Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 2005

Some people move to a community and take their time feeling it out, getting the lay of the land, meeting folks individually or in small groups. Gina Angelique came barreling into town a decade ago, started a dance company and initiated a Celebrate Dance Festival in Balboa Park.

“The dance community seemed fractionalized at the time,” says the 33 year-old powerhouse, a San Diego native, mother of almost-two, dancer/choreographer, founder of Eveoke Dance Theatre and long-time social activist. “We have progressive, communal values, and we just decided to walk the walk. To become exceptional leaders.”

And so they did. Angelique’s soon-to-be husband, lighting designer Chris Hall, was the producer. “We thought it’d be great to share something with the community,” he said. “We came back to San Diego [from Irvine],” adds Angelique, “because, with its border location and ethnic diversity, it seemed like the right place to do the kind of edgy, community-based, political work we love to do.”.

With the blessing of the head of arts and culture for Balboa Park, and the help of administrative director (and veteran Eveoke dancer) Nikki Dunnan, they began a project that has grown exponentially and is now marking its 10th anniversary. The first Festival took place over two weekends, but that became too unwieldy. By the third year, Angelique and Hall had trimmed it down to a lean-mean, 3-day event in one weekend.

The first year of the Festival, 15 groups participated and about 500 people showed up to watch. This year, there are 75 groups involved, performing in four different venues: the 660-seat Casa del Prado Theatre, the 400-seat Copley Theater in the San Diego Museum of Art and on two outdoor stages along the Prado: the Prado Stage (near the fountain and the Science Museum) and the Lily Pond Stage, in front of … the lily pond. There will be free workshops in the Casa del Prado dance studios, for those with and without prior training. There’s even a hip hop class outdoors. Last year, over 10,000 people attended.

The Festival mission is to unite members of the dance community into a “cultural force” and to present their work to residents and visitors alike. There is no entry fee for the audience, and no audition or performance criteria for the participants. This populist approach, say Angelique and Hall, ensures complete access for all, so “anyone can celebrate dance on both sides of the curtain.” This “meaningful esthetic experience” is provided to everyone, unconditionally.

Angelique likens her commitment to tithing. “Eveoke is giving our resources, spirit and efforts to the community. We don’t take a dime, and we actually lose tons of money. Every dollar we raise pays for the companies and designers.”

The event costs about $67,000. Arts-friendly County Supervisor Pam Slater has been the biggest source of funding from the outset, generating $10,000 this year for the event. There are other public and private donors, big chunks come from the Eveoke operating budget, and donations are solicited at the event. According to Angelique, there’s no festival as big, as populist – or as free – anywhere.

“Dance isn’t elitist or on the fringe,” says Hall. “It’s what everyone does; it’s a social artform. It’s in every culture. And this event raises the water for all the boats.” Adds Angelique, “Eveoke is ambitious about making San Diego the most prolific center of quality dance. It’s one thing to talk about opening the world of dance theater to bigger and more diverse populations, and turning young people on to it, and another to really make it happen.”

This year, for the first time, all the highest-profile dance companies in town will participate, including Malashock Dance, McCaleb Dance and Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater. The San Diego Ballet will be represented, as will Lower Left, which has been part of the Festival every year. The Ellis Wood dance company comes in from New York, to be part of this event, and Raindance will be here from Arizona. But side by side with these pros are 4 year-olds from dance schools and the 90 year-old Daughters of Isis, a senior belly-dancing group.

For the audience, it’s a low-risk way to sample the many dance opportunities available in San Diego, and to determine which ones to spend money to see again, over the course of the next year.

With four performances going on simultaneously at any given time, some lasting 20 minutes, some 50, there’s a wide range of options, from world dance to cultural dance, modern dance to ballet.

“Take a risk!” Angelique exhorts potential onlookers. “It’s a small one.. in a gorgeous environment, right in your backyard. Come out to the Park and witness this duet of art and nature. See why so many people are so hot about dance culture. There’s something so beautiful about watching artists using their number one resource – their bodies – to express themselves. They give their hearts and souls to you, the audience, as a gift. Go out and see if you can get hooked!”

[The 10th annual Celebrate Dance Festival   runs August 26, 27 and 28 in Balboa Park, from 12-5pm on all four stages and 2-9:00pm in the indoor venues]

©2005 Patté Productions Inc.