Michael Alexander recalls the beginnings of the Aman Folk Ensemble, which grew from its beginnings in the early 1960s at UCLA into a major company of international distinction, recognized for its exuberant, authentic recreations of a wide variety of world dance cultures. Michael is currently the Executive Director of Grand Performances, a performing arts series in downtown Los Angeles.
ENTERING THE LOCAL DANCE COMMUNITY AND ESTABLISHING A FUND-RAISING APPARATUS FOR THE COMPANY
There are a number of models of how to structure support for a performing arts company. While the artistic staff was creating works that earned Aman incredible reviews and lots of local respect, I worked on an infrastructure model that I felt would secure the company’s future for years to come.
Midway through my career, I heard a maxim that helped define what I seemed to instinctively know: performing arts companies, like three-legged stools, need three equally strong components for stability. For the stool, it’s three solid legs! For the performing arts company, it is great art, effective management, and broad community support.
In 1969, when I began managing the Aman Folk Ensemble (while still dancing), we certainly had one of those three elements – good art – and we were on our way to having the second and third. By the time I left Aman in 1981, we had developed strength in all three areas. We had as much broad community support and respect as any other Los Angeles dance company, and more than most. We had a reputation for producing quality work worthy of a great New York Times review. We had a sophisticated management team handling fund raising, touring, education programs, and the public relations successes that secured Aman’s position as a community treasure.
Also by 1981, Aman had the support of some of the most coveted individual, institutional and corporate donors in the community. And this is how that happened.
As a genre Ethnic Dance was the outsider in the professional concert dance world. Ballet was the “old” established dance form and “modern dance” was the young upstart. American-based ethnic and traditional dance companies were even more marginalized than those coming from abroad. It was not easy for Aman to get recognized as a member of the concert dance community – recognition that was essential to warrant favorable consideration from the grant panels that determined government funding. In the early ‘70s, our recognition as a member of the Los Angeles concert dance community had gotten established following our Music Center sellout. (See Chapter One for information on how that came about.)
Shortly after our first Music Center performance in March, 1971, I was invited to a dance community meeting hosted by C. Bernard (Jack) Jackson. I had long considered him one of my role models. Jack was the co-founder of Los Angeles’ Inner City Cultural Center (ICCC). He had been a dance pianist for Alvin Ailey’s dance company in New York (and for Aman Women’s Dance Director Leanne Mennin’s parents’ dance programs in Los Angeles). He was a composer and playwright. And he had become an arts activist of national importance.
Jack had just been appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Panel. In those days, the NEA had just one panel [of peer reviewers] for dance, who not only determined which dance artists would get much-coveted grants, but what kinds of programs should be created to support dance in the first place. He invited the local dance community to meet at the ICCC to discuss our issues relevant to the NEA so that he could bring them back to Washington in his new capacity as the panel’s “rep” from Los Angeles.
I attended that first meeting on behalf of Aman. This was my first official encounter with other dance professionals in Los Angeles. A few were from the ballet world. (LA at the time did not have a ballet company that could be equated with San Francisco Ballet or any of the major ones based in NYC. It had a number of ballet school-based performance ensembles and a great number of nationally renowned ballet personalities – some leading fledgling companies). A number of other dance professionals were from modern dance and, perhaps, one or two others from traditional dance. (In subsequent years, I remember the flamenco dancer Lola Montes attending these meetings and for years threatening to “hang up her castanets” if things did not get better for her.)
This first meeting led to regular gatherings, and to the eventual formation of the Southern California Chapter of the Western Division of the Association of American Dance Companies. I was elected the Chapter’s first co-chair along with Paul Gleason, an associate of ballet choreographer Eugene Loring. At these meetings I started to formulate my ideas about what type of infrastructure would be ideal for Aman, and what we would have to do to earn credibility as an arts organization.
At these and other dance community meetings I learned a lot about the differences that existed between ballet and modern dance companies. The lessons were essential to how I wanted to handle my responsibilities while developing the infrastructure for Aman.
I noticed that the most successful ballet companies, even those in smaller communities around the country, are part of the elite cultural establishments of their communities. Arts philanthropists support ballet companies much as they support their local symphonies and museums. Ballet companies have broad-based community boards, support committees and the ability to survive leadership changes at both the artistic and managerial levels. Ballet companies have education programs and schools and create programs that broadly tie them to their communities.
