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

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

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

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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