Happy Feet

Los Angeles puts on an international dance festival that’s as big and diverse as the city itself.

jacob jonas the company will be performing at the inaugural los angeles international dance festival
Jacob Jonas the Company will be performing at the inaugural Los Angeles International Dance Festival.

When the most prominent names in the Los Angeles dance scene convened for a panel discussion last year at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, an offhand comment inspired the city’s single largest dance event: the inaugural Los Angeles International Dance Festival (dates to be determined, owing to the global pandemic COVID-19).

“I said what we need is a dance festival,” Nigel Lythgoe recalls telling the audience. Cocreator of the television show So You Think You Can Dance, Lythgoe was a dancer-choreographer for most of his life in England before moving to the United States and producing American Idol in 2002.

Philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, who has donated millions to the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance as well as $20 million to establish Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, joined him on the panel. So did L.A. Dance Project founder Benjamin Millepied. Lula Washington, a doyenne of contemporary dance whose company has been a staple of the community since 1980, was there, as was Debbie Allen, the Emmy Award–winning choreographer from Fame who stars on Grey’s Anatomy.

Joy Isabella Brown of Santa Monica–based Jacob Jonas the Company takes flight.
Joy Isabella Brown of Santa Monica–based Jacob Jonas the Company takes flight.

Lythgoe’s suggestion landed with a thud. Why? Someone in the audience noted that the city already has the Los Angeles Dance Festival. Lythgoe apologized and confessed that he’d surprisingly never heard of it. For that matter, neither had Allen.

In fact, the festival has been around for nearly a decade. Held at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Fine Arts Complex (this year April 3 through 5), it’s a comparatively modest affair that casts a wide net over the local scene and includes outstanding modernist ensembles like Ate9 and BrockusRED. “I suggested we do it much bigger, so everyone had to take notice, and do an international dance festival,” says Lythgoe.

In the question-answer session that followed, discussion turned toward Los Angeles dance culture and the challenges facing it. “So many creative groups don’t get represented, don’t have a chance, don’t have money,” says Allen, who, as a former adviser on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities under George W. Bush, has experienced world culture from a unique perspective. “Everywhere I went there were festivals. We need to do something.”

Lythgoe and Allen quickly encountered the fundraising issues common to all dance festivals. “The problem is that nobody is really sponsoring [dance] companies and they’re living on a lifeline, just struggling all the time,” says Lyth-goe, who is shouldering some of the expenses along with Allen and a pillar among L.A. dance donors, Wallis Annenberg. “The Los Angeles International Dance Festival should have a major sponsor behind it, a clothing company or drink company. We’re doing it for virtually nothing this time around. And we’re trying to cast it for everybody.”

Bollywood Boulevard will be one of dozens of ensembles and independent artists performing at the inaugural Los Angeles International Dance Festival.
Bollywood Boulevard will be one of dozens of ensembles and independent artists performing at the inaugural Los Angeles International Dance Festival.

Venues throughout the L.A. area will be offering classes, lectures, films, and of course dance performances of nearly every stripe: international ensembles include Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal from Germany, Feria de Abril’s salute to Andalusian dance, and Bollywood Boulevard from India. For star power, Tony Award–winning tap master Savion Glover will be performing, and at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Lythgoe is bringing together stars from So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and World of Dance in a one-night-only extravaganza. “Hopefully we will generate enough noise regarding this festival that people will want to sponsor it,” he says, adding that he aims to mount the next one in 2022.

L.A.’s history as a dance town dates to the early 20th century, with the legendary Denishawn dance school, which counted Martha Graham among its students. That paved the way for innovators like Alvin Ailey and Lester Horton. The advent of film catapulted dance icons like Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire to worldwide recognition.

“A lot of people were skeptical, saying it’s all talk,” says Allen of their work since that panel discussion at the Wallis. “And Nigel and I do a lot of talking, but we always make it happen. The two of us getting together was really great. We unified the whole dance community in Los Angeles around this incredible gathering.”

Jordan Riefe wrote about composer Matthew Aucoin for Alta, Winter 2020.


• Dates TBD


A few other L.A. cultural events that Nigel Lythgoe and Debbie Allen are excited about this season

Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963–2019: “I’m definitely going to see Paul McCarthy’s drawings,” Lythgoe says of the show at the Hammer Museum. Through May 10

My Fair Lady: Of the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical revival at the Dolby Theatre, Lythgoe says, “Being English, I love My Fair Lady.” June 12–July 5

Julie Andrews’s AFI Life Achievement Award: “Julie Andrews is a big interest for me because her work is an inspiration to all of us,” says Allen of the legendary star, who’ll be feted in Hollywood in April. “I love her. I know her personally, and [the award] is so fitting.”

The Hollywood Reporter culture writer, theater critic, contributor film and fine arts for the Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, OC Register, LA Weekly.
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