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.
Aman had a number of unique opportunities in its forty-year life – opportunities that only a few Los Angeles music or dance companies had and opportunities that only a few US-based traditional music and dance companies had. In my capacity as Aman’s first General Manager and then first Executive Director, I was privileged to play a significant role in many of these (including some that took place after I left the company in 1981). In this chapter, I will cover a few of them.
After Aman’s 1977 Music Center performance, one of our most versatile dancers Ronda Berkeley informed me that a family friend, Loring d’Usseau, a senior producer at KCET, was interested in producing a one-hour special about Aman. Even now, some 36 years later, there are very few opportunities for local, mid-size performing arts companies to get the exposure that comes with a television special on public or commercial stations. We could certainly consider this a big break for the Company and it came at a most auspicious time – just as we were embarking on a major campaign to build deeper and broader community support.
I contacted a friend of mine, Scott Garen (who along with me became the Associate Producers of the special) to talk about what this opportunity could mean from a TV production perspective. Scott was a CalArts film program graduate and had recently returned from the East Coast where he had worked in public television as a director and producer.
He told me we had to make a critical decision about the nature of the program. He pointed out that we would be creating a product that would be viewed on a small two-dimensional screen. (Remember, this was in the late ‘70s, decades before giant flat televisions became ubiquitous in households throughout the economic spectrum). We could invite KCET to tape a live performance with an audience in one of the suitable auditoriums in the area or we could go into the KCET studios and produce a product just for television. The latter seemed much more appealing to me. Why create a documentary of a live performance when we could take advantage of the medium and create a unique product for television? Scott and I shared this information with the Artistic Directors Anthony (Tony) Shay and Leona Wood, and, as best as I can recall, there was no disagreement that we would have more control and a better product by going into the studio to make the special.
By working this way, we could have cameras in the midst of the dancers and offer the television viewers more vantage points than would be possible by positioning a number of cameras in the audience areas of a theater. It also meant we could start and stop the taping and take advantage of re-takes and repositioning the cameras. One thing that would be very different from our norm was that the musicians would have to go into a recording studio to pre-record most of the music for the selected works. When the musicians were on screen, they were usually playing along with the recorded music.
KCET selected one of its top directors to work with Tony and Leona on arranging their works for the special. He found out what the critical choreographic elements were in each of the choreographies selected for the special. He discussed camera angles, close-ups versus long-shots, overhead shots, lighting design and décor (interesting set pieces were created that were installed against the sound stage’s cyclorama) to ensure a great and effective production. A few of the numbers had to be shortened in order to fit all the selected works into the limited time. We had about 50 minutes to fill with the repertory. The remaining minutes were used for the narration, some footage of both artistic directors rehearsing works and the credits.
Over a week’s time, various company members came to KCET’s Sunset Boulevard Studios in Hollywood to record the program. This was a big venture for the station and it certainly was a golden opportunity for Aman. The station had a very limited history of covering the local arts community – it still does. Though produced for local television, there was talk of offering it to Great Performances – the PBS series that brought mostly New York City companies into America’s living rooms. (San Francisco Ballet was the most notable exception to that.) Unfortunately, this special never went national.
One of the by-products of the developing Women’s Council and the recent Music Center performance was the introduction of the company to Marge Champion. Marge and Gower Champion had gained major national fame as a dance team during the heyday of mid-century film and television musicals, and Marge agreed to be the host of the special. She introduced each of the works and, while footage of Leona and Tony rehearsing their dancers was being shown, gave background information about the Company.
At the time, there were few, if any, union artists in the company – certainly none affiliated with AFTRA, the union representing KCET’s on-air talent. If I recall correctly, the performers got minimum union scale, but did not have to join AFTRA because of the Taft-Hartley law that allows people to work in unionized “shops” for the first 30 days of employment without joining the union. Any subsequent television work in any unionized “shop” represented by AFTRA would have obligated the performers to join that union.
The production was covered by union regulations though. KCET was entitled to “present” it three times over three years. A “presentation” included as many broadcasts in a week as it wanted and during the first presentation week it was shown three times. After those presentations, it would never be able to be shown again without major residual payments to all the labor, which included the cameramen, other IATSE crew, the lead and assistant directors and the performers. No one was coming up with the kind of money needed to give this special a second life.
