December 9, 2004
Amid myriad reasons for moving to and living in Los Angeles, let me add one: this is a city where one dedicated individual can still have a major cultural impact.
This came to mind recently when I made the acquaintance of Liane Weintraub, a new mother in her mid-30s. Weintraub lives in Malibu and no one could blame her for enjoying the life she is fortunate enough to lead. Instead, she has taken on a different challenge. In a short time, she has become Los Angeles' major dance benefactor and a leader in making the city, in her words: "The dance center it always could be."
Born and raised in New York and Denmark in an assimilated Jewish home where culture was revered -- her father, a German Jew, had fled Berlin in 1939; her mother ran an art gallery in New York -- Weintraub came to Los Angeles a little more than a decade ago. She studied journalism at USC and was a broadcast journalist at KADY (UPN). However, delivering the agricultural report for the Central Valley was not quite the career she had hoped for, so she moved out of the bright lights to ponder what she could do and where she could make a difference.
Weintraub had a passion for dance. It had been sparked as a little girl by ballet lessons and by attending "The Nutcracker," and it continued even after she herself abandoned dancing. Los Angeles, she felt, was missing a dance series commensurate with the city's importance as a cultural center. Weintraub wondered what she could do about it. She contacted the Music Center downtown. Her timing couldn't have been better.
You might think Los Angeles would be a great Petri dish for classical and modern dance -- just consider all the attractive, athletic, body-obsessed, eating-disorder-afflicted denizens of this city. Who could ask for a better pool of dancers and balletomanes? Yet California has always seemed to signify other disciplines -- gymnastics, figure skating, cheerleading, surfing or playing volleyball.
The story of creating both an audience and the requisite financial support and patrons for Dance at The Music Center is a long and somewhat troubled saga. Over the last 25 years there have been several major attempts to jump-start dance programs.
Between 1979 and 1983, John Clifford of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) came to Los Angeles with a number of dancers and the rights to a certain amount of Balanchine repertoire. The idea was to create an L.A. Ballet, but the effort didn't take root.
In 1983, The Music Center invited the Joffrey Ballet to become a bicoastal company. This was a very exciting development to which many people became deeply committed, both as patrons and as an audience. However, in 1991, when the Joffrey decamped to Chicago, as Weintraub says, "People had their hearts broken."
The next phase involved what has come to be known as The Dance Gallery Project, a plan to build a dance center anchored by West Coast modern dance legend Bella Lewitzky and her company. The Music Center undertook a major capital campaign that raised several millions, but the project never came together. Some donors felt their money had gone nowhere and became alienated from supporting dance in Los Angeles.
Weintraub discerned a pattern in the failed initiatives: "What they all had in common was an effort to impose a specific aesthetic or company that L.A. should have been receptive to, but was not."
Instead of trying to grow a company in Los Angeles, Weintraub joined with others in June 2000 to launch the Center Dance Association of the Music Center (CDA) and became its organizing chair. The idea was to build the audience for dance -- rather than for a specific dance company -- by presenting world-class international, national and local dance companies at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ahmanson Theatre.
At the same time, the launch of Disney Hall created dance-programming opportunities at the Music Center and the redevelopment of downtown made traveling to the center less intimidating.
Weintraub started CDA as a membership organization that supports the best possible dancers and dance companies appearing in Los Angeles, by helping to bridge the gap between ticket sales and the cost of staging the performances.
"We can sell out every seat and not make up the cost of the engagement," she said.
Membership in CDA begins at $1,000 and includes preferred seating, and behind-the-scenes events with dancers and luminaries of the dance world.
At the same time, realizing that not every dance fan can be a patron, Weintraub also just launched Friends of Center Dance, a support organization where for a contribution of as little as $100 you receive a newsletter and are invited to membership events and backstage tours and lectures.
CDA also hopes to grow the audience for dance through their outreach program. CDA has partnered with P.S. ARTS (an organization that restores arts education to public schools, for which my wife is a trustee) to create memorable and valuable experiences for children. For example, they brought students to a working rehearsal of the NYCB to learn about ballet. Also when American Ballet Theater (ABT) performed "Le Corsair," the Music Center held a pirate-themed family fun day.
This is the second full season of Dance at the Music Center. This year has already seen the NYCB in their first appearance in Los Angeles in 30 years (and the first ever at the Music Center) as well as "The Lion King" choreographer Garth Fagen. Coming up this spring is the Beijing Modern Dance Company performing to Pink Floyd's "The Wall." ABT is returning this spring, along with Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane and the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg in a new production of "Anna Karenina."
Los Angeles is less stratified, less ossified than most major cities. Almost all the cultural institutions here are the results of singular visions, and individuals choosing to give to the city. Traditionally, Jews were shut out of the dominant cultural institutions -- from sitting on their boards or running them. Here they created their own.
Imagine trying to have a similar impact on the cultural scene in New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco. One would have to kiss-up to and crawl over, push aside and kill a long line of people to get anything accomplished there. California, however, is a can-do kind of place, a state of mind personified by our philosopher of action, the Governator.
Here's to dance in Los Angeles! I would dance a jig to celebrate, but I prefer to watch. And now, thanks to Liane Weintraub, I can.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.