Assessing the future of modern dance, a fragile American art form

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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

A few weeks ago, Paul Taylor did something no other modern-dance choreographer can do: He watched his company perform for 2 1/2 weeks at New York's City Center, seating nearly 2,000 a night. He's been doing that for years -- and has booked it for next season as well, for a run of 15 different works.

Taylor is the only dancemaker who pulls in that kind of audience anymore in the modern-dance world. Look at this indigenous but fragile American art form, and you see fundamental change. There's been a downsizing, a redefining, a splintering into countless small niches. As a result, its very future feels precarious.

No one with broad-based stature and a track record of creating marketable and enduring work is poised to take over from the pillars of the field. With the deaths of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, with Twyla Tharp having disbanded her troupe years ago to work for ballet companies and Broadway, the major players in modern dance -- as defined by the scope of their activities and the sizes of their audience, budget and touring calendar -- number exactly two. There's Taylor, who turns 80 in July, and Mark Morris, 54.

Not to be overlooked is the idiosyncratic multi-genre artist Bill T. Jones, 58, who runs a smaller operation, yet one that still enjoys wider audiences than anyone in the rest of the field. (Not surprisingly, Taylor, Morris and Jones will perform locally next season, as they do most years.) The question, then, is: Once the old guard is gone, what happens to the art form when modern-dance choreographers are no longer attracting the public and the funders, no longer employing and developing the dancers on the scale that their elders did?

"Have we nurtured anyone to replace these people?" asks Douglas Sonntag, dance director of the National Endowment for the Arts, referring to Graham, Cunningham and their peers. "It's sad, to me, that we don't have a generation that's as powerful as the one we're losing."

Given a barren economy and the drop in government support for dance over the past decade and a half, Andrea Snyder, who heads the service organization Dance/USA, wonders how future generations of choreographers "will be able to thrive and solidify to become masters."

"We really are in a sea change," she says, "and nobody can see the end of this."

Market economics

It's not that creativity is lacking. Interesting work is absolutely going on -- memorable examples presented here include Shen Wei's explorations of altitude and atmosphere on the Tibetan steppe ("Re-," returning in expanded form to the Kennedy Center April 29-30); the piercing nostalgia of Dan Hurlin's puppet-driven "Disfarmer" (at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center last fall), and the intricacies of partnership in "A Light Conversation," by experimentalists Wally Cardona and Rahel Vonmoos (at Dance Place last year).

Is it, then, that brilliant, big-thinking minds such as Taylor, Morris and Jones just haven't come along lately? Perhaps, but consider another question: Is genius born -- or paid for? Surely the romantic notion of art emerging whatever the circumstances, whatever the scarcities, is outdated. The reality is, art exists in a marketplace, and it's hard to argue that artists can, with any consistency, make great works on a large public scale without financial support.

George Balanchine, one of the most influential and enduring ballet choreographers of the 20th century, did not achieve that status in a garret. Among his many backers was the Ford Foundation, from which in 1963 his New York City Ballet and its school received a staggering $7.7 million grant. With the numerous works that followed (including the major opuses "Jewels," "Symphony in Three Movements," etc.), and Balanchine's continued strength at the box office, we are still feeling the effects of that investment today.

Modern dance has never been that richly endowed. Still, it has progressed in this country on a modest mix of public and private financial support that has, in recent years, taken a dive. For choreographers, this has made mainstream success, let alone survival on the fringes, hard to come by.

It has also meant that American choreographers no longer dominate the field they invented. There has been an explosion of visionary work in Europe, particularly in England, much of it subsidized by dance-friendly governments. American companies are finding that this means they're