We got a few archive copies for our own purposes, but Aman was restricted to never show it publicly. It was a grand and prestigious experience and introduced Aman to a wider Los Angeles audience than had ever known it before. I am sure that all involved were very pleased with the final product, as we quite successfully translated what worked on the concert stage to the small box without sacrificing the artistry or integrity of what Aman was all about. It won a local Emmy and considerable renown in the local arts community.
ALASKA TOUR # 1
As a regular attendee at the annual Alliance of West Coast Colleges for Cultural Presentations (AWCCP: See Chapter 1 for some background on our involvement there), I befriended a number of presenters and public arts officials who would have an impact on the touring that Aman would undertake. One of these was Ira Perman, the head of the Alaska State Arts Council. Alaska’s Arts Council was one of the richest in the nation during the early years of the Prudhoe Bay oil boom. Because of the low population density, the Council took a leadership role in bringing performing artists to the state. Only by arranging performances in a number of the cities could a cost effective tour take place that would include more than the State’s two major cities – Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Ira decided that he wanted to bring Aman to Alaska and coordinate with presenters in the two biggest cities to present the full company. But budgets being tight, he asked about having a reduced ensemble go to some of Alaska’s smaller cities. We decided to bring the full company up for the beginning of the tour – about seven days – and keep a smaller contingent of 18 for the final leg – seven more days.
This was the first opportunity for the company to go to a locale where there was still a sizeable population practicing traditional music and dance of their own. I talked to Ira about arranging opportunities for the company to meet with artists from the indigenous Aleut and Inupiat populations so we could learn about their dances and music. I thought it would be important to document these encounters as well and talked with our Development Director Evelyn Hoffman (see Chapter 2) about securing special funding so we could take a videographer with us.
Evelyn Hoffman and I talked about approaching Arco – at that time, corporate-Los Angeles’ most important arts funder – for that support. We set a meeting with the Arco Foundation President, Walter Eichner, who listened to our proposal and then said he needed some time to see what Arco could do. We went in hoping to secure about $3,000. We ultimately got over $100,000 worth of support for the tour.
Shortly after we talked to Walter, he contacted us about turning our projected two-week tour in Alaska into a longer visit with major Arco support that would include a special flight for a contingent of 14 of us to Arco’s Prudhoe Bay facility where we would present two performances for the crews still working at there. Arco’s crews by this time were no longer digging the wells or working on the pipeline but instead were managing the oil recovery processes. Arco also wanted us to perform for the two Ivillages, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik and would provide their Twin Otter aircraft to bring the company to these two Inupiat communities where we performed in their high schools.
Arco contributed funds to support our fee, local transportation, accommodations, meals, and production costs. We rounded out the tour by including four mid-size (by Alaska standards) cities – Homer, Nome, Barrow and the capital, Juneau.
They also wanted to brand the tour “the Arco-AMAN tour of Alaska”. I was flown up to Alaska about 10 weeks prior to the tour to discuss marketing and overall promotion. Our tour was just a few years after the devastating Anchorage earthquake and one could still see evidence of the quake in many parts of the city. I saw a “new” cliff where the land had risen over six feet adjacent to a parking lot.
In April 1981 the company flew off to Alaska via Seattle. We were flying a short time (geologically speaking) after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State and the Alaska Air pilot graciously flew over the volcano so we could all view the still smoking caldera. Quite a sight!!
Our first stop was Fairbanks where the full company was to perform. I remember having to return to the airport our first evening in town to pick up some of the instruments that we could not fit onto the bus that picked us up at the airport. That trip gave me my first opportunity to see the Northern Lights. While I expected the “sheet” lights as shown in most photographs about them, what we got was a giant green cloud-like blob undulating in the sky above us. It was quite impressive but only visible outside the areas where urban lights obscured them.
Our first week included highly successful performances in both Fairbanks and Anchorage, along with a few school-based activities. This was also the Company’s first opportunity to meet local Aleuts who demonstrated some of their dances for us. The dancers were young and old, men and women with the youngest looking like they were still in high school. Much of the drum-accompanied dance that we saw was based on the movements of animals native to Alaska and the hunts to capture those animals (sometimes from the animal’s point of view). One interesting thing that I remembered was the ritual of putting on thick gloves before each dance. It seemed that the tradition was not to dance without gloves on.
