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Annual Laguna Dance Festival Seeks to Celebrate Community, Artistry and Diversity

Three nights of dance at the Laguna Playhouse feature New Zealand’s Black Grace, Los Angeles Ballet and Syncopated Ladies.


The Syncopated Ladies' viral tap videos have amassed over 100 million views online. The company will perform at the Laguna Dance Festival on Sunday, Feb. 25. Photo courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival
 

In the ever-evolving landscape of dance, Laguna Dance Festival organizers hope it will stand as a beacon, embodying values that challenge the traditional confines and identify systemic inequities of the art form. As the festival approaches its 2024 engagement in Laguna Beach, the spotlight is not only on the performances that await, but also on the visionary leadership of founder and artistic director Jodie Gates. She is the driving force behind an initiative that seeks to redefine dance through the lenses of diversity, inclusivity and community.


“I think leveling the playing field of dance is important to shine a light on. And we can do that by creating these opportunities for companies to perform,” Gates said.  


This will be Jodie Gates' 19th year leading the Laguna Dance Festival which she started in 2005. Photo by Hiromi Platt/ Cincinnati Ballet, courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

“I think that we (Laguna Dance Festival) have been bold with our decision-making. For example, when we brought Kyle Abraham or Rubberband, these were companies that hadn't been seen in Southern California, especially in Orange County … I mean, we were the first ones to bring Complexions to Orange County back in 2005.”


Gates's commitment to fostering an environment that mirrors the broader spectrum of human culture is evident in the festival's programming choices. The festival opens on Friday, Feb. 23 with New Zealand’s Black Grace, which will showcase choreographer Neil Ierema's fusion of contemporary dance with traditional Samoan movement. Los Angeles Ballet and the all-female tap ensemble Syncopated Ladies will join in subsequent days. 


Gates discussed her thought process for programming the festival, sharing that she is constantly thinking about the community and her audience and feels called to be a risk-taker. She acknowledges that not every piece in the festival will be everyone’s cup of tea, but she’ll make sure there’s something everyone will enjoy.


PHOTO 1: New Zealand's Black Grace will hold an open rehearsal on Thursday, Feb. 21 in addition to performing in the festival on Friday and Saturday. Photo by Duncan Cole, courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival. PHOTO 2: Black Grace was founded by Neil Ieremia in 1995 and is one of New Zealand's leading contemporary dance companies. Photo by Neil Ieremia, courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

 

“There's this really fine line of curating and educating and also just providing entertainment,” she said. “And of course, we want to provide thought-provoking movement invention. So it's really an interesting balance.”


A lot of Laguna Dance Festival’s success over the last nineteen years is because of its continued commitment to pushing the boundaries of dance. The festival isn’t stuck in the past. Instead, it regularly presents new works or new dance companies from around the world.


Not necessarily new, but entering a new era, is Los Angeles Ballet. The company debuted in 2004, but recently appointed its first solo artistic director, Melissa Barak. A native of Los Angeles, Barak spent time as a dancer with the New York City Ballet and the same Los Angeles Ballet, before founding her own project-based company Barak Ballet. In her new role, she hopes to give Los Angeles a world-renowned resident dance company, something that, despite attracting massive amounts of talent, the city has never established long-term. 

PHOTO 1: Dancer Aviva Gelfer-Mundl for Los Angeles Ballet. Photo by Ethan Gulley, courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival. PHOTO 2: Los Angeles Ballet will perform two works including "Reclamation" by artistic director Melissa Barak, which was originally created for the screen. Photo by David Friedman, courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

 

“I am excited to explore ways to expand LAB (Los Angeles Ballet) and the art form in general by exploring different ideas, looking for a new frontier and tapping into the creative resources that are here in LA,” Barak said. 


“I value tradition but I also understand that people get bored easily, they’re asking what’s the next thing? What's the new shiny object? Dance needs to keep up with the hunger for what's new.”


This will be the company’s first appearance at the Laguna Dance Festival and it will perform two works that are new to Los Angeles Ballet’s repertoire. "Tableaux Vivants" is a contemporary ballet by Nicolas Blanc, and “Reclamation” is a work by Barak that was created for film and is being adapted for the stage.


Barak feels she and her dancers have some big shoes to fill as they look at the history of the Laguna Dance Festival, but sees it as an unmissable opportunity to reintroduce Los Angeles Ballet and prove its caliber.


PHOTO 1: Gisele Silva of the Syncopated Ladies. Photo courtesy of Laguna Dance Fesitval. PHOTO 2: The Syncopated Ladies' viral tap videos have amassed over 100 million views online. The company will perform at the festival on Sunday, Feb. 25. Photo by Joey Kennedy, courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival


According to the Syncopated Ladies YouTube page: "When the Syncopated Ladies first released their ode to Beyonce's Formation, she reposted it, and made it the home page of Beyonce.com for several weeks. This generosity and kindness propelled Syncopated Ladies to sold out concerts worldwide and TV and Film."

 

Los Angeles Ballet is one of two Southern California companies that Gates invited to this year’s festival. The other, Syncopated Ladies, will also be making its debut at the fest.


“I've seen them (Syncopated Ladies) from afar, and I've been really inspired and awestruck by one, their mission, which is empowering women, particularly women of color. And two, the fact that it feels like tap is coming back as a form that people are starting to appreciate once again,” Gates said.


The company, led by Emmy-nominated Chloe Arnold, has worked with Beyoncé and was most recently featured in “Spirited,” a Christmas movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell.


“I am so proud of the work that we get to do as Syncopated Ladies,” Arnold said. “It is empowering. It is unifying. It is uplifting. I think that tap dance is an art form that has uplifted Black artists throughout entertainment and we are here to make sure that people know and celebrate this rich cultural history as we push it into the future.”


The company often performs tap choreography to popular music, which Gates sees as a way to attract a multi-generational audience to the festival and also broaden the definition of concert dance.


In addition to programming and supporting the administrative responsibilities of hosting the festival, Gates will be presenting a world premiere dance work that will be accompanied live by a solo cello. The live musician comes as a result of a new partnership with Laguna Beach Live! and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.


The choreographic project also might hint at Gates’ interest in continuing to flex her creative muscle alongside her curatorial one. She says these are both things she is considering as she thinks about what’s next after ending her role at Cincinnati Ballet last September. 


“I feel very fortunate. I've had some incredible opportunities and so I'm being very thoughtful right now about what my next steps are,” Gates said.


“As a female who's been working hard to create and shape and build, I realized I need a moment to reset and pause and also celebrate accomplishments. I haven't really had that before. So, you know, what better place to do that than where I love so much? Which is the beach in Southern California.”


There are many reasons to pay attention to the Laguna Dance Festival – its founder is a force to be reckoned with in the dance industry and it has a robust educational component that offers master classes, a summer intensive, and scholarships for young dancers. But the plenitude and diversity of artists that are presented annually, alone, makes it something not to be missed.

Laguna Dance Festival 2024

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23-24; 2:00 p.m. Feb. 25 

Cost: $60 general; $30 for students

Contact: lagunadancefestival.org



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