Dancing San Diego

December 26, 2007

A summer breeze from San Diego Bay wafts through nearly floor-to-ceiling windows into John Malashock’s studio, where he leads students in traveling phrases across the 60-foot-long room. In another airy studio down the hall, a class rehearses a piece to Motown tunes under the eye of guest teacher Monica Bill Barnes.


That was the scene one morning last July at a summer intensive at Dance Place San Diego. Located at a former naval training center reborn as an arts and education complex, Dance Place has 11 studios, office space, locker rooms with showers, and a lounge. The 23,000-square-foot Spanish colonial building opened in December 2006 with three resident companies: Malashock Dance, Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater, and San Diego Ballet. Malashock and Isaacs are modern choreographers, with Malashock known for dense, often literary pieces, and Isaacs for work that ranges from slouchy humor to Zen metaphysics. San Diego Ballet reflects the witty, musical theater-influenced aesthetic of artistic director Javier Velasco. The three groups had joined forces during a decade of lobbying for the facility. Dance Place has since added Butterworth Dance Company, and it rents space to several dozen groups as well.


Dance Place is San Diego’s first building dedicated to dance. The high-visibility, $4.8 million project comes at a time when dance in San Diego is showing plenty of muscle. There’s a groundswell of contemporary choreographers, growing ballet repertories, and an abundance of world dance. And musical theater, hip hop, and ballroom scenes have national clout.


Audiences, as well as the art, have expanded. “I used to know my whole audience,” says Isaacs, who formed her first San Diego company in the mid-1970s. “Now I don’t think I knew 10 people out of hundreds who called to buy tickets to Trolley Dances, and that’s so rewarding.” (See “Trolley Dancing,” Oct. 2003.)


University Connections

Thanks to growing university programs, the modern dance community has had an influx of strong mid-career choreographic voices. Allyson Green, whose work is distinguished by its lyricism and intelligence, heads the dance faculty at the University of California, San Diego. Also at UCSD are Londoner Yolande Snaith, who has a keen visual sensibility, and Liam Clancy, who mixes circus arts and deft narrative. San Diego State University has added the conceptually oriented Joe Alter and San Franciscan Leslie Seiters, whose fey contact-improvisation-flavored work has won Isadora Duncan awards.


Along with making their own work, the newcomers have sparked community creativity. Clancy, Alter, and Seiters are working with a number of artists on an improvisation practice. Clancy initiated “4×4,” a monthly cabaret series sponsored by alternative presenter Sushi, along the lines of Portland’s “Ten Tiny Dances” (See “Vital Signs,” Aug.).


Green has made connections in Tijuana, Mexico, less than 20 miles from downtown. “What’s happening on the border blows me away,” says Green, who is premiering a piece on the hard-hitting young company Lux Boreal this month. In Tijuana, Green has found talented artists, supportive government and presenters, and enthusiastic audiences. “I find the conversation with artists on both sides of the border vital and inspiring,” she says.


Some of the liveliest action in San Diego centers on emerging artists who flock to see one another’s work. In one three-week stretch last season, four shows featured work by a dozen young artists. One standout was Amanda Waal, whose poetic solo achieved a skillful balance of vintage film clips, recorded text, and Waal’s athletic dancing. And Sadie Weinberg produced an evening of work highlighting her wiry strength and fierce stage presence.

Burgeoning Ballet

Ballet in San Diego doesn’t yet have the effervescence of the modern dance scene, but there’s a growing sense of critical mass, especially at City Ballet of San Diego, the youngest (at 15 years) of three major companies. Founders Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich, veterans of the Boston and Stuttgart Ballets, launched an ambitious program several years ago to capture the triple crown of strong principals, a solid corps, and great choreography. They earmarked funds for recruiting men, and their male roster is now led by former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Ivan Bielik and Gerardo Gil from the National Ballet of Mexico. And they have enhanced their repertoire, as well as challenging the dancers, by adding nine Balanchine works since 2004 and doing an annual all-Balanchine show. Last season’s lineup included Agon, with glittering dancing by Ariana (Wistrich) Samuelsson, who rejoined her parents’ troupe after two years at the Joffrey Ballet. But Steven Wistrich feels that a greater milestone was Serenade. Last year, he decided that City had enough strength in the corps to handle the iconic ballet. City also staged Act II of Swan Lake with flawless corps work.


Of San Diego’s other troupes, 40-year-old California Ballet, with the biggest budget and a taste for the classics, excels at sumptuous productions. And director Maxine Mahon has brought in stellar guest artists, including the U.S. debut of the astonishing Polina Semionova (See “On the Rise,” Oct. 04) in The Sleeping Beauty. Recently, Mahon has reinvigorated the repertoire, adding Robert Sund’s Beauty and the Beast last year and Toni Pimble’s Cinderella this season.


San Diego Ballet’s prolific Velasco has hit the bull’s-eye artistically with some of his original work, like a romance-drenched suite inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s also deft at mixing hip hop or Bharata Natyam dancers into ballet productions.

Global Village

As a community in which a hundred languages are spoken, San Diego has more than three dozen world dance groups. There is particular strength in Latin American and Asian traditions, such as Mexican folklorico, hula, and the Filipino ensembles Samahan and PASACAT, all of them favorites at the Nations of San Diego International Dance Festival. Last year, the festival’s producer, the San Diego Dance Alliance, essentially folded after a collapse in leadership. However, a number of dance community leaders are determined to revive the Nations festival, which began in 1993 and at its peak offered two weekends of programs, featuring about 16 groups.

Tap, Hip Hop, and More

Though the tap scene is small, there’s a buzz around Groove on Tap!, an ensemble started by hoofer Claudia Gomez Vorce and drummer Toby Ahrens. Vorce, who rides the beat like a gleeful kid, staged one of last summer’s highest-energy evenings when she invited New York pals Michela Marino Lerman (see “25 to Watch,” page 44) and Baakari Wilder to jam with her.


Some of the heaviest hitters in San Diego dance come from musical theater, hip hop, and ballroom. Recent productions that originated at the Old Globe Theatre and went on to Broadway are Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ (2006) and Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (2005). The Globe’s revival of The Band Wagon, opening in March, has Broadway ambitions, and La Jolla Playhouse premiered Thoroughly Modern Millie (2000) and Jersey Boys (2004). Cry-Baby, a musical adaptation of the John Waters film, opened at the Playhouse in November and is slated to move to Broadway this April.


In hip hop, San Diego is home to the Culture Shock team and school founded in 1993 by a spark plug former jazz dancer, Angie Bunch. Along with offering 50 classes a week at a three-studio center, the San Diego group is the mother ship for Culture Shocks in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Oakland (see sidebar, p. 74).


Another high-octane woman, Mary Murphy, has helped put San Diego on the map for ballroom. Known for her ebullient screams as a judge on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance, Murphy won the U.S. ballroom title in 1996 and directs San Diego’s Champion Ballroom Academy. It’s part of a ballroom scene that features a half-dozen major studios and a raft of top professionals including several U.S. champions and Wendy Johnson, who choreographs for Dancing With the Stars.

Whether it’s ballroom or Butoh, Malashock feels that with the new visibility provided by Dance Place, dance in San Diego is coming into its own. “The sense of credibility and respect that didn’t exist before is exciting” he says. “I was talking with a local philanthropist who said, ‘I want to come to Dance Place and see what you guys are doing down there.’ There wasn’t a ‘down there’ before.”

Janice Steinberg writes for the
San Diego Union-Tribune and teaches dance criticism at San Diego State University.