter-century. Art patron Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of New York City Ballet, became one of her most enthusiastic advocates on the East Coast.
A 1958 profile of her in American Artist noted that "reviewers wrote of her 'beautiful masterly works and were reminded of Arch-Renaissance perfection.' " The profile also praised her skill as a sculptor, mosaic artist and goldsmith, and Wood herself was quoted as saying "I always compare what I am doing with the past. This saves me from the egotism of the painters who only measure their work against that of their contemporaries."
But dancing began to occupy more of her energy, and by the early 1960s, she and Harland (as her percussion-accompanist) had become part of the Westwood folk dance scene as well as performing in Hollywood's Greek Village. Shay told The Times in a 1989 interview that he became entranced with Wood's belly-dancing and wanted her to join a UCLA recreational group called the Village Dancers.
"She was the kind of mesmerizing, spectacular performer," he said, "who could take her specialty back to its roots, and Phil was a brilliant musician. They would have been a terrific asset to any company."
In 1963, the campus group was re-conceived by Wood and Shay as Aman, eventually becoming the first locally based dance company to perform at the Los Angeles Music Center and gaining an international reputation for the scope of its programming and the versatility of its performers.
"Aman's eclecticism is a reminder that America is a nation of people from many nations," wrote Jack Anderson in a 1979 New York Times review. "Moreover Aman implies that national traditions should be cherished, rather than scorned. And by making its programs so varied, it expresses the hope that different cultures may exist harmoniously."
Los Angeles Times music and dance critic Martin Bernheimer put it more simply, calling Aman "one of the finest ethnic companies anywhere. Repeat: anywhere."
In the 1970s, Wood's writings about dance appeared not only in the Dance Research Journal and other scholarly publications but also on record jackets. She produced field recordings of music linked to the dance traditions she was researching, and she received a choreography and production grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
By the end of that decade, conflicts within Aman led to Shay's departure, but it prospered, for a time, with Wood working even harder, even as she shouldered new teaching responsibilities at UCLA. "Building and maintaining a company is like climbing a mountain," she told The Times in 1979. "At each higher level, you establish a base camp and work from there. It gets harder as you get higher -- each climb is shorter because it's steeper."
By the early 1980s, Aman's budget had shrunk from a peak of $1 million to $200,000. It is now defunct, a casualty of the erosion of dance support on the national level and too many Aman regimes with different artistic priorities. But even in the company's last years, Wood's choreographies retained their old magic.
In a 1996 Times review (by this writer), her newly revived Algerian women's ensemble was praised for conveying the sense "that the colorful, fascinating dance on view represented merely one detail in a complex cultural panorama -- that each of the eight women on stage knew every souk and back alley in North Africa and could tell more tales than Scheherazade, if given the incentive."
Harland died in 1980. Wood had a series of strokes beginning in 2006. She is survived by her sister-in-law, Patricia Gaffney, and Aisha Ali, her god-daughter.
Segal is The Times' dance critic.