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December 11, 2005

Links to related stories

by Douglas McLennan

How New York Lost Its Modern Dance Reign by Gia Kourlas, The New York Times 09/06/05


Hot Topic: Has NYC lost its leading edge in contemporary dance? - by Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine 12/05

Posted at 12:25 PM | permalink | email this entry

Our bloggers...

by Douglas McLennan

Carolelinda Dickey
Performing Arts Strategies, Pittsburgh

David White
Former director, Dance Theatre Workshop

Cathy Edwards
Dance Theater Workshop

Wendy Perron
Dance Magazine

Laurie Uprichard
Danspace Project

Philip Szporer
critic

David Sefton
UCLA Live

Andre Gingras
Choreographer

Anouk van Dijk
Choreographer

Lane Czaplinski
On the Boards

Nigel Redden
Lincoln Center Festival

Tere O'Connor
Choreographer

John Rockwell
The New York Times

Gia Kourlas
Time Out New York

Posted at 2:11 PM | permalink | email this entry

Our topic

by Douglas McLennan
Is it true, as Gia Kourlas declared in the New York Times in September, that "New York is no longer the capital of the contemporary dance world"? New York has, for so long, been at the center of dance, the idea is taken on faith in the US. Has the city lost its edge? And if not New York, where are the new capitals of dance? In Amsterdam or Bucharest? Berlin? Brussels, Paris or Vienna? Or has some of the energy that used to propel the New York scene spread elsewhere in America?

Posted at 3:06 PM | permalink | email this entry

What's going on here...

by Douglas McLennan
For one week (Dec 12-16, 2005) we've asked a group of people with a keen interest in the dance world to come together online and debate. They'll be posting every day and we invite readers to join the conversation. Reader posts will be accessible by a link at the bottom of each blog entry, at the bottom of this side column, and we'll also excerpt reader comments in the main part of the blog. The intent of this discuassion, as in all AJ topic blogs ...

Continue reading "What's going on here..."

Posted at 3:08 PM | permalink | email this entry

Looking for A Critical Mass

by Douglas McLennan

How is it that some cities or countries at certain points in their history gather up a critical mass of brain power, creativity, aesthetic sensibility, money and demand (among other things) to establish themselves as the "center" of anything? Throughout history, certain places have emerged as creative capitals, inevitably to recede as innovation rises up somewhere else. This constant renewing strikes me as a healthy thing, essential to the development and renewal of a healthy art form.

While it's certainly true that artforms such as movie-making have established strong roots in Southern California, that dominance is being challenged in the current technology revolution, and places such as Bollywood now out-produce America in the volume of movies made. In music, the center broke apart a long time ago; there are many thriving capitals, and energy shifts with the seasons. Visual art too has its centers, but look how quickly Art Basel Miami Beach became the largest art fair in the world after only three years, while art fairs such as Chicago now languish.

New York's contemporary dance scene has so towered above anywhere else in America for so long (if even in volume if nothing else), I'm wondering whether this is a sign of the city's unmatched creative energy, or is it the lack of an established enough scene elsewhere to challenge it. And if there's a perception by some that the most interesting work is no longer happening in New York, is that because of a creative wane or infrastructure problems (too expensive, not enough opportunity, etc)?

Or is it that better opportunities and ideas have emerged elsewhere and/or in places more conducive to supporting them?

Posted at 3:13 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Moments & Economics

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It's a complex question. New York had its moment, is still having a different kind of moment (there is in fact a LOT of exciting stuff here) and will have more moments. Other towns had/have/will have their moments, too, and Gia is right that there's a lot of life in Europe these days. Japan, too.
As for NY, economics is a big problem. Virigil Thomson once gave a two-word explanation for why there was an American expat scene in Paris in the 20's and 30's: "real estate," meaning cheap rents. Rents are not cheap in NY today. Also, there is a certain nostalgic provinciality about NY, and by no means focussed on presenters, as Gia seems ot imply. Critics, fans, the fabled "dance community": all seem to me a little too ready dismiss stuff as Eurotrash. Some Eurotrash is trash, but some of it is downright interesting, and we don't see enough of it. But it seems to me that the presenters are in fact opening up more and more to what's going on abroad: look at this fall's Dance Theater Workshop and Next Wave offerings. And it's easier to do that in "contemporary dance" than in ballet, since the troupes are less expensive to import.

Posted at 3:29 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (4)

A Positive Development

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Before acquiescing immediately to the idea that New York is no longer the world capital of dance, I think it’s worth acknowledging the creativity of the many choreographers who call New York home – Merce Cunningham is certainly the acknowledged grand old man of the field. But one has to add Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Mark Morris Bill T. Jones, Elizabeth Streb and Shen Wei only to name a few from a number of different generations to show that New York is still a rich center of dance. Twenty-five years ago, a fair number of those names would already have been on the list of someone watching the dance scene in New York and most dance watchers would have had relatively few names to add from other parts of the country or of the world if their primary interest was modern or postmodern dance. Ballet always had centers outside of the United States even if Balanchine (and, perhaps to a less extent Robbins) towered above other choreographers of the form.

That said, if New York is no longer a self-sufficient center of any art form, it is a sign of a city and a country much more aware of the rest of the world than was necessary even twenty-five years ago. To my mind one of the most exciting developments of the last decade or so is the immense appetite audiences I am familiar with (in Charleston and New York) have for work that comes from traditions beyond the Western European/American canon. I believe that this is a welcome evolution rather than something to be decried.

Posted at 5:36 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

December 12, 2005

The sun no longer revolves around the earth

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I am thinking about Buckminister Fuller's Dymaxion map of the world, and wondering if the simple act of reimagining the historical dance map might not have an important effect on this issue. By coincidence, I recently participated in a discussion led by the scholar Roger Copeland for the Philoctetes Society in NY (it included Toni Bentley, Joan Acocella, and Gary Chryst, among others) - that conversation focused on whether or not the American cultural community had lived through a true "golden age" of dance from the 1960's into the 1980's (with a not so subtle subtext that the current age had gone to base metal).

Both the questions of "a moment in time" and "the center of the world" are pre-Dymaxion. Any historical survey of dance in all its infinite variety would find it longstanding, alive and well, if not well off, in virtually every community and culture of the world, from village celebrations to religious and mystic rituals, from Eastern to Western royally patronized institutional dance practices that have grown up over centuries if not millennia. I would propose that the essential question before us is not of a particular place at a given time (though both come true in cycles, as John Rockwell has stated) but of understanding the "engine" of both dance community and choreographic development that emerges in certain existing weather conditions - political, geographic, educational, economic, technologcal - and for a time compels a higher bar of artistic engagement, public visibility and transformative understanding.

Posted at 5:57 AM | permalink | email this entry

Is the shifting center the result of financial realities?

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While I do agree that New York City is no longer the creative hub of contemporary dance in the world, I think that Gia missed the opportunity to delve into more of the reasons behind this shift. Yes, New York City is losing its stature in the global marketplace for dance. It is difficult to compete when resources are not allocated to a particular sector of the economy, when the arts are not valued by the government and by the people as they are in other parts of the world. It is an embarassing fact that artists in the U.S., despite living in a wealthy country, are worse off than their colleagues in much of East/Central Europe, where the economies are much less robust.

Funding in Europe – and, to a certain extent, in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well – is primarily centered on supporting, on a long-term basis, artists and companies. In the most recent issue of the U.K.’s Dance Theatre Journal, for example, you can read about an experiment involving two Canadian and one Flemish choreographer/dancers who spent a month in Antwerp and a month in Montreal, working blindfolded on a daily basis. While this, or other, experiments may not result in a brilliant product, the sheer fact that artists have the time to really dig into their work offers them the potential to move the art form forward, beyond what already exists. Chunky Move, the Australian company whose Tense Dave was recently seen at DTW and Jacob’s Pillow, could never have created that work (which takes place entirely on a spinning circular platform) without months and months of rehearsal. What U.S. choreographer has the financial support to allow him or her to work like that? There are, of course, exceptions. One can look at the work of Sarah Michelson and Shen Wei to see highly and fully produced new dance work; yet at what sacrifice in their personal lives? Choreographers in the U.S. have no stable infra-structural support; few are able to transcend the financial constraints when rehearsal space must be rented, dancers and other collaborators must be paid, etc. Even if an artist is not state-supported as a choreographer in their home country in Europe or Canada or Australia, there is a basic social net -- they have health insurance and probably some sort of unemployment system that they can take advantage of.

