One recent premature spring afternoon found Dianne Vapnek at her favorite post, inside the cool and empty Lobero Theatre watching dancers rehearse. The cat-eyed former dancer, gracefully cheerful in her early seventies, was seated alone, drawn in and clearly transported by what she saw onstage. Part of her pleasure doubtlessly derives from the knowledge that she brought the Brian Brooks Moving Company dance troupe here from New York. Under the auspices of the partnership Vapnek fostered between her own SUMMERDANCE organization and the Lobero Theatre, choreographer Brooks is here to participate in a venture called DANCEworks, now in its fourth year. But another part of Vapnek’s joy is of the purer variety. She leaned forward and said, “This is beautiful. It’s beautiful, right? You know I come down here almost every day when they are rehearsing. It’s such a joy. Watching those dancers puts me in a different place, a different place in the world. All I can say is it’s sacred. And I don’t use that word lightly.”
If not sacred, it is at least magnificent, clearly beautiful, and undeniably unique. “It’s remarkable what Dianne Vapnek has done for this community,” said arts advocate and former county supervisor Susan Rose. “I don’t know of anywhere else in the dance world where someone is doing what she has done here.” Plucking from the best dancers in the country, Vapnek brings artists to Santa Barbara, houses them in a Mesa duplex, and rents the Lobero for a month so that they can create work on the stage where it will ultimately be performed. There is nothing else like it; although Florida State and Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project offer residencies, those programs rehearse in studios, and the pieces must then be translated to performance venues. Every finished work coming out of DANCEworks goes forth with program notes declaring its Santa Barbara provenance. The artist, the theater, and even our tourist-based economy — everybody seems to win.
Vapnek’s partners know who deserves credit the most, though. “This is Dianne’s thing,” said Lobero Executive Director David Asbell, whose own dance connections include years with Atlanta Ballet. “I’m proud of what the Lobero has done to help out, but it’s Dianne who had this vision and has this personal relationship with, well, I don’t know how many people in the dance world. If people end up speaking well of us, that’s great. What the Lobero needs, what every venue needs, is artists to fill it up with audiences. I just say, ‘Dianne, what do you want to do, and how can we help?’”
Onstage at the Lobero during that early March afternoon, Brooks’s dancers were honing movements from a show three weeks away, the pieces named organically: “Beehive” or “Spider web,” a graceful grappling somewhere between ballet and Greco-Roman wrestling with construction as its theme. Dancers moved around what looked like piles of scrap metal poles, part of the work in progress Brooks calls Big City, which combines his passions for design and dance, both dating from his childhood, very neatly. “I feel like my whole life led up to this moment,” he said, laughing, and then added, “Really.”
Dianne Vapnek’s life did, too. She was born in the mid 1940s in Holyoke, Massachusetts. “My father was a grocer, and my mother a frustrated housewife. It was a quintessential 1950s family,” Vapnek said. She began dancing at age 3, moving through all the vagaries of ballet training until age 13, when asthma sidelined her career. Dance always on her mind, she studied philosophy at the University of Miami (“I loved the way it twisted my mind,” she said, laughing) and met her husband, Danny, and eventually began dancing again — though it wasn’t until Danny went to Yale that Vapnek learned to love modern dance.
As her husband’s career in medicine flourished, Vapnek danced, first in New Haven, and eventually in Thousand Oaks, where the Vapneks raised their three daughters and where Danny rose to an executive position at Amgen. Retiring here, the couple began to consider philanthropic options. Vapnek credits her husband with the inspiration to concentrate on giving to the dance world.
Vapnek began putting together a citywide festival called SUMMERDANCE in 1997. With friend and fellow dancer Laurie Burnaby at her side, Vapnek was soon producing incredibly ambitious big-name dance performances, hosting Doug Varone the first year and following with Doug Elkins Dance Company. Performances took place everywhere from Center Stage Theater and the Lobero to the Paseos and State Street. Vapnek reveled in her growing contact with the best contemporary dancers of her time. Her phenomenal guest list included Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2006. It was a heady success from the outset, with free shows, master classes, and open rehearsals, but after 10 years, she and Burnaby decided to give the citywide festival model a break.
It was a short rest for Vapnek. Since 2009, Vapnek has focused her dance philanthropy on an idea more closely modeled on the great Jacob’s Pillow organization in Massachusetts. She approached the Lobero with DANCEworks, and Asbell and his board leapt at the idea. The results were immediately positive. As Vapnek put it, the new model “worked pretty well from the start. Or, I should say, it worked very well.”
Brian Brooks, who is the fourth DANCEworks choreographer Vapnek has picked, is like all the previously Chosen Ones: overjoyed to come to sunnier climes, to have the luxury of time on a real stage to create, and to walk away with a new piece to perform. On the day that I visited the theater, Brooks left his huddle of dancers and came over to where Vapnek was seated. Just then, an invisible stagehand used some wizardry to lift the steel bars that Brooks has integrated into Big City, and, as they swayed up among the dancers, the intricate evolving movement suddenly embodied how amazing the whole creative process could be. Looking on from her ringside seat, Vapnek said what she is always looking to feel: “It’s beautiful.”