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Hard times for modern danceArticle in the NY Observer


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#1 dirac

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Posted 10 August 2010 - 09:31 PM

Link here. Comments?

Indeed, fame is no defense against financial woes. The legendary Joyce Theater learned late last month that their $1-a-year lease deal will not be renewed. Dance Theater Workshop, a hub of downtown dance, has struggled in the recession and announced on April 9 that they would merge with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, sharing space and staff. On July 14, major Manhattan dance studio Dance New Amsterdam was scheduled to shut down after 26 years because it could not pay the rent. After an impassioned "dance-in" at City Hall, the studio received a temporary reprieve. But its future remains uncertain. The situation is getting worse: While 2008 or '09 might have been the U.S. economy's darkest hour, the deepest cuts in the dance world are only coming down the pipeline now, dancers and company managers said, since budget committees take time to come to grips with a poor economy.



#2 bart

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 08:21 AM

It's sad to see companies folding or downsizing to near non-existence, and to see dancers choosing to leave the profession.

Even more troubling -- because it may be irreversible -- is the slow death of an aesthetic and of an audience capable of appreciating it.

Across the board, audiences are being offered smaller and, sometimes, less experimental work. "I used to make pieces called Hereticus," said Ms. [Ellis] Wood. "Now I make pieces called Mom."



#3 Helene

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 08:40 AM

Has experimental modern dance ever been seen and championed by a wide audience that was able to appreciate its aesthetic? If so, was any of this outside the dance boom years? Is the generation that saw everything shown at Judson for a few years still going regularly to experimental performances? Has it been replaced? Or is it the case of being a very specialized area that was once subsidized more than it is now? I ask because many artists in Canada have been subsidized through government grants, and with drastic cuts in arts funding, it's been a real shake-up to the basic assumptions about the role of government.

The institutions around modern dance have been centered around choreographer/founder companies, like Taylor, Cunningham, Graham, Morris, Tharp, and centers like Dance Theater Workshop and university programs, although a few like Fenley still have companies. Childs, Brown, Paxton, and a handful of others are still high profile when they get commissions or revivals. Experimental dance requires an audience that is attuned, interested, and invested, with lots of time on their hands, and creators who are willing to create (and often live) on a shoestring, year after year. You can sleep through your fifteenth performance of "Don Giovanni" or "Swan Lake", especially if it's on your subscription, but experimental anything takes much more energy and engagement.

#4 volcanohunter

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 09:46 AM

I ask because many artists in Canada have been subsidized through government grants, and with drastic cuts in arts funding, it's been a real shake-up to the basic assumptions about the role of government.

Cuts in Canada Council grants like those described in the article are not an especially recent phenomenon. One well-known case of a what happens to a company when the government money disappears is that of Robert Desrosiers (best known, at this point, for his appearance in Robert Altman's The Company).

In March 1996 Desrosiers ambitiously staged a season at Toronto's O'Keefe (now Hummingbird) Centre. While an artistic success, it was financially crippling, and Desrosiers's company was compelled to scale back operations. Although it continued its school programs the company lost the visibility and prominence of its earlier years. Desrosiers meanwhile fell out of favour with government funding agencies because of what was perceived as a lack of artistic evolution in his choreography. The company ceased operations in 1999, although Desrosiers himself still teaches and undertakes a variety of freelance choreographic commissions.

http://thecanadianen...s=A1ARTA0002253

I don't think that artists who have received government funding for years necessarily deserve to continue getting it indefinitely, but cutting back on funding can have disastrous artistic consequences. (You'll forgive me for veering back into the ballet world.) When the Canada Council decided to cut back funding for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in order to give more funding to Alberta Ballet and Ballet B.C., the RWB went commercial to survive. They've been producing appalling full-length drivel ever since because ballets titled Moulin Rouge and Dracula attract audiences. But the stuff is nauseatingly horrible, and I don't know how long it's been since I haven't walked out in the middle of one of their shows.

You're right, experimental modern dance is never going to have a large audience in no small part because it is experimental, and there are only so many people willing to watch a creative laboratory. I don't see how it can survive without government funding, but, frankly, I'm not entirely sure some of it deserves the funding in the first place. I say this as a former modern dancer who admits to spending lots of time in self-indulgence that I expected other people to subsidize. Did I really have a right to expect it?

#5 dirac

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 10:00 AM

...... frankly, I'm not entirely sure some of it deserves the funding in the first place.


Probably some of it doesn't, but in many cases it wouldn't be reasonable or desirable for the government to demand or expect consistent returns, financial or aesthetic, from the money it gives to artists, in the same way that scientists receive public funds for research and experiments that don't always pan out. There is a public benefit involved in maintaining a healthy arts community. In these troubled times it's also an effective form of stimulus, keeping people gainfully employed and producing.

#6 papeetepatrick

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Posted 11 August 2010 - 10:49 AM

I don't see how it can survive without government funding, but, frankly, I'm not entirely sure some of it deserves the funding in the first place. I say this as a former modern dancer who admits to spending lots of time in self-indulgence that I expected other people to subsidize. Did I really have a right to expect it?


