Dance Fever

Just when Orange County’s dance scene seemed to go bust, it went boom on stages and in studios all over the county.

These are not ordinary women.

Milling about a rehearsal room at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa one recent afternoon, they are six lead dancers and an alternate, casually attired in leotards, hoodies, and other layers of dancewear, some wearing nylon booties to keep their feet warm. One of them effortlessly kicks her leg up behind her head, while another smooths back her bun while sitting in a perfect splits position. As rehearsals for this month’s world premiere of “Reflections” begin, it’s clear these women—all Bolshoi-trained ballerinas—are imbued with amazing technique.

Equally amazing, they are here for an artistic summit with American and other choreographers, which hints at an interesting phenomenon unfolding in Orange County. Just look around.

Dance students at UC Irvine collect on lounge furniture in the Student Center to peruse the class schedule. They passed increasingly competitive auditions just to enroll, and worry whether they can handle studio classes taught by former professional dancers who accept no excuses and grade accordingly.

In Laguna Beach, salt air wafts into an oceanfront mansion at twilight. Auction tables hold rare bottles of wine and volunteers arrange polished glassware and finger food for a Laguna Dance Festival fundraiser. Organizers buzz about the need for perfection—invited donors must have such a good time that they’ll open their checkbooks.

All of which suggests, despite the hard-hitting recession, that dance fever is rampant in Orange County. What’s more striking is that it’s happening so soon after the 2007 demise of Ballet Pacifica, our largest local company. But these days, true believers are optimistic about the future. Says Molly Lynch, Ballet Pacifica’s former artistic director: “We’re going in the right direction.”


What may be propelling the trend is nothing less than a gale-force national interest in dance of all kinds. Says Bonnie Oda Homsey, director of the Dance Treasures Project, which promotes archiving dance and creating awareness of its history: “ ‘American Idol’ certainly sparked a trend in reality talent shows that extended to dance when Nigel Lythgoe moved over to produce ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ My theory is the popularity of the show gained momentum with his savvy hiring of Matthew Diamond as its director.”

Diamond is the multiple Emmy-winning director of most of PBS’ “Dance in America” series. “The incredible technological advancements, plus pioneering directorial techniques, are key elements helping to excite viewers to new ways of seeing, experiencing, and feeling dance while engaging with the personal stories, struggles, sacrifices, and dedication of the dancers,” Homsey says.

Earlier generations of Americans made “American Bandstand,” “Soul Train,” and other dance shows must-see TV. Variety shows in the ’60s such as “The Dean Martin Show,” “Hullabaloo,” and “The Jackie Gleason Show” all employed dance ensembles. Today, once again, it’s hard to turn on a television without seeing the art form.

It’s not just competition shows such as Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and the sequin-studded ABC juggernaut “Dancing With the Stars.” The “Step Up” movies, possible Oscar contender “Black Swan,” and Jennifer Homans’ weighty new book from Random House titled “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet,” have worked as a “yellow highlighter” to draw attention to dance, says Larry Rosenberg, executive director of Anaheim Ballet, which last August began to offer its own showcase, the International Dance Festival.

Our suburban paradise isn’t just a place to see or study ballet, modern, and jazz. Search “Poreotics” on YouTube, for example, and you’ll find a video from Season 5 of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” in which six young men—they met as high school students in Orange County—explode onto the stage. Running, popping, locking, they suddenly switch to a tightly choreographed, theatrical, and quasilyrical piece set to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.”

Locally trained dancers have broken into national television. UC Irvine alum Carrie Ann Inaba, a Fly Girl on the early ’90s Fox sketch-comedy series “In Living Color,” is now a judge on “Dancing With the Stars.” Other TV personalities who began their dance training here include Melinda Clarke of “The OC,” now on The CW’s “Nikita” [see an interview with Clarke on Page 76], and Matthew Morrison, the breakout star of Fox’s “Glee.”

Orange County also has nurtured one of the groundbreaking hip-hop dance groups, Kaba Modern. Founded in 1992 at UC Irvine, the group made it to the finals on the first season of “America’s Best Dance Crew.” It spawned the Kaba Modern Legacy alumni ensemble and Kreative Movement for dancers 17 and younger. Kaba Modern also was a three-time winner of the Vibe Dance Competition, the annual collegiate hip-hop show at the Bren Events Center. Now in its 16th year, the competition is the longest-running show of its kind on the West Coast, says executive director Jason Park. What started as a fraternity-sorority talent contest now draws 3,500 to 4,000 spectators.

In addition, applications to dance programs have increased by double-digit percentages at UC Irvine and Chapman University, and students ages 3 to 83 continue to fill local studios taking zumba, belly-dance, ballroom, and folkloric instruction.

Whether you join in or not, the drumbeat can’t be ignored.


If you’re looking for a pivot point for all this, it may be buried in a 2005 story in the pages of The Orange County Register. In that piece, former Orange County Performing Arts Center President Jerry Mandel hinted that the center would like to produce shows, as well as present them.

The center had galvanized touring dance companies nationwide by setting a lofty standard when it opened in 1986. Judy Morr, the center’s executive vice president who once worked for the Kennedy Center, at first focused programming on story ballets such as “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Since then, the center has hosted nearly every prestigious company in the world, from the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre to the Bolshoi and the Kirov.

