I was surprised and saddened yesterday to receive a press release announcing that Summerdance Santa Barbara, the fantastically smart and provocative festival of contemporary dance founded by Dianne Vapnek, is suspending operations after ten years. I followed this festival from its start, when I was a twenty-year-old would-be dance critic writing for the Santa Barbara Independent and Vapnek brought out Doug Varone and Dancers, the first company of real sophistication I’d ever had a chance to watch in rehearsal and lecture demonstrations. From the beginning, the festival?s biggest asset was Vapnek?s good taste, which leaned toward the brainy and slightly naughty: Doug Elkins, Larry Keigwin, and Aszure Barton, for instance, with forays into flamenco and tap. The festival?s other major asset, of course, was setting: There is nothing quite like watching the Brian Brooks Moving Company dance on the lawn of the Santa Barbara Mission with the view stretching towards mountains on one side and the ocean on the other on a balmy July day.
Vapnek didn?t just import companies: She gave them time and space to work, and commissioned new dances. She also brought kids from the impoverished Orange County town of Santa Ana to take class with world-class teachers. At last July?s festival, everything looked full-tilt: Mikhail Baryshnikov stopped with his Hell?s Kitchen Dances program as part of Summerdance, Robert Battle set a work on local company State Street Ballet, Doug Varone and Dancers began a new piece, and Aszure and Artists danced sold out shows.
The festival was a labor of love for Vapnek, who invested so much of her own money in it. Perhaps she needed a rest, and she deserves it. No doubt she?ll continue feeding the national dance scene in myriad behind-the-scenes ways. The festival never got the wider attention I felt it deserved, perhaps because L.A. didn?t have a substantial enough dance scene for Summerdance Santa Barbara to become a satellite to. But it helped change Santa Barbara from a sleepy resort town into a destination for truly sophisticated art, and it gave me and thousands of other audience members some of the most charmed dance experiences of our lives. I?ll be in mourning come next July.