At the end of that week, we split the company in two, with half going to the Arco facility above the Arctic Circle and the other half to Homer. I went with the Prudhoe Bay contingent. Barry Glass (by now, the Co-Artistic Director of the Company with Leona Wood) led the Homer contingent, partly, I think, because he wanted to return to a site where he had spent time years before.
We landed at Prudhoe Bay where the wind-chill factor read negative forty degrees. We were advised not to breathe too vigorously through our teeth for fear of cracking them from the cold (was that an “old-wives’ tale??” – I wasn’t sure). Arco provided us with fur-lined parkas that we held onto until our departure from our stops on the Arctic Ocean.
We settled into rooms at the Arco facility and got introduced to the cafeteria. Arco basically had food available 24/7 so their employees, whose work shifts were 12-hours-on and 12-hours-off, could eat whenever they wanted and needed to. Arco was still planning menus based on the requirement to consume close to 5,000 calories a day to cope with the harsh conditions outdoors and strenuous physical labor. One of Aman’s instrumental musicians, Jerry Robin, took full advantage of this largess and loaded his plate very generously every time we visited the cafeteria. Fortunately for him, his metabolism was high and he never showed the signs of overeating as some of the more-desk-bound Arco employees were now evidencing.
Fred Allen, our Production Manager, and I shared a room in the Arco dorms. I remember Fred jumping out of bed at 3:00 AM to close the shutters on our windows. Being on the summer side of the equinox and so far north, we were treated to the sun rising very early in the morning (it also went down very late in the evening).
On Day One of our Prudhoe Bay visit we performed two 60-minute shows for the Arco employees – one for each shift. On Days Two and Three we went to Nuiksit and Kaktovik. It took two flights to move us because the plane only had 12 seats and there were 14 of us plus instruments and costumes. Fred and I were on the first flights both times so that we could start preparing the venue for our performance.
The high schools in these villages had incredible gyms complete with indoor swimming pools that would be the envy of the finest private schools anywhere. It should be noted that these were not typical high schools by “lower 48” standards. These Inupiat villages sat on top of the oil that Arco was pulling out of the ground. The high school in Kaktovik had a brand new $10 million gym where we performed – and $10 million went a lot farther in the late 70s than it does today. A class of high school students had just returned home from a field trip – to San Francisco! In Nuiqsut, in spite of the oil wealth-supported performance venue, the town’s one telephone for calling outside the village was in a shed near the school, and people lined up to place calls to the rest of the world.
We also had opportunities to talk with the locals while waiting for the balance of the performers to join us. In Kaktovik we heard about the polar bear that had been rummaging through garbage near the homes the night before our arrival. He was shot and butchered with the meat left in numerous boxes in people’s yards to fast-freeze for ultimate transport to family members living farther to the south and otherwise unable to procure bear meat. On our drive between the airport and the village we saw a whale skeleton on the beach as evidence of a successful hunt the year before.
We talked to a high-school girl about what types of meat she enjoyed. She liked polar bear and caribou but ukmuk – the whale blubber delicacy – was her favorite. I did not get to try any (lucky me!!), but some of the company that stayed for the full three weeks had a chance in Barrow – the northern-most community in the United States.
But let’s go back a bit. It appears that Arco was having some difficulties with the Inupiat communities over how much to pay for the oil. There were active lawsuits pending at the time of our trip. Arco wanted to demonstrate that it was a good corporate citizen by supporting this cultural offering to the villagers. Thus, we became cultural ambassadors.
There were other tensions as well. For example, the non-native pilot of the Twin Otter aircraft that transported us to the villages from Prudhoe Bay complained that though Arco had employed Inupiat men to work at their Prudhoe Bay facility, when the caribou were “running” these men would avoid work to go hunting. “I’d like to go hunting whenever I like it, too” grumbled the pilot. I don’t think he realized that hunting caribou for the Inupiat was not recreation but survival. The Inupiat men had no idea how long this “oil” fad and the jobs that came with it would last, so they had to maintain their skills as caribou hunters to be ready for a time when they could no longer rely on a cash economy for community survival.
