Dance Kaleidoscope: A Personal History

It was an article in the LA Times about the state of dance in1988 and a comment from post modern choreographer Rudy Perez that first made me focus on the importance of the then defunct Dance Kaleidoscope Festival. Mr. Perez was lamenting that the valuable Kaleidoscope venue was needed again and “where was it”? It had been a venue for established and emerging artists that allowed them visibility and covered all production costs. For many companies, the performances translated into a more permanent support throughout the year and a enhanced basis for funding retaining their dancers and choreographic explorations.

The Los Angeles Area Dance Alliance (LAAIIA) a non-profit service organization was founded in 1976. The members, choreographers, dancers, artistic directors and managers were led by Director, Betty Empey. Note: Betty was a classically trained singer whose daughter was a ballet dancer. In 1974, she was responsible for much of the development of the Los Angeles Ballet Company and for inviting, Balanchine’ s choice, John Clifford to direct the company.

LAADA accomplished many things for the arts community and was widely emulated around the country. After a dance showcase fundraiser and with help from J. Foster and the LA County Music and Performing Arts Commission, Dance Kaleidoscope was born. Several years after Betty’s retirement in 1984 the organization decided to disband.

I first contacted Betty 1988 in regard to her thoughts on resuming Dance Kaleidoscope. She and her husband had moved to an idyllic setting in the Wapiti Valley, Wyoming. She was very encouraging and instructive. We became good friends and I visited her many times over the years until her death in 2008.

In the 13 years that followed we greatly expanded the audition process and the scope of presentation. We presented nearly three hundred companies/groups/soloists over thirteen summers in a variety of venues. Technical support, publicity, souvenir programs and honorariums were provided. The festival grew from our first venue at California State University Playhouse to other locations including John Anson Ford Theatre (the setting for the former Dance Kaleidoscope performances), the Japan American Theatre, and Loyola Marymount University-Strubb Hall and Grand Performances. When the new Luckman Fine Arts Complex at CSULA was completed, we moved the performance to the larger space to accommodate growing audiences. I was able to retain my office at CSULA and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. In the meantime, the festival brought a richness to the students attending both institutions.

The Board of Directors I were: Lee Werbel, Gail Matsui, Jordan Peimer and Chris Kennedy. They were experienced, resourceful and dedicated. It helped that l had taught in Los Angeles for many years and was very familiar with the arts and educational community. Many people and institutions were accessible and generous with their resources and wished us well, We were fortunate to have Don Bondi do the original lighting, later Eileen Cooley. Gary Bates was an invaluable assistant from 1997-2000. Linda Chiavaroli was especially effective at public relations. Adrian Ravarour, our videographer, recorded all the performers.

Dance Kaleidoscope twice sponsored Dance West, the west coast platform for the Recontres Choreographiques Internationales de Seine-Saint Denis, one of the world’s most prestigious competitions for modern choreography. The Festival invited Tina Croll and James Cunningham to present a west coast production of their nationally acclaimed From the Horse’s Mouth. One of our most unique performances was called California Masters. Works by California choreographers were beautifully revived/recreated including: Eugene Loring, Carmelita Maracci, Lester Horton, Gloria Newman, Ruth St. Denis, Alvin Ailey, Lola Montez , Rudy Perez and a tap medley in the style of early California performers by Lynn Dally with the Jazz Tap Ensemble Musicians.

Our audition process took several weekends. After a pre-screening with paper work and video, the rotating selection panel chose approximately 30 performers or groups from often over 100 applicants that would apply each year. Auditions were open to the public and we all got a view of what was going in on dance in the greater Los Angeles area. There was some pressure to expand the festival and bring in groups from other than Southern California. We could have brought in the Paul Taylor Ensemble or NYC Ballet soloists too, but that was not the mandate or purpose of the organization and certainly not in our budget. (I was able to start a Ballet Festival at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex with the help of the center’s director Clif Harper and we eventually did bring in NYC Ballet’s Damien Woetzel and Friends. Betty Empey was in the audience).

During my term as Director with the festival, I learned so much about many forms of dance. As I was classically trained, had seen a lot of contemporary dance and had a musical theatre background, much of the work performed had been in my usual context. There were often some wonderful surprises in all fields. Further, discovering much of ethnic dance from the communities in Los Angeles and meeting those communities was a wonderful pleasure that I miss today. They were passionate about dance and a high level of performance. We also had our share of cutting edge experimental choreography and took the risk to present it for our own growth. Throughout the festival’s history, we were well attended by a diverse and enthusiastic audience.

When I went into semi-retirement in 2002, I felt regret at leaving the Dance Kaleidoscope and all the other projects I had become involved in. As a tribute, I was asked to select artists for a final Dance Kaleidoscope Tribute program. It was very difficult to choose. At the final curtain, each group that performed in that program gave me a memento. There were some lovely awards from Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the California Arts Council. I felt too young for “lifetime achievement”, but looking back, it seems another lifetime.

As I looked out into the full house it was as if I could recognize every face. l had performed a lot, but never did the individuals look so clear from the stage. Later I thought that I must have taught or worked all of those people over the 40 years in Los Angeles, Perhaps I really could know each person in the house. I was feeling lucky to have had the opportunity to be involved in the festival, experience so much in dance and work with the variety of artists. It was, for me, a memorable evening.

© Copyright 2012 Don Hewitt All rights reserved