Work of Art

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Photo by Chris Costea
For three decades, Segerstrom Center for the Arts has served as Orange County’s hub for all things cultural.
By Joe Yogerst

Half a century ago, Orange County was sorely lacking in cultural venues. Sure, there was the excellent Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and legendary Pageant of the Masters and arts festivals in Laguna Beach. But for the most part, you had to drive up to LA or fly off to New York to see world-class cultural groups and artists perform.

That was until the fall of 1986, when the curtain went up on the first show at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, then called the Orange County Performing Arts Center, in Costa Mesa, a state-of-the-art venue for the performing arts that would revolutionize not just what Orange County residents could view in person, but the region’s entire mindset when it came to high culture.

American Ballet Theatre - Segerstrom
American Ballet Theatre’s “The Sleeping Beauty” world premiere. (Photo by Doug Gifford)

Three decades later, Segerstrom is celebrating its 30th birthday with a range of dance, opera, music and other performances that represent the incredible array of culture that has brought more than 16 million visitors to the center since that inaugural performance.

The Curtain Rises

By the late 1960s, community leaders from around the county were convinced the region needed its own version of the Lincoln Center or Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This coincided with the creation of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County in 1954, the Pacific Chorale in 1968 and, later, the Pacific Symphony in 1978, all of which lacked their own facilities.

In 1974, local entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Segerstrom and his family donated a 5-acre tract of land across from South Coast Plaza as a site for the proposed venue. The Segerstrom clan also agreed to fund much of the development and construction of this Orange County Performing Arts Center. Architect Charles Lawrence was hired to design a complex that would comprise the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall and the intimate 250-seat Judy Morr Theater, which was originally called Founders Hall.

Opening night on Sept. 29, 1986, was a glittering and highly diverse affair that included the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta; world-renowned soprano Leontyne Price singing the national anthem; actor James Whitmore narrating a performance of “A Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland; and the world premiere of composer William Kraft’s “Of Ceremonies, Pageants and Ceremonies,” commissioned especially for the event.

The venue quickly grew into OC’s fulcrum for music, dance, theater and arts education. But its evolution was far from finished. In the late 1990s, the Segerstrom family bequeathed a neighboring plot of land and, in 2000, they gave $40 million—the largest cash donation in Orange County history—to expand the center.

The Samueli Family Foundation kicked in another $10 million toward the cost of an ambitious expansion that included the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Samueli Theater and the education center, which was later named after Lawrence and Kristina Dodge in 2014. Designed by renowned Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli, this second phase opened in 2006.

Reflecting the fact that OC’s leading cultural institutions were based at the center, opening night at the 2,000-seat concert hall was headlined by the Pacific Symphony featuring opera singer Plácido Domingo in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s “Canciones de Lorca,” as well as performances by the Pacific Chorale. The celebration continued the next night as composer Philip Glass debuted “The Passion of Ramakrishna.”

ballet students at SCPA
Ballet students at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo by Doug Gifford)

The adjacent 500-seat Samueli Theater was introduced at this same time, and soon after came the unveiling of Richard Serra’s landmark steel sculpture “Connector,” which links the original and new buildings.

In January 2011, the complex was renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts to recognize the ongoing contributions of the Segerstrom family, which has been estimated as somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million in cash, land and artwork.

Today, the 14-acre campus comprises six performance venues as well as the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) William J. Gillespie School, which opened last year; the Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory, an independent organization; and space reserved for the Orange County Museum of Art’s future home.

Positive Impact

There is no underestimating Segerstrom Center’s impact on OC’s cultural landscape. The various venues make it possible to bring internationally renowned ballet companies, national Broadway tours and leading entertainers and artists to the community, or as Segerstrom Center President Terry Dwyer puts it, “visiting and touring arts companies that might not otherwise be seen here [in Orange County].”

The center’s community engagement and education efforts provide regular arts experiences in local schools as well as programs like Summer at the Center for at-risk high school students and a collaboration with another OC icon called Disney Musicals in Schools, a 17-week residency that culminates in a student-produced stage musical.

The center’s Arts Teach programs have been engaged by school districts in as many as six California counties. These presentations reach more than 300,000 students and families each year, making Segerstrom Center one of the nation’s largest providers of arts education by a nonprofit arts organization.

