Music Center 50th Anniversary: Renae Williams Niles

Renae Williams Niles | Photo courtesy of The Music Center
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Renae Williams Niles, the Vice President of Programming at The Music Center, says this about Dorothy Chandler: “She had a presence here. The more I learned about her, the more I think the center should be called the Chandler Center.” A graduate of the University of Southern California (USC), Niles was named the Vice President of Programming for the 2013/14 season. She comes from a background of dance administration, bringing an authentic perspective to presenting dance on the big stage. Her heart is as tied to the local dance community as it is to bringing in international perspectives.

Niles equates the curatorial process of presenting dance at the 3,000-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to a puzzle. “Within this puzzle, there’s a frame and a value. The series values international notoriety and respect. We’ve been particularly focused on the Western classical ballet and contemporary aesthetic. Within that framework, there’s a breadth of personality and character.” In addition to presenting companies like the American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Australian Ballet and the Ballet Boyz, Niles says her focus is constantly on accessibility. “We are always hearing Dorothy in our minds and she always talked about accessibility at a time [when] I am not even sure people talked about it that much.”

Dorothy Buffum Chandler
Dorothy Buffum Chandler at the Pavilion grand opening | Photo courtesy of The Music Center

Dorothy Buffum Chandler (aka “Buff”) was featured on the cover of the Dec. 18, 1964 issue of TIME Magazine. In the cover portrait, her blue eyes match the color of the night sky behind her, and her right arm is casually resting on a model of The Music Center. There is no question of her confidence and influence on the city of Los Angeles. Chandler almost single handedly saved the Hollywood Bowl from financial collapse. In 1951, Chandler’s “Save the Bowl” initiative secured the survival of this L.A. landmark. To this day the Hollywood Bowl remains the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s summer home and a beloved concert venue. The programming attracts thousands of Angelenos and visitors for world-class concerts under the stars.

Chandler’s biggest project to date was to create a performing arts center for Los Angeles. And with her iron will and socialite status, she helped make it happen. TIME Magazine called her efforts, "perhaps the most impressive display of virtuoso money-raising and civic citizenship in the history of U.S. womanhood." The Music Center of Los Angeles opened its doors to the public on Dec. 6, 1964 with a concert that included Joseph Strauss' "Fanfare" and Ludwig Van Beethoven's "Violin Concerto in D Major," performed by the LA Phil under conductor Zubin Mehta. Just two years after the grand opening of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (then called Memorial Hall), two additional venues of The Music Center opened: the intimate 739-seat Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre.

Chandler was able to see her work blossom for three decades and was involved in the planning of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the latest iconic venue of The Music Center. Though Chandler passed away in 1997, her vision to create an arts hub that’s accessible to many and connects communities, is alive and thriving.

Dance Downtown on the Music Center Plaza
Dance Downtown on the Music Center Plaza | Photo by Mario DeLopez, courtesy of The Music Center

As an L.A. County facility, The Music Center’s education and outreach programs are a big part of the sustainability of its success. “It’s innate in our DNA," says Niles. "Not just in the programming department, but it is very much within the fabric of the work which our education department does, as well as our oversight of programming in Grand Park.” Free, family oriented programs such as the “World City,” “Active Arts,” “Dance Downtown” and “Grand Performances” focus on global traditions through art discovery and aim to unite communities around the county. “We have also continued to focus on financial and language accessibility, knowledge base accessibility.”

Niles feels there is a knowledge gap, especially when it comes to dance. “A lot of people feel that dance isn’t as accessible to them, because they feel like they lack a certain level of knowledge.” In order to close this gap, Niles and her team are constantly re-evaluating and trying out new ways of sparking audience interest in dance. “Dance has a history here at The Music Center going back to 1966. When the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance Series came on board, there was already a beautiful landscape here in Los Angeles, especially between UCLA and in the 1990s, the Japanese American Theatre (JAT).”

Niles wanted to make sure The Music Center was being complementary and bringing in companies that most likely would not otherwise have a presence in Los Angeles. She aims to strike a balance between ballet and contemporary, and between returning companies and something new for audiences to discover. “I love and respect a lot of my colleagues around L.A. – we talk a lot. To the best of our ability, we’re trying to bring a breadth of national and international artists here. We all hope they also inspire our L.A. based artists.”

