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The Dance Problem

Is Dance a Lesser Art Form?

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Of all the major arts, dance seems to have the toughest time attracting audiences. Theatre companies, museums, symphony orchestras and opera companies have lean years, even lean decades, but for dance, lean seems to be a way of life.

Even the world’s largest, most-established dance companies continually flirt with financial ruin:

  • The storied Bolshoi Ballet’s theatre is crumbling, its artistic reputation has been battered [The Times], and its subsidies from the Russian government have fallen off in the past few years. Last fall things got so bad, the president of Russia replaced the company’s top management.

  • Canada’s National Ballet has been laboring under a series of million-dollar annual deficits for so long that when it only fell behind $165,000 last season, the company put out a celebratory press release [National Post].

  • After squabbling over how the company should be run [Washington Post] and who owns the rights to its founder’s choreography, the pioneering Martha Graham Dance Company went out of business last fall. Despite attempts to revive it in some form, hope is fading.

  • Australia Ballet warned it would have to cut back its programs if it didn’t get more government support; then after it did [The Age], a number of prominent dancers quit the company [The Age].

  • The English National Ballet is so strapped for cash, it says it can’t stage the kinds of ballets [The Times] that could sustain its artistic mission. Derek Deane, the company’s artistic director, recently announced he is quitting in frustration. He’s the third artistic director of a major English company [The Telegraph] to leave in the past year.

A recent study "Dancing with Dollars in the Millennium," written by Dance/USA’s John Munger, says the 1990s were a lousy decade for dance [Plain Dealer] “Funding dropped. Audiences decreased. ‘The Nutcracker’ lost its magical appeal. Major ballets went deeply into debt. Modern dance ensembles struggled, too.”

In recent years American Ballet Theatre has battled major debt. Dance Theatre of Harlem has teetered. The Joffrey Ballet fled its home and a pile of bills in New York and relocated to Chicago. And Cleveland/San Jose Ballet closed its doors [Plain Dealer] in Cleveland.

Boston Ballet’s management squabbles, played out in public, [Boston Globe] have crippled it artistically, Boston choreographers say there’s no support [Boston Globe] for their work. Connecticut Ballet decided to take a year off [Hartford Courant] to ponder whether it can still survive. And 32-year-old Ohio Ballet is on the brink of failing [Plain Dealer].

Then there’s Los Angeles, which has tried numerous times to put together a viable ballet company, only to see its efforts fall apart. More generally, choreographers report that virtually an entire generation left the field in the 90s as dance companies pulled back from commissioning new work.

Dancers’ salaries are low; the average corps dancer makes less than a waitress in a busy coffee shop. And careers are short and precarious. A University of Washington study reported that dancers suffer a rate of injury higher than professional football players [Arts Patron] and athletes in other contact sports.

This is only a sampling of a long and depressing list of dance world woes. But then, everyone knows dance is a tough sell.


The question is: why? Certainly many of the tales of woe are the result of poor management (Martha Graham), changing economies (the Bolshoi) or perhaps outsized expectations (Joffrey). And certainly there are success stories – the Mark Morris Company, David Parsons [Boston Globe], Pilobolus, Alvin Ailey [NYMagazine], Paul Taylor…

But compared to other art forms, dance as an institution is the consumptive beauty. Almost every major city in America has a symphony orchestra, a museum or two, and a few theaters. Few have successful dance companies. Move down to second- and third-tier cities, and dance almost doesn’t exist.

Nor is there much writing about dance. Of all the arts ArtsJournal monitors daily, stories about dance are the most difficult to find. The quality of writing about dance doesn’t compare to that about other art forms, either. Over the past year, we have collected one-tenth as many stories for dance as we have for music or visual art. And not for lack of trying. Correspondingly, Arts Journal’s Dance pages see the lightest traffic on the site.

A study last year by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University reported that dance gets only “cursory” coverage [NAJP] in the American press and is rarely covered by a full-time critic.

Classical music critics point to audience estrangement from atonal music in the second half of the 20th Century as a reason for classical music’s decline with the public. No such claim can be made for dance. Contemporary dance has continued to evolve and produce stars. Small modern companies do some of the most exciting work in all of contemporary arts, and the field is vibrant with new ideas. More traditional companies never stopped offering plenty of classic fare.

 And yet, even the top companies are a difficult sell when they tour [SJ Mercury News] outside the largest cities. In any performance art, touring is a way of building and cementing reputations, of contributing to the evolution of the art. But touring for large companies is becoming less and less possible. Smaller companies can survive only by touring. But that too is becoming problematic as the venues for presenting dance dwindle.

Is it because dance is too expensive? Not compared to opera, which is thriving and costs even more to mount. Is it because of lack of commitment from funders? Through the 70s and 80s dance was heavily supported by the National Endowment for the Arts dance touring program. And there have been other major funders. European and Australian governments pour large sums into supporting their national companies.

But ballet and modern dance struggle. Even the beloved story ballets, which once could be counted on to draw audiences, seem to have lost their wide appeal. “Nutcracker,” the perennial cash cow for many American dance companies, has ceased to pack them in [Plain Dealer] as it once did.

The obvious place for blame is the lack of education about dance. It’s not that dance is a “lesser” art or harder to understand or more difficult. Dance outside the traditional ballet/modern companies is doing well – “RiverDance” and its clones pack in the audiences [Sunday Times] and PBS viewers. As does Stomp. As does Broadway [St. Louis Post-Dispatch] and shows like Lion King and Bring in Da Noise. Ballroom dancing thrives [Christian Science Monitor]. Swing is in, even with the young, or especially with the young.  As a participatory activity, street and club dancing are popular.

It’s that the specialized sophisticated vocabulary of ballet and modern dance aren’t taught in any widespread way in public schools. There are dance schools in almost every larger community, but dance is almost non-existent in the public schools, even scarcer than music or art instruction.

Dance as an artform has intrinsic appeal. Though ballet is a fairly recent development, dance as a means of expression is one of the earliest artforms. One archaeologist says that dancing as self-expression probably developed early [NYTimes] in our cultural evolution, “perhaps as early as speech and language and almost certainly by the time people were painting on cave walls, making clay figurines and decorating their bodies with ornaments.” That dates dance back 5000-9000 years ago.

Is it possible that because movement is so instinctive, so basic, it is passed over for instruction in favor of artistic skills that seem to come less naturally? Anyone can move, so the argument would seem to go, but it takes training to act or play an instrument or make a painting. 

But responding instinctively to movement or music is one thing, acquiring a basic vocabulary in which to hear and speak critical appreciation is another. Without that basic vocabulary, any artform is difficult to appreciate. Education that fails to provide it for dance virtually ensures that a general audience for it will never be developed.

Additional Reading: Our State-of-Dance archives

Letters, opinions, reactions, suggestions?
Send your e-mail to mclennan@artsjournal.com

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