“It feels that things are simmering, if not percolating” in the L.A. dance community.–Choreographer David Rousseve, artistic director of REALITY

That was just one of the interesting comments made during the morning session of the L.A. Dance Summit, which took place today (June 8) at downtown Los Angeles’ Japan America Theatre. I think David is right, and the conference was one bit of that simmering.

It was spearheaded by Bonnie Oda Homsey, former Graham dancer and co-founder of American Repertory Dance Company, and Cora Mirikitani, president and CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation, with help from the city and county arts councils/commissions. It was put together with good intentions–to gather the entire community of dancers, choreographers, teachers, administrators, and so on, for discussions, and to provide concrete advice and assistance for making it in L.A. as a dance artist. Still, the summit was announced not so long ago and there was not quite enough advance notice to do a huge publicity campaign. I thought it was a significant event and wrote a story for the L.A. Times. Still, it was unclear how big a crowd would turn out, particularly given it’s the same weekend as the Ojai Music Festival, directed this year by Mark Morris.

I saw Bonnie when I arrived and she said there were more than 200 registrants; she was very pleased about that. I’ll name drop just some of the people I saw: Don Hewitt (former Kaleidoscope director who has moved back to L.A.), Gary Bates, Barak Marshall, Jenny Backhaus, Dale Merrill, Lorin Johnson, Melissa Barak, Tamica Washington-Miller, Melanie Rios Glaser, Michael Alexander, Matt Wells, Jane Jelenko (Music Center Dance Arts), and Fred Strickler. The afternoon was devoted to practical workshop sessions, and I did not stay for those. Following the summit, Bonnie and Cora hope to come up with a working paper that will outline the community’s greatest needs and suggest ways to move forward. I will blog about that later. Below are some outtakes on what struck me the most.

Renae Williams Niles, now vice president of programming at the Music Center, gave a brief opening speech that was titled “The Legacy of L.A. Dance.” Her comments were not, unfortunately, quite that sweeping or comprehensive. She said that up until a decade ago, the only times the community gathered, it was in reaction to some crisis. She labeled this gathering pro-active, and as such, it was a positive development. The vastness of Los Angeles is its greatest challenge, she noted, a central theme that was repeated by others. (Other familiar themes: not enough funding for artists, not enough administrative infrastructure, not enough rehearsal space, and a lack of performance venues.)

Laura Zucker, executive director of the county Arts Commission, moderated the plenary panel. She opened with some revealing statistics from a report to be released in a few weeks: Forty local dance companies, with budgets between $1million and $25,000, had combined revenues of $8.7 million; they gave 550 annual performances here and on tour, reaching more than 300,000 attendees. Yet, revealingly, these companies are able to employ only 18 full-time, and 62 part-time staff members. In addition, 84 percent of their revenue comes from earned income, meaning they’re trying to live off ticket sales alone, which is nearly impossible to do.

Margaret Jenkins, artistic director of her SF-based eponymous company, spoke about her Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange program that has benefitted 30 L.A. artists since she brought it here in 2008. The program fosters, she said, a “rigorous dialogue” among emerging and veteran choreographers, who are paired together; provides compensation to them; helps alleviate the isolation of working alone; and gives choreographers sustained feedback.

Olga Garay-English, executive director of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, urged dancers and dance-makers to be creative and collaborative off-stage as well as on. She noted that during the recent economic collapse her department stepped up its fundraising and was able to get funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to start a technical assistance program. Seven local companies and individuals were selected to take part in it. She also added that NEA officials recently complained to her that they don’t get enough grant applications from L.A. companies, suggesting that there are funding opportunities out there for local companies to grab.

In his remarks, David Rousseve spoke about a peculiarly L.A. dichotomy: The possibilities to make art here can seem more limitless than in other places, yet it’s also logistically harder to achieve. David brought up places to which dancers can turn for help and inspiration: residencies offered by CAP UCLA; spacefinderla.org to locate rehearsal space; alternative dance presenting organizations Show Box LA and Pieter. But he noted there is a “profound lack of infrastructure,” which handicaps L.A. artists.

Finally, Kristy Edmunds, the newish (she just finished her second year) executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA, spoke about her role as presenter and curator of an organization that has been producing live performance for 75 years. She noted that a cynic could say her job is to shop for what the audience “is currently seeking.” She believes, on the other hand, that letting box office concerns dictate curatorial decisions, would mean everyone would leave the theater feeling “empty.” Edmunds noted that she has pulled out seats to improve sight lines in the beautiful but barn-like Royce Hall, and that she wants to improve on the artistic experience of seeing dance there. She said that meeting with local dance-makers is a continuous and integral part of her job, and that she is interested in artists’ work in its full “dimensionality,” not just as a single production to sell.

Clearly, the morning was devoted to focusing on whatever positive elements there are to being a dance artist in L.A. I wonder, did the artists who attended think the summit was beneficial? Do you also think things are simmering?