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December 12, 2005

That elusive spark


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 by at December 12, 2005 7:08 PM


I'd like to build on what both Wendy and John have said. I agree with both and think they tie together. What's happening in New York may be the natural cycle in the aging and maturation of an artistic community. What NYC had early on was room. Room for another artist to add his or her voice. The community has enlarged, matured and most tellingly, saturated. In order to have resources for a new voice, an older one has to be displaced. The dance community sets up its own internal barriers - just like medieval guilds or modern trade unions even if not so overt - to regulate the flow. Breaking in becomes ever more difficult.

The more people need to protect their own turf, and in the NYC of 2005, that's a constant need, the more calcified the arts community will become.

Posted by: Leigh Witchel at December 12, 2005 8:44 PM

Wendy's comments are spot on...New York's "primacy" in the dance world was also a gateway through which dance could flourish in many places. As David White points out, much of this flourishing had to do with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts between the late 60's and the 80's when dance touring was heavily funded. During this period, many NY-based companies were dependent on touring income (including short and long-term residencies) for income to support creative periods in NY and elsewhere.

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.

In this global environment we have the opportunity to encourage and support multiple centers for artistic development, wherever they can flourish. I like David's reference to Fuller's dymaxion map as it suggests that we need to get past old paradigms and re-imagine our world.

Posted by: Bonnie Brooks at December 13, 2005 5:49 AM

Wendy's comments were on point, but they left out one of the most influencial and yet invisible forces of that early stage of New York's emergence as the creative centerit was. The Henery Street Settlement and Alwin Nikolais and the Space. (I beleive he problaby also toured the world every bit as extensively as Dunham but this is not a competetion.)

Nik worked at the Settlement for many years and made its stage available to everyone. The number of performers and artists who first performed there is legendary and yet not catalogued to my knowledge. When he left the Settlement, he had another facility known at the time as "The Space", no longer supported by a governement community facility he still continued the work of making The Space open to all voices.

Nik once gave a speeck that was quite controversial as he stood before Dance/USA's conference looked at the crowd and announced he had brought the wrong speech. He looked to a room filled with managers but his speech was addressed to dancers. He spoke of traveleing the world and giving dancers full-time salaries with annual paid vacations. The wages weren't great,but the money was steady and consistant and if you could make do on it, you could make art.

That condition changed for him when the funding circles began to make choices based on criteria. The criteria meant the formation of corporations and newly minted managers and trustees. 25 years after the development of NYSCA and the NEA, he could no longer afford full-time wages and vacation benefits for the dancers, but the managers got them.... He challenges the artistst to take back their field.

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 foundtainhead 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.

But I do not believe that we can manage our way to a new creative culture. Those come in Berlin, in Paris, in New York at times when the critical mass of artists convene and drink together and work togehter and push each other.

David's comments earlier were also interesting but he spoke to a world forum dance that is experiencial and wonderfully diverse. It is not a profession and it is not a means where the craft is developed beyond the immediacy of the individual practitioners. Creativity for its own sake as a profession is the great threatened force. Creativity as a commodity is the guideword of most enlightened corporations but their intended purpose corrupts the capacaity to create lasting beauty, or better yet, enlightened ideas. (I know this is getting quite preachy- enough - enough.)

Posted by: Andrew Bales at December 13, 2005 10:41 AM

I don't know if New York is the capital of the dance world, but it is a capital. It certainly has been a wonderful place to live and to see dance, and continues to be. (Of course part of that is seeing the dance that is imported--the more New York is international and internationalist, the better. The more we see artists from other "capitals," and the more New York artists are seen outside New York, the better.) But, New York is prohibitively expensive, for residents, for visitors, for students. As with so much here, what we are talking about, at least in part, is real estate, real estate, real estate: the cost of work space, the cost of performance space, the cost of studios--and the cost of attendance too, because you want young artists to see established artists. That leads me to a passage of Wendy Perron's blog:

"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," she writes.

I don't quite understand this. These companies aren't really comparable--Taylor is still very much alive and making choreography.[ And if you are making such a list including living masters, wouldn't the Merce Cunningham Dance Company belong on it? (Hard to know where to stop---what about Trisha Brown? Mark Morris?)] As to the question of the past being a constraint---to consider the question,might we not ask: Does that apply in any other art? Do we really want to decontextualize choreographers, and why? Or is the notion that the "masters" somehow hold and attract audiences and funding that, in their absence, might trickle down? About that, I am dubious.

Posted by: Nancy Dalva at December 13, 2005 2:29 PM

Another thing that made NY the modern dance capital of the world was the schools created by most major and even lesser choreographers of the first and second generations. It seems that with the NEA and more funding, the necessity of having a school was less, and the ideas/models changed. 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?

Yes, I do think the presence of other artists of stature (if you will) like a Martha Graham or an Erick Hawkins - or now Trisha Brown, Paul Taylor, etal -- in this or "your" city makes a difference. It's precisely what people want to come to the capital for, even to be able to ignore them, or oppose them.

But I also agree that choreographers often feel compelled to conform to perceived requirements set by funders (and to a lesser degree by presenters). The emergence of the corporate model for dance companies is not always a useful one. Case in point: most of the funding made available for "the arts downtown" after 9/11 was for presenting or administrative entities, very little for individual artists, or unincorporated entities.

Posted by: Gloria McLean at December 13, 2005 11:11 PM

When I moved to New York from Paris in 1994, to echo the previous post, I moved in large part for the quality of the training. It was a primary motivator for keeping me there over the next years, those daily classes and workshops taught by such creative, bright teachers, many of whom were generous enough not to play favorites, in the widest range of techniques I'd ever encountered, and students who were very committed, no matter what their age, size or background. Besides the quality classroom training, another big reason I moved was because New York did not have the intense hierarchy of the French dance scene at that time. This made and I am guessing (not having lived in the city the better part of the past few years) still makes New York a special and attractive place for dancers to convene. In Paris, there was a very strong sense of haves and have nots. There were some interesting classes in Paris, but many of them--certainly not all, thank you Peter Goss, among a few others-- were only available to dancers who had earned them as government-funded freebies through company work, and much of the quality training (especially where young dancers' professional aspirations were taken seriously) were to be found in conservatories. As a young non-French dancer struggling to find my way, although I was very nervous about leaving the many perks of the Paris dance scene (money resources, dignity, more rest for the weary), a sense of a more even playing field in NYC was a great relief. One aspect of New York that contributed to that sense, besides access to educational resources was that there were (and to my knowledge continue to be) far more spaces that anyone, no matter how experienced or famous, could experiment and show works in progress. I used to say that it felt like in New York, everyone was in the same leaky boat together, so there was less of a feeling patricians and plebes, more dialogue between the accomplished and the aspiring than in France. My friends from Paris who came to New York to study shared this view. We loved Paris for the feast for the senses and the culture of art, but we loved New York for the openness and egalitarianism. Living in NYC over the years, I surely experienced a fair share jealousies, bitter competitors and other problems that come from the have/have-not state of affairs, and perhaps increasingly so. But I still think, for the most part, New York has the most open spirit backed with concrete resources for dancers of any place I have lived. I have, of course, yet to try other countries in Europe...

Posted by: Diane Moss at December 17, 2005 2:25 PM


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