Dance Dilemma: Schlock Triumphs Over Ballet

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

It has come to this: America's next big dance star will not be a heart-stopping dazzler like Mikhail Baryshnikov. It will be Wayne Newton -- or possibly Marie Osmond -- or someone even lower down the celebrity food chain. At least as far as millions of TV viewers go. And because we just can't get enough of attitude-endowed dilettantes whizzing through ballroom and salsa routines, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" will soon spawn a spinoff series.

"We are really looking for the rough diamonds who are ready to be polished and made into this great group," said "Dancing With the Stars" judge Bruno Tonioli to a British newspaper, speaking of the 2008 show "Dance War."

But what about the polished diamonds? Anyone looking for them?

Evidently not. If it's concert dance you're after -- professionals, performing works of art -- there's no use searching the airwaves.

Here's the irony: The sharp rise in reality-show dance on TV is matched by a dizzying drop in public television broadcasts of the pros. In other words, the washed-up celebrities and adventurous athletes of "Dancing With the Stars" are all that the viewing public knows of dance these days, since ballet and modern dance companies have been virtually voted off the air.

A decade or two ago, there might have been half a dozen programs on PBS's "Great Performances" and "Dance in America" series to look forward to, airing important works by major companies such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. These have dribbled down to one, maybe two broadcasts a year.

A program on Wolf Trap's "Face of America" series that focuses on the national parks, and includes some dance performances, is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2008. Recently, there was the documentary "Nureyev: The Russian Years," a noble project with only brief glimpses of actual dancing, and "Dancing in the Light," works by African American choreographers that didn't make it into the 2001 three-part series "Free to Dance." In the summer of 2006, PBS also aired just one all-dance program -- George Balanchine's masterpiece "Jewels" performed by the Paris Opera Ballet -- as well as a documentary on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

To the man who spent his career putting dance on PBS, the fact that dance is now hot on commercial television proves a point he spent 30 years making.

"I was always saying these were the sexiest people you're going to have all year in television," says Jac Venza, the longtime executive producer of "Great Performances" who retired in 2005. But he had to fight to get dance programming on the air, he says, because "no matter how elegant and eloquent the shows were, they were always the lowest rating." Venza pushed "because dance was the most visual of all the arts, and we were a visual medium."

If professional dancers were ratings losers, they lost in high style. From its start in 1976, "Dance in America," backed by the National Endowment for the Arts, aired some of the most spectacular performers and dances of the age: Merce Cunningham's "Rainforest," with Andy Warhol's set and costumes; a revival of Katherine Dunham's Afro-Caribbean works; the sensational Baryshnikov dancing works by Twyla Tharp.

The series was so talked-about in the dance world that Rudolf Nureyev himself sent word to Venza asking why he'd never been on it. (He was, soon after, dancing with the Joffrey Ballet in roles made famous by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky.) New York City Ballet founder Balanchine, who had seen his works badly filmed years before on the "Bell Telephone Hour," warmed to "Dance in America," which strived to involve the choreographers on camera angles and lighting. The fortunate result: "Some of the most beautiful work with Suzanne [Farrell] and Peter Martins is recorded," Venza said.

That's an important point. Televised dance is preserved dance. The PBS broadcasts constitute a library of some of the greatest dancing of the late 20th century. Who will record what's happening in concert halls now?

Better to ask: Who will pay for it? With rising costs for production and assorted broadcast rights, and dwindling corporate funding, dance programming has fallen tragically short of support. NEA funding continues, but does not nearly cover the shortfalls. With an orchestra and large cast, the 2005 broadcast of American Ballet Theatre's "Swan Lake," taped at the Kennedy Center, became the most expensive dance program to date, at more than a million dollars, Venza said.

"We need angels," said David Horn, the current series producer for "Great Performances." Exxon was once the series's major underwriter because the chief executive had a keen philanthropic interest, but no single donor like that exists now, he said. This season, in fact, "Dance in America" has no corporate sponsor.

"Great Performances," which aired weekly back when programs were cheaper and there was more corporate money, is now reduced to 10 programs a year. Dance is only one of several performing arts disciplines competing for those time slots.

But can we culturally afford not to have concert dance on TV? "Dance in America" educated a generation of viewers about ballet and modern dance. Enter the uneducated generation. If no one knows what a ballet is, or what a modern dance or tap dance performance looks like, who the heck is going to buy tickets?

"You don't know it if you don't see it," warned Suzanne Farrell in a recent interview, in which she recalled her own delight as a child in watching the films "The Red Shoes" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" on TV. "It's a visual art form and it has to be seen."

Ultimately even those vote-getting contestants on ABC and Fox (whose popular "So You Think You Can Dance" returns next summer) could feel the sting in a land where so few have any exposure to concert dance.

"My goal as a dancer is to be in a contemporary ballet company," announced 20-year-old Sabra Johnson, the latest winner of "So You Think You Can Dance" (and dubbed by the show "America's Favorite Dancer"). More power to her. Yet if none of her fans can tune in to a contemporary ballet on a local public television channel, if none of the viewers who voted for her salsa hips ever ventures into a theater, will there be anybody watching her?


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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