“Many of the center’s artistic programs are making a lasting impact on the arts and are being recognized far beyond our Orange County boundaries,” Dwyer says. “We’ve originated award-winning dance projects that have been seen in New York, London, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Russia, and other cities.

“Our dance school, with American Ballet Theatre as our partner, has the finest teachers and employs the renowned ABT National Training Curriculum. When roles are available, our students are dancing in productions by such important, international companies as ABT and the Mariinsky Ballet. Someday, we hope we’ll be reading about ABT Gillespie School alumni dancing with the great ballet companies of the world.”

"Wicked." (Photo by Joan Marcus)
“Wicked.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Next Act

Refusing to rest on its laurels, Segerstrom Center is marching bolding into the future via the “Next Act,” a $68 million campaign to expand its programs, facilities and community outreach. The groundwork was laid over two years of extensive long-range planning by the center’s board and staff. During this time, three key projects were identified for development—the Center Without Boundaries, the Center for Dance and Innovation and the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza, named after the couple who donated $15 million to the project.

“We’re taking on an important new public role in addition to being Orange County’s leading provider of great cultural and educational experiences,” Dwyer explains. “The new programs will enable us to be more involved and engaged with our community and to be a civic resource to nonarts organizations in new and as yet unimagined ways. … The vision is both to sustain and grow our flagship programs and to develop and launch new community engagement programs that serve the needs of this diverse community.”

Set for completion next year, the Center for Dance and Innovation includes a permanent home for the ABT William J. Gillespie School, which began its first full-curriculum program for children age 3 and above in September 2015. The school follows the ABT’s National Training Curriculum and is modeled after a similar program at the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City.

The Center Without Boundaries initiative is a bold expansion of Segerstrom Center’s existing community outreach efforts, which includes off-campus arts programs like dance classes for military families at Camp Pendleton and performances for patients, family and staff at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

Boogaloo Assassins at Segerstrom
LA-based Latin music sensation the Boogaloo Assassins perform outdoors live. (Photo by Nick Koon)

Meanwhile, billed as a public square for OC, Argyros Plaza will host free outdoor events at least 30 weekends each year. The existing plaza will undergo a transformation—groundbreaking is set for January 2017, with completion in late fall—to add a cafe, permanent stage, seating, picnic area and new landscaping. Dwyer says the plaza upgrade is the single most important step toward achieving the goals set for the center 30 years ago. In addition to stunning visual impact, the renovated plaza will make Segerstrom Center much more accessible to the general public and more able to engage with the community in new ways.

Taken as a whole, the existing Segerstrom Center and Next Act additions are also intended to foster a greater sense of place, pride and belonging among local residents, as well as send a message to the entire world that Orange County is far more than just a cluster of suburbs and beaches.

“I guess I’d say, ‘Welcome to the real OC.’ There is a rich, dynamic energy in our diverse communities, and the county has a long history of passionate arts organizations,” Dwyer says. “… A rich and varied cultural scene is one part of this intriguing Orange County picture. Our goal is to play an even greater role, to continue to grow, to be relevant and serve our community in new and innovative ways.”

In the Wings

Here are several upcoming, and eagerly awaited, shows at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

With so many incredible shows on deck over the next year, it’s difficult to choose just a few that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. But Tim Dunn, director of public relations at Segerstrom Center, recommends the following as among the most anticipated events of late 2016 and 2017.



American Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker”

Dec. 9-18

A festive Southern California tradition continues as “The Nutcracker” returns with the ABT’s incomparable casts and ABT artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky’s joyous rendering of a holiday classic. Misty Copeland, who hails from Southern California, will return to lead the troupe along with Herman Cornejo, on opening night and two other performances.


Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company

Feb. 8

For one night only, “Decadance 2017” brings together memorable and favorite segments of celebrated Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s creations.


“An American in Paris”

April 25 – May 7

This Tony Award winner follows an American soldier who falls in love with a French girl.

Headlining performances

Various dates

Dunn also advises checking out the numerous headliners appearing at Segerstrom Center: Lily Tomlin (Oct. 22), Tony Bennett (Oct. 23), Betty Buckley (Oct. 27-29) and Johnny Mathis (Dec. 4).

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