True, many U.S. presenters are not taking risks in their curation of dance companies. But, unlike many of us in New York City who are promoting risk-taking artists (including 651 Arts, P.S. 122, Danspace Project, DTW, and The Kitchen), they do not have the financial structure that would allow them to fail from time to time. For many of them, earned income – box office revenue – makes up 50-75% of their total income. For those of us who are more fortunate, or perhaps simply leaner, organizations, earned income rarely reaches 20%. That is, in my mind, a luxury. Successful funding programs – from the NEA Dance Touring Initiative to the National Performance Network, National Dance Project, and the New York State DanceForce – understand the fiscal reality and offer funding to hedge the risk. More such programs, supported at higher levels, are needed.

Posted at 12:28 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

Traffic: The political diasporas of dance

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In this forest-for-the-trees discussion, it is important to remember how dance forms and influences - both contemporary and traditional - have often traveled over the last century. There was the ever increasing movement of key creative populations into and out of Europe, as well as into and out of what were the far vaster and more geographically diverse cultures that had been appropriated as exotica by colonial empires. There was the global merchant and trading class that, as in the case of the Netherlands and Belgium among others, augmented tulips, diamonds and spices with a commerce of cultural production and presentation. These and others like them were in addition, of course, to the involuntary diasporas of the slave trade and floods of refugees that pulled previously unknown deeps of cultural information in their painful wake.

And there was the American Century, or at least that part of it in the postwar glow of the 1950's that promenaded Abstract Expressionism and other demonstrations of rugged (if uncomprehended) US individualism - including Martha Graham - around the globe, supported by State Department and other public subsidies. This same period gave rise to the NY State Council on the Arts, under Nelson Rockefeller and Nancy Hanks, which begat the National Endowment for the Arts which begat the NEA Dance Touring Program in the late 1960's which begat an American dance audience (and national public identity for dance as a peculiarly indigenous form) that ultimately resonated beyond US borders.

Merce Cunningham was recognized at home in a major way after his resounding success in 1964 at London's Sadler's Wells. Much later, Alwin Nikolais was offered an apartment in the Louvre, and named the first director of France's first National Choreographic Center in Angers. His American protege Carolyn Carlson would become perhaps the most successful American expatriate choreographer since Loie Fuller. The French manager Benedicte Pesle would champion not only Merce but Trisha Brown; others would do the same for Paul Taylor and Graham. Robin Howard would create a home abroad for the Graham aesthetic at The Place Theater/London Contemporary Dance Theater in London. By the late 1970's, the postwar cultural effort that ultimately nourished an overwhelming American influence on so many of the 1980's-bred generation of international dance artists ( the group that has allegedly led the usurping of New York's primacy of place) would vanish dramatically in the gathering gloom of the incipient Reagan era - replaced by a tightening conservative stranglehold on American artistic opportunity.

From that point on, American dance would be largely stuck at home, and a new diaspora of dancemakers was off to the races.

Posted at 3:45 PM | permalink | email this entry

new dialogue

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Over the last century – and it’s safe to say into this new one - contemporary dance has traveled from continent to continent, shifting its focal points of creativity and intensity. What we’ve got historically is a fluctuating cartography, says historian Laurence Louppe. In one port of call the flame extinguishes, in another it is rekindled. So where is the new horizon? A key to the puzzle of new sites of creativity, she infers, lies in the idea of the favorable environment, a place for creative activity, a site in which imaginations are in full metamorphosis. ‘The place’ gives rise to an ability to transform the states of the body and the states of perception.

So does U.S. still matter in dance terms? For the moment, it does. Someday, possibly soon, it won’t. The America of the world’s imagination, in dance terms, is New York. That’s where people outside the U.S. still understand that cultural control holds sway. And it remains a place where everybody would love to present their work.

Art is rarely created in a vacuum, tied as it is to social, political and cultural realities. Undeniably, over the last century, Americans invented new techniques and a new way of seeing dance. Today, under the Bush administration, the arts aren’t a crucial territory to explore. And I agree with Laurie: the absence of a social net that exists in Europe and Canada - with health insurance and an unemployment system that artists can take advantage of – is effecting its toll.

Sactimonious lecturing, certainly from someone outside the borders, won’t move the discussion very far. It’s true that in countries as far afield as the UK, Germany, France, and in my home country, Canada, arts budgets have shrunk or have remained constant. But I’d argue that governments in these countries continue to support artists, and understand the place alternative arts have within the culture. There’s a record to back up the rhetoric. The field of performance is developing and expanding as social and political boundaries are being explored.

If we look to Europe, race, region and nationalism are the issues of the day. The notion of community in Europe is changing, moving away from individual nation states, influenced by globalization and technological change, and as we’ve seen in recent current events, resulting in a cultural hybridization.

There’s a new generation of dance artists far removed from de Keersmaeker and Bausch - often a second and third generation of immigrants working in communities of culture and subculture – that’s trying to create networks and are forcing work to the surface. Communities are not mature. In places like Serbia and Poland, people are working in isolation, and there’s been a return by artists to their homelands to build communities.

No lingua franca, in artistic terms, seems to be taking hold in the new Europe. And just as there is a greater volume of activity spread over a huge geographic area, it is easy to think of the continent as a place of innovation and activity and a landscape of process. Perhaps Kourlas’s article, while jarring to some, aims to spark that kind of enriching and subversive dialogue in New York.

Posted at 6:37 PM | permalink | email this entry

That elusive spark

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Although economics plays a role, I think that the spark of where and when an outburst of creativity happens is more mysterious. It has to do with a certain crackling in the air, an unpredictable confluence of influences. When I think of the early 1960s in NYC, there were three pockets of such activity in the dance world: Judson Dance Theater, the beginnings of the Ailey phenomenon, and the Joffrey Ballet, which re-envisioned ballet dancers and repertory for American ballet companies. There was no NEA at that time. But there was a sense of newness, of discovery. Yvonne Rainer has said, “There was ground to be broken and we were standing on it.” The art of concert dance was young. All three of these cluster of artists built their art from scratch with more determination than money. These periods of excitement and cross-pollination are often brief.
I think that now in Central Europe, Israel, Japan, and Russia and Eastern Europe, there is that sense of discovery. The dance artists are not so burdened by the past. Choreographers here have two, three, four generations before them. I wonder if any of you think that having the Graham company, the Limon company, and the Taylor company in our midst constrains dance makers of today. (Although I have to admit that when I was making dances, I was barely aware of those companies.)
Last week at P.S. 122, I saw a terrific duet by a group from Norway (Zero Visibility Corp). It was very low-budget. The choreographer told me that the male performer was trained in Russian trapeze. And in Russia, choreographers like Sasha Pepelyaev are influenced by gymnastics and mime. I think that influences from outside the dance world are infusing it with energy.
I also want to mention that before the Martha Graham company toured the world, Katherine Dunham and her group traveled without state support. They performed in more countries than any dance group before or since (as I understand it), and to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Her dances blended modern, ballet, and African Diaspora dances. There has always been a sharing of idioms and a crossing of influences, and cross-cultural journeying.
As I said in my December editorial column (look to the right under “Resources”) I feel like NYC is the mother or grandmother of the contemporary dance movement. Maybe we are getting older (and more tired?), but it’s nice to see our children spread their wings and fly all over the place.

Posted at 7:08 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (6)

December 13, 2005

making and marketing

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The problems with dance and its slow demise are not geographical. New York long ago became a marketplace as opposed to a creative center. The problem–everywhere–is the dizzying imbalance between marketing and making and it will rear its head in Europe as well. I love artists from Europe and from the United States. I love big huge art and very tiny art. The desire to locate a particular capital of dance holds little interest for me as a maker. Talk of power centers is antithetical to the reasons one goes into dance as a life. One enters deeply into a willful state of marginalization the moment one commits to a mute, non-narrative form, one that leaves no product and is not (in the best hands) a translation of anything. It exists, by its nature , outside of the systems of capitalism foisted upon it in futile attempts to "market" it. Artists must fight to avoid being pulled into the land of the explanatory. In both Europe and America there are certain criteria one must answer , centered around the validation of dance through
"understandable" terms. The present European penchant for dramaturgical assistance and lofty philosophical sources is not unlike the need here to have the much loved "multi media" or the importance of "collaboration" rule your making. It is a way of saying the form needs to be validated through pre-existing outside information. So whether you are doing this by co-opting the music of a master to enhance your work or using Lacanian thought to source from, you are answering a mandate and you are deeply invested in representation. Trying to make dances that represent ideas in their specificity is like saying "Here, hold this wind " Audiences feel this. The chasm between the explanatory, aggrandizing marketing of these works and the works themselves fosters disinterest.