The modern companies, even the most successful in the 70s, were (and for the most part, still are) almost exclusively personality based. They usually formed non-profit corporations to support the work of one individual’s choreographic vision. Their board members were usually individuals with a direct connection to the director/choreographer. Some board members brought wealth and power; others, mostly passion to see that choreographer’s work supported. They rarely had support guilds as the symphonies and ballets did, and they usually did not run dance schools in the same way that ballet companies did. If they had an educational program, it was for advanced dancers who were interested in the unique technique of the choreographer and had aspirations of joining the company or using that technique in a company of their own creation. Outside of New York City most modern dance companies gave main stage performances only when engaged by a “presenter” – an operation like the one established at UCLA to bring touring artists to Royce Hall – and rarely had an infrastructure capable of supporting hometown self-presentations. In the 70s most Los Angeles modern dance artists and companies only self-presented in a studio or one of our community’s small 100 seat venues.
I preferred the ballet company model. I wanted to work toward building a broad base of community support that would fill our concert venues, support our creative work and help position the company as a Los Angeles “institution”. I knew we would have to secure our position in the community as worthy of public and private sector support. We would have to come to the attention of the major performing arts philanthropists in Los Angeles. We would have to establish Aman as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation to get most of that support. And we would have to brand ourselves as a “product” appropriate for the same concert stages that were bringing the major international “ethnic” dance companies to audiences in cities large and small throughout the United States. I was in my early 20s and was very fortunate to have people involved with more established institutions giving me advice in a number of areas.
In 1972 we incorporated the company. The initial board was made up exclusively of people involved with the company including the founding Artistic Directors Anthony (Tony) Shay and Leona Wood, a few other key performers and me. Because Stewart Mennin was involved with the music for both Leona’s and Tony’s repertoires, he was a logical choice as the first chair. My notes for the minutes of the first meeting state, “The meeting was called to order by Chair Stewart Mennin with the request that everyone act like an adult” – a tall order in those days! Within a short time UCLA Vice-Chancellor Norman Miller joined the board and became chair. Assistant Director Barry Glass’ father, movie producer George Glass, joined the board, as did UCLA professor Itzak Adizes, long-time supporter, Dr. Leonard Lipman and a few other non-performers.
In 1970, Len Lipman said to me, “If you are serious about managing Aman, you need to talk to Ruth Felt.” She was the second-in-command at UCLA’s performing arts presentation program, the Committee on Fine Arts Productions. She told me that I had to get in touch with Jerry Willis at Cal Tech to talk about the Alliance of West Coast Colleges for Cultural Presentations (AWCCP), which is known today as the Western Arts Alliance (WAA).
Jerry Willis invited me to attend the annual meeting of AWCCP that was being held in 1970 at the Universal Sheraton. To build interest in Aman, I prepared a tabletop display and distributed a booking brochure designed by Leona, who had a national reputation as a fine artist and as a graphic designer. We secured a few bookings at that conference and we started to gain recognition as a serious company intent on working the college circuit. Over the next few years, I had many opportunities to talk with the managers of other dance companies who were attending this conference to secure bookings. We shared information, and I hope I gave as much as I got, as I truly got a lot out of these encounters.
One of the more senior executives at the Music Center arranged for Aman to audition for Sol Hurok – the most famous impresario of his time. He had introduced Igor Moiseyev’s troupe from Russia and Amalia Hernandez’ Ballet Folclorico de Mexico to the United States. He seemed to appreciate our company, but when he found out that we did not have the support infrastructure that would be needed to subsidize touring as a troupe of professionals, he decided not to add Aman to his roster.
This rejection did not stop us from dreaming of moving in a professional direction, but we realized that to be a large company of traditional performing arts professionals would mean that we had to have substantial “unearned” income (e.g. philanthropic support and government grants). We needed to have an aggressive fund development program. We needed to have a development director.
In 1977, after a few failed efforts, we secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the hiring of Aman’s first development director.
Ty Jurras, a public relations specialist whose company and associates had engaged Aman for society events in Los Angeles, said we should first spend our money on a “development analysis” before engaging a development director. He pointed me to Jack Brown, a consultant who had been involved in development work at UCLA.
Brown and his team interviewed people from the Music Center, Los Angeles’ philanthropic community and other arts leaders familiar with the company. We were performing in the schools by this time, which brought us to the attention of the greater local arts community. Others knew of the company through me from my by-now intense networking.
The feedback was great. People who knew the company gave us indications that we should be able to generate new philanthropic support. Not incidentally, Brown also reported that there was substantial confidence in me as the Company’s most highly visible liaison to the local arts establishment.
