Twinkle Towbes

The Towbes Family Endowment Secures the Future of Dance at the Lobero

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

As Santa Barbara’s population continues to grow, its art scene blossoms and shifts, and sites once at the center of the city’s cultural life sometimes make way for newer venues. Not so, though, the Lobero Theatre, where live performances have been staged since 1873. The Lobero is California’s oldest continuously operating theater and remains at the heart of the city’s arts programming, hosting many of Santa Barbara’s most prestigious visiting artists as well as scores of community performances. Times may change, but the Lobero remains, an architectural treasure and a vital part of Santa Barbara’s cultural life.

Last June, the Lobero Theatre Foundation announced a series of four endowments that secured arts programming in perpetuity, starting with the Towbes Family Endowment for Dance. The dance endowment is one of four bequests planned by the Towbes family as part of their Lobero Endowment for Excellence, the aim of which is to secure the future of quality arts programming at the Lobero Theatre. Initial gifts of $1 million have also been earmarked for American music, classical music, and theater. The proceeds from these investments will go directly to ensuring high-quality arts programming at the Lobero in the future.

The dance endowment was the first of these bequests to be launched, with the theater’s first-ever official season of dance kicking off last summer with an inaugural performance in June by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance. This season also brought the world’s most accomplished tap dancer, Savion Glover, to the Lobero at the beginning of October, and it continues with two shows in early November: the surreal, multimedia work of Moses Pendleton’s MOMIX, and the visually magnificent Mexican folk dances of Ballet Folklórico. The season closes in March of next year when Quebec’s Cirque Éloize brings its unusual brand of theatrical circus artistry to town.

“There has been dance at the Lobero as long as there has been the Lobero,” the foundation’s Executive Director David Asbell said recently, “But we’ve been more actively programming dance in the last four or five years. This is the first year we’ve had a dedicated dance season, and it’s going to continue with at least two or three major dance events every year.”

Unlike some endowments that act primarily to shore up arts organizations in times of financial hardship, the Towbes endowment aims to provide the means for expanding dance programming at the Lobero, and for taking a lead role in influencing the future of dance in Santa Barbara. “This endowment will allow the Lobero to have innovative programming, especially for dance, in perpetuity,” Asbell said. “We’re not a museum, we’re a theater. While it’s a beautiful theater, people come here to see the action on the stage, and the idea is to endow that action. We want to pick important artists — artists who have made some kind of contribution to their genre.”

The artists and companies taking part in the Lobero’s first official dance season have little in common — they range from solo artists like Glover to large ensembles such as Ballet Folklórico, and from those like MOMIX who use extensive props and special effects to those like Hell’s Kitchen who rely primarily on physicality and technique. If there is a common thread, it’s that none are classical ballet companies. But Asbell isn’t particularly concerned with whether a given season is full of commonalities or differences, whether it’s more traditional or contemporary — he’s more interested in the quality of the work, and what it contributes to Santa Barbara’s existing dance scene.

In terms of selecting the best companies for upcoming seasons, Asbell says he’ll consult with Towbes every year. “We’ll be talking to Michael about how we plan to use his funds — we see it as a collaborative process. The concept for the endowment for dance came from Michael. His first wife, Gail, had a tremendous love of dance, and he was the one who picked dance as the art form where he would like to set up his first endowment.” Asbell has something up his sleeve for next season, but he’s giving nothing away. “We already have a few ideas,” he said. “Suffice to say there will be very strong contemporary aspects to what we’re doing.”

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What follows is a short chat with Michael Towbes, who shared his thoughts on the future of dance at the Lobero.

Why do you feel dance programming in particular is important? First of all, I personally enjoy dance a great deal. Secondly, I think that among all the performing arts it’s probably the one that has the greatest difficulty in terms of fundraising and support — people aren’t as aware of dance, and other areas seem to gather more support.

Why do you think that is? I think at least part of it is that people have a sense that dance is about young women dancing about on their toes in tutus with no dialogue so people can’t understand it. There’s so much exciting dance out there, but that old image is difficult to overcome.

Why did you choose the Lobero for your endowment? I think the Lobero has a great stage for dance. It’s a relatively small theater, and dance there is very intimate —  you’re right there; you can really enjoy dance programs. I feel it’s important to support the Lobero — it’s a great treasure in Santa Barbara and one of my favorite places. When the new Granada Theatre opens it will be bigger, but a lot of companies will prefer the intimacy of the Lobero.

What are some of your favorite dance companies? I like the local companies that we have. State Street Ballet does wonderful work, and Summerdance does a great job. There are so many interesting and entertaining groups that perform in Santa Barbara.

What’s your hope for the future of dance at the Lobero and for dance in Santa Barbara? I think the Lobero plays a very important role in the performing arts. I think they’re doing very well now, and I hope they continue to do even better in the future. I think it’s important to support all types of dance, not just one form. I like most of it.

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