Ever since the Schnabel- ization of dance brought forth by The Next Wave Festival, the way we measure success or "winning" is size oriented. (Nigel’s list of artists is telling- it does not include anyone who works outside of that modality.) The simple fact that many European artists are rehearsing in large spaces happens to coincide with the size of theaters whose notoriety offers a sense of being on top. We need to create small venues and market them as important ,not as "off-kilter" or "idiosyncratic" or "off-center". The purpose of experimentation is to get to viable works that are a response to the contemporary moment , not to be labeled experimental. Many of the artists who are invested in this are not being seen. In America the hidden mandates in grant applications and touring sources congratulate those who will respond to and re-aim their work accordingly. Artists need to speak up about this.
And although it is an enormously difficult proposition, someone needs to find a way to sell the lack of sale-ability which makes dance so essential on earth.

Posted at 6:12 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

some questions

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Gia's article, which was the inspiration for this conversation, made specific mention of "presenters, in and out of New York, who have the power to effect change yet are unwilling to take risks." My first question is: Is that fair? Are their honorable exceptions? Is it asking too much of the "bravery" of the dance community to name names? And while we're at it: Is the press (such as it is, any more) remiss in not seeking out more experimentation? Should the press be more sympathetic toward the tender budding flowers in our midst? Or is there, as Gia suggests, too much tepid praise when artists and presenters should be aggressively challenged for their lack of boldness? Have we made a fetish out of originality and experimentation when solid, craftsmanlike work within given traditions remains a worthy goal? What's wrong with dance as entertainment? IS there a lot of experimentation, Gia's "intellectural and creative rigor," out there waiting to be discovered and presented? Are artists themselves lacking in bravery, too indebted to the system or to their mentors to take risks? What kind of risks might they taking, anyhow? Where are the experiments (other than the French conceptualists) that we should prize? If the 60's are being held up as a model, what's different now, especially since there was no money in the 60's either (tho rents were cheaper)? Is it all George Bush's fault? Will it take a revolution in the Zeitgeist far greater than one art or all the arts, the kind of society-wide, wide-eyed optitimism that prevailed in the 60's, the sense that the world could be transformed for the better and that individuals, and individual artists, could do that, to re-create experimental vitality in dance and to re-make New York into the center of the ferment -- as if that were important in the first place?! (I write as a onetime Bay Area-based Ann Halprin veteran.) These are all questions. I have my own answers, but maybe I'll save them for the same newspaper in which Gia's article appeared!

Posted at 10:08 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

working tradition

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In some of the recent entries references were made to the impact of tradition on American artists and the value of "solid craftsmanlike work". This is a topic that has intrigued me in recent years. In my own practice I have begun to seriously question the value of tradition and "solid craftsmanship". And I certainly feel the audiences and arts presenters that are part of the community that I work within are asking the same questions.

Perhaps due to the Euopean contemporary dance boom of the 80's and 90's where Forsythe, Kylian, Naharin, Vandekeybus, et al saturated our audiences with an enormously diverse set of dance paradigms, our public has become fairly sophisticated. These choreographers have been quite prolific and educated our audiences to such a degree that emerging choreographers are immediately held to their predecessor's standards of innovation and vision within the art form.
This is an extraordinary experience for the dance makers of my generation and a challenge that I believe most of us are more then happy to embarce. I suspect that we experience this "euro-tradition" as an invitation to better ourselves as artists and to continue the development of dance within the parameters of our personal vision.
I have never sensed a demand or pressure to continue in the stylistic footsteps of those that came before me.

A colleague of mine spent the last year in America, seeing as many dance performances as he could. He reported that much of the work he saw from emerging choreographers sprang from fairly familiar styles or existing idioms. The idea of taking an individual path separate from the holy canon of Taylor, Brown and Cunningham was distant indeed. How are the dancers being educated? Do U.S. presenters encourage choreographers to follow these familiar paths? Is this a market question? Or is it that dance makers without a decent infrastructure around them have neither the time nor the resources to to find a way out from under the weight of tradition?

Posted at 11:33 AM | permalink | email this entry

Dance Presenting (US): The Story Thus Far

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Never a fan of the bloodless term, "presenting" (and its enacter, "presenter") demonstrates the gulf between making and marketing that Teri earlier discussed. Recently, while participating in a Dance USA/Dance on Tour session with choreographers in Portland OR, I spoke with Paul King, a co-founder of the highly successful White Bird dance series in that city. He pointed out that, nationally, dance-specific, single-disciplinary presenters had dropped in recent years from a high of 26 to a current low of 12. Regardless of scale or aesthetic orientation, that number alone represents a mass shuttering of the public window on the dance landscape, especially as regards the full spectrum, large and small, of choreographic investigation. Many US cities only see dance as an occasional visitor in multi-disciplinary series, and only then the most well-known companies (or the cheapest versions of well known spectacles). and this only addresses general, off-the-shelf concert presentation - the constriction on the far smaller well of support for experimentation, new work and sustained community residency is far greater, and for being so much limited, all the more drastic.

In a remarkable back-to-the future twist, that once again leaves good old New York, competitive buzzing hive or not, with the greatest and most visible concentration of dance-making and dance-enabling in the country, again both large and small. Another bromide from the good old dance days: when the NEA Dance on Tour program got underway in the late 1960's, 80% of the American dance audience was in New York City. By 1980 when it crumbled, 80% of the American dance audience was outside of New York City. That subsidy-driven march to the countryside did indeed make an American art form from a locally grown patch of individual imagination and determined effort (with smaller outposts of course in San Francisco and elsewhere). We find ourselves left with a "vast sucking sound" of the American dance floor being rolled up from under its creators' feet.

There is no lessening of the numbers, vitality and exploratory diversity of US-based choreographers and dancers today, relative to any other population elsewhere. But the disappearance of vast tracts of opportunity have doomed the defining, self-empowering road trip of American contemporary dance in all its forms - as well as the road's communal availability to peer artists and companies from abroad. In such a way, the United States has awoken to find itself removed from the center of the global dance conversation, its artists struggling to escape the thickening mire of its marginalization.

Posted at 11:42 AM | permalink | email this entry

Some Reader Comments

by Douglas McLennan

Here are excerpts from some of the comments by readers:

I do not think it pertinent to focus on NYC as the dance capital of the world or not, but more so to realize that no matter where (geographically) new, significant work is coming from, it will spur the next generation and help carve the road less traveled so long as it is truly new and significant. - Winnie Wong

The structure of funding the arts in America is necessary as it has bred the culture we all now live with, but it is not the fountainhead of creative juices and it does not make better art. We need a more benevolent attitude toward funding rather than a directive one for artists to thrive again. - Andrew Bales

From my perspective, while there is plenty of BIG, display-based work going on, there IS also another wave of experimentation going on- and there are audiences for all of it. [I've always found it funny to hear this kind of critique from a self-professed balletophile. And, btw, what's wrong with entertainment?] I think of what Tere is doing, what Ann Liv is doing, what Miguel is doing, etc. If you don't like the institutions, either fund your own, or change the channel. But they ARE fulfilling their missions and supporting the work of American Artists. - Brian McCormick

The national infrastructure has changed dramatically in the last 15+ years, as has the "necessity," for artists, of working from a NY base. More and more respected dance artists are finding homes in colleges and universities around the country, where they can continue their creative research and contribute to the building of the next generation of artists and dance leaders. More and more presenters are, as has been pointed out, looking to post-colonial, post-war, and border cultures for rich and challenging artistic voices and content. - Bonnie Brooks

Dance is an international, interconnected world. There are French, Japanese, Australian, Israeli, Dutch, Indian, Columbian choreographers all over New York. I’ve personally danced for all those nationalites. They go back and forth between New York and their home countries, with stopovers in third, fourth, and fifth countries to teach, perform, and/or choreograph. I originally wrote this because I really had a hard time understanding why anyone was discussing dance and its innovation in terms of geography. - Rachel Feinerman

Granted, poverty didn’t daunt Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and a few others we can name. Were there—are there—choreographers of equivalent genius who remain nameless to us because they simply didn’t have the stamina to endure the cruel prevailing conditions? - Tobi Tobias

You can see all comments by readers so far by going here.

