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December 16, 2005

The old and the new

by

When I studied dance in the 80’s in the Netherlands, New York was the place to be, study, indulge, for any European dancer who wanted to be taken seriously. So I left and studied as much dance as my body and mind could handle. Great teachers, great energy. Americans have taught me about work ethics, focus, endurance, soul! When I fell in love with an American in the early 90’s, I seriously considered moving over and finding my way in the dance jungle overseas. Had he moved to New York City I might have had, alas he chose for Kansas City and my choice was made in favour of my art: at that time I had begun receiving considerable grants as an emerging choreographer in the Netherlands. I decided to stay home.

Now, a decade later, if you’d ask anybody in Europe if New York is the centre of dance, most people would definitely say no. The artists from the US presented in Europe are mostly the artists that were well know here already 20 years ago. Hardly anyone new makes it from the US to Europe. After having lost touch with the US for many years, in the last 2 years I’ve visited the States again several times and have spoken to different artists and presenters again. Even though the image of dance in the US seems to have suffered a severe blow in the last decade, the spirit most definitely has not. Re-entering the dance scene in the US again two years ago during the annual Dance USA: what a joy to feel the focus, energy, determination of the people again! It was heartwarming to hear everyone speak about what they cared for in such generous ways. In the afternoon a quiet gathering of choreographers, having come together as peers, discussing issues. A talented colleague, a mature NY artist, speaks up: talking about the reality of his fame, finally playing BAM but having no money to afford a decent administrator, a decent rehearsal period, decent wages for the dancers, let alone looking into a set design, a concept for a set design, a concept for a light plot and the time (read: money) given to try out those ideas elsewhere than only in one’s head and still being severely judged on what one produces as if you had worked under the same circumstances as famous Anne Teresa de Keersemaeker of Rosas in Brussels. A silence fell and 50 colleagues recognized the dilemma.

I sat there and suffered with them. But secretly feeling blessed I hadn’t moved to the US 10 years ago. Even though it took me an incredible amount of work and time, at least in The Netherlands all my efforts were made in the realistic prospect that in the end it would amount to a much better situation than where I started at 20 years ago. So, taking one step at a time, I managed to build a dance company with structural support from the Dutch government. Starting out with a voluntary manager I’m now able to afford a professionally paid, year round staff. I can make one new production every year, working with highly professional dancers who can dedicate themselves completely to being performing artists since they’re paid as professionals in any other field of society. I’m able to work 9 weeks non-stop on any of my new projects, spending at least one week in the theatre on light-, sound- and set-design. And I’m actually the smallest, structurally funded company in The Netherlands. Seeing the situation in the States now, I cannot imagine my situation having been that way if I had moved to the US. I probably would not have developed my own movement system, the Countertechnique, I would not have had the time and space to research freely and come to new, daring insights. I have heard many of my American colleagues say this: developing yourself as a choreographer in the US has become a very heavy journey. Producing a work in two weeks is not possible, yet it is often expected. How can you discover new territory and take risks outside of what you know, outside your tradition, in two weeks? One doesn’t.

In this regard, it seems unlikely to me that the US dance scene as a whole will command soon once again the authority that it had before. This is most definitely not due to the quality of the artists of which there is obviously no shortage at all. The situation in which they are expected to develop their artistic potential however is, to say the least, very contra productive to what the artistic process demands. I’m not saying that a better financed system automatically creates better artists, not at all. As vibrant as the Dutch dance scene is - where by the way hardly anyone is Dutch, since the financial support system for artists is so uniquely developed that it attracts many foreigners who never leave again – in Europe and further away it is not at all very highly regarded either. One could certainly advocate that the well developed financial system is partly due to that. In the nineties the government sent out a clear message to stimulate young talent to go and play, try out and research. Artists were encouraged by policy makers and presenters alike to research grounds that were far away from “the market place”. The main criteria for receiving support was the artistic quality of the work, whether or not it reached an audience was far less relevant. Soon outside the big company structure a whole freelance scene emerged and started to grow. People felt free to make new connections, to combine old with new, theater with dance, visual art with text, etcetera. But now that we’re a good decennium further this generation of young and new have become established themselves and are now for a good part dedicating their energy to making sure they keep the money that they have been receiving all the time – while at the same time having to conclude that their work has lost contact with the audience, both in the artistic content and in the numbers of people that come and experience the work. This is in my view the downside of our wonderful system.

And in that sense then, to end optimistically, in my view the US dance scene most certainly is ahead of the Europe scene. It’s not spoiled, not completely self-centered nor completely unaware of their audiences and their heritage. To be an American artist in my view demands complete dedication to what is artistically driving him/her – to not lose yourself in all the other stuff they have to deal with. It demands also a sincere interest in relating to society and the audience, so not to get isolated from the society you live in. And last but not least, American dance artists mostly have a big awareness of the great modern dance tradition the US has – which many of my European colleagues often seem to be totally unaware of, both of the value of what was established in this tradition and of the results of the experiments that were once executed in the States to discuss these traditions in order to move on from there. In my view most of the European ‘conceptual dance’ wave for instance is repeating – in a lot less interesting way even – what was shown 20 or even 30 years ago in the US. For these reasons I myself do feel very much at the right place when working or performing in the US. After the postmodern multidisciplinary melting pot era, it’s my opinion that the dance world is in need for specializing again: finding new movement techniques, new working ethics, new ways how the art form could communicate to an dance-alienated public who has lost contact with their own bodies. Though both the infrastructure and the financial situation necessary for accomplishing this is within the US unfortunately almost completely absent, the mindset for establishing for such developments is most definitely there. And that’s where it all starts.

Posted by at December 16, 2005 4:24 AM

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