Submitted for “Newswriting” class assignment on the topic of “LA Without the LA Times,” fall 2009.
Thordal Christensen transforms from Artistic Director to dancer as he roars “Bigger! Like this!” and demonstrates the Mouse King’s grand leap in the battle scene of The Nutcracker. Each detail of the move from deep plie to outstretched limbs is executed to precision, showcasing a fierce attack. The cast gathered in the rehearsal studio is transfixed, as is co-Artistic Director Colleen Neary. Although Christensen and Neary have danced in countless Nutcracker performances, this time they are focusing all efforts on their newly formed company, Los Angeles Ballet.
This is the fourth annual Nutcracker for the Los Angeles Ballet (LAB), the fledgling company that seems to have beaten the odds against ballet in Los Angeles. By most accounts, the company is rapidly achieving its goal of becoming Los Angeles’ resident, world class company. This would finally raise L.A. to the standards of major metropolitan centers like Paris, London and New York – all cities with first-rate ballet companies.
LAB debuted at the end of 2006 under Christensen, Neary and Executive Director Julie Whittaker. The dance world respects Christensen and Neary as a brilliant power-couple with the talent and experience to establish a world-class ballet company in L.A. Even so, many were skeptical. As a 2009 L.A. Times article by Diane Haithman noted, “Developing a ballet company of international stature is a goal that has eluded L.A. for decades.” A 2006 L.A. Times editorial noted that “the survival of en elite and expensive art form is tricky anywhere.” It is especially tricky in L.A. where, according to Francisco Martinez, director of L.A.-based Francisco Martinez Dance Theater and Dance Professor at Occidental College, audiences are “fickle” about dance. “L.A. arts patrons tend to support the opera, the symphony, musicals, and theatre but not ballet,” he said. “This has been a problem no matter how much finances companies received.” Whittaker agrees that lack of awareness of ballet in L.A. is a problem. When she announced the launch of the current Los Angeles Ballet, many responded, “I didn’t know there wasn’t one.”
Like many L.A. ballet companies, LAB has certain limitations. Despite their international credentials, the directors don’t carry the recognition of ballet greats like Gelsey Kirkland or Mikhail Baryshnikov. Their budget is lean – 1.5 million per year, according to Christensen.The company dancers, while technically strong are mostly young and lacking experience.
Even so, LAB has succeeded in establishing itself in the city. In addition to the Nutcracker, they perform a varied repertoire throughout the year, including original pieces as well as famed works by luminaries such as George Balanchine and August Bournonville, with whom Christensen and Neary are extremely familiar from their careers at New York City Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. The company has drawn crowds to large venues such as Glendale’s Alex Theater, UCLA’s Freud Playhouse and the new Broad Stage in Santa Monica. They’ve recruited an impressive board of directors and donor base. They have a full-time company of 24 hand-selected dancers, a studio complex in West L.A. and a bustling “Los Angeles Ballet School” to go with it.
According to LA-based dancer Arsen Serobian, founder of DanceChannelTV.com, it is these attributes that have helped the company. “In terms of this city,” he said, “top dancers, high quality, professional work and a good repertoire will drive audiences to see performances, and this has been the case with LAB.” Former L.A. Times dance critic Lewis Segal would agree. For him, the biggest factor in drawing interest, audiences and funding is “the excitement and artistry of the onstage experience, night after night, season after season.” Christensen and Neary feel they have the talent and ambition to deliver this excitement and artistry, but they recognize that they will need help. In a 2005 L.A. Times article, Segal quoted Christensen as saying, “There’s always pride in a home-grown team. But it can’t happen overnight. You need to build up a community, a network, a family in support of that home team.”
It is undeniable that the L.A. Times has been part of that supportive “home team.” Their very first performance was marked by a favorable review by Segal, once called a “beast to ballet.” Segal praised the company’s accomplishments and most importantly expressed excitement and optimism, urging Angelenos to support the company. Now, after four years, LAB has been featured in 15 L.A. Times articles, and Whittaker feels the company has firmly established itself in the city – with the help of its biggest newspaper. “The L.A. Times really helped to develop interest in the company,” she said. “Its contribution has been huge.”