Posted at 12:24 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

New York's creative environment

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How are we judging the creative impact of New York's dance world? For most of us, it's obvious that we don't want to only be perceived as vibrant by rolling out large-scale, spectacular, marketable work to the theaters of the world. Nor do we expect that we are only vibrant if we can identify ourselves as part of the next big "movement" in dance-- time will tell, and we can get back to that question a few years from now. I think it's too easy to look only for the breakthrough moments and use them to define an artistic landscape. The current dance world in New York is not dead by any means, and interesting things are happening here all the time.

There's no question that the environment for making art in New York City is under-resourced. I assume artists here would make stronger work if they could do it full-time, work with consistency, be able to research and develop ideas with reliable financial support for those activities. But, there is dance happening here that can be seen in any important art-making context, whether a European capital, elsewhere in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. There are a lot of bold and interesting artists making good, exciting, relevant dance in the city.

What it does it mean to make work here now? Some of the hallmarks of the creative environment that is New York City include living in a city that engages a lot of rough edges: having to work all the time in order to pay rent, huge gaps between the rich and the poor, little access to consistent or sophisticated work spaces for artists, the fragmented experience of 9/11, a national attempt to marginalize this city on many levels (too liberal, too multi-ethnic, too dangerous, too experimental, too hedonistic, too out-of-touch, too full of artists, too messy). And, of course, there is the good stuff that keeps many of us here, including a certainty that in this city we are surrounded by a brave and adventurous group of fellow citizens (both artists and non-artists); that we are at one of the global crossroads of information and influence; and that we are fed by a charged, heady sense that we can find, do, or be, anything here. Plus, there is the positive side of being many of those things we are marginalized for!

I want to weigh in, as others have, on the conceit of “being the center of the dance world”. I felt that the New York Times article in question was naïve in that regard, positing that NYC was finally being revealed as an emperor with no clothes. But in fact, no one that I know walks around thinking that we are the center, or deserve to be the center, or should be mourning our demise as the center. As the world changes politically and culturally the idea of “center” is less relevant and not a primary benchmark of success. Tere O’Connor acknowledges this perfectly in his posting.

Nonethless, of course it is important to be part of a network, to be creatively relevant, to be part of the call and response of making new dance, to continue to provide and make opportunities in the field of dance that are both fruitful and risk-taking. I believe that New York City is still, at this time, all of those things. But I work at it all the time, and so do many of my colleagues. As we do our work (as artists, as presenters both in and out of New York, as journalists, as funders) in the field of dance it is our responsibility to work harder than ever, because adventurous voices in dance exist within a fragile art-making context and are not to be taken for granted, even in a city as robust as this one. Perhaps future postings to this blog can begin to articulate some of our strategies to accomplish those goals.

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border crossings

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The following may have nothing to do with New York, per se, but please read on.

Place has a lot to do with how artists function. Case in point: In 1948 Québec-based painter Paul-Emile Borduas and a group of rebel artists took the courageous step of signing a manifesto, Le Refus Global, the statement of ‘total refusal’, and a banner for individual freedom. This document is considered Quebec’s first passage into modernity, and it shifted the profile for dance in Québec (and Canada).

These artists endured in the face of huge resistance. French Canadian society was heavily influenced by Catholic thought and with it an underscoring of traditional values and way of life, and these artists demanded Québec become more secular and cast off the cultural blinders of the time.

The Refus Global prompted the seeds for the Quiet Revolution, and with it the social and political movements that galvanized Québec into the modern era.

Dancer-choreographer Françoise Sullivan was among the signatories of the Refus Global, and in the manifesto she published La danse et l’espoir (Dance and Hope), the first theoretical essay published in Québec on the nature and meaning of dance in society.

The talents of contemporary Québecois artists such as Margie Gillis, Édouard Lock, or Marie Chouinard, and the generations of innovative artists following them, arguably might not be making work if it weren’t for a few creative and bold artists who decided to redefine the landscape, and demanded that a creative environment exist. So, yes, articulating artistic principles and ideas about dance and the arts, has everything to do with territory and crossing borders.

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not namby-pamby

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A year ago, I got upset reading Anna Kisselgoff's dance-is-dead article ("Thoughts on the Once and Future Dance Boom,” NY Times, Jan. 6, 2005) proclaiming the end of the American dance boom that apparently began in the late 60's and fizzled out some where in the 90's. How could she suggest such a thing, I wondered, when there are so many interesting choreographers taking important steps forward? What about John, Reggie, Sarah, Tere, Wally, Donna, etc.? What about even younger artists like Miguel and Ann Liv? What about the artists I don't even know? I mean, after all, wasn't this merely a matter of a jaded senior critic who had lost touch?

Rereading the article today, I am struck by the provocative (and obviously informed) manner in which Anna summed up the past 30 or so years of dance and pointed to an actual future, one that can include any or all of the artists I mention above. She may have gotten me upset but she also got me thinking as I've referenced the article consistently over the past 12 months. Anna-1. Lane-0.

And so it goes. Joan Acocella wrote about "downtown" dance this past summer in The New Yorker and ruffled some feathers in the downtown community who leveled charges at her being out-of-touch and not getting the work. Paul Ben-Itzak's regular rants in The Dance Insider elicit much rolling of the eyes from administrators and artists alike. Last season, I even wrote an ill-fated open letter in our program suggesting that critics in Seattle were too provincial (bad idea) after one, in my estimation, too easily wrote-off a performance by John Jasperse at our venue. How dare he? This is John Jasperse!

I find it ironic that while we (people who care about dance) are always quick to site the problems in the field--a lack of resources, waning attendance, regurgitated aesthetics, etc.--that we are also quick to take offense at precisely the kind of provocative writing that can get people to give a damn. If there is any threat to the dance field, it is that not enough people care about it. Perhaps this is because people read too much puffy marketing rhetoric (what Tere said) and too many namby-pamby reviews that do nothing to enliven one’s engagement with the form. I’m excited by the questions John Rockwell poses below because they can lead to exactly the kind of conversation and debate that is healthy and interesting.

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December 14, 2005

Global Dance Traffic

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I love what Tere O’Connor says: “One enters deeply into a willful state of marginalization the moment one commits to a mute, non-narrative form….”
Sometimes we forget that choreography requires a certain separation from the mainstream. Choreographers like Merce, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, labored for years without thinking about making any money beyond survival. Dance in its nature resists marketability, and the kind of brave independence we are talking about even more so.
Trisha Brown once said to me, with great appreciation and gratitude, that Harvey Lichtenstein figured out how the avant-garde could make money. I’ve heard painters talk about the time when visual artists didn’t make money, and so young people entered the field with a more idealistic state of mind. But now young painters can see how much money is in the market and they go for it.
Although choreographers in NYC don’t get the kind of funding they do in Europe, there are other measures of the vitality of the NYC scene. Young dancers are flooding studios like Steps, Peridance, the Merce Cunningham studio, etc. The Mark Morris building is expanding; the new Ailey building is teeming with life; Trisha Brown has her own studios. As Gloria McClean says in her “Readers Take,” the dance schools (of which there are way more than in any other city) are a huge attraction for international students. Plus, NYC has three theaters that sustain an audience for dance and only dance: The Joyce, DTW, and the Danspace Project.
But still, I agree with Tere and others who say that whether NYC is still the center is not the point. The whole field of contemporary dance has burgeoned and spread. There’s a fluidity of exchange, so that New Yorkers can see great work from Europe (and by the way I think the term “Eurotrash” dropped out around three years ago when the France Moves festival opened some of our eyes), and New York dancers like Vicky Shick can go teach at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s studio in Belgium, or Janet Panetta to Wuppertal. So we are all part of the global dance traffic.
I want to respond to a “Readers Take” posted yesterday by Tobi Tobias. I think that counting (or expecting new) “geniuses” is only one measure of vitality. In the San Francisco Bay area, for instance, there is a thriving dance community, and only zero or one certified genius (Anna Halprin). There’s Margaret Jenkins, Brenda Way, Joanna Haigood, and Joe Goode, and a whole lot of interesting young choreographers, and they are doing very nicely without the east coast giants. Same with Philadelphia—and Paris and London. As Philip Szporer said about Canada, “a few creative and bold artists who decided to redefine the landscape” took hold and developed a dance community.
While it’s true that it’s easier to get one’s choreography shown and funded in Europe, I have a couple of (admittedly second-hand) things to say about the rosy picture of dance there now. That $20 million dance center in the suburbs of Paris? My French connection says that it will monopolize dance and keep all the resources in one place, marginalizing the smaller groups. And the wonderful government support, which is often tied up in the opera house system? The Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, in a recent BAM-sponsored dialogue, fervently wished that all opera houses in Italy would burn down. He says they are closed to any sort of creativity.

