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Modern Dance Company Survival Rates Since the 70s

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I've been leafing through a 1979 book titled Dance Posters, which reproduces dance-related posters from that era. Most of the posters are of ballet and modern dance companies (although not all.) Perusing the book, I couldn't help noticing how many of the modern dance companies that were considered worthy enough to be included in this book are now gone or whose performances are sporadic. Below is a list of all the modern dance companies in the book (the ones in bold are the ones that are still with us):

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

James Cunningham and the Acme Co.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Andrew deGroat and Dancers

Martha Graham Dance Company

Bella Lewitzky Dance Company

Jose Limon Dance Company (a.k.a. Limon Dance Company)

Murray Louis Dance Company

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company

Nancy Meehan Dance Co.

Nikolas Dance Theatre

Elaine Summers' Experimental Intermedia Foundation

Dan Wagoner and Dancers

In addition, ponder this:

  • The Trisha Brown Company is now half way through a farewell tour (as Alastair Macaulay wrote about in The New York Times this week.)
  • Laura Dean no longer allows any performances of her works.
  • The Erick Hawkins Company is now defunct.
  • Yvonne Rainier's work is now mostly seen in museums (i.e. her current Getty show in Los Angeles).
  • The various Anna Sokolow spin-off companies trundle on in impoverished circumstances.
  • Twyla Tharp soldiers on without a namesake company and is forced to rely on the good auspices of artistic directors at ballet companies to program her work.

I find it interesting that three of the four surviving companies from the Dance Posters list are associated with techniques than can be methodically taught: Graham (Martha Graham Company), (Lester) Horton (Alvin Ailey Company) and Humphrey-Limon (Limon Company). Also, two of the four (Graham, Limon) belong to that historical/literary modern dance tradition that abstraction-minded dance critics devoted to the abstractions of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and the Judson School declared bad for us.

Make of it what you will . . .

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The historical/literary ballet tradition is only partially robust because of The Revenge of the Full-lengths, which have cropped up again, like measles. While not exclusively narrative like Tudor, Wheeldon and Ratmansky especially have done many works with both strictly narrative content or with a narrative pulse, like the last Scarlett I saw, so there's some hope. The eponymous modern dance companies are still the model, with Paul Taylor and Mark Morris the most established and most flourishing, and many of Morris' -- sometimes literalky following the libretto in the lyrics --and some of Taylor's works are right in the narrative tradition.

Far from being charitable, ballet companies are begging Tharp for her older works, like the ubiquitous "In the Upper Room" and "Nine Sinatra Songs," and if they can afford her price tag, for new ones. (PNB has had three in the last few seasons.) Mark Morris picks and chooses the ballet companies that do his work and for whom he creates new work, and there's a line-up for those (and companies that wish they could afford him).

Surviving transitions are few in any sphere without institutions, and institutions are not what most modern dance companies are about. Balanchine and Martins (and Ratmansky for that matter) were born and bred in institutions. Balanchine famously said that when he would no longer be around, the ballets would look different. He assumed they'd be performed after he was gone. How many modern dance choreographers are willing for that to be the case? Look at the number who shut their companies down when they're no longer in control. The choreographers who make works for ballet companies are making them for institutions (probably within strict contractual limits), which generally means they have a better chance at surviving the choreographer's company.

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And how did you know I was listening to Donald Knaack's score for Tharp's Surfer at the River Styx right now? She made it in 2000, for Twyla Tharp Dance (which comes after her "Tharp!" company)

This is a topic I think about frequently. When I taught dance history, I was often asked to clarify the differences between ballet and modern dance. This was never a simple task, and has only gotten more difficult as the dance world has insisted on combining styles, techniques and repertories. But fundamentally, ballet has been ringing changes on an inherited technique for many generations, pulling and twisting it certainly, sometimes focusing on its potential for abstract, pattern-making art and sometimes on its more narrative and expressive qualities. But foundationally it still relies on a shared understanding of a received tradition.

The first generations of modern dancers (both in Europe and America) spent a considerable amount of time and energy finding a way to dance that most specifically was not ballet -- many of the iconic elements of modern work were generated as a rejection of ballet, aesthetically, compositionally, technically -- the whole package. But I think the element that really set the work on its path was its insistence on creating a personal art form. "Dance who you are" was the main admonition -- if you attracted a set of like-minded colleagues, fine, but it wasn't the main goal. Repertory and technique were built by individuals, based on their own anatomy and aesthetic concerns. Graham technique looks the way it does because Graham looked the way she did -- if you're trying to learn the work, it helps a great deal if you have the same long torso and relatively short legs that she did. Humphrey and Weidman were slightly more theoretical in the development of their joint technique, but the anatomical influence is still the same.

Early in the development of modern dance practice it was expected that a young dancer, someone who might have spent a considerable part of their life as a follower or devotee of a particular choreographer, would strike out on their own and create their own work. Almost everyone who has trained as a modern dancer, from the beginning to now, has had dance composition training as part of their education – that’s far from the case with ballet dancers. And although not everyone who made these experiments would persevere to form their own company, almost all the companies that were listed in the book miliosr describes above came from that strategy.