Additionally, Whittaker said paid-advertising in the L.A. Times has been the most effective type of advertising for LAB in terms of ticket-sales, despite the combined factors of greater attention to internet sources and the Times’ declining readership. According to Whittaker, “People literally will think we’ve been banished – that the company has collapsed – if we’re not in the Times.” While LAB can afford to purchase newspaper advertisements, mass advertising such as the banners that hang from city streetlights is out of the budget. (Currently, many feature the L.A. Philharmonic’s new conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.) Because of the expense of advertising, newspaper coverage is important.
Of course, the question all ballet company directors want answered is – How do we get that coverage? Segal calls the editor the “gatekeeper,” weighing considerations such as the importance of an event, available print space and budget constraints. But, he acknowledges that staff writers often influence these decisions. However, in the rapidly downsizing world of print journalism, staff writers specializing in dance often just don’t exist.
Segal’s position as the L.A. Times dance critic was eliminated in March 2008. He had written in that position since 1996, and was on the L.A. Times staff as a dance writer for 12 years prior. He has contributed to the paper only twice since then, spending half his time in Spain rather than L.A. Segal’s career was celebrated as having enriched the dance world in L.A., and the city’s culture too. According to former L.A. Times dance critic Chris Pasles, “he was an advocate for world culture long before many people had a name for it. Had he not been there, dance coverage at The Times would have been pitiable.” Pasles is another writer whose position at the L.A. Times was cut in 2008, after nearly 30 years of writing in the Calendar section. Now he writes for the Times as a freelancer.
The elimination of L.A. Times dance critics sparked discussion in the dance community about the role of the dance critic and the future of dance journalism. Many believe that it is essential for dance reviews to be written by a single expert voice, not by rotating freelancers, arts and culture staff writers or the music and visual art critics. “There is no substitute for a single authoritative voice,” Pasles said. “Secondary opinions are valuable, but most people focus on the chief critic’s opinions. Sometimes they don’t even read anyone else.” The discussion about the role of a dance critic even reached London, where Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian, “Critical comment carries more weight when it is anchored around the views of a chief writer. Every critic worth reading has their likes and dislikes, their blind spots and their crusades. The point is that if they write regularly, their readers get to know them and can interpret or decode what they say.”
Laura Bleiberg, former dance critic for the Orange County Register, current Associate Director of Development at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and freelance writer for the L.A. Times has also noticed the decline in coverage. “I see first-hand that all arts organizations nationwide are facing huge challenges in getting their productions noticed by the public now that newspapers have cut back on their arts sections,” she said. “When a preview story or review used to appear in the [Orange County] Register, it had an immediate impact at the box office; nothing has yet replaced the newspaper.”
The decreasing number of dance writers, especially experts like Segal and Pasles, has seriously affected dance coverage in the L.A. Times. Pasles said that the elimination of Segal’s position had a “major negative impact” because Segal was “such an advocate for dance.” “You could list the number of reviews and features the paper ran before Lewis’s departure and compare them with the number since then to see what a steep decline there has been,” he said. Pasles also notes that the budget cuts that eliminate staff positions also eliminate print space. For Pasles, all this indicates the increasing importance of other forms of media.
One example of alternate media is DanceChannelTV.com. The site produces videos covering numerous styles in various formats, such as newscasts, human interest stories, and entertainment features. When asked about the importance of alternate forms of media, Serobian said, “There is a big crowd that reads L.A. Times, but there is a big crowd that doesn’t.” Serobian believes dance companies won’t be noticed if they’re not on TV or online, promoted through venues like Facebook and Twitter. He points out that companies don’t have the budget for huge advertising campaigns, and advises they use “any media that they can” to attract audiences. Dance-writer Ann Haskins of the L.A. Weekly agrees, adding that ballet needs to pursue “new media,” which can be less expensive, as well as “old media.” Whittaker laments the declining importance of traditional media, though she does concede with a smile that “Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.” However, Whittaker said the company does have plans to expand outreach through Facebook, Twitter and blogs. In addition to using social media, the company will soon launch an advertisement on KCET, entering the world of TV.
If all goes as planned, these new outlets will help the company to establish itself further. But the L.A. Times has a played a major role in the company’s success and no one knows if this influence can be replaced by a different venue. As Whittaker said, “The L.A. Times did a civic service. The last cultural aspect of L.A. that needed to be developed – the only aspect – was a ballet company in the city. The L.A. Times helped to achieve that.”