LINES Ballet, photo by Marty Sohl

The Laguna Dance Festival begins Thursday night. Here are the major events:

  • ** A “sampler” of dance; choreography from Jennifer Lott, Jessie Ryan and Saleemah E. Knight; Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m. Laguna Art Museum. Free
  • ** Backhausdance, Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m., Laguna Playhouse
  • ** LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 9, 2 p.m. Laguna Playhouse

The lowdown:

Jodie Gates, formerly a leading dancer with Joffrey Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet, moved to Laguna Beach when she ended her performing career. She had this ambitious idea that the beachside city would make the perfect place to start a dance festival. She figured it was the kind of destination town — like Vail or Ojai — that could attract tourists as well as locals for a major arts festival. The first performances were in 2006 and because of her connections, Gates was immediately able to attract big-name companies and dancers to town, like Complexions and New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and Joaquin DeLuz, or groups that hadn’t been here yet, such as BalletX. She has held free performances on the beach, organizes master classes for local students and has the artistic directors give pre-performance talks (as they will do for this festival). All of that has gone a long way to building audiences and local loyalty.

Nonetheless, this hasn’t made it an easy sell. Gates is now an associate  professor of dance at UCI and she travels frequently, setting Forsythe ballets and her own works on other companies. On top of that, the theaters in Laguna Beach are small; the festival began in the Laguna Beach High School theater. The Laguna Playhouse is a big step up, but it has only 420 seats.

One of the admirable steps Gates has taken is to put Los Angeles and Orange County dance companies into her programs from the festival’s beginning. By aligning local dance with touring companies, she has helped to raise the profile of dance groups here that struggle to sell tickets when there are better-known and better-funded companies from outside coming into town.

Backhausdance is one of those local companies. Jenny Backhaus‘ modern dance group is celebrating its 10th season. Their program includes early favorites, such as “Sitting on January,” as well as excerpts from more recent pieces, including “The Margin.”

LINES and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago recently finished a summer residency at UCI,  in rehearsal together with LINES founder Alonzo King for a rare collaborative work.  (Local audiences will be able to see that new piece at the Music Center, June 21-23, 2013.) The companies will be doing separate pieces in Laguna: LINES has scheduled King’s “Dust and Light” and Hubbard Street has scheduled “Three to the Max,” a collage of pieces by Ohad Naharin.

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