But that model has been on the wane for the last 20+ years. In general, young performers don’t apprentice themselves to a single artist or style now, but instead work in a project to project manner for a series of choreographers, much as Broadway dancers have done. While choreographers might try to work with the same group of people, those dancers will often perform for several people, and train outside of their relationship with a single choreographer. This kind of pick-up company structure, combined with the relative ‘style-free’ nature of movement training today, makes for a large body of artists who are generalists rather than specialists.

The financial and organizational challenges of running a full-time company are steep – most contemporary choreographers don’t have the resources to make that happen. Right now, most people are making a virtue of flexibility.

There are a number of other factors at play with this transition (the changing nature of touring, shifting options for employment, inflation in real estate and insurance are just a few), but I think the fundamental differences are in the movement – modern dance today asks for a different skill set, and that means a different relationship to the art form as a whole.

I’ll stop now since this is getting long.

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Thank you for your thoughts on this, sandik!

These are things I also often think about, as where I live (Germany) nearly all of the dance companies are now "modern" or "contemporary" or "tanztheater" or some combination of all of the above, often combined with ballet.

The dancers are expected to be able to move easily between the various modes of expression, and technical demands are high.

The companies which perform mainly ballet are few nowadays. Not because that "does not sell" - but because ballet companies require more resources; at least, that is my opinion. (here, of course, most companies are also state-supported)

So it is really interesting to read about what is going on in the US compared to here.


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As a point of comparison, the Dance Posters book contains posters by the following ballet companies. Bolded companies represent companies that are still with us:

American Ballet Theatre

Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dancers (Dennis Wayne's company)

Feld Ballet

Houston Ballet

Joffrey Ballet

New York City Ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

San Francisco Ballet

This list is a little deceiving because two of the companies -- Dance Theatre of Harlem and Joffrey Ballet -- both experienced very serious problems that almost caused them to fail permanently.

The Eliot Feld situation is a sad one -- talk about a dead repertory.

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The companies which perform mainly ballet are few nowadays.

German companies which perform mainly (or exclusively) ballet: Berlin, Dortmund, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Karlsruhe, Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart. Even Essen, Gelsenkirchen and Leipzig dance on pointe most of the time. I don't think that's "few", Diane.

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Getting back to the "why" of why the Ailey, Graham and Limon companies have survived and so many others haven't . . .

(And when I say "survived" I mean that they're performing regularly during a season and they have a sizeable budget that is stable year-to-year. Ailey is one the richest companies in New York, Graham has rebounded nicely from its financial and legal travails, and even Limon routinely has a budget of $1 million+.)

One reason why I think Ailey and Limon were able to survive after the death of the titular founder is that they were both, to varying degrees, repertory companies during the lives of their founders. Alvin Ailey programmed many different choreographers during his lifetime, and Limon, during his lifetime, had Doris Humphrey as co-choreographer and programmed the works of his company members (Pauline Koner, Lucas Hoving, Louis Falco, etc.) The advantage to their successor companies was that there was never this huge existential crisis of "My God! What will we do for repertory now???" when Limon and Ailey died, respectively, in 1972 and 1989. They could continue on as they already had. And now, even the Graham company has managed to make the mental leap of morphing into a repertory company and commissions new dances.

It's a pity Merce Cunningham couldn't (or wouldn't) make that mental leap because I do think a successor Merce Cunningham Dance Company could have become a repository for Cunningham's dances as well as the dances of the New York-based, loft-centered, post-modernists. Were a Merce Cunningham Company still in effect it could have picked up some of the works of the soon-to-be-defunct Trisha Brown Dance Company! To put it another way, it could have become the White Oak Dance Project without being dependent on Baryshnikov's celebrity to keep it going.

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Modern/postmodern/contemporary companies w/ budgets of more than $2 million in FY12. Taken from the Angel Corella thread in the Pennsylvania Ballet forum:

04 Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre ($34.6)

14 Merce Cunningham Dance Company* ($8.4)

20 Paul Taylor Dance Company** ($6.4)

23 Mark Morris Dance Group ($5.9)

24 Pilobolus ($5.8)

32 Ballet Hispanico ($4.9)

35 ODC Dance Company ($4.3)

36 Alonzo King's LINES Ballet ($4.2)

40 Martha Graham Center for Dance Education ($3.3)

47 STREB ($2.7)

49 Dallas Black Dance Theatre ($2.6)

51 Trisha Brown Company*** ($2.3)

54 Trey McIntyre Project ($2.2)

*The Merce Cunningham company no longer exists. In its place is a foundation that seeks to stage his works in the absence of a functioning company.

**Will become Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance.

***The company is in the middle of a farewell tour.

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And Trey McIntyre has just dissolved his company -- he gives various reasons, including just being tired of the ongoing challenge of maintaining the institution, but he's returning to a freelance life as far as choreography is concerned (not sure what, if any, plans are made for the existing repertory).

