Merde! It was the spirited exclamation bestowed upon dancers in the days leading up to a performance, a tradition derived from the horse-and-carriage days when a healthy procession of dung outside of the theater ensured the house seats inside would be filled with paying patrons. In her book The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton described the cavalcade in more pragmatic terms: “Carriages waited at the curb for the entire performance. It was widely known in New York, but never acknowledged, that Americans wanted to get away from amusement even more quickly than they wanted to get to it.” And so, as the 1800s gave way to a new era, Americans adopted less formal introductions to art and culture, and the salon made its Western debut.
Described as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host,” salons gained notoriety among European intellectuals in the 17th century as a way to expose themselves to art and ideas in a more expedient setting. Hidden from high society’s watchful glare, women, especially, benefited from the relaxed environment, where wine and discussion could easily flow well into the witching hour and in the absence of judgment. The format was simple enough: A salonnière, or hostess, would select the evening’s theme, invite an eclectic selection of artists and scholars into her home, and moderate a lively post-presentation discussion. Centuries later, it would seem fitting that Dianne Vapnek, Santa Barbara’s own venerable hostess of dance, would bring the historical tradition back for a new generation to experience.
Best known for presenting emerging choreographers through her DANCEworks program, Vapnek has spent the last 19 years curating innovative ways to bridge the gap between East and West Coast dance, injecting the tranquil Santa Barbara landscape with big-city vigor. “Maybe it’s because of the broad exposure they get while living there, but New York dancers seem more ambitious in their pursuit of a career, hungrier and more curious about experiencing dance than their counterparts here,” Vapnek said. Exposing the community to a New York state of mind has become her lifework, and when she began searching for a way to continue DANCEworks off-season, the salon format seemed like a fitting approach. “It allows audiences to feel connected to the dancers by bringing it up close. The intimate and informal format encourages accessibility with the performers and the choreographers following the performance,” she said.
Walking into Vapnek’s discreet downtown residence for her dance salon debut, it’s hard not to make comparisons to America’s most famous salonnière, the venerable Gertrude Stein. Like Stein, Vapnek’s insatiable appetite for the unconventional artist is reflected in every objet d’art that decorates the living space. Up the spiral staircase, an assortment of chairs and settees are informally arranged around the carpeted living room, and the dancers quietly begin warming up as hors d’oeuvres and wine are merrily passed around in the adjoining room.
Molissa Fenley and Company are on the evening’s bill, Fenley a seasoned veteran of the contemporary dance scene who splits her time between teaching spring semesters at Oakland’s Mills College and directing a 40-year-old company based in New York City. Introduced to Vapneck through a mutual friend, Fenley couldn’t resist the opportunity to present work on such an intimate level. “There’s a give-and-take to the creative process, and this relaxed format builds community in a brilliant way,” she explained. Over the course of the evening, the dance trio, dressed in elegant indigo jumpsuits, address their environment with poise and fervor, darting confidently through the modest square footage in a presentation of three dance works and, to the audience’s delight, one encore performance by Fenley herself.
At evening’s end, Vapneck led her guests in a candid discussion over the highs and lows of the creative process. Minda Kraines, an elegantly coiffed retired dancer and my seatmate for the evening, summed up the program perfectly: “This is so cool!”
The next DANCEworks Dance Salon is Saturday, February 27, and features San Francisco choreographer Margaret Jenkins. There is limited ticket availability. Call (805) 966-4946 for more information.