New Community Partnerships

USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance
“Dance for the Camera” | Photo courtesy of USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, Facebook

In the fall of 2015, USC welcomes its first crop of dance students to the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. Since The Music Center and USC share their name-giving patron, and considering the geographical and philosophical proximity of the programs, the possibility of a new partnership was at hand. “When I initially heard, I got very emotional. I said to Glorya (Kaufman), this is amazing – you have no idea!”

Niles has a long-standing relationship with the School’s Vice Dean, former Joffrey Ballet dancer Jodie Gates. “I am certainly not someone to support something that looks like everything else that exists. Knowing Jodie the way that I do and knowing where Glorya’s heart is, I know that the school will be different.”

One particular point of intersection will be working with William Forsythe, the U.S. choreographer known around the world for developing improvisational techniques and pushing the boundaries of the classical ballet aesthetic. Forsythe signed on to the faculty at USC Kaufman in the spring of 2014, leaving behind his Frankfurt-based international touring company, Forsythe Company just before its tenth anniversary.

“We’ve talked a lot about Bill’s work, because we not only want to engage and enlighten the dance students and their families, but also the Los Angeles community,” says Niles. “A few years ago, The Music Center started an ‘Artist in Residence’ program. The first artist in residence was Jacques Heim with Diavolo Dance Theatre, the second was Benjamin Millepied - that was when we debuted L.A. Dance Project. We’ve been talking about growing our Artist in Residence program in collaboration with USC.”

Never Say Never

With the Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Opera, Center Theatre Group and the Los Angeles Master Chorale as The Music Center’s resident companies, the new collaboration with USC might close the gap to giving dance an even stronger presence in Los Angeles. Even though the famous Joffrey Ballet now calls Chicago their permanent home, during the 1980s and 90s the company was bicoastal and divided their time between New York and Los Angeles.

Niles says, “I feel like I am a product of the L.A. dance community, that’s where my professional administrative career started. L.A. has an incredible dance history, which goes even further back than Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, who had their studio here before they even had Jacob’s Pillow. Alvin Ailey and Bella Lewitzky are a part of that.”

Los Angeles currently is home to many dance companies – both contemporary and ballet-centric - that have made a name for themselves well beyond the city limits: the Los Angeles Ballet, Bodytraffic, Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, Diavolo Dance Theatre and the Barak Ballet to name only a few. “We might not have a resident dance company at The Music Center, but we do have some of the most exceptional, creative companies here in L.A.,” says Niles.

"Where did you get this audience?"

“The first year I came on board at The Music Center, Alvin Ailey’s Company came. We had done some expansive outreach, trying to bring in more new people from all over. I came backstage during the intermission and was approached by Judith Jamison, who didn’t really know who I was though we had met before. Someone introduced us. Judy has a stature, she has a presence – she walks towards me and all she says is: ‘What did you do?’ My thought immediately was: Oh my god! I really messed something up or I asked them to do too many things because I do ask a lot of every company. Then she says, ‘Where did you get this audience?’” Niles remembers that day with much pride. “That’s the feedback we get time and time again.”

Music Center 50th Anniversary

Music Center 50th Anniversary Spectacular & Gala Dinner
Image courtesy of The Music Center

On Dec. 6, 2014, The Music Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an unprecedented event: all of the current resident companies will share the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a special gala performance. “Some of them will be working collaboratively. That has never been done before and is something that’s rarely seen at a larger organization!” says Niles.

A committee of young arts leaders was appointed to help curate “The Next 50 Party” on Dec. 7. “What do the next 50 years here look like? There will be pop up performances that illustrate the current broad range and energy of what we present now, the global nature of the arts. Some surprise, site-specific dance performances and food will also come into play in a creative way. It’ll be less formal, using many of the informal indoor spaces.”

With passionate and warm-hearted leaders like Renae Williams Niles in charge, the future of dance in Los Angeles seems secured. “There’s a current vibrancy that I hope we all fully take hold of,” Niles says with a smile.