A festive ‘Snow Queen’
Samantha Hoe, the statuesque blond who plays the icy title role in “The Snow Queen,” perches unsteadily on the left shoulder of Czech ballet protégé Filip Stanek. They’re rehearsing for California Contemporary Ballet’s upcoming performances of the Hans Christian Andersen fable at Glendale Community College. Stanek wobbles slightly from bearing another human being on his frame. His flight from Prague landed at LAX only six hours ago, and he’s barely even had a nap.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ballet times: An article in Friday’s Calendar section on “The Snow Queen” ballet at Glendale Community College gave the Saturday and Sunday matinee times as 2:30 p.m.; it should have said 2 p.m. —
FOR THE RECORD:
‘The Snow Queen’: An article on “The Snow Queen” ballet in Friday’s Calendar section listed a number of Los Angeles ballet companies and implied all were school groups or non-professional companies. Los Angeles Ballet is professional and should not have been included in that context. —
“My brain is sleeping, but my body’s awake,” he says in English accented by the lightest trill. Erin Holt, the troupe’s director, discovered the 20-year-old classical dancer -- he’s also a prodigious tap dancer -- when she guest-taught for Prague International Ballet’s Ostrava workshop in 2007. It’s Stanek’s third foray to California and a nice homecoming. “I like Los Angeles. It’s a happy, sunny, smiley place. I like the palm trees, sun and the people,” he says.
From her lofty post, Hoe must swoop to the floor, trusting that a third colleague, a mere teenager, will catch her. In try after try, Hoe breaks the fall with her arms, and Holt, who created the ballet and has staged it 12 times now, remembers spaghetti-limp arms in years past. It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday, and the cool mountain air seeping into the La Cañada dance studio starts to carry a tinge of frustration. Fellow dancers cluster around the duo, offering suggestions.
“You need to be around her knees, dude,” says Ryan Morrison of Pasadena, one of a set of twins gracing this troupe. Morrison previously played Stanek’s part, having performed in every “Snow Queen” since its inception in 1998. Only a young twig when he made his debut, the raven-haired, goateed youth plays a prince in this year’s show, partnering with the well-trained Heather Toner. Asked what draws him to classical ballet, Morrison admits: “I’m surrounded by beautiful girls all the time.”
Holt suddenly moves in from the sidelines, reaching across the couple to reposition the Snow Queen’s legs. Instead, she pokes the jet-lagged Stanek right in the eye. Unintended body jabs are a dancer’s occupational hazard, but Holt, overwrought, loses it. “I just flew you in from Prague,” she moans, “and now I’m hurting you!” Good-natured laughs erupt, and the tension in the room breaks.
Such are the tribulations of community ballet -- a mash-up of desire; ambition; myriad levels of training on dancers of every possible age, body shape and size; and a degree of grit and determination. Troupes similar to Holt’s tucked all around the Southland are now in perspiring preparation for the year-end performances that are part school showcase, part annual fundraiser. Typically, they are staging that reliable classical chestnut “The Nutcracker.” This year, Anaheim Ballet, Coast City Ballet, Inland Pacific Ballet, Laguna Ballet, Long Beach Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet, Moorpark Civic Ballet, San Pedro City Ballet, Ventura County Ballet and Westside Ballet are all parading toy soldiers, mice and snowflakes for the audiences full of proud moms and dads.
But high above Los Angeles, in the well-to-do foothill town of La Cañada Flintridge, Holt does December differently. Her project offers a “Nutcracker” alternative: her own creation inspired by Andersen’s set of seven tales about Gerda, a little girl who saves her best buddy, Kai, from an evil spell. The kids’ interplay with the Snow Queen (enchanted, and not in a good way) and a (nasty, spell-bearing) mirror gives the dance-drama its good-versus-evil moral dimension, making “The Snow Queen” fine family fodder.
