Saving La Casa De Maria

Alyce Faye Cleese is single-handedly determined to help raise nearly a million dollars in order to retire what remains of an original $4.5-million mortgage the Immaculate Heart Community on San Ysidro Road took on to re-purchase the adjacent 7-acre La Casa de Maria parcel (it had originally been part of the property, but was split off some years ago).

Alyce first became familiar with the former Catholic nuns of Montecito’s Immaculate Heart Community after attending a spirituality program at La Casa de Maria. “She was rather enchanted with this place,” former nun Carol Carrig tells us during a cocktail party held just before an intimate dinner held on the patio of the 75-year-old stone manor.

Alyce and her husband, John Cleese, attended “Spiritual Paths” retreats with Ed Bastian on several occasions, and become more connected with Ms Carrig and the small number of staff members on the 26-acre estate just south of San Ysidro Ranch. “She would pop in here and there,” Carol says, “and she decided she wanted to help us with the capital campaign.”

Local donors to La Casa's capital campaign already include the James S Bower Foundation, Mary and Gary Becker, Christine Garvey, Patricia Gregory, Jordano's, Joan Kreiss, Lillian and Jon Lovelace, Sara Miller McCune, Montecito Bank & Trust, David Rintels and Vicki Riskin. Additionally, La Casa has received a $1-million matching grant from an anonymous donor and, with the help of some of the aforementioned supporters, the mortgage has been reduced some $2.2 million; it now stands at $1.7-million.

The property had belonged to the Wack family (Mrs. Wack was a Dupont), who owned the property from 1933 to about 1940, when it was put on the market. The sisters of the Immaculate Heart Community had been looking for a novitiate site and eventually purchased the estate in 1942, whereupon changes to the house were made, including division of the family bedrooms into smaller cells for the nuns in training.

Carol, as a novice, remembers serving breakfast and other meals there to Father Virgil Cordano more than fifty years ago, when he was a young priest.

The property is redolent of old Montecito, complete with ocean and mountain views, walking paths and meditation gardens, a statue of the Virgin Mary with a fountain and waterfall, a fish pond, small outbuildings, three chapels, (“We like to think of the entire outdoors as a chapel,” says Stephanie), wooden barns and stone cottages with red barrel tiled roofs, and many, many – some might say too many – oak trees; there is even a tennis court, volleyball court, and a swimming pool. Casa Teresita, one of the more substantial outbuildings, was originally Mr. Wack’s mother’s residence, and is now a dormitory with a meeting room and two sleeping rooms upstairs that can hold ten.

Inside what was once the manor, the parlor has become a sitting/gathering room for retreatants. The nearby library features a large fireplace, about five feet high, that dominates the room, furnished with an older upholstered couch and chairs, a small card table, and some reading lamps. The built-in bookcases along the library walls are filled with substantial reading; books from “The American Language,” by H.L. Mencken, to “Man and His Measure,” by Francis Connolly, and everything in between.

Naming Opportunities

Alyce, in her drive to preserve this historic piece of Montecito, invited a small group of potential donors to a private dinner, catered by Brenda Simon of The Secret Ingredient. Joining former nuns Carol Carrig, Juliet Twomey and Stephanie Glatt were Gerd and Pete Jordano, Jeff and Margot Barbakow, John and Alyce Faye Cleese, Holly Palance, Len and Robyn Freedman, Bob and Chris Eammons, John Robinson, Shoko Kashiyama, Sue Bennett, yours truly and my wife, Helen Buckley, Garry Scott-Irvine, and Allison Joyce.

As for the fundraising effort: “One of the opportunities,” says Juliet, “is that we’ve been gifted a one-million-dollar matching grant by a longtime benefactor of La Casa de Maria and when we raise that million dollars, we will no longer have a mortgage. From then on,” she explains, “when the capital campaign makes money, we will be able to plough it into renewing these wonderful grounds and buildings.”

So far, they have raised about $350,000 of that million dollars, which has been matched. So the group has a little over $600,000 to raise. “One of the wonderful things is that any donation given in this time, even if it is pledged over five years,” Ms Twomey stressed, “the full amount of the pledge will be matched immediately and will go against the mortgage.”

Anyone interested in helping preserve this 26-acre jewel should know there will be numerous naming opportunities, depending upon the size of the gift. $23,000 donors, for example, (that’s how much it will cost to renovate each guest retreat room, including the bathrooms) will be offered a weekend retreat in the room of their choice, and a permanent acknowledgement of their donation on the door.

After the mortgage is paid off, one priority will be a re-planting of the three-acre organic garden. Additionally, “Myrna, the Marmalade Lady, moved to Molokai, and we miss her,” says Stephanie. The organically produced “La Casa de Maria” labeled marmalade was a favorite among retreatants, and the sisters are looking for someone to take up that chore too. There are many worthwhile opportunities to help.

You can reach La Casa de Maria by calling 805-969-5031.