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genius, commercialism and a slap

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Well this is so incredibly interesting to talk about all of this, even if keeping track of who launched what thread is dizzying, particularly for the 48 year old who spends much of the day looking for his keys while holding them in his hand.

So let’s start with genius or that other career-wrecker, master. Everyone is a master and an idiot. The problem with this medieval sense of pedagogy as process is that it is medieval and we are not. What is wonderful about New York right now (and Andre’s friend who assessed the NY scene had better get out more!!! grrrrrrrrrrrr) is that a large group of young makers are not referring to dance history they are not looking at the hierarchies derived from the idiotic , anachronistic power structures of the ballet world or other institutionalized systems. This has created in New York a situation in which young artists and old share a lot of time and thought outside of the constraints of a traditional old/young dialectic. The brilliant Shtudio shows in Chez Bushwick bring together a group of young and old artists that is unprecedented. Movement Research’s ultra successful Melt Festival brings me and my age group peers into contact with very young makers on a regular basis. This relationship with younger people has infused my work with a layer of information subtly born of their queries. Many young makers don’t know anything about the dance boom of the 80’s and they are not rebelling and it is NOT LIKE JUDSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They are creating work responding to the whole culture, not the dance culture–a noble goal for any art form– to point its tools outwards. They are creating systems to perform the work in and to make it in that are cooperative and feasible. Out of this different set of circumstances, the work changes.

In terms of entertainment this question from John is striking. I am certainly biased by a love for contemporary work. But again, the importance of the marginalization issue comes up. I entered this form because what the masses want frightens me to death. I think most , not all, entertainment is asinine and that most of it is based on selling products and on financial privilege. To speak about entertainment in this context is to point to an imbalance. The reason a choreographer like myself would be averse to entertainment in dance is that the general audience is still on the long, slow road of wresting dance from the entertainment sensibility, causing many to judge through that lens.
If I want to use dance steps to talk about a political situation through time and dynamic and the audience seesonly dance steps… or the audience and critics make decisions about the work based on this …then yes, vehemence grows.

I am working in a program for TDF called Open Doors where I take a group of high school students for a year to see dance and then we talk about each show afterwards. Our first outing was to see the satanically mediocre show called "Moving Out" This morally reprehensible work is shaping the view of dance for people in America because of its visibility through commercial avenues. Women are hot whores and men throw them around as they splat there legs open to the teenage musings of Billy Joel.
Anyone?
This is something to fight against. Fortunately without me even opening my opinion loaded mouth, the kids roundly trashed the work as clueless and racist and laughable. Yet it received beaucoup de Tony awards. This is an enormous obstacle for artists who use dance to speak about being on earth in a non-representational way.

Finally a gentle little e-slap to Lane for saying "feathers were ruffled" because this implies ego. I am the bird who wrote that letter to Joan. It is not about pride, it is about the critics role as the translator of new areas forged by artists, and it is about the form not about my work. I love Joan but I needed to speak out about that particular assessment. It is about artists speaking up and saying you have to do better. You cannot use the wrong lens to speak about the work, you have to research and reach way in , way passed the catch-all Judson reference , and others to feel the exponentially multiplying points of view being created by artists who are looking forward-yes right here in New York City, the former dance capitol of the world.

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thank you, sir...may i have another?

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Tere: More often than not, I go to school every time some one like you opens his or her mouth, as was the case when you responded to Joan's article this past summer. Whether ego drives a passionate response or not, does it really matter? Your letter provided the opportunity to delve more deeply into the points raised in the New Yorker piece and an alternative way for framing the work of contemporary choreographers. The frequent invocation of Judson by critics when viewing conceptual work by young dance makers is a case in point as I agree that most of this work is not necessarily a response or recapitulation of an earlier time. Johanna Drucker's excellent book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, makes a compelling case for using a different critical perspective than the position of radicalism and opposition that defined much of postmodern art.

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The financial landscape

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I really resonate with one of the reader comments (Rachel Feinerman) who said that "We know that innovation in New York isn’t dying. It’s the financial landscape and the desire to build audiences that concerns New York dancers and choreographers." So, the financial landscape. I don't feel like the expert here, since I am not a funder. But I do sometimes feel that the ways dance get funded, and the values that underpin those funding decisions, are not designed to encourage the particular qualities of "risk-taking work" that is associated with a city like New York. This has a trickle-down for the artists who work here and for the organizations that work with them.

Since the culture wars of the late 80s/early 90s, the NEA has maintained funding from congress in part by ensuring that dollars are going to every congressional district in the country, and are not skewed disproportionately to New York City (and the perceived liberal experimentalism happening here). I understand that political expediency dictated this. The NEA also stopped funding individual artists and pulled back from the kind of peer-review panels that existed in the 80s, when artists had important decision-making voices in the way funds were allocated. Artists sitting on panels at that time often advocated for their lesser-known peer artists because they were enthralled by the work itself, no matter what the scale, and they were not concerned with the issues of marketability that Tere referenced earlier.

Interestingly, though they are not bound by the same constraints, many private funding bodies have followed the NEA’s lead in minimizing the voice of “creative New York” on funding panels, and in minimizing the role of artists as decisionmakers when it comes to allocating funds. I know that there are strategies behind these choices, many of them with sound goals. But, we should recognize that these patterns of decision-making when it comes to allocating funds have the effect of reducing investment in the kind of experimentation and investigation (particularly on smaller scales, or that are less easily marketable) that has long had its home in New York City. And that may, in fact, seed the future of the field.

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Perhaps An Inevitable Shift

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The concept of New York’s no longer being the dance capital of the world is an analog for America’s place in the world in general. One could ask that if America has become the world’s lone super-power so why can’t America maintain its hegemony in dance and other cultural forms as well? Fortunately, the world is a more complicated place than America would have it be and creativity follows its own paths. New York had a particularly wonderful run when America was still a beacon for more than simply economic success. Now, part of the sense of endless possibilities that fueled the sense of excitement that New York of the 50s, 60s, and 70s represented has moved elsewhere.

Perhaps, we all should lament this but the drift is much larger than simply New York or simply the dance community or how much funding is available for any sector of the arts community. Nonetheless, New York remains one of the most vibrant cities in the world with plenty of fascinating work. (I have to say, Tere, I thought better of Moving Out.)

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The Trading Routes

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The massively shifting global political dynamic that Nigel alluded to - in conjunction with the internal non-NY-centric dynamic that Cathy referred to - is in reality a sum total of local political dynamics in transformation that are pulling cultural behaviors in their wakes. In Europe, the move to the European Union (out of the Common Market) and its later extension into a (mostly) common currency, liberalized labor movements within Europe's borders and finally into its expansion into East Central Europe is mirrored in the evolving artistic practices and mutual arts financing across the continent. Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, young producers and creators (and their dialogues through such organizations as the Netherlands Theatre Institute, the Informal European Theater Meeting and Airwaves) consciously anticipated the economic and political partnerships that were legislated for the New Europe. The focus on constructing multi-national, demonstrably European artists projects across previously inpenetrable national boundaries became the norm. Nowhere was this more apparent and successful than in dance and related performance forms that could immediately bypass the still significant and politically resistant barriers of language. The result was a deliberate turning inward to the emerging creative ideas and structural issues, and the new citizenship of formerly national artists within Europe (and the nascent pan-national European support structures) as a whole - and away from the disempowerment of the past, symbolized in many cases by the ubiquitous presence of US artists across the landscape of that past.

In the 1990's, sub-regional networks centering on the Baltic region, the Mediterranean basin (southern Europe, North Africa and tentatively the Middle East) and the energetically emergent countries of Eastern Europe further complicated the artistic picture. Similarly in other parts of the world, in Asia and Latin America, artist- and producer-driven networks demonstrating regional pride and non-US affiliation championed and promoted artists, festivals and longterm collaborations that gave the regions (and their animators) a significant public identity, with the notable absence of Americans in their midst.

There are so many variables in this tectonic shifting of underlying cultural plates - but without a doubt, the emerging isolation of the United States through its conservative, non-engaging, unculturally aware and ultimately military geopolitical stance, in great measure, pulled its own artists - New York and otherwise - into its isolationist shadow. Whatever New York has been as a great creative center (and it assuredly still is), the world that formerly applauded it as such would no longer do so as their own political realities continued to grow and thrive, and our politically dominant cultural xenophobia continued, tumor-like, to thrive.