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It might be very interesting to see the Falco dances shorn (quite literally in terms of the hair) of the 70s trappings. Falco was the star male dancer at the Limon company before he left to form his own company. Based on the photos from the Facebook page, I don't think his repertory would sit very comfortably next to the pieces that now comprise the Limon repertory. (And, in any event, Limon has never staged his pieces since Jose Limon's or Falco's deaths.) Jennifer Muller's company emerged from the Falco company but she too has not shown much interest in restaging the Falco rep. That really only leaves the Nederlands Dance Theatre, which commissioned a number of pieces from Falco in the 70s.

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"I find it interesting that three of the four surviving companies from the Dance Posters list are associated with techniques than can be methodically taught: Graham (Martha Graham Company), (Lester) Horton (Alvin Ailey Company) and Humphrey-Limon (Limon Company). " ~ Miliosr

Is it because they cultivated techiques or because they built up an institution (in the form of a school) and that institution perpetuated the company?

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Not all the same. Graham was reluctant to develop anything like a codified technique -- she wanted to dance, and so she made material on herself. And when she wanted to dance in a group, she taught herself to other people. There are still aspects of the technique that are only done to one side, because those elements are only performed to one side in the repertory. The school gave her a home base -- the company members were the ones that really took on the tasks of teaching.

Of all the people you mention, Humphrey was really the one that wanted to create a singular, independent dance technique. She loved to dance, and loved to make dances, but she was a methodical soul, and put an amazing amount of effort into the development of the technique, thinking about it particularly as an alternative to ballet. She (and Weidman) spent an incredible amount of time teaching, first with Denishawn, and then with their own studio. I think that her (relatively) early retirement from performing really helped focus her work on others.

Horton's school was more ad hoc, but as I understand it, he developed his technique separate from his choreographic life. But it was the consistent take-away that Ailey and others carried with them from LA to NYC -- they didn't really restage his repertory, but they did continue to practice the style.

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I think of Limon technique as evolving in three separate stages:

  • The first stage, in which Doris Humphrey and (to a lesser extent) Charles Weidman, used the Humphrey-Weidman company as a laboratory to develop the primary building blocks of the technique: fall, recovery and suspension. This was also the stage in which Humphrey developed the whole notion of breath rhythm.
  • The second stage, in which Jose Limon, through his teachings and repertory, extended the technique further by adding the notions of isolations and "the body as an orchestra".
  • The final stage, in which the first generation of Limon dancers began teaching and, in the process, honing the technique. Betty Jones, who was the original Desdemona in The Moor's Pavane and who teaches to this very day, was instrumental in this regard as she became very concerned that the technique harmonize with sound anatomical ideas.
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Interesting -- I generally think of Limon in two eras. When Humphrey was still offering him direct advice, and after her death. But yes, by the time a technique has developed to the point that it's taught by people other than the creator, it's become more codified.

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Oh, I absolutely think of Limon as two eras (in terms of the company and his repertory) while he was alive -- with Humphrey and without her. In fact, you can almost divide the company timeline perfectly into halves -- 1946-1959 (w/ Humphrey) and 1959-1972 (without her). The second half proved problematic for Limon because, for the first time, he couldn't rely on Humphrey for advice about which pieces to make and no longer had her critical eye in the studio. He had a fairly high number of flops in the immediate aftermath of her death (say, 1959-1963) which, unfortunately for Limon, coincided with the rise of post-modernism in dance. He would right the ship somewhat in the mid-60s with A Choreographic Offering, The Winged and Psalm but even these were judged as being much too long. (The Limon company now performs A Choreographic Offering in suite form and they've reconstituted The Winged and Psalm by lopping off half their lengths.)

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There's now a Facebook page devoted to Louis Falco and his now-defunct company:


Perfect example of how perishable dances are and how a repertory can disappear.

Louis Falco! Now there's a name I haven't heard for a long time! I took some classes with him at one time, and although I was a ballet dancer, I really loved the movement.

Also, does anyone know why Laura Dean no longer allows her work to be performed?

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Interesting article in The New Yorker about modern dance preservation and succession:


This is an excellent synopsis of the current situation and the difficulties surrounding these heritage repertories.

I'm very curious to see how the Taylor company navigates this transition. I'm glad that they're doing this while Taylor is still making work on a regular basis -- I think that will give them some extra traction.

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Also, does anyone know why Laura Dean no longer allows her work to be performed?

I don't know . . . but that won't keep me from speculating!

Arlene Croce wrote a wonderful piece about Laura Dean (and post-modern dance more generally) in 1975 titled "Going in Circles". (It's probably my favorite Croce piece.) In any event, Croce noticed an austere quality in Dean's work and, suggestively, in Dean herself. Perhaps Dean's eradication of her own repertory is the final manifestation of this austere personality.

Alternately, Dean may have concluded that the post-modern dance was never meant to become entrenched as repertory or technique in the way that the "classical" modern dance of Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Jose Limon has become. Maybe she felt that the post-modern dance was meant to be ephemeral and transient.

Or maybe she just said, "The Hell with it!"

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From Sunday's New York Times:


"Air for the G String" would have been wrong, wrong, wrong for the State Theater. It's meant to be seen close up in a space like that at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

Love Taylor's rather wry comments about Tharp, Morris ("that long hair") and Cunningham.

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