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How the premiere dance world found a home in Orange County

Natalia Osipova in ABT's “Firebird.”

To that list of glorious pleasures Orange County residents invariably take for granted – near-constant sunshine, killer Asian food and Mike Trout – we must add the stellar dance series at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

With the Costa Mesa cultural compound turning 30 this year, a deserved anniversary gift is to cast an appreciative eye at the center’s artistic centerpiece: the imported ballet and modern choreography from around the world that routinely jetés into our backyard.  

This isn’t some dewy bouquet to ballet or mash note to modern dance, but a look at how such a high level of quality got here, how its presence created a sophisticated local audience and, most intriguing of all, how it is now changing and expanding in some surprising ways.
Executive Vice President Judy Morr, the only executive who has been at the center since it opened in 1986, has programmed the dance series over the decades. She arrived after a 16-year stint at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., bringing a Rolodex stuffed with performing arts connections and the backing of the center’s board of directors to think big and introduce world-class dance to a county without its own major dance company, much less a stage large enough to present one on.

 “I felt that to start people out, for the first meal they’ve ever had,” Morr says, “you give them the best dinner you could cook.”

Morr is a modest chef – year after year Orange County has seen a steadily replenished banquet with entrees from around the nation and world: American Ballet Theatre, featured at the center 25 times; New York City Ballet with classics by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in tow; the Mariinsky’s precise, pristine Russians as well as the Bolshoi’s bravura and boisterous Russians; the Royal Ballet’s refined Brits; modernist dance makers from Hamburg and Monte Carlo; and flourishing mainstays like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

To date, according to center records, there have been 981 dance performances. More than 1.75 million tickets have been sold.

A key result of this feast was the creation and nurturing of a sustaining Orange County audience for dance. Short on knowledge at the start, perhaps, but now three decades in, it is a sophisticated consumer base that has shown a strong willingness to attend and, perhaps even more significantly, to support.

“I don’t know anywhere else in the country with dance audiences as knowledgeable as ours,” says Terry Dwyer, president of the center. “When companies tour here, they always comment on that, so it’s a great source of pride for this community.”

George Schreyer is an example. The longtime Newport Beach resident went to the center’s 1983 groundbreaking.  That spade turn was an eye – and wallet – opener.
Typical of Orange County residents, Schreyer sized up the commute – “I wanted arts in my neighborhood instead of driving to Los Angeles” – but his pulse was elevated by the idea of ballet.  Even now, remembering key performances, his voice leaps from zero to exuberance in less than six seconds.

“The violin solo in ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the dancing in ‘La Bayadere,’ ‘Giselle’…”  Schreyer paused only to catch his breath: “I do still get goose pimples!”

That enthusiasm translated into monetary support, which makes possible the high-quality troupes coming to Costa Mesa. Schreyer and his wife, Terry, have contributed to almost too many ABT productions to keep track of, and reach back to when the Mariinsky was called the Kirov.

Terry is a member of the center’s key Angels of the Arts support group, which generally requires a one-time buy-in of $20,000 plus annual dues of $4,500. The two are regulars at Candlelight, the center’s splashy December gala for 500, where even in lean economic years the $2 million fundraising goal is reached.

Later this month the Schreyers will help underwrite the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s new production of the energetic story ballet “Le Corsaire.”

While the parade of costumed story ballets and mixed bills of modern dance continues to draw audiences, the center is broadening its goals beyond the stage and into the community, pointing to a new future for dance.

Increasingly, beyond just presenting the latest redo of “Swan Lake,” the center has taken a more active role in commissioning new works and getting dancers and dance makers to create pieces at the center.

“We have started stepping away from companies with just their set repertoire to develop and create projects for the best dancers in the world,” says Morr.

A notable example from 2011 was a program called “Reflections,” in which the center partnered with the Bolshoi Ballet to create, not just present.

Half a dozen choreographers from around the world, including Karole Armitage and Nacho Duato, were involved in the venture. About a dozen Russian dancers, including then-rising stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev – his roof-raising leaps will be on display in “Le Corsaire” – came to Costa Mesa to be involved in the creative rehearsal process.
This trend continues next March when the center unveils the world premiere of “Whipped Cream,” a new ballet from ABT, created by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

This September saw another step forward, one that wedded dance to multi-media use of cutting-edge technology. During the run-up to another Russian-dancer dominated program (“Tour De Force 3”), the center invited UC Irvine’s dance and media arts wizard, John Crawford, and his “motion capture” cameras to a series of rehearsals at which the international dancers were captured on a real-time screen in front of them, Crawford manipulating backing colors and images on the screen.

A half-dozen or so of the sessions were live-streamed. (To access these clips, visit SCFTA’s Facebook page and see the “Active Space Dance Project” playlist).

Not all of the dance-of-the-future initiatives at the center are found on stage. In 2015, the center opened an on-site dance school.

A year in, the ABT William J. Gillespie School has 240 students age 3 and up taking various levels of classes. With its faculty of 12, the school has full-day schedules with classes in body conditioning, technique, en pointe and character. Priority auditions, like one held in late September to fill out the cast of ABT’s upcoming “The Nutcracker,” are part of the offerings.
The school’s name includes some key words that speak to the significance of the overall mission: First, the tie to ABT further formalizes the center’s ongoing relationship with America’s preeminent touring ballet company in the future. It’s likely some graduates will be prepared to try out for the New York company.

Then there’s William J. Gillespie, one of Orange County’s most significant arts donors over the past quarter century (his donations include seven-figure gifts to the Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale and for the 4,332-pipe concert organ in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall).

At the time of the dance school’s opening, in a statement, Gillespie characterized the school as “in many ways, (a) precedent-setting arts collaboration that has far reaching potential for the future of dance in Southern California and beyond.”

Meantime, a new, heartening initiative, as yet unnamed, is taking a shape at the center.
In recent years, a few dance companies around the nation – notably Boston Ballet – have begun to sponsor programs for children with physical disabilities that offer dance movement tailored to varied skill sets. After offering preliminary workshops in late May, the center has created a new dance and music school, with a staff including not just a dance teacher and a musician, but also physical and occupational therapists.

“We are very interested in how the arts can engage diverse communities in important and innovative new ways,” Dwyer says. “The smiles on their young faces told you everything you needed to know about the potential of this type of program to make a real difference in the lives of those children.”

Morr finds in all of these new directions a varied and revised mission for dance at the center going ahead:“Don’t stop, keep growing,” says Morr. “And keep learning what ‘growing’ means as we go forward.”

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