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December 15, 2005

More Reader Comments

by Douglas McLennan

Excerpts from more of the contributions from readers:

Does dance need a capital? The fact about New York is that there are still a lot of us 'round here. That means we are more likely to see and/or participate in each others' work. Does that direct exposure spur the aggregate artistic output qualitatively or make us more likely to be derivative? Or both? What we might need is a watering hole, which, as here, could be and often is in cyberspace meaning that it doesn't currently matter where we are geographically. - Gail Accardi

I find great solace having my work seen either by mass audiences in developing countries such as Mexico and China -- audiences which do not have a clue about "dance" or by kids in public schools who think that the dancers make it up right on the spot. (I show regular abstract modern works to kids, but I do arrange them in context.) That allows me to connect immediately to my making and seeing and feeling the response. I think unfortunately we do, most of us, make dances to be viewed and that audience response is so part of the making and re-making process. - Michael Mao

The threat is not that people do not care about dance. The cancer is that the dance community does not care about themselves. There is not one major local, regional or national organization that teaches dancers to take care of themselves in every sense of the word. Artistically , mentally spiritually and bottom line financially. The dancer and it's so called community is a one way street to nowhere. We do not produce our own work, we do not take the risk for our own work we stand by and "pretend" that we are doing something great and that the public has a moral obligation to praise us. - David Norwood

To New Yorkers (applies to all aspects of life): Relax. You made it here from the old country. You no longer have to justify your choice by claiming to be the center of everything, or that everything connected to you is the best.
To the dance world: And how fluidly are non-professional dancers moving? Check out the club floors, playgrounds, and sidewalks. Isn't having an expressively moving populace more important? - DB

I recall how friends in France in the 80's would complain that in Europe you couldn't study modern in a consistent way; there would be a two week workshop here and there, catch as catch can training. So people came here to study, train, and have the daily life of the dancer, a deep immersion. A few of these schools still exist, of course. But the "daily life of the dancer" seems different. It seems that dancers study two weeks here, and two weeks there now, catch as catch can. Part of this is surely economics. But part of it must be also philosophical or pedagogical. What values are we looking for, now that pretty much anything goes? - Gloria McLean

its really the small scale that I find the most engaging and innovative and, honestly, I don’t know if the New York critics can fully appreciate it. I think the dancers who are moving in and around New York, doing wildly different work with different choreographers on different days, whose friends are dancers doing different work for different choreographers, who are all taking different classes and workshops with yet more choreographers are the folks who know what’s going on in any given “scene.” And as you read through the comments made by dancers or talk to any dancers, they all tend to shrug off the question that Gia asked. We know that innovation in New York isn’t dying. It’s the financial landscape and the desire to build audiences that concerns New York dancers and choreographers. - Rachel Feinerman

Many presenters are less adventuresome in their programming than I would personally prefer. But it is problematic to lump presenters into a single, disappointing category. Look at what is happening at the Wexner, the Walker, Jacob's Pillow, ADF, the Krannert...an incomplete list but one that points at continued investments in creativity in the field. Are there enough of these presenters? Of course not. Are we as fully capitalized as we'd like. Hardly. But we're out here beyond the Hudson. - Bonnie Brooks

Frankly, I don't care where the center of dance is. BORING. What I would like to see is more opportunity for artists to work on developing their ideas and values whether they are "traditional" or not. Too much emphasis is placed on who is the most innovative new kid on the block and who is "important" or " significant" or "timely" and not on the value of all the work out there and the potential of much of the work and people out there that is not reached. - Christine Jowers

To see all of the reader comments, please click here.

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The Anti-New York Bias

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I'd like to follow up on some of Cathy's and others comments (like Tere, I'm dizzy!) regarding the political need for the NEA and others programs funded by the NEA to include geographic diversity among their many other criteria. My concern is that this is short-sighted, diffuses artistic quality, and has not led to extraordinary work being created around the country (with a few very wonderful and notable exceptions). It would be fascinating, I think, for an economist to study the conditions under which different types of art are best created. It is my hypothesis that new dance, perhaps more than any other art form, requires the density that exists in New York City -- of peer artists, collaborators, audiences, critics and other media, funders, etc.

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Wrapping Up

by Douglas McLennan

I'd like to return to one of John's questions - "Is there a lot of experimentation, Gia's 'intellectual and creative rigor,' out there waiting to be discovered and presented?" There is less dance in America than there is of the other major art forms. Why is that? There is less support for dance than for other art forms. Why is that? Is it that dance is at a different point on its evolutionary or institutional cycle than other art forms?

So I guess for me, the question of whether New York is still the "center" of dance isn't so much about bragging rights of a city or assessing commercial success, as it is a way of taking the temperature of what kind of support there is for making dance in general. Plenty of people are asking whether orchestras are dying - they clearly have some structural issues that make survival an open question. The issues for dance seem different, but then again, if the center doesn't hold...

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December 16, 2005

The old and the new

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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.

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The Body and the Spectacle

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Anouk has deftly and feelingly defined the states (and perceived states) of dance-making on both sides of the Atlantic. Her personal arc also illustrates two distinct eras of dance development, one in New York, one in certain European countries, that together show how artistic energy shifts between different poles over time.

But I want to offer my final remarks referring back both to Laurie's question about artists desiring the concentrated density of experience with their peers and to Doug's musing about the seeming sparseness of American dance activity (where is the dark matter that constitutes its true mass?). In brief, American contemporary dance has always been about the body and its immediate environment. It could afford little else, and so focused its collective imagination on articulating all of the languages that the body could possibly speak. The body craves warmth, and similarly artists vested in the body require as a fact of creation, wittingly or not, the close company and friction of others. This is dance after all, the materials of the craft all human, sex and sensuality never far from the main event. No place on earth has ever, now or in the past, offered that particular seduction and intimacy in the art form that New York has. It is the Positively 4th Street, both real and mythic, of much of the historic will to explore, create and build human community through the medium of dance.

In Europe, because of the institutional baggage of centuries-old traditions in theater, opera and ballet - not to mention royal and state patronage - contemporary dance emerged, even in its nominal infancy, with the obligations and trappings of its own defining ecology. Artists passed, in as little as a year's time, from nascent choreography to press conferences in the garden at the Avignon Festival. And whatever the individual artistic impulse, some of the highly desirable enabling conditions (well equipped stages, festival sponsorship, Maisons de Culture, social welfare benefits) demanded a certain pound of flesh - the construction of big spectacle, visual achievements capable of holding their own in the shadow of the other state-sponsored disciplines that preceded them. Sitting in a theater in Bobigny (Paris) some years back, watching the French choreographer Phillippe Decoufle's "Shazam" (eventually seen in New York at BAM), I had a sudden flash of insight into what was happening on stage that night and elsewhere in many cases in European dance. Decoufle had brilliantly constructed a theatrical language that was in fact a dense vocabulary of deconstructed spectacle, shards and images of mature theatrical tradition, with performing bodies present, but not central to the artistic vision.

Body and spectacle are not mutually exclusive; available resources, structural or occasional, marry them in countless ways. But in general, the terms define the gulf between the historical (and current) New York template and its Western European counterpart. The real question is which one gives rise to vital and sustainable community, which provides the most intimate call-and-response of individual visions in close proximity, which would you want to lie down with for warmth on a cold winter's night? Or in Tere O'Connor's case, to sit down with for a grand and gourmet meal?.

I'd guess there would be a wild geography of answers.

Posted at 5:32 AM | permalink | email this entry

you'd think...

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Why should American dancers have to rely on a Cold War State Department or dysfunctional public support to peddle their wares abroad? American festivals import European companies (sometimes with French subsidy, often not). If Europe is so (relatively) rich, why doesn't some enterprising producer in France or Germany or Holland really spend time in New York and put together a festival in their home cities featuring all kinds of interesting choreographers who aren't yet known abroad? Or maybe they could jointly conceive such a festival with American producers. Yourgos Loukos or Simon Dove, meet David Sefton. I could put together such a festival in a flash from the good stuff I've seen this past year alone. Whoever did that would get a terrific festival that might also go a long way to restoring New York's national and international lustre. Because it's not the creativity that's faded but the lustre, the magnetic ability of NY to attract people from all over the world in the expectation of encountering something -- performances, teachers, an avid scene -- exciting.