We presented another Music Center concert during this period. Brown reported to me that he saw Walt Disney’s daughter in the audience. Shortly after the concert, Richard Rowland, our full-time company manager showed me a very nice note from a Mrs. Ronald Miller, who identified herself as a new fan of our company and as a former member of the board of the lead organization coordinating our school performances. I realized that someone with board experience on another arts board might be interested in serving on our board. I showed the note to Jack Brown and he excitedly exclaimed, “That’s her. That’s Walt Disney’s daughter.” We responded enthusiastically to her kind note and immediately started thinking of her as a really valuable player in the next phase of our development process.
After Brown gave his report to the board, we began recruiting a Development Director. I talked to one of our best friends at the Music Center, Joan Boyett, the Director of Education at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who had engaged the company for a number of projects over the years. She told me that one of the Blue Ribbon 400 volunteers, Evelyn Hoffman, wanted “go professional” and she helped us connect to Evelyn. After interviewing a number of candidates with Brown, he and I met with Evelyn. There was no question that she was the right person for Aman. Her personal circle included many of the most notable performing arts supporters in Los Angeles – she played golf with them and socialized with them. We hired her in a flash, and Aman’s fortunes changed almost immediately.
One of the first of the many things that Evelyn did for the company was to create the Women’s Council. (We followed that ballet model more than the modern dance model). Some of the most notable women in the city (based on reports in the Society Section of the Los Angeles Times) were recruited to join and take officer positions, except for the position of Council chair; she saved that spot for Diane Miller – Walt Disney’s daughter. After filling the Council with a great group of enthusiastic arts supporters Evelyn contacted Diane and told her that we were creating the Women’s Council and everybody wanted her to be chair. Diane accepted, and this move began a beautiful relationship with the Millers that included years of personal and corporate financial support, parties at their Encino estate and a prolonged residency at the EPCOT Center in Florida.
I am going to leave it to others to report on specifics of the EPCOT residency that began in late 1981, because, though I began the negotiations with Disney for the residency, I left the Company before the contract was finalized and the residency began. It must be noted that this created an incredible opportunity for a cohort of Aman’s dancers and musicians. The Company was contracted to perform seven days a week, five shows a day – each about 20 minutes – meaning that complex schedules needed to be worked out to allow every performer at least one day off per week. Certain “swing” performers had to be able to handle multiple positions in various choreographies. Members of the Company got a real taste of what it meant to be professional in the style of Broadway performers versus the reality that even the busiest touring company members knew.
There were controversies as well. Aman’s leadership came to their work from academic backgrounds in folklore, ethnomusicology and the like and some of the compromises requested by Disney were not to their liking. One particularly controversial issue was dancing as “background” during the nationally broadcast opening ceremonies of EPCOT. Marie Osmond was engaged to sing a pop-style song composed just for the opening with Aman dancers performing segments of various choreographies all around her. Dancing to anything but the appropriate music was anathema to Aman’s artistic leaders and this became quite an issue. To say the least, Disney was not used to working with pre-existing dance and music companies. It engaged artists who would bend to the will of the creative teams that it had in place. This was not the last time that Disney worked with America’s arts community and it was not the last time points of conflict arose. The same happened when a colleague of mine worked on securing performers for California Adventure for the Anaheim park.
This residency also added to Aman’s national renown. It provided company members five months of work and a unique opportunity, at least for Los Angeles dancers, to earn an honorable and stable income doing what they loved to do. It also brought to EPCOT a level of authenticity in the performance field that was distinctly different from the style of presentations found elsewhere at the Florida park.)
Beginning in 1977, Evelyn Hoffman also helped connect the company to other local arts philanthropists. In a short time, the support for Aman changed character, and with it, the nature of the board. A critical new member of the board was Chuck Redmond, a big dance fan and a Senior Vice-President of the Times Mirror Corporation. He was joined by Esther Wachtel , who later served as President of the Music Center, and a number of others who added considerable heft to the board and to the company’s reputation in the community.
High profile fund-raisers that even Dorothy Chandler attended became annual events, but at the same time, Aman did not lose its connections to its earliest supporters. The annual Aman Institute, the Fandango-like events at the Leonis Adobe, concerts, folk dance parties of all sorts and many other events kept the company connected to its earliest fans, to members of the many communities that identified with our repertoire, and to the young dancers and musicians that aspired to become members of this rare phenomenon – a traditional dance company that had become, like a ballet company, the dance darling of its home town.
© Copyright 2013 Michael Alexander All rights reserved