But the center raised the bar in 2006 when it began producing original works. Focusing on its signature dance series, it since has co-produced, with Ardani Artists Management, three major world premieres. “Reflections,” the center’s latest coproduction, continues with an all-star cast of those Bolshoi-trained ballerinas who traveled to Orange County to rehearse, paired with prominent choreographers creating new works tailored to each dancer.

Production of original work has enhanced the image of the center and Orange County’s dance scene as the shows tour nationally and internationally. And it strengthens relationships with artists who continually return to the center.

“We’ve introduced an entire generation of our dance audience to the most acclaimed choreographers,” Morr says. “There is now an audience more adventuresome and knowledgeable. … Helping create new work is part of the responsibility to the art form and the community.”

All the while, the center has continued to present world-class performances by touring companies. Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, calls the center “a model throughout the country for presenting dance … dedicated to building a new and sophisticated audience.”

That audience has proven fiercely loyal: Between 30 and 36 performances each year draw 60,000 to 80,000 dance fans, and that has stayed constant despite the economy.

John Michael Schert, executive director of the Trey McIntyre Project, a well-regarded Idaho-based contemporary ensemble, says the county has a reputation as a major touring stop. “We visit about 30 venues a year, and the center is one of the best run, with one of the most well-equipped teams,” he says. “They are so passionate about what they’re creating for audiences.”

The 750-seat Irvine Barclay Theatre, where the intimate seating and good sightlines have earned critical acclaim from arts writers since its 1990 premiere, has made its mark presenting contemporary work. “We’ve found that if we happen to head in the direction of less dance, people complain,” says Barclay President Douglas Rankin.

In 2009, he says, dance made up almost one-third of the theater’s schedule. The Barclay also has become a nurturing home to local dance companies and projects. Molly Lynch’s National Choreographers Initiative presents shows at the theater, and so does the up-and-coming Backhausdance, the award-winning contemporary company based in Orange that Jennifer Backhaus formed in 2003.

The demise of Ballet Pacifica gave other companies a chance to step forward. When Ballet Pacifica folded, for example, Festival Ballet bought its “Nutcracker” sets. “A smaller group has more flexibility to do different things,” Lynch says. “They have more ability to tour.”

Smaller companies nationwide also are rallying, says Andrea Snyder, executive director of Dance/USA, a national advocacy group. “The field is incredibly diverse—in budget size, style, and location—with a great many dance creators operating with less than $100,000 annually. Our 2006 census of New York City, the largest dance community in the country, found that 63 percent of those making dance were operating with budgets less than $100,000.” She added: “It’s no surprise that Orange County has a vibrant local dance community.”

The ripple effect is obvious.

At a late-summer event in Laguna Beach, a group prepares to dance. They’re college students, mothers, and girls as young as 4 who volunteered to take a free belly-dance lesson on opening day of the Laguna Dance Festival. As the sinewy music began on Main Beach, performers rolled their bellies and swiveled their hips. Afterward, as the audience applauded, Jodie Gates beamed.

Since her Laguna Dance Festival arrived in 2005, the former Joffrey ballerina has presented a no-rules series that mixes ballet, modern, and jazz. The artistic director has built her eclectic festival from the ground up, tossing in pop culture groups such as the Groovaloos. Locals have been snapping up tickets.


If Ballet Pacifica’s disappearance reinvigorated dance in Orange County, the energized scene since has lacked a strong focus. “There is no doubt the demise of Ballet Pacifica left a void in the O.C. dance community,” says Homsey. “I believe the time will come when O.C’s answer to Lincoln Kirstein [the founder of New York City Ballet] will step up to the plate.”

To find out what might happen next, dance watchers should look to UC Irvine, which always has had an illustrious faculty, from founding chair Eugene Loring—his “Billy the Kid” remains a classic of the repertoire—to recently retired Donald McKayle, the dean of African-American choreographers of his generation.

Two of the local dance scene’s most creative thinkers, Gates and Lynch, have landed at the university and both were associated with the Joffrey during its heyday; Gates as a principal dancer, Lynch as a scholarship student at the company’s school. Both bring rich and unusual resumes to a university program renowned for ballet. Lynch was the annual fund and special events director at South Coast Repertory before taking over Ballet Pacifica; Gates made her name as a regisseur for choreographer Bill Forsythe.

Now they work side by side. Lynch’s National Choreographers Initiative has been developing new works since 2004; about three-quarters of them have been produced around the world. This spring, Gates’ Laguna Dance Festival will host Complexions Contemporary Ballet, whose co-founding artistic directors, Desmond Richardson and Dwight Roden, have worked in TV and film. She has an eye for what’s hot, bringing Trey McIntyre’s newly formed company to her festival before it appeared at the center.

A budding choreographer with commissions in the United States and Europe, and a newly tenured professor at UC Irvine, Gates took time to create and rehearse a stunning piece for Backhausdance. “First Glance” showed off the company in a sophisticated new light and was the hit of a recent concert: “Gates distills and deconstructs balletic conventions … into a carefree style all her own,” wrote one critic.

Lynch also delights in training the next generation, recently choreographing a piece for a student concert at Chapman. She hopes someday local dancers will start careers here rather than head off to New York. “One thing I love about being at a university is you’ve got these young, vital dancers with a can-do attitude,” says Lynch.

The two women are building on UC Irvine’s dance legacy, expanding it beyond classical ballet, reaching out into the community, and transporting choreography created here to stages around the world. “What I’m doing now is advocating for dance,” says Gates. “It’s part of who we are, part of our signature. We are an epicenter of dance.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

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