New Heights at the Valley Performing Arts Center

 The exterior of the Valley Performing Arts Center.

Thor Steingraber's moment of clarity came during negotiations with a soprano about pillows. The year was 2009, and the acclaimed opera director was in Barcelona, putting on Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" for the third time in his career. The opera opens with the female lead reclined on a couch, and sopranos never really want to lie on stage. Wagner's score requires them to sing big and loud, and all of their training emphasizes posture, not repose.

"Half of your first rehearsal is how to make the soprano happy on the chaise," says Steingraber. "At that point I was 40 and a couple years, and I'd been directing for almost 20 years, and I thought, I think I have higher aspirations than figuring out exactly how many pillows it takes to make the soprano happy."

That was the last opera Steingraber ever directed. He was in the process of rebooting his career with a master's in public affairs from Harvard's Kennedy School, and he's been in arts management ever since. He worked with the Music Center of Los Angeles to open Grand Park in downtown L.A., and this week he opens his first season of programming at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.

Thor Steingraber.
Thor Steingraber.

Steingraber isn't a "let's just see what performers are already coming through town" kind of executive director. VPAC sits on the campus of California State University, Northridge, and this year's calendar is full of innovative programming aimed at appealing to the university's 40,000 plus students, not to mention the larger Valley community.

That programming includes site-specific performances from local dance-makers Diavolo, as well as former Police drummer Stewart Copeland playing alongside a full orchestra while the 1925 silent film version of "Ben-Hur" is projected on stage. Steingraber is also putting Bobby McFerrin on the same stage as his son, electronic musician Taylor, in a show that's sure to pull in several generations. And let's not forget Nancy Cartwright, a.k.a. the voice of Bart Simpson, adding her distinctive vocal chords to a production of "Peter and the Wolf."

It's all part of a cultural renaissance in the Valley that includes three new museums -- the Valley Relics Museum, the Museum of the San Fernando Valley and Discovery Cube Los Angeles -- and the North Hollywood theater and arts district. But VPAC aims to be the cultural hub in the center of it all, more focused on serving the surrounding community with innovative programming than worrying about convincing downtown, Hollywood or Westside audiences to cross Mulholland Drive.

"Not that I'm not interested in people coming over the hill," says Steingraber. "Of course that's great. But this doesn't have to be about pulling people away from other venues on the other side of the hill. This could be about serving the 1.8 million who are here."

The inside of Valley Performing Arts Center.
The inside of Valley Performing Arts Center.

When the position opened up at VPAC a year and a half ago, Steingraber wasn't sure he was ready to give up the downtown performing arts ecosystem for a gig in the Valley, but then he walked into the space. "I drove out here to tour the venue," he says, "and I walked into the hall, and I was like, 'No, I would like to run this place.' It is really one of the most extraordinary rooms, one of the most extraordinary auditoriums. It is incredibly beautiful, acoustically superior to almost every auditorium I've been in, and I've been in hundreds and hundreds of them. The room is magically both intimate and grand at the same time."

The VPAC auditorium was a lure when fishing for Copeland, who was thinking of presenting his new soundtrack for "Ben-Hur" on the Westside. "I said to his agent, 'Look. I know Stewart lives in Brentwood. Tell him to gas it up the hill to Mulholland, and then put the car in neutral and roll to Northridge. Literally just roll down the hill, and he will end up in Northridge, and then I will wait out front of my very large, beautiful venue. And I will take him on a tour of the venue, and then he can tell me he wants to do this on the Westside.'"

Just one look was all it took, and Copeland's performance is scheduled for March of next year.

A seventh-generation Chicagoan who's lived in Los Angeles off and on for more than 20 years, Steingraber knows how to work both sides of supply and demand when it comes to presenting performing arts. He uses VPAC's auditorium to attract artists from all over Los Angeles, and he already has a built-in audience in Northridge, with 75 percent of VPAC's ticket buyers over the past four years living within 10 miles of the venue.

With students pulled primarily from Los Angeles County, CSUN's population is very diverse, with 90 percent staying in L.A. after they graduate. Indeed, U.S. census data from 2010 shows that the Valley's residents are more educated on average than other parts of the county, which knocks the Valley girl stereotype down a (square) peg. The brain-dead, landlocked-surfers of "Encino Man" or "Boogie Nights" might still be out there, but San Fernando also has a big appetite for smart programming.

"The Valley has had its moments in regards to the performing arts," says Loyola Marymount University art history professor Damon Willick, who was raised in the Valley. He cites former music venues such as the Palomino Club and the Reseda Country Club, which were instrumental in the Los Angeles music scene. "Devonshire Downs, which was located close to the current VPAC site, was a run-down horse racing track that hosted the Newport Pop Festival in 1969. Hendrix, Ike and Tina Turner, The Byrds, and Credence played the festival, which lasted three days and was a West Coast Woodstock without the hype."

The exterior of the Valley Performing Arts Center.
The exterior of the Valley Performing Arts Center.

Before VPAC there was the Valley Music Center, which opened in 1964 in Woodland Hills with help from Bob Hope. The center hosted performances ranging from The Doors to "The Sound of Music," but in the 1970s its programming slowly switched over to boxing and wrestling, says Willick. The building was eventually bought by Jehovah's Witnesses, and then razed in the early 2000s to make room for condos.

VPAC is climbing to a new peak in Valley culture, and it all starts with Diavolo, the L.A.-based troupe known for infusing dance movements into notions of architecture. Steingraber first worked with Diavolo in 2012, when opening Grand Park. The troupe's dancers, clad in blue bodysuits, moved all over the park's fountain in a spectacle that culminated with a marching band pouring over Bunker Hill.

VPAC hosted several on-campus performances in the lead-up to Diavolo's September 19 show, "L'Espace du Temps." These performances included "Transit Space," a Diavolo piece inspired by "Dogtown and Z-Boys" that featured dancers performing on a skateboard quarter-pipe.

"The reason I chose that piece is there's a huge skateboard culture on campus," says Steingraber. "Of course the students are drooling over the quarter-pipe, because that's what skateboarders do, thinking, 'When can I get my turn?' But they're also seeing their culture reflected back to them on stage."

Diavolo perform "Transit Space" on the CSUN campus. | Photo: Luis Luque.
Diavolo perform "Transit Space" on the CSUN campus. | Photo: Luis Luque.

Diavolo also created a new work for CSUN's rock-climbing wall.

"The Diavolo dancers are some of the fittest people I've ever met in my life," says Steingraber. "These are extraordinary athletes. And then to see them in the air, where they have to use a whole different set of muscles, is pretty funny for about an hour, as they get used to going up and down."

Crowds gathered, and once the music started, the dancers sprang into action, flipping and bouncing and flying all over the wall. Steingraber was happy students could see the process, which for him is a big part of engagement. Showing that not even world-class dancers know what they're doing at the start is how he hopes to get the next generation involved.

"Seeing a dancer like a newborn on a wall is really inspiring to all of us," he says. "We're all in process, as athletes, artists or writers. Seeing that process acted out makes art more accessible."

Diavolo perform "Transit Space" on the CSUN campus. | Photo: Luis Luque.
Diavolo perform "Transit Space" on the CSUN campus. | Photo: Luis Luque.

The Valley Performing Arts Center opens this season of programming on September 19 with Diavolo's "L'Espace du Temps."


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