Louie the XIVth Is Alive & Well (and living in Brooklyn)

Twenty-three-year-old choreographer and director Austin McCormick was born at Cottage Hospital, raised in Santa Barbara and Montecito, and attended Marymount from Kindergarten through eighth grade. Some of the teachers he remembers are his drama and sixth-grade teacher Deanne Anders, who was “pretty incredible,” according to Austin. Two others he pointed out as having been influential in his young life include fifth-grade teacher Sheila Wiley, and third-grade teacher Ann Foley.

We point this out, because Austin now lives in New York City (Brooklyn) and has created his own dance troupe called Company XIV, which he brought to Santa Barbara to perform the West Coast Premiere of his latest effort: The Bukowski Project. Austin is a young man about whom we have no doubt you will be reading more about in the future, so those early influences loom large.

His first choreographed piece was performed at the Lobero when Austin was just 14, via a Santa Barbara Dance Alliance New Choreographers program.

Before graduating from Juilliard in 2006, his circuitous educational journey brought him through two years at Dos Pueblos High School, the North Carolina School of the Arts, Harid Conservatory (in Florida), high-school correspondence courses, and the UCSB Dance Program.

Only 22 dance students are chosen to attend Juilliard yearly: 11 men and 11 women. The school has “an acceptance rate of something like eight percent,” Austin says. Going back to other early influences, Austin credits Denise Rinaldi and Michelle Pearson of the Santa Barbara Ballet Center for helping him develop the “strong ballet technique” that gained him admittance to the prestigious Manhattan institute.

Austin and Company XIV practice and perform in their own studio – a 3,500-square-foot converted garage– in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn.

I conducted the following interview after attending a full dress rehearsal of The Bukowski Project at Center Stage Theater in Paseo Nuevo.

Q. Usually, the route to choreography follows a career as a dancer; after studying dance for so long, why did you switch to choreography?

A. I’ve always been kind of interested in the behind-the-scenes part of dance, ever since I was little. I started doing that more at Juilliard, because there are more opportunities. I still love dancing, but I’m enjoying the directing part of it right now.

The dancers seem to have a great deal of confidence in you; how did you earn that trust at such a young age? Is it because of your ability to collaborate with your dancers?

I definitely come in with a concept, but then I ask for their input in terms of character development, movement, and creation. It’s really important they get behind the whole show, but they’ve been doing this since November, so they’ve got their parts down.

You brought your troupe here from New York; who else are you working with?

The lighting is done by Leigh Allen, who works mostly in L.A., my costume designer is Olivera Gajic, from Serbia, and the company manager is Gioi Marchese We were friends growing up.

This production goes from baroque to Bukowski; why Bukowski?

My dad has every Bukowski book in print. He was always reading Bukowski stuff when I was growing up. I found these very weird recordings of a reading [Bukowski] had done and I just really loved a lot of the imagery and the way he would describe the different characters and I thought, ‘I’m going to hold on to this and one day I’m going to make a dance suite.’ So I thought it could be a really interesting piece of performance art. Something about his writing appeals to me artistically.

But, you went further and contacted Bukowski’s widow for permission to use the recordings?

Yeah, I had to approach Linda Leigh, his widow, for the rights. She said, “Sounds great; send me a video when it’s done.’ It was a nominal fee.

The dancers begin in somewhat elaborate costumes but eventually take off most of that clothing and end up in their underwear. Can you tell me what it all means?

Well, it starts out with the decadence of the baroque form and I wanted to strip it layer by layer until you’re kind of left with each character, kind of who they are in the teeniest, tiniest little kernel. So, a sort of path through time: what stays the same, what changes, what evolves, what are basic truths about relationships, and being alive. You end up with sort of archetypical characters. That’s one of the things I love about Bukowski. I kind of took the four main kinds of women he would write about and thought about them in different periods of time and how they would be under different social constructs.

Your approach is unique: throwing things on the floor and having the dancers pick them up and move them off stage.

One of the ways I choreographed it was how to get from point A to point B with this very decadent, sort of light piece; the end point and how to get there.

The large center table that was moved and placed on its end worried us; it was very large and very heavy. I understand it came from your parents’ dining room.

It worried us too. Give them a mention (he laughs); my parents – Deborah and Michael McCormick – are the best tech support anybody could wish for.

Commercially, it must be difficult to launch a dance company, but you seem to have the raw elements – talent and energy – and a troupe that could branch out and do other things. Do you have thoughts of moving in any other direction?

Yeah. My dream is to choreograph for Metropolitan Opera, and I definitely would like to do stuff for music videos and films, anything like that. I’m open to a combination of things. The more multi-media avenues are enticing. We’ll see what happens; I hope there is something commercial down the line.

What will be your next effort?

I’m doing a project at the Mark Morris Studio in New York. It’s a neo-baroque concert with the Neo Baroque Dance Company the last two weekends in September. Then, I’m starting a new piece based on the baroque opera “The Judgment of Paris,” so I’m trying to figure out a way to come back to Santa Barbara and premiere that… •••

Company XIV is named after King Louie XIV of France, in honor of the baroque era that Austin seems so enamored of. Another project includes working with film director Phillip Buiser to turn a piece Austin made for stage at Juilliard into a short film, via a grant from the Dance Film Association. The film will be shown at Lincoln Center during a Dance Film Association festival.

If you’d like to keep up with Austin McCormick, he invites you to visit his website: