It's all dance, all the time

Times Staff Writer

ON the stage of the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, members of the Moiseyev Dance Company are rehearsing ensemble routines, watched intently by Elena A. Shcherbakova, the troupe's director and assistant choreographer.

Filming her comments to the dancers on a professional hand-held video rig is Arsen Serobian, a young, locally based Armenian classical dancer and teacher who briefly studied at the Moiseyev school in Moscow before training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and joining the company that brought him to the U.S. in 1997.

He stayed and five years later became a citizen, by which time he'd decided that he wanted to be a force in the dance world -- but not as a performer. No, with an interest and skills in computers, Serobian began to investigate the ways that dance -- all kinds of dance -- might mate with new technologies to reach a larger audience than at any time in history. And that research led him to buy that expensive video camera and launch a new career.

In a Cerritos dressing room, he smiles as he films Shcherbakova telling interviewer Steve Barry, in English, about the Moiseyev emphasis on "training that goes beyond technique into acting and understanding different cultures. When you are on the stage," she says, "you need to understand what you are doing from the inside."

That smile comes from recognizing a kindred sprit, for Serobian often says the same thing when he's teaching ballet at the Colburn School in downtown L.A. or explaining why he finds so much American classicism under-rehearsed and under-coached. At 30, he's still sought after as a dancer by local companies -- especially at "Nutcracker" time, when classical princes with pristine Russian style are at a premium.

But performing and teaching are strictly Serobian sidelines these days, the means to pay the rent on the combination TV studio and editing room in North Hollywood where he sleeps a few hours a night. For the last two years, Serobian's passion has been DanceChannelTV.com, a website conceived as a television station, one devoted completely to dance. He is the founder and president, and he designed the site, recruited the volunteer staff and shoots, edits and sometimes subtitles the footage for the features that make DanceChannelTV.com closely resemble a cable TV outlet.

Through Craigslist, he found Barry, a London-born freelance producer for E! and a producer at the entertainment TV show "Extra," who now serves as his vice president, script writer and voice of authority on the site's newscasts and video features. Barry's broadcast journalism degree from the University of South Florida supplements Serobian's degree in business and computer science from the University of Akron in Ohio.

Together, they are working to establish their site as the primary online dance resource, awaiting the day -- a year or two from now -- when a new chip brings the Internet to every new flat-screen television set. On that day, they predict, the difference between a website and a TV station will become academic to viewers and advertisers -- an assumption that fueled the recent Writers Guild strike.

"I believe that's the future of television, being online," Serobian says. "Everyone is going to have connections at home with a speed that is basically the same as the signal they're getting from cable. And when that happens, there will be Internet TV. And we will be everywhere."

Internet influence

INTERNET dance sites have destroyed the old divisions between performers, critics and audiences, encouraging dialogue and debate, as well as allowing dancers like Serobian to help determine how the art will be covered in the future instead of leaving it to the journalists and academics who have been dominant until now.

Danceinsider.com, in particular, has been a showcase for innovative dance criticism written by dancers and choreographers, but the site is primarily journalistic -- a kind of online magazine -- as is Voiceofdance.com and most of the other prominent sites except for those that specialize in instructional content.

In contrast, DanceChannelTV.com isn't a haven for dance writing or reviews but rather filmed interviews, documentaries and performance videos, some of them acquired from videographers and distributors who want their work to be more widely seen, others shot by Serobian and his staff.

Thus far, the scope of his coverage has often depended on whether stars and companies believe in his mission and grant access. Russian prima ballerina Diana Vishneva recently said "da" to an interview feature. But Russian prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili said "nyet," and the response of Los Angeles-based troupes has been equally hard to predict.

Nevertheless, you're far more likely to see Serobian at the back of an auditorium, wielding his camera, than in an orchestra seat. "My goal is to create five or six programs a week," he says, "which could be between 10 and 20 minutes each, to entertain and educate people about dance and to bring big traffic onto the website.

"You cannot really teach someone to dance through a video -- any dance training should be hands-on with an instructor. But you can communicate the secrets, the fine points, and you can also talk about health and fitness through dance." And those subjects are on his list of upcoming shoots, along with tap, hip-hop, flamenco, tango and more.

(In the spirit of journalistic disclosure, I should acknowledge that DanceChannelTV.com interviewed me last year about my career as The Times' staff dance critic. It was no favor to me -- it happened two days after I got over stomach flu and I looked like Hamlet's father's ghost. I also did an unpaid interview for the site with American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, but I don't appear on camera and my voice is never heard.)

A strike issue

During the recent Writers Guild of America strike, The Times ran a story in its Business section about writers attempting to bypass the studio system by forming cooperative ventures to distribute their work on the Web. "This is not just an Internet play, but the beginning of what the future is going to look like," "Rain Man" coauthor Ron Bass was quoted as saying, though entertainment attorney Kevin Morris said, "It will take time for the business form of it all to come together."

Underground filmmakers have also formed Internet collectives to bypass normal distribution processes and directly reach audiences, and major record labels are reportedly interested in the Web at a time when MTV and VH1 aren't reliable outlets for music videos -- especially those featuring new artists. So DanceChannelTV.com is riding the crest of a mighty wave.

The site got up and running in its current form only last fall, and Serobian recently redesigned it to make it easier to navigate by older viewers who love dance but may not be comfortable with computers. And the next step in his experimental mating of dance and the Internet will be the same as what the writers want to achieve with their online ventures: going for the gold.

He says he'd like to sell some of his featurettes to local TV stations and cable outlets, but, in the virtual blackout for serious concert dance on American television (including PBS in the last few seasons), he may ultimately have to attract support on his own rather than going through the usual channels (pun intended).

Advertising and other forms of sponsorship including institutional underwriting are high on the DanceChannelTV.com agenda, as the Internet grows into a commercial powerhouse, Barry says. And he's convinced that he and Serobian are a good match to build a successful company in this new era. "Obviously we have the European connection," he explains. "And he has great ideas and supplies great leadership. He's also not afraid to admit when he doesn't know something and never asks anyone to do what he wouldn't do himself. Most of all, I appreciate and respect his discipline. He sets an example."

Serobian proves just as enthusiastic about working with Barry and others on his team but admits to becoming impatient with everyone, including himself, over getting out the news about DanceChannelTV.com and, most of all, about dance itself.

"I believe that in America you can sell anything if it's marketed correctly," he declares. "And dance is not presented the way it should be. I want people to remember me because I've done something to make that happen, to change the way people see dance."

To do that he's put his personal life on hold. No love, no nothing. Just professional partnerships for now. "The person I'll want to be with will have to be moving in the same direction," he says. "So if I meet somebody who has the same belief, who wants to change how dance is seen in the United States or, maybe, around the world, I probably would go with that person in that direction."

He laughs softly, partly at himself. "You never know. Maybe I'll be standing behind the camera and I'll meet this girl dancer and say hi to her and here we go: The next thing I know I'm married and have a bunch of kids. . . ."

He smiles, obviously enjoying that prospect, but it seems far away -- much further and less realistic to him than transforming a do-it-yourself Internet website into a profitable and visionary television entity.

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lewis.segal@latimes.com

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