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American Dance Viewed from Abroad

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Below please find a transcription from Bob Yesselman (distributed through Dance/NYC), director of Dance/NYC, in re the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference (APAP). I heard from many that this APAP session was firey; this transcript confirms that:

On Friday, January 19th, just prior to the official opening of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference (APAP), I attended a session presented by the Dance Working Group, a consortium of dance organizations, among them Dance/USA, that each year present a forum for ideas looking at big picture issues in dance.

Each year, the Dance Working Group chooses a topic both relevant to what's going on now in dance, and provocative in the ideas put forth. This year was no exception. The topic was How American Dance is Viewed by the Rest of the World and provocative was an understatement. The session was moderated by Carolelinda Dickey, principal consultant of Performing Arts Strategies, working in international exchange (a former member of the NYC dance community and former presenter) and facilitated by Andrea Snyder, Executive Director of Dance/USA.

The four speakers were:

Cees de Bever: Director of Performing Arts, Consulate General of the Netherlands

Jennifer Barry: Director of Dance Down Under (Australia) and a producer of dance

Mark Staub: Director of Dance for the Canada Council

Mayumi Nagatosi: Director of AN Creative (Japan) and a producer of dance

I must stress that each speaker spoke about perceptions abroad and each was quick to acknowledge they were speaking in generalities. I will try very hard not to editorialize. Here's what they had to say:

Cees de Bever (Netherlands)

* Production values of American dance are very low which places our work at a competitive disadvantage in the market place. Cees was very quick to point out that he was very aware of the financial conditions under which we operate in the U.S.

* American dancers are not as well-trained or strong as they once were.

* While many countries financially support native companies to tour abroad; there was very little reciprocity for American companies.

* Since so few American companies are touring abroad, there is very little knowledge of the vast diversity of American dance.

* We are not helped by the current political image of America abroad.

Cees had some recommendations:

* Take a hard look at which American companies are really suitable for export.

* Study international exchange programs closely and adapt to American reality.

* Find the money to bring international presenters to the U.S. to build relationships just as many countries bring American presenters to see their work.

Jennifer Barry (Australia)

* There seems to be a huge focus on the body in American work and promotional materials (she mentioned having received hundreds of postcards from American companies prior to APAP and that every single one was a body image) as opposed to dance in Australia which is much more concerned with concept.

* American dance does not display a cohesive integration of design, lighting and music (production values again).

* Australians tend to resist American-style hype and "showbiz."

* There is much less reverence for the American "masters" - they are perceived as old-fashioned.

* There is a sense that American dance is overly concerned with "pretty" work as opposed to the character-drive, narrative work now popular abroad.

* Australia's subsidy system allows artists the freedom to make less commercially-driven work.

* There is the sense that American dance lacks humor and is very "earnest" with a preoccupation with, in her words, "the pure essence of dance."

Mark Staub (Canada)

* Many in Canada associate American dance as being of a very specific time (the 60's and 70's) and place (NYC).

* Dancers in Canada know the "masters," and many of them have studied with them, but have very little knowledge of what else is happening in American dance.

Mayumi Nagatosi (Japan)

* There is a sense in Japan that American dance's time is over and that in the last 15 years European dance has become more important.

* The current generation of Japanese choreographers have been influenced by European artists, not American.

* American dance is perceived, in her words, as "old-fashioned" and "boring."

I came away from the session with what seemed to be two major themes. First, the lack of production values in current American work coming, I think, from two sources - our chronic lack of money (if we can get a work to a stage in street clothes we consider ourselves lucky) and, as the Australian speaker mentioned, our focus on the body alone in space and our concern with the "essence" of dance. Let me be clear, I attach no value judgments to either of these viewpoints - that's what makes soccer matches. Secondly, that American work is perceived as old-fashioned and still beholding to our great pioneers and masters. Again, it seems to me, money is partly the culprit. We have so little export of current American dance nowadays that this perception is, in part, understandable. I also found it interesting to note that two of the speakers and many members of the audience also mentioned that they had all come to the U.S. (NYC in particular) for study and training.

It was quite a morning.

As always, I welcome your comments. Please don't hesitate to email me with your comments or questions.

-Bob Yesselman

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This is just fascinating -- I have to think about it before I have something cogent to add.

Many thanks for posting this here.

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Bob & Ray (and that's not meant to be funny),

It's hard to comment on this as I didn't hear the presentation, and don't have abroad view of all of American dance... nor the same for dance in Europe or Asia.

Having said that we DO have funding the arts problems in this country and one thing I noticed which greatly disturbed me was that the ABT "sells" their principal dancers to patrons... ie they can sponsor a dancer. What a weird (and repulsive) concept! But the effect of this is hinted at in some of the above... How we market dance as a business.

America is celebrity obsessed and although dance is usually an "ensemble" effort... the "buzz" is always about some personality... not that these people are not enormous talents... but it seems to be how we see, sell and conceptualize the arts. An orchestra is THE conductor... a dance company is THE choreographer or some principal dancer or two... the opera is always THE soprano or tenor... These ensemble efforts are so often seen, sold and appreciated as individual virtuosity... or celebrity.

America is the nation of THE individual and we worship celebrity and those who rise up and get noticed. That's what we want in America.

