Barbara’s Column

Dance Festival honors West Side Story creators


The Dance Festival gala held May 18 at [seven-degrees] was an homage to the musical “West Side Story,” created by composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

A sold-out crowd at “West Coast Story” was treated to an evening of dance, drama and music.  

“We have the most fun gala – it’s all entertainment,” said Joy Dittberner, festival executive director. “This was our fifth gala and we are so happy it was sold out. We are no longer the best kept secret in Laguna.”

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Joy Dittberner, executive director, and patron William J Gillespie

The gala is the prelude to the annual dance festival, which will be kicked off this year by Complexions Contemporary Ballet company’s one-night-only performance on October 5 of “Stardust,” a dance tribute to the late David Bowie, featuring many of the singers’ most beloved hits. 

Stars of Dance will be performed on October 6 and 7 by dancers from National Ballet of Canada, San Francisco Ballet West, Complexions, Diavolo Architecture in Motion and introducing the inaugural class of the Kaufman School.

For more information about performances or tickets, call (949) 715 5578 or go to

Organized support for what has become Laguna Dance Festival was fostered in the North Laguna home of Stuart Byer, who attended the gala. Since 2005, the festival has pursued its goal to present world-class dance performances, increase public appreciation for the arts and provide quality dance education.

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Karen Wilson, Board Chair, with Jodie Gates, founder and artistic director

Performances at the gala were under the direction of Jodie Gates, a former principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, an internationally recognized choreographer, the founder and artistic director of the festival and dean of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The Kaufman school is designed to provide insight, intellectual and artistic development, a robust repertoire, exposure to renowned artists, interdisciplinary projects as well as strategic career skills.    

“Jodie put on an amazing show,” said Dittberner.

The annual gala, chaired this year by Stacy Hagan, raises funds to help reach that goal as well as for scholarships that help young performers pursue their dreams.

2017 scholarship winners Marcus Sarjeant, Emily Eckert and Jocelyn Magana and professional dancers Nicole Hagen and Christine McKeever were among the dancers who performed at the gala. 

“Tonight,” choreographed by Jakevis Thomason, was performed by USC students Alyssa Allen, Lenai Wilkerson, Megan Yamashita, Juan Posada Penagos, Jake Tribus and Thomason, accompanied on the piano by Deborah Glass. USC dancers Coco Alvarez-Mena, Marianna Carillo, Alvaro Montelongo, Satori Folkes-Stone and Yamashita performed excerpts from “West Side Story,” with USC drama students Tim Fringes, Adam Jones and Christyn Dang, music student Geovanna Nichols-Julien and pianist Adam Jones.  

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USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance performed on the terrace

Besides excerpts from West Side Story, the evening’s entertainment included “America,’ choreographed by Robbins and “Let’s Dance,” a tribute to Bowie.  

In addition to the entertainment, an opportunity drawing featured a staycation in Laguna: two passes to Laguna Art Museum; dinner at the Lumberyard; tickets to the dance festival, a play at Laguna Playhouse, the Sawdust Festival and the Pageant of the Masters; and an overnight stay at The Ranch. 

Bidders were invited to pick up their paddles for the live auction. Auction items featured a three-night trip to New York, including tickets to a Broadway play or concert for two lucky winners; and a College Sports Bonanza: Winners could choose between football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse or baseball games, and post-season tickets in the chosen sport. 

A trip to Bali, valued a $6,000, was also on the auction block. 

Zack Krone was the auctioneer. He’s the one who says, “Laguna Beach is a drinking colony with an art problem.”

The gala began with cocktails, hors-d’oeuvres and performances on the [seven- degrees] rooftop at 6 p.m., followed by dinner in the beautifully staged ballroom. Guests were invited to attire themselves with Latin flair – rose gripped by teeth, optional.

Dittberner gave special thanks to Bill Gillespie, a most generous supporter of the festival and founder of the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

“You do so much to keep dance alive,” Dittberner said to Gillespie. Ken Jillson and Al Roberts, no strangers to financial donations to worthy causes, and Karyn Philippsen were seated at Gillespie’s table. 

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Clifford Williams, star dancer with Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Donor categories were named for characters in West Side Story: Gillespie was alone in the Leonard Bernstein category. Chris Quilter, Jane and Joe Hanauer and Laura Tarbox were under the Maria heading. Barbara and Greg MacGilivray, Lauren and Richard Packard, Deborah and Robert Schlesinger and Edie Tonkon donated at the Anita level.  

Kathy and Mike Conway and Mozambique were tabbed Jets & Sharks – the names of rival gangs in “West Side Story.” 

Betsy and Dr. Gary Jenkins, Nancy and Mike Meyer, Christine Rhoades, Karen and Doug Wilson and Vivian Levin were placed in the special category of Sustainability Partners. 

The guest list included Kirsten and Councilman Bob Whalen, Councilwoman Toni Iseman, Laura and Lou Rohl, Deborah and Cody Engle, Patricia Twitty, Carol Nielsen, Faye and Wayne Baglin, Rosemary and Tom Swimm, Leanne and Howard Englander, Lance Polster, Kathy and David Krinsky  and Chris Quilter

“We were greeted by young dance students twirling and that was fun,” said Quilter. 

On a more serious note, Quilter said dance is an endangered species: “We have to ensure dance stays in our town and thrives.”

Laguna Dance Festival is doing its best to make that happen. A sustainability campaign is underway to raise $100,000 to make sure the festival continues its mission, according to Karen Wilson, festival board chair. 

But wait – there’s more. You will find advance notice of all the fun and interesting stuff for visitors or residents to do in Laguna by reading We welcome Letters to the Editor and story ideas!