The self-indulgence is part of the creative process sometimes--it can be unconsciously working during the indulgence, you don't have to know exactly how. But you can give some of it back if you don't think you should have been allowed that. Not that I think you should feel guilty about it, but it reminded me of the Op-Ed Columnist John Tierney, who didn't last too long there either (maybe a full year) talking about how rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments were 'theft from the landlords', and that he had realized this after he had had a rent-controlled apartment himself for many years. He said nothing about remedying his own 'theft', although he could have probably found some landlords who were suffering from controlled rents that would have been more than happy to be given some relief, even if they weren't the same one he'd rented ('stolen') from (whose family might have been willing to take it too, if he felt so strongly). But sure, I've seen lots of things that I don't think deserve any kind of funding, but it doesn't bother me any more than seeing paintings (including by a friend of mine) that sell for $30,000 and more, and don't seem to me worth $300.

I didn't know Molissa Fenley had her own company.

I think dirac's point is exactly right: You can't expect consistent returns on anything you invest in in the Arts, or you can stifle the artistic process. Not that it can't go too far the other direction, but there's even sacrifice made there, as when something takes too long to get to the printing stage, for example. I know about that, as I'm lucky, because the current process I'm involved with has been pretty extravagant, and will definitely take a while to pay off--and that definitely includes me doing some paying. Lots would say I didn't deserve it to end up happening at all (and there's still a short final stretch), but I just am not that prone to worrying about the old difficulties, if it finally begins to work out, if only because the alternative--just trashing something that took too much time and effort by most assessments--is worse, at least at some point (like when you're finally close to the end).

Some of the tendency to austerity and worrying about budget deficits in general (considered to go too far by many of the best economists) surely plays into all govt. spending on the Arts, if they're also cutting back on much more basic matters in the public transportation and education areas.

#7 Ray

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 04:04 AM

While the larger points of Guelda Voien's article are valid, I take issue with some of the ways Voien frames the issue, with the way she uses Ellis Wood as a typical case (Wood's anything but), and with some of Wood's comments. For instance, Voin writes that, "Across the board, audiences are being offered smaller and, sometimes, less experimental work," and her evidence for this is a quotation from Voien: "'I used to make pieces called Hereticus,' said Ms. Wood. 'Now I make pieces called Mom.'" There's no reason to expect more experimentation in Hereticus over Mom; in fact, Wood's Graham lineage probably promises the opposite. And Chez Bushwick is hardly the cultural Elba that Voin implies it to be--I've seen some great stuff there. The Manhattan-centric model of dancemaking has been over for quite a while now; more significant, as many of the responses here are pointing out, the for-profit model of "audience development" is just not a viable one for artistic development. And of course expecting cultural "returns" on one's "investment" is ludicrous--it doesn't even work with money!

#8 bart

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 04:19 AM

To focus on the topic of hard times for modern (read "experimental," "small-scale, non-branded) dance: is there really any disagreement about this?

As I read the article, I found myself imagining a future world in which professional, live "dance" might consist of big brands only: famous companies (many founded by choroegraphers who are no longer living), tours of So You Think You Can Dance cast members, productions of Cirque de Soleil, recyclings of Swan Lake or Corsaire, etc.

I don't know what can be done with this, considering the changing structure of our culture , which seems to be changing consumer preferences significantly. I do know that I agree with Helene's statement:

Experimental dance requires an audience that is attuned, interested, and invested, with lots of time on their hands, and creators who are willing to create (and often live) on a shoestring, year after year. You can sleep through your fifteenth performance of "Don Giovanni" or "Swan Lake", especially if it's on your subscription, but experimental anything takes much more energy and engagement.


And dirac's:

There is a public benefit involved in maintaining a healthy arts community. In these troubled times it's also an effective form of stimulus, keeping people gainfully employed and producing.



#9 kfw

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 06:37 AM

I have mixed feelings about this situation. On the one hand, I find it very sad, and I'd hate to see the future world bart fears "in which professional, live 'dance' might consist of big brands only." On the other, to take the Ellis Wood Company as an example, I wonder if it's Wood's aesthetic or her subject matter that isn't selling. Hereticus may be a great dance on its own terms, but Wood seems to think she's stooping down to her audience to have to make pieces like "Mom." If that's her attitude, she deserves to have to fend for herself. Here is what Lisa Traiger writes about the Ellis Wood dancers in a 2005 Danceviewtimes review included in the press materials on Wood's site:

They're real women: sensual, sexy, provocative, tough as nails, fearless.



And later:

her women are strong, good-looking and assertive -- like modern-day sorceresses who won't take no for an answer.


Yawn. That definition of "real women" is at once narrow and commonplace. As salutary as that strand of feminism has been, the potential audience doesn't need modern dance to find it. More importantly, real women are multi-dimensional -- are a whole lot more interesting. Of course it's unfair to judge work without having seen it, but the potential ticket buyer has to make a decision based on something, and much of Wood's work, to read the reviews on her site, is provincial. This is not the 1960's or 70's, and much of her potential audience has moved on.

