Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: Dancing in L.A. 1970-2000

The gravitational pull of light, space, geography and Hollywood has long lured artists to Los Angeles. Sun, air and vista radiate endless possibility in this iconographic land of promise – yet, are also its Siren’s song. Sundays in the studio or at the beach? Audiences in the theater or at the movies? That remains the ongoing challenge for a dance artist in Southern California: to craft meaningful and magical work that meets the brilliance of this magical place.

In Los Angeles dancers have been finding film work gliding, high-kicking, tapping and moon-walking their way into 20th and 21st century consciousness worldwide on both large and small screens. Yet live performance existed prior to and continues alongside. And despite the long shadows that Hollywood luminescence can cast, live performance has benefitted from the wealth of dancers and collaborators in music and design who work in The Industry as well.

The focus here is on the period of 1970-2000. What defines this era? What changed or developed? There was a convergence of several elements. It starts with the WW II and post-war baby-boom generations, who were the first in greater numbers to be able to consider the possibility of art as a career and Southern California as a home. California’s population was rapidly expanding, and Los Angeles began to build the kind of institutions that are recognized as the mark of a great city. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art completed a new facility somewhat midway between downtown and the ocean and the Music Center’s three theaters were built in downtown Los Angeles.

Universities began developing a wider range of dance professionals from performing and choreography to ethnology and scholarly study so that an education in dance could reach beyond educating future educators. The Graduate Dance Center at UCLA started in 1971, marking the beginning of Master’s degrees in Performance. UCLA also started a program in Dance Ethnology. CalArts opened in 1970, the CSULB summer program became a recognized west coast alternative to the east’s American Dance Festival. Strong dance programs developed at UCI, UCSB, UCSD. As a result, the level of talent coming to these schools rose along with the range of places from which they came.

Also, more graduates of these departments chose to stay in California rather than returning to their home states or heading to New York. There was a growth in teaching opportunities for these graduates at various public and private high schools and at community and four-year colleges. There was also more public funding, which supported both the touring and residencies of Southern California companies across the country, national companies coming here and work within the state. The NEA’s Dance Touring and Artists in the Schools Programs, grants from the city, county and state including the California Dance Touring Program helped create a new sense of dance as a part of Los Angeles culture and education with the imprimatur of society’s financial support.

Newly arriving ethnic groups during those years such as the Persians, Armenians, Cambodians, Russians brought their dance heritages joining the Native American and Hispanic cultures as well as the Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, European and Eastern European Jewish communities that continue to be part of greater Los Angeles culture. The concept of bringing folk art to the concert stage came to the fore inspired by success of the national tours of the Moiseyev Dance Company from Russia. As well, there were a number of university and civic theaters with dance programming bringing in the best of international ballet and modern dance and more dance criticism published in more newspapers.

It seemed, by the early 1970’s, that more dancers and dance supporters came to see the possibility of Los Angeles as a rising center for dance and all the arts, and as a place to stay and develop one’s work.  The university dance programs were also turning out dancers with Master’s degrees and several doctoral programs in dance were developed. Dance became a credible subject for deeper study and the development of independent thinkers and artists.

Independence is another key word in the mind-set of those who stay in California. From the beginning of the century, there was an ongoing sense of being a pioneer.  By the 1970’s, a critical mass of dancers and artists who were thinking about making Los Angeles a capitol of art as well as entertainment, was beginning to form. With university dance students and growing populations in Santa Barbara, Orange County and San Diego public interest in dance performance grew as well.

Post-modernism began, which was especially amenable to, if not built on, varied and independent points of view. No particular technique or vocabulary was required, although a number of the young artists becoming active in the 1960’s into the 80’s were forged from the particular styles of Bella Lewitzky and Gloria Newman who were the most prominent teachers and choreographers at the time. Lewitzky, as a California original with a Horton heritage made on her body and Newman from N.Y., influenced by Graham/Horst and Cunningham created strikingly strong techniques and dancers for a supposedly laid-back L.A. Their techniques required complete commitment and discipline to perform well. This in a time encouraging artistic, political and personal revolutions – “to tune in, turn on and drop out.”

To stay in Los Angeles to make a career in dance unrelated to film or television was revolutionary and dropping out – of Hollywood and of the New York-centric American dance scene. Choreographers were thinking globally but acting locally to decentralize American dance, yet at the same time to focus attention on it within Los Angeles by making high-quality performances available and relevant to a greater audience. Perhaps these were among the elements that contributed to a critical mass that created a surge in various dance forms performed in Los Angeles and in the number of performances and venues from alternative spaces to major theaters that became available in those years.

This also required activism on the part of dancers and those who supported the arts.  Dance service organizations were created throughout the region to nurture dance through workshops, highly produced showcases in major venues, the initiation of the yearly Horton Awards for outstanding achievement in various categories were meant to call attention to the quality of work presented in the city. Government support grew and more companies became non-profit organizations to be eligible for those and private funding.

These trends continue. University dance departments, whose directors may now be home grown, continue to offer high quality dance education. More students come from around the world to study here, and more world-class artists come to teach in those schools.  There are more companies, venues and performances. In 1970, there were gaps of sometimes weeks without live dance performances. Now it is more about how many events can one see in a single week.

Finally, dance culture is made not only in the studios and performance spaces, but in how it is recorded. Ironically, in the place where dance should have had the best opportunity of being literally recorded – on film – it did not have that advantage until the advent of video in the 1970’s.  (Imagine if Lester Horton’s, Michio Ito’s, Benjamin Zemach’s, Bronislava Nijinska’s 1930’s choreographies, amongst others, for the Hollywood Bowl had been filmed!)  However, being recorded in print remains the cultural record of note. The late 1970’s – 90’s also saw in increase in dance journalism. A choreographer could get up to five printed reviews in various daily or trade publications in Los Angeles then and artists in San Diego and Santa Barbara were also regularly covered.

With the decline in print media has come a decline in dance reporting. At present, there is no guarantee of even one print newspaper carrying a review of Los Angeles-based work. Internet dance writing has begun to appear and to fill some of the current void with some of our best writers working as independently as our artists on their blogs. We seem to have more dance, but less press, as well as little publishing concerning the work originating in Los Angeles. And therein lies the problem of history.

The question remains, what is the history of dance in this part of the world? What is the timeline? Who came to dance and choreograph here? Who begat whom? Who watched and where?

This site, then, becomes a place where the long view of dance culture in Southern California can begin to be established. It is the dancers who have made this history and for now, as further evidence of the independent spirit that resides here, we are taking it into our own hands to record it.


© Copyright 2012 Karen Goodman. All rights reserved.