I don't know if this worship of the individual plays out the same in the rest of the world... but I can see how the rest of the world sees the US through that filter.

As far as modern dance is concerned, I would have thought that we would be perceived as ahead of the curve in this idiom... Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, Twyla Thorp etc...and I don't even know much about dance but these are names everyone knows in America. I can't think of one modern choreographer from outside the states (I am quite naive... but I am trying to make a point)... I am not saying that they don't exist... but I am not aware of any... Why?

I am looking forward to read the comments of those more knowledgeable about dance in America... I am very very new to it.... I don't have much perspective...

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Just so there are no confusions, Sander0 and others: Bob Yesselmon, dir. of Dance/NYC did NOT post this; I did. So you're not really replying to him except in a rhetorical sense. (You could probably find his email addy on the Dance/NYC website.)

Ray

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I can't think of one modern choreographer from outside the states (I am quite naive... but I am trying to make a point)... I am not saying that they don't exist... but I am not aware of any... Why?

I think the discussion begins to address this, if from the perspective of non-US artists; in a word, it's the presenters: they dictacte, for better or for worse, what we see. As Cees de Bever notes, presenters in this country are often miserly when it comes to reciprocating with financial support for touring--ergo, we don't get to see some artists who have already become quite well known outside of the cultural island America. Some US presenters are highly informed and dance-literate--they lead their audiences--while most are content to follow each other in what they perceive to be "hot" or "classic," and often telling us that they are just delivering what the public wants.

Ray

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This is a fascinating topic, and thank you Ray for posting this information. I hope it gets lots of responses from those with experience in these areas. We all benefit from having a mirror held up in front of us -- in this case by dance professionals looking at the US from outside.

I was most struck by the comments of Cees de Bever (Netherlands).

* Production values of American dance are very low which places our work at a competitive disadvantage in the market place. Cees was very quick to point out that he was very aware of the financial conditions under which we operate in the U.S.

* American dancers are not as well-trained or strong as they once were.

* While many countries financially support native companies to tour abroad; there was very little reciprocity for American companies.

* Since so few American companies are touring abroad, there is very little knowledge of the vast diversity of American dance.

* We are not helped by the current political image of America abroad.

The critique here is extensive, basically amounting to an implication that dance culture in America is currently suffering from a serious case of isolationism (even provincialism).

Is it really true that the dance audience in the US does not know much about what is going on in the outside world. Or that, stuck in our own comfortable fantasies of American exceptionalism, we do not care?

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Y'know, it could also be a case of diverging aesthetic.

I haven't responded to this previously because what these people are looking for is so different than what I'm looking for it's not fair to critique, but I've seen stuff coming out of NDT and I. don't. like. it.

The same way they don't like what we're doing. They find our work boring and provincial; I find the worst of theirs insubstantial and incredibly pretentious. All that money on production values and this is the best they can come up with? I have no moral argument with nudity in dance, but if I think it's gratuitous it pisses me off because of its laziness.

I mention this not as an indictment but to say that the same observations can be flipped round completely.

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But I want to see other dance companies to judge for myself, and not have to rely on the "taste" of a presenter who keeps programming Momix. And as a citizen of the world, I'd like to see what's going on elsewhere even if it ends up pissing me off.

Y'know, it could also be a case of diverging aesthetic.

I haven't responded to this previously because what these people are looking for is so different than what I'm looking for it's not fair to critique, but I've seen stuff coming out of NDT and I. don't. like. it.

The same way they don't like what we're doing. They find our work boring and provincial; I find the worst of theirs insubstantial and incredibly pretentious. All that money on production values and this is the best they can come up with? I have no moral argument with nudity in dance, but if I think it's gratuitous it pisses me off because of its laziness.

I mention this not as an indictment but to say that the same observations can be flipped round completely.

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I agree with you from the point of the audience, Ray, especially about the sameness of what gets programmed, but are they talking about why foreign dance isn't being booked here, or why American dance isn't being booked in Europe? It feels to me like Yesselman is reporting on what was said from the viewpoint of the latter issue.

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I agree with you from the point of the audience, Ray, especially about the sameness of what gets programmed, but are they talking about why foreign dance isn't being booked here, or why American dance isn't being booked in Europe? It feels to me like Yesselman is reporting on what was said from the viewpoint of the latter issue.

I think that's true, Leigh. So the comments challenge American presenters and producers to support their own companies, outside of the small handful they curently promote. There are now several presenters in Europe who operate on a whole 'nother level: they actually curate dance, and often at all phases of development and achievement. I can think of very few presenters here who would even think about doing that for any but the usual "safe" suspects.

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[ ... ] but are they talking about why foreign dance isn't being booked here, or why American dance isn't being booked in Europe?
Both, it seems. But the notes on all 4 of the presenters seem to be focused more on the latter.

As someone who spent a lot of time in dance venues during a time of intense cross-fertilization in the international dance world (60s, 70s), and who remembers the excitement with which American dance companies were greeted in Paris and many other parts of Europe, I would think that everybody loses if there is a breakdown in respect and influence in both directions.

HAS this indeed occurred to the extent that the presenters imply?

If so, why has this taken place?

And what can be done to open minds and borders once again?

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