Dance a Lesser Art Form?
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
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.
the world’s largest, most-established dance companies continually
flirt with financial ruin:
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.
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
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.
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].
English National Ballet is so strapped for cash, it says
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.
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.”
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
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].
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.
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.
is only a sampling of a long and depressing list of dance
world woes. But then, everyone knows dance is a tough sell.
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
Parsons [Boston Globe], Pilobolus,
Ailey [NYMagazine], Paul Taylor…
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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