Following our separate journeys to Homer and Prudhoe Bay (I’ll have to rely on colleagues who visited Homer and who stayed the full three weeks for more specifics) we reunited in Anchorage where I led the unit there for only 10 days back to Los Angeles. Our intrepid colleagues who stayed for the full three weeks had some incredible experiences particularly in Nome and Barrow – two cities that, at the time, were not used to hosting large ensembles of performers.
The tour was clearly a success in the eyes of our Arco sponsors, the State Arts Council, the communities we visited and the company. I left Aman in 1981 but not before starting talks about bringing the company back for a second tour of the state. It was an experience all involved appreciated, Aman’s longest tour to date and a harbinger of other exciting touring yet to come for the company.
THE BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC
Hopes of getting to New York City with the sponsorship of one of that City’s limited number of non-profit or college-based presenters were limited. By the late 70s it was clear that if we were going to “play” NYC, we might just have to self-produce our first performances there. By this time, Fred Allen was handling booking for the company and he started investigating a self-presentation concept at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, already known as the most prominent NYC performing venue for dance outside of Manhattan.
We put together a budget for bringing the company there for two performances that we would tie to a single date Fred had booked at the University of Connecticut in Stores. We figured that this was an investment in Aman’s future and were preparing to earn about $50,000 less than the costs of renting the venue, paying the union stage crew, covering the promotion and advertising and bringing the company east for just under a week. Diane Miller’s sizeable support that year gave us the cushion to seriously consider taking this on.
We found one of the best free-lance publicists in NYC to coordinate our entire campaign including ad buys and pitches to the local print and electronic media. Among our publicist’s many accomplishments for Aman was securing important newspaper coverage from John Rockwell, who was a major performing arts critic for the New York Times. He had already reviewed Aman during his days at the Los Angeles Times and was favorably familiar with the company. She also hosted a press reception just days before the first concert. None of the major media showed up but we did have writers from the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union newspaper and a few others with equally limited circulation. Every bit helped.
Our advance ticket sales were abysmal. I was certain that we were going to take a beating at the box office. But, much to our pleasure and BAM’s surprise, the folk dancers of New York who had been hearing about Aman for the better part of a decade, came out in significant enough numbers to give us respectable audiences for each of the two shows.
I sat in the balcony looking down on the audience and the stage during the first show. In the middle of the Scottish number performed by Co-Artistic Director Barry Glass and Linda DeNike, I saw Barry do something strange. He stopped dancing and hobbled off stage. I ran back-stage to find out that he had popped his Achilles tendon – he would not be able to return to the stage for months.
While other dancers could cover for him in the many suites he was in, there was one where I was probably the only possible replacement. We added Igor Moiseyev’s Moscow City Quadrilles to our repertoire while I was still actively dancing in the late 60s and I was in the original cast for that number. Barry was dancing the same position that I had. It was quickly agreed that I would have to dance again but fitting my 5’10” body into Barry’s costume was out of the question. He was under 5” 4’. I could fit into his shirt (maybe) but the pants and boots were another matter. Somehow we found an acceptable pair of each and I was on stage in a dance that I had not performed in half a decade. Thank goodness for intermission. I had the opportunity to run through the choreography once with everyone just to make them and me confident that I was up to the task. I was.
Our New York debut was a great success. Some of the board members had traveled to BAM to be with us. We had a great after party at one of the leading folk dance venues meeting with many folks we, too, had heard about but never met. We got a great review from John Rockwell. (I was very nervous about another leading NYC reviewer who I had been watching from the balcony. He was sleeping through most of the show. Although he was someone whose reviews were respected throughout the country, he had a reputation for disliking ethnic dance and I was grateful that his review never ran.)
Following this major New York City debut, we returned home triumphant with some fine East Coast reviews and great memories. This had been one more important development that made the late ‘70s through the ‘80s some of Aman’s most exciting years. I was proud to be the Executive Director during part of this time when Aman was on a fast track to significant recognition and activity throughout the United States with one great international trip, under the auspices of the State Department’s U.S. Information Agency (USIA), yet to come.
Previous, Chapter Two
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