The show has proved a successful vehicle for California Contemporary Ballet. Its flexible cast enables Holt to utilize whatever semiprofessional talent she has on hand for principal roles. There are gobs of character parts for the pupils of her ballet academy. She has an original score from composer Randall Michael Tobin, a unique plus. But mostly, the production differentiates her company in Southern California’s highly dispersed yet saturated dance market.
Holt’s choice makes sense to Emiko Ono, director of grants and professional development for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, who -- despite her many grantees -- immediately recognizes California Contemporary Ballet’s name.
“They do ‘The Snow Queen,’ right? We fund them,” says Ono. “We don’t fund that many ‘Nutcrackers.’ Last year, I saved all my ‘Nutcracker’ invitations. I got at least 10.”
“The Snow Queen” is a good strategy for a small company in L.A., Ono said. “It’s really smart that she does something different and that they brand themselves with this show and attract an audience. It allows them to replicate the qualities that make ‘The Nutcracker’ successful -- showcasing the company’s range in age and skill. And tap the holiday wallet. And make money!”
The company is hardly awash in revenue. A nonprofit operating on a shoestring annual budget of $35,000, it survives on ticket sales, patronage and, lately, $12,000 from the Arts Commission’s organizational grant program. Says Holt: “The thing we remain optimistic about is that we always have sold-out, full houses, and we hope to continue to get those audiences. The two-year grant from L.A. County really helps, since our patron donations are lower due to the economy.”
Describing the special qualities that characterize small local dance companies, Ono points to L.A.'s extreme ethnic and cultural diversity. “L.A. dance is hyper-diversified. But it’s also hyper-localized; it only exists in a moment in time that is incredibly rich. But it’s hard for people to tap into a larger scene.”
Another defining characteristic is the overlap between highly evolved but discrete dance worlds: “The Irvine Foundation did a white paper in 2003 on what is holding the arts back,” Ono says. “I read it almost once a year. One of its findings is that dancers here overlap between the professional, commercial, recreational and educational spheres. There is concert dance. Then there’s the commercial dancers employed in videos, movies and advertising. There’s the yoga and Pilates recreational scene. Then the dancers who are trying to make a living by teaching in schools and universities. There’s movement between these sectors.”
Separately, seven high-profile arts professionals have banded together to seek solutions for local dance companies. Called the Southern California Dance Futures Fund and housed at the Center for Cultural Innovation in downtown L.A., they’re mostly retired dancers in their 50s. Arts consultant David Plettner, who danced with Bella Lewitzky and Loretta Livingston, speaks for the group.
“Dance is underfunded everywhere,” says Plettner, “but in Southern California, it suffers from characteristics beyond just money issues. Everyone knows our geography is decentralized. The lack of centrality hinders focus and easy connection, unlike the dance communities in Manhattan, San Francisco and Seattle.
“The infrastructure of financial support is particularly weak here, and it’s related to our geography. We have resources, but they’re scattered, not well-connected. Plus, we don’t have the tradition of philanthropy like other communities.”
Plettner does see hope for dance in L.A., however. “Surprisingly, our study revealed that the characteristics that differentiate us may also be our strength. There is an extraordinary amount of passion and talent here. In fact, local dancers see Southern California as the future of dance. That is the dance world’s vision for itself. We have created a giant stew that has enormous potential.”
Holt is about to toss her best nuggets into the stew. A handsome, focused woman bundled against the December chill in black sweaters and leg warmers, she notes: “We’ve been passed over in favor of visiting ‘Nutcrackers’ from ABT [American Ballet Theatre] and the Joffrey. There is so much going on at the community level and so many good dancers. There is a real love of dance in L.A.”
But Stanek’s future is not with a struggling American community ballet troupe. He’ll settle down where state funding treats dancers as real professionals. “People are different in the U.S. than at home. They have a different sense of humor. They’re more open,” he says. “But when I get my degree from the Czech Conservatory next May, I’ll be auditioning for a job in a European dance company.”