“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” Emerson’s famous observation, could well be the motto of the Seattle Landmark Association. Created five years ago to renovate and preserve the crumbling 2,803-seat Paramount Theater, SLA has fast become a major player in the local presentation of out-of-town artists in music, comedy, film, and off-Broadway theater. Not content to rest on those laurels, SLA announced several months ago its audacious intent to add a new dance series to the mix. These days, no one is adding dance—and especially not a series—that would fly in the face of budget cuts and dire millennial predictions for the arts. Yet throwing caution to the wind seems to be SLA’s mantra: Paramount Dance ’99 opens next week.
Paramount Dance ’99
Paramount Theater, February 10-June 4
Last month I met with the very energetic SLA artistic director Josh LaBelle. LaBelle is the first to admit that, although he loves dance, it’s “a new world” for him. For the past four years he has been in charge of SLA’s music programming, booking, and is responsible for maintaining relationships with Broadway producers. In 1997 when SLA launched the Moore Theater series, LaBelle got his dancing feet wet by scheduling commercially successful theatrical dance shows like Tap Dogs, Forever Tango, and Stomp. But the credit for Paramount Dance ’99, says LaBelle, belongs entirely to SLA executive director John Dunavent, who recently came on board after 18 years as the director of the Los Angeles Music Festival. As LaBelle tells it, “John came in and sold the idea of a downtown dance series to the board.”
And that’s no small feat, considering that, historically, dance has never been a gold-mine proposition. On the one hand, SLA is playing it safe the first time around by presenting known companies. The consistently sold-out Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (opening February 10) will be co-presented with Meany’s World Dance series. World-famous Ballet Nacional de Cuba (February 19-20) has never been to Seattle. Complexions (A Concept in Dance) co-artistic directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson are both Ailey alums. Their choreography may be glossier, less spiritually based than Ailey’s classic pieces Revelations or Cry, but it is just as much a glorification of the dancer as human athlete (April 10). Portland-based Northwest Afrikan American Ballet (June 4), performing choreography inspired by traditional dances indigenous to Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Guinea, West Africa, has already gained a following with colorful, rhythmically contagious appearances at Bumbershoot. LaBelle says, “We’re committed to helping to diversify Seattle. But diversity doesn’t necessarily only mean bringing in artists of other cultures and races. It can also mean the crowds they attract. We’re always looking to develop new audiences and along those lines are committed to presenting both international and local companies in order to serve our community.”
Still, the risks are high. SLA has no underwriters, grants, or sponsors for this first series. “We made a commitment to double Ailey’s usual stay in Seattle,” says LaBelle. “We’ve increased the amount of tickets by 50 percent. I’m probably crazy for booking Ballet Nacional de Cuba just two weeks after Ailey. Yet they are very different idioms—I hope that’s the bet. They are both unbelievable companies. If we only sell 60 percent of all tickets for all the shows in the series, this company is going to take a $85,000 loss. It’s a major commitment from us to decide to move into dance. I normally don’t book with a 60 percent ratio of losing money.”
Although the Ailey company may be the only sure thing in this venture, by far the rarest jewel in Paramount Dance ’99’s crown is Alicia Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba, performing Alonso’s signature two-act Giselle. A video clip reveals the dancers’ expressive arms and hands coupled with passionate attack in the feet and legs—an Alonso characteristic. Local dance historian Sandi Kurtz says the last time Seattle audiences saw any version of Giselle was back in the ’40s and ’50s when Ballet Russes toured the Northwest. Alonso has been refining her version of the romantic-era tale since 1943, when she first danced the lead role with American Ballet Theater. In the 1960s dance critic Arnold Haskell lauded Alonso’s version as “the first perfect production I have ever seen in my long career.” Speaking from Cuba by phone last month, 77-year-old Alonso told me she has “taken the dust off” the ballet. “I develop my dancers artistically,” she said. “I give them style. I teach them not to dance everything alike. With many dancers I think, the technique is there, but where is the art?”
LaBelle is already enthusiastic about next year’s series. “I can’t tell you yet what it is,” he grins, “but I’d love to hear some of your ideas. Just come! Support downtown dance!”