Los Angeles: A Desert For Dance?

It’s 8:00pm and 20 degrees in New York City, but Lincoln Center radiates with the warmth of hundreds of people who are shedding their coats they file into the David H. Koch theater and take their seats. As the lights dim, the audiences draws their breath.
This is opening night of the New York City Ballet Nutcracker. I have plenty of friends in New York City, and almost every single one of them grew up spending a night at Lincoln Center each year to see Balanchine’s masterful rendition of the iconic ballet. The Nutcracker, and New York City Ballet as a whole, is an integral part of the culture in New York, just as Houston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet (and all the other major companies) in their respective cities. Dance has a wonderfully strong presence in these places.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Los Angeles. Not only does LA lack a really influential classical ballet company (Los Angeles Ballet just doesn’t elicit the same respect and interest from the public that the companies in other cities do), but it also is a disappointing metropolis for most styles of dance, despite the abundance of talent within it.
Let me clarify: when I complain of LA’s inferiority regarding dance, I am referring to the absence of high-level institutions (ballet or contemporary) that push boundaries, striving to create a creative, intellectual and educated place for the advancement of an often under-appreciated art form. I do not consider the plethora of commercial dance opportunities in LA to fit this criteria. Probably because of Hollywood’s influence, the majority of LA’s appreciation for dance is commercially-oriented and that, consequently, is the venue where most of LA’s dancers are booking their jobs. But I don’t believe the beauty of such a nuanced art can be appreciated through the two-second clips of movement that are pieced together in a music video or advertisement. This emphasis on dance in relation to the entertainment industry has tinted the glasses through which Los Angeles citizens see the art.

But the purpose of this article is not to express despair for an otherwise magnificent city. Instead I wish to convey potential for growth. Where there is emptiness there is opportunity. LA is just begging for a person or several people to step up and say, “Hey, dance matters here. Pay attention.” And the seeds of improvement are beginning to take root. Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project and Melissa Barak’s Barak Ballet show signs of LA trying to shed its overbearing commercial skin just a little bit. However, I worry about desperation. Yes, there needs to be more dance in LA, but quality is more important than speed. Success cannot simply be granted to the first people who put themselves out there. Just because a choreographer or a dancer is doing something doesn’t mean they are necessarily doing something worthwhile. If LA is going to build a presence in the world of dance, it needs to make sure it’s foundation is really really strong. The choreographers and company directors who start the process cannot just be random kids in their mid-twenties who take some classes at The Edge and decided they wanted to get a little attention by gathering their friends together and creating a company. The fresh faces of Los Angeles dance need to be people who are experienced and educated seriously in dance—people who will make this city proud of its capacity for informed creativity. Thankfully, Barak and Millepied seem to be qualified.
The work is far from finished, though. LA is only expanding its number or dance students. USC will open the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance in the Fall of 2015, with all-new facilities set for completion the following spring, and William Forsythe on faculty. Furthermore, Southern California is known as one of the most competitive regions for young dancers. The Youth America Grand Prix semi-final in Huntington Beach is known to be one of the international competition’s most competitive regional locations—many of the school’s that compete attract talented dancers from around the country to their high-level training. But where will all these excellent technicians and brilliant artists go when they begin looking to start their careers? Right now, there is still not much to keep them in the LA area. This city molds top-notch dancers, and then let’s them waltz right out to raise the level of companies in other states. Despite my wariness, I am excited to watch LA grow and curious about who will step up to fill the city’s dance vacancies and give all the blossoming talent a place to thrive.