Posted at 7:42 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

one more thought

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On this quesditon of experimentaiton vs. entertainment, and Tere O'Connor's abhorrence of "Moving Out" (tho I'm no Billy Joel fan): In music, a 100 years ago, a split opened up beween the vanguardists and the populists. Music by now is bifurcated between classical avant-gardism that hardly anyone wants to hear (or post-Sondheimian or mid-cult reductions of older-fashioned classical music that aren't much more popular) and pop music (which in turn now has its indie obscurantism and top-of-the-charts calculation). Dance has been healthy because those extremes haven't yet snapped apart; there's still some sort of continuum. Some choreographers entertain (with whatever high-art pretensions) and others work earnestly in their lofts (with however much resentment that they aren't better supported). Audiences are similarly diverse. But beware the mindset that dismisses entirely one extreme or the other.

Posted at 7:55 AM | permalink | email this entry

A waaaaaaay too long final posting.

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I am definitely an advocate for experimentation and for the use of dance as a way of processing contemporary culture. Obviously, this effects my point of view. I am also an advocate for art as an area of existence that doesn’t have to be held up to the moral requirements that society maintains for an overall, non-chaotic, functionality. Indeed it should pound against these. From that point of view I think that layers of difficulty arise in the field. I feel that a contemporary American dance, one that exists outside of the codes of rationalism that run our lives, has been burdened with policy. The first surprise I came across as a younger dance maker was the community outreach issue to which I responded "What?" Am I a bad person if I don’t explain what I am doing to the audience? Next was the cultural identity question to which I responded "What?" Then there was the collaboration imperative to which I responded "What the f….?" And next the multi-media issue to which I responded "What the mother f…?"
At a certain point the American dance artist had to become a social worker, prove his or her lack of racism through a Benetton allocation of humans in the work, collaborate with a major artist to validate the work, and place various video monitors about the space.

I was very inspired in my twenties by the work of filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini , Rainer Werner Fassbinder, choreographer Jan Fabre and other artists who seriously questioned the ways that human beings decided to co-exist , attempting to undermine the reductive sign systems adopted to accomplish this. I wonder if Pasolini had to do a creative workshop for children when he released SALO , for example. I was inspired by how Jan Fabre’s chancy elision with misogyny or facism made one actually feel the seeds of these tendencies in ones own body constituting a potent , sub-linguistic theater. The artists I was looking at were not subjected to moral assessments to prove their worth. In fact the bravery of their moral investigations transformed the works into poetry. The imposition of all these criteria did something to contemporary dance in the United States. One felt that this was a new container to work inside. Sadly, its biggest problem was that information appliqued onto dance buried the force of actual choreographic information–information that is systemic not symbolic. Thematic information became more important than its mode of delivery.

I think this was a huge developmental blow to the American dance artist. In that vacuum, the European choreographers opened up to philosophy and conceptualism, while we were being forced into issues of identification. Presently many dance artists, young and old are looking directly at the question "What can choreography be?" They are doing this in countries and cities worldwide.

But here we go again. I have definitely heard the "Well ,we can’t have too many New Yorkers for this grant round"
Why?
The dilution continues. I am already slapped on the table for funding with regional ballet companies, tap dancers , artists looking at their cultural identity by placing its signifiers onto movement and now people who don’t live in New York.
Please do not misread what I am saying!
All of these items can comprise excellence in art-making , but they are erroneously used in contrast to each other to assess their worthiness for funding.
As sensitive as this discussion is I must state that I still believe, if not a preponderance, at least a very large percentage of dance thinking and making in the United States gravitates to New York. This is in no way a dissing of artists in other cities. I think there are great artists in many cities. I travel all over the United States all the time and I am actively engaged with many artists from outside of New York. But the potentially deleterious results of this article and this discussion for New York artists are enormous. I do not think where you are from should in any way be a component of funding allocation. I have a very difficult time when older, form-pushing artists, who have committed themselves to this art do not receive funding because someone else who is 25 gets its by virtue of the city he/she lives in. This is where policy making and art implode on each other and the work suffers.
In addition, panelists on grant-making committees who are not from New York, should have credentials beyond their not from New York status.

I love Anouk’s assessment of the European /United States strain of this discussion. Gia writes in her article " In Europe, innovation flows like water from one country to the next." But is it all innovation? I feel that indeed there are great works coming out of Europe, but at the same time it needs to be acknowledged that many artists there are answering local questions of trend that can be very provincial. This "dialogue through making" precludes what could lead to more singular investigations. The state of the art as subject matter, with ideas about shaking the audience from "complacency" as an explicit goal is not as important, in my opinion, as the real subversion that can happen through a detachment from meaning. Three weeks ago, I saw a recent work by Christian Rizzo , and it was brilliant. It was brilliant for me because it went so deeply into its own nature, pulling me there and asking me to re-see, re-think, re-assess. It did not insist that I re-asses the "relevance of the proscenium" or other re-workings of the conventions of the theater. It subtly asked me to rewire my internal mechanisms for experiencing the relativity of things in a horizontal way.
No protagonist, either character-based or thematic, emerges.
Christian is French, the power of his work was Rizzo-ian.

In response to John Rockwell’s penultimate posting, "you’d think…" , I think these are some good ideas. I want to point out in fairness that Wally Cardona and myself were included last month in the International Festival of Dance in Cannes , curated by Yourgos Loukos , who ,thankfully, isn’t focused on the artist’s country of origin.

In response to John's last posting, I am not so sure that I would assess the history of music as you do, so it is difficult to compare it to dance. If you read all of my posting, I do state that I am speaking vehemently out of a sense of imbalance. So , the layer of information that a "Moving Out" imposes on to dance in general is a problem for me directly related to this sense of imbalance. Its predominance at the level of visibility could seriously obfuscate the goals of much contemporary work for a potential dance viewer. (don’t even get me started on Susan Stroman’s co-opting of the word experimental with that ordeal she created years back) I would absolutely love to see and would stand up for a dance show on Broadway that was successful on dance terms–one that was actually inventive and stood outside of the politics of mass consumption.

And also your "Beware, the mindset that dismisses one or the other" is incorrectly pointed and a touch too parental. I am saying that categories need be clearly delineated – I am not saying that experimentation and entertainment are mutually exclusive.
That is an unwelcome layer you are adding.

I would like to thank Gia for all her provocations, as well as her support of this form. As difficult as these
issue-related articles have been for some, they have enlivened this national scene immeasurably and are definitely creating some dialogue between artists, between artists and presenters and between critics and artists. I hope that the audience can be witness to these discussions as well in the future.

Lets keep the dialogue flowing.
Sorry about all the commas.
I am a comma-ner.
Happy Holidays.

Posted at 11:19 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (2)

new york state of mind

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I feel obligated to join to this discussion, even if it’s brief. The tendency for people to react to the essay I wrote in geographical terms is missing the point. The issue isn’t really about New York maintaining its number-one status or that it, in fact, needs to be in some sort of first place. Rather, the essay was positioned as a warning signal that New York has waned as a climate for daring, conceptual dance. The point isn’t even that what is being produced in Europe is better; in fact, the work of the finest New York–based artists is generally more advanced than anything found in Europe. I’m not even sure that many European presenters are equipped to understand the creative magnitude of some of my favorite New York choreographers.

I’m gratified that the piece has provoked questions; if anything, I hope it has made the dance community examine the gravity of the situation. I would like to point out that I revere classical ballet and contemporary dance equally. I selectively cover both forms at Time Out New York because I see it as a way, however small, to de-ghettoize dance (a big problem in this country). And I actually loved Movin’ Out. The question of dance as entertainment has more to do with artistic imagination than anything else.


Posted at 12:29 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

awakening the imagination

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Regarding the state of dance studies and the appreciation of dance, the late dance scholar Iro Valaskakis Tembeck commented that, “The public, and even the dance community keep thinking that dance is in the doing and they have not yet shifted to the idea that dance is also in the thinking and in the reflecting.” There is a resistance to looking at dance as a legitimate object of study that can provide considerable information about society; that the writing, talking, and discussing are just as important as the doing.

If we expect the audience to view dance as a relevant and contemporary language of expression, if we want them to continue to invest energy and interest in supporting dance, dance artists need to be more articulate and more forthcoming in offering information so that bridges of knowledge can be built. I’d suggest that’s what we’ve been doing all this week in this forum. Audiences, for their part, need to be more active in asking critical and thoughtful questions not only about what is produced but about every aspect of the process involved in creating and presenting the work.

As this week’s discussion indicates, people are rigorously questioning what community means to them. Where I come from, community in Quebec is perceived differently than in Alberta or in Nova Scotia. So how to unite people or find tools to unite everyone? That’s a big task. In a place like Montreal, for instance, there’s a diversity of dance forms. But the cross-currents don’t always cross. The ballet world and the contemporary dance circles rarely meet. There are cliques among cliques. People with self-serving blinders.