As Helene says, experimental dance asks a lot of its audience, and if the audience would rather doze through another Swan Lake, I don't know why they even go see ballet, much less modern dance. But the artist has to be willing to meet the audience halfway as well, and address some of its concerns. Not just gender identity, but love. Not just aggression but inclusive community. Not just "Funktionslust Slut," but Mom.

There is no "Mom" or anything like it listed in her repertory, by the way.

#10 dirac

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 06:45 AM

More importantly, real women are multi-dimensional -- are a whole lot more interesting


Traiger's descriptions sound dimensional enough to me, but then that 'particular strand of feminism' is by no means exhausted for this observer. :) I'm not familiar with Wood's work, myself.

There's no reason to expect more experimentation in Hereticus over Mom; in fact, Wood's Graham lineage probably promises the opposite. And Chez Bushwick is hardly the cultural Elba that Voin implies it to be--I've seen some great stuff there.


Thanks for this, Ray. Not being on the spot, it's hard for someone like me based on the west coast to gauge the accuracy of points like these in the article.

#11 bart

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 09:45 AM

kfw, I took the reference to "Mom" to be a witticism. (Of course, Mom COULD Phaedre or Ma Barker someone like that. :speechless-smiley-003:)

I guess I fear the loss of small-venue, small-scale, experimental work. Intimacy -- and low ticket prices -- have always been part of that culture. You could go and actually NOT like it and it was okay.

I grew up on this in New York City, spending much of my 20's in the West and East Villages and similar locales. Even though my true love was the classical arts, the opportunity to see all kinds of work at affordable prices and often from close up, was something I will always be grateful for. That this world is slowly dying out (due to high rents, changed audiences, or whatever) strikes me as very sad.

#12 Helene

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 10:32 AM

From the opera world:

In Crosscut, Seattle Opera's Executive Director, Kelly Tweeddale, http://crosscut.com/...ng-tough-times/wrote today:

This past season, ranks have closed to protect the art of this company, to protect the artistic vision that General Director Speight Jenkins has dedicated a good portion of his life to. There are now many enemies, some such as mediocrity, predictability, and indifference we will never allow to penetrate our front lines. But there are three enemies that are gaining ground, and they threaten who we are and what we do.


She then lists them:

Enemy number one: a precarious economy.
Enemy number two: obsolescence.
Enemy number three: the emergence of a risk-averse approach to creativity.


This is an excellent read on the subject, particularly the second on obsolescence.

#13 kfw

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 10:44 AM

kfw, I took the reference to "Mom" to be a witticism. (Of course, Mom COULD Phaedre or Ma Barker someone like that. :speechless-smiley-003:)

You must be right, although to me she still sounds patronizing.

I guess I fear the loss of small-venue, small-scale, experimental work. Intimacy -- and low ticket prices -- have always been part of that culture. You could go and actually NOT like it and it was okay.

I grew up on this in New York City, spending much of my 20's in the West and East Villages and similar locales. Even though my true love was the classical arts, the opportunity to see all kinds of work at affordable prices and often from close up, was something I will always be grateful for.

Sounds like a kind of paradise. :)

#14 bart

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 11:28 AM

Thanks for that article, Helene.

For many, live experiences are now an integrated trajectory of musical exploration that is taking place not only on the stage, but in the digital space. The space we call the internet, the mobile phone networks and devices such as the iPad and Kindle, are transforming how people are discovering their world and defining their interests

This comment on the younger generation's perception of what constitutes a "live" performance is fascinating.

Some will never actually experience live performance of non-commercial work outside, possibly, a school setting. Is she also implying that many young people may think they ARE watching "live" performances when, for example, they share something on YouTube -- or a download from a friend's phone video camera? In other words, has the definition of "live" performance art somehow changed?

Also sad is this, referring to costs:

For example, if we were to produce a DVD of our current Ring Cycle it would have to retail at over $2,000 a piece and sell at the top of the classical Billboard charts to have even a remote chance of breaking even. That assumes that the many participants (orchestra, singers, creative team) in the production would give permission to move ahead in such an endeavor. At this time the ability to decide on Seattle Opera's digital destiny is not in its hands. Compare that with the entertainment industry that is flooding the market with both free and paid experiences that not only enhance the live experience, but is capturing the hearts and minds of our future audiences.



#15 Helene

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Posted 12 August 2010 - 11:50 AM

Speight Jenkins has often said that producing DVD's was cost-prohibitive. I would love to see the cost breakdown and how other "Ring"s have been financed and subsidized, since there are a number of them on the DVD market: The Copenhagen "Ring", the Metropolitan Opera "Ring", the Chereau/Bayreuth "Ring", the Audi/Amsterstam "Ring", the Kupfer/Liceu "Ring", the Stuttgart "Ring" with four different directors, like Canadian National Opera did in Toronto to open the Four Seasons Centre. They all retail for between $90-$150 on amazon.com, most without substantial discount.


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