Last Dance for Summerdance

After 10 Successful Years, S.B.’s Annual Dance Festival Closes Its Doors

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Brooks-2.jpgWhen Summerdance Santa Barbara programmed Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance to perform at its 10th annual festival, organizers Dianne Vapnek and Laurie Burnaby knew they’d achieved something big. Founded by Vapnek in 1997, the festival had grown during the course of a decade from a one-week, one-company affair to a three-week extravaganza. Dance artists taking part in the festival ranged from emerging choreographers, some of whom launched their careers from the Summerdance platform, to well-established artists who found Santa Barbara an intimate community in which to create new material. The summer of 2006 was a particularly triumphant one, with veteran Summerdance choreographer Doug Varone back with a large-scale, multimedia work, and up-and-coming New York artist Aszure Barton returning with her own company and guest artist Baryshnikov, the world’s most famous living dancer. It was a thrilling July, even if its organizers didn’t know at the time it would be the last. Yet just three months after the close of its triumphant 10th season, Summerdance has announced it will suspend operations.

Summerdance’s Executive Director Vapnek and Artistic Director Burnaby came to the decision after reviewing their accomplishments and recognizing a mutual sense of a completed cycle. “We believe we fulfilled our mission in creating new audiences for dance and in providing space and time for artists to create new work,” they stated in a recent letter to boardmembers and supporters. At the same time, the organizers acknowledged the challenges inherent in Santa Barbara, which at times made it difficult for the festival to achieve its aims. Specifically, Summerdance faced a dearth of adequate professional rehearsal studios and the absence of a mid-sized performance space between the 140-seat Center Stage Theater and the 680-seat Lobero. They also noted the yearly struggle to raise enough funds to continue, especially since the shift in funding priorities since 9/11 and the decrease in funding for the California Arts Commission in 2003.

DAT_090.jpgAlthough the festival has seen its last season, Summerdance does not plan to dissolve the nonprofit altogether, and continues to explore possibilities for collaboration with other arts organizations in Santa Barbara.

Last week I spoke to both Vapnek and Burnaby about their decision. Burnaby explained that her feeling that it was time to discontinue the festival arose spontaneously during an October meeting. “It came as a surprise to both of us,” she said. “The 10-year mark is a momentous time, and a time to reevaluate. We looked at each other and in the exact same moment we realized it was over. It was just a feeling that we had actually accomplished the things we had set out to accomplish.” Speaking from New York, Vapnek said her feelings were mixed: “I’ll miss the wonderful and the good, but the demands of the festival were such that I’m also relieved to be done,” she said. “The reality of fundraising for a nonprofit organization is demanding to say the least. The bottom line is that it’s a labor of love to work for an artistic nonprofit. It was a privilege to be able to do it for 10 years, and I think we were really successful. Ten years goes by quickly, and yet we look back and see we did a huge amount. There’s an awful lot that I’m very grateful for, but I’m no longer naïve about what it takes.”

Summerdance was born from Vapnek’s dream to create an annual festival for contemporary dance in Santa Barbara modeled after such East Coast festivals as Jacob’s Pillow and the American Dance Festival. For the duration of Summerdance’s life, Vapnek worked without compensation, using her own financial resources to keep the nonprofit afloat. “That’s one more part of the puzzle, and part of what would make finding a replacement very difficult,” Vapnek noted when asked whether they had considered handing over the festival to someone else. “I think we would have identified someone locally if anyone had been interested. It’s a big undertaking.”

As for what comes next, neither Burnaby nor Vapnek seemed sure. “This has been a huge part of my life for the past decade,” Burnaby said. “Finding another job like this won’t happen in Santa Barbara. I’m taking the time to do all the things I didn’t have time to do before, and I’m staying aware of what might be next.” Vapnek’s approach is similar: “I’ll be spending more time in New York to be close to my family,” she said, “but I’m not ready to give up Santa Barbara.”

Donlon1.jpgIn the aftermath of the news, local dance artists, agencies, and programmers reflected on the impact Summerdance made, and on the gap the festival’s absence will create. “I feel like Summerdance brought contemporary dance to Santa Barbara in an important way and helped foster our small but growing dance community,” said Stephanie Nugent, UCSB dance lecturer, choreographer, and performer. “One valuable thing Summerdance did was to bring in outside voices to the dialogue — that’s such an important part of maintaining the vitality of a small community; that’s what moves the art form forward. I’m sorry to see them closing their doors, and I hope the energy that’s been developed and fostered during the past decade will continue.”

Julie McLeod, executive director of the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance (SBDA), said she was extremely upset when she first heard the news. “I honor Laurie and Dianne for educating our public — they brought in cutting edge companies to audiences who had never seen that kind of work before,” McLeod said. “The cost of running an arts organization is going up, and the funding has not gone up commensurately. We have 900 viable nonprofits in Santa Barbara — that’s the highest number of nonprofits per capita of any city in California. It becomes more and more difficult to operate under situations like that.” Upon hearing the news, the SBDA board of directors added Vapnek and Burnaby to its list of nominees for the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award, presented each January. “We have nothing but pride for who they are and what they have done with the utmost elegance,” McLeod said. “I can understand their decision, but I’m really sad.”

Lobero Foundation Executive Director David Asbell is inspired by Summerdance’s legacy of supporting artists to create new work, and hopes to take on that role in years to come, possibly in collaboration with Burnaby and Vapnek. He said, “For a foundation, that’s the ultimate thing: performance comes first, but if we’re funded well enough, let’s help create new work. It would be wonderful if we could commission new work from local companies.”

It’s certainly a bittersweet conclusion to a decade of dance-filled summers, but it’s clear Summerdance’s legacy will live on — in the work of the artists who got their start here, in the organizations inspired by the festival’s achievements, and in the audience for dance that Summerdance helped create.

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