I’d like to invoke the wise words of Marshall McLuhan, the influential futurist died more than twenty years ago. His famous phrase - global village - may be a clue to understanding the cross-currents. The man who anticipated the worldwide information society has a pivotal idea. The means of communication changes the message that is communicated - or as he stated it, “the medium is the message”- and this profoundly changes the public that receives the messages.

But what’s the message that needs to be communicated? Let’s talk about the transformative power that can occur with dance. But political will is not perceptible until we start talking to people outside our community, looking at other art forms, and getting a broader, diverse perspective. Take that idea anyway you want - beyond our borders, beyond our disciplines, beyond what we perceive community to be.

The visionary thinker Northrop Frye argued that the nurturing of the imagination is a vital task for the functioning of a democratic society. He wrote - and I’m paraphrasing liberally - that without poets, painters, dancers, actors, writers, who can imagine a new future, what future can we have? Frye was defending the merits of a good liberal education - to awaken the imagination; to allow young minds to imagine new possibilities and new opportunities.

Dance needn’t remain a mystifying art form to the public-at-large. Besides, as Frye memorably wrote, “Great art refuses to go away.”

Posted at 1:19 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Where Are My Corn Subsidies?

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Douglas asks: "Is there a lot of experimentation, Gia's 'intellectual and creative rigor,' out there waiting to be discovered and presented?" Yes, there is. But often, obvious experimentation thrives when there's a "classic" against which to rebel. Modern dance against ballet; post-modern dance against Graham, etc. As Philadelphia's Headlong Dance Theater's members said years ago, they're not Steve Paxton. The ground had been broken and they see their experimentation as more subtle. I think this is true of a majority of the innovative dancemakers today. There cannot be peak periods of creativity every year.

I love and completely agree with how Anouk framed the advantages and disadvantages inherent in our different systems. The energy and passion here will never cease to amaze me.

One final note: Jerrold Nadler, Congressman from New York, once mentioned when he was testifying on behalf of the NEA (against the quota system), that New York City doesn't ask for corn subsidies.

Thanks to everyone for a great discussion, to Douglas for putting it together, and to Gia for provoking it. To be continued...

Posted at 1:25 PM | permalink | email this entry

Mixing It Up

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Tere quoted the original Gia Kourlas article: in Europe “innovation flows like water from country to country” and one of the things I wished had been more clear in the article was an assessement of what characterizes that innovation, and of the patterns in which it flows. These are things I am curious about, and I think Anouk’s post got to some of the issues regarding the patterns of support that foster innovation in Europe.

My final thoughts are that the dance work of “intellectual, creative rigor” that Doug asked about certainly does exist here in the U.S. and in New York. However, the places to look for it remain in some sense under the radar because they aren’t usually big-budget large-scale entities. Come to New York to see some of it—to DTW, to the Kitchen, to Danspace, to PS 122, other places too. Or to events like PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, or Philadephia's Live Arts Festival. These are examples of environments where the curious have a very good chance of finding new dance that is intellectually rigorous and brave and bold and even sometimes brilliant, albeit under-funded.

I agree with Gia Kourlas’s point that there aren’t as many national presenters in the U.S. fostering the kind of innovative, brave work by artists in dance as there could be. Presenters feel constrained by large venues that demand work that can attract a huge audience of ticket-buyers, but what I like about TBA Festival or the Live Arts Festival is that they find a way to mix the large-hall presentations with the intimate work that can best be seen in a studio, a found space, or a black-box theater. And the Brooklyn Academy of Music did that this year, too, bringing a work of Ohad Naharin’s that was shown in a studio environment outside their own complex. The Flynn Theater in Burlington, VT build a small performance venue to complement their large theater precisely so that they could have this flexibility. And you don't have to have the funds to build something new-- you can borrow or rent it sometimes, too.

I believe it’s possible to mix it up, and that this mixing should happen more and could auger well for the future of dance-making and dance-watching in this country. It will also validate and encourage the creation of more work that is complex, brave and adventurous. This happens to be the kind of work that is being made in New York now. Scale can be wonderful, and so can spectacle, but there is new work that lives outside of these frames that must still be taken seriously as innovative and vital art.

Posted at 1:54 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

moving out

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It seems that the topic of geography is pressing on a few nerves these days. I am certainly not an expert on this issue in American terms, but it seems that the dispersal of funds to artists working outside of New York, despite it's "affirmative action" feel, has not exactly been worked out to everyone's satisfaction.
Partcularly Tere's.
But since I have always thought that Tere was one of the smarter people working in dance I will withhold judgement and also keep my back covered if I ever move from Amsterdam to Nebraska one day.
One never knows what "older-form pushing artists" might be skulking around, hoping to finish off my provicial dance company ass/aspirations.
Joking aside, I suspect the US system needs tweaking, like most funding systems.
For what it is worth, I do support the decentralization of dance monies, it has worked very well in France, Belgium and marginally well in Holland. Obviously these countries are geographically miniscule in comparison, PLUS their cultural budgets are enormous, so it seems to go a long way.
Nonetheless that 20 million euro French dance center that Ms. Perron's sources thought will monopolize the local scene and marginalize smaller groups, well....isn't that called curatorial choice? Sometimes you are in and sometimes you are not. And in France, most companies are very small until they reach a specific level of artistic recognition that allows them to move into a major regional choreographic center. Would her source also suggest that we close up the Baryshnikov Center because it's curatorial policy is-my sources say- a bit myopic ?
(I can feel the hate mail coming)
The system of regional funding in Europe has brought us no less then Pina Bausch, Alain Platel, Philippe Decoufle and Larbi Cherkaoui. This dispersal of artists has enlivened the arts activity in small cities by giving audiences a more consistent exposure to dance, both local and national. Furthermore, it educates audiences and makes them more willing to dig into more challenging work, therefore improving the touring possibilities for all of us.
And maybe we could wait a bit before burning down the opera houses.
Despite Mr. Bigonzetti's concerns, there are, at least in Germany some very lively places still existing. Amanda Miller has just rejuvenated the theater in Cologne, Philip Taylor is very successful in Munich and somehow I am writing this from an opera house in Nurnberg(without spellcheck) because the Resident Choreographer here thought I was ready for this challenge. At least she was willing to take the risk. And so is her very regional audience.
So maybe we could burn it down AFTER my premiere in January?

Perhaps if we as artists are at all interested in making a change on a national level, then we need to consider new models for a national reach and identity. I suspect choreographic and cultural centers will not be springing up any time soon in Arizona, but low rents certainly make the practicalities of working in dance- an affordable apartment and studio space- far more realistic. Hopefully, a US homegrown solution will be found to the regional funding problems that you face. Perhaps the provincial distribution of monies in France, Germany and Belgium only worked for those countries. Eventually, it may be time for artists to face the larger question of what is more important-getting your work made-or being a New Yorker ?

Posted at 2:56 PM | permalink | email this entry

Last thoughts

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This has been a stimulating, zig-zagging discussion. Thankfully it shifted, somewhere along the way, from who/what/where is the capital of the dance world to what are the roots of creativity.

In answer to Doug’s first set of questions, I do think that or has some energy that used to propel NYC has spread — to Europe, Canada, Australia etc. But maybe it’s pointless to try to analyze why or predict where it will go. As Nigel said, creativity follows its own paths. I agree with Laurie that a certain density of activity is necessary to stimulate work that pushes boundaries. But there is the opposite too. I’m thinking of Anna Halprin going to California in the 50s and Liz Lerman going to Washington, DC in the 70s, both knowing they needed a quiet place to allow their work to grow.

In answer to Andre Gingras, I only mentioned the downside of the new dance center near Paris and the opera house system to suggest that Europe might not be as utopian as it appears. It seems the tenor of these blogs is to idealize the artists’ lives in Europe. But Anouk Van Dijk has outlined this idea in a much more informed and eloquent way. I have to say I was floored when she said that the Dutch government encouraged young artists to go out and experiment and not worry about product. (Sounds like the kind of support our government gives only to the military.)

I like John’s insight that dance is a healthy field because the extreme ends haven’t snapped, and that crossover figures like Twyla help keep it together and interwoven. I understand that to be an artist is to be working from a place of “imbalance,” but for many of us, dismissing whole categories of dance or anything probably isn’t productive. I find that, wherever I look, dance is there, and often surprising, and expanding my idea of what dance can be.

Posted at 9:03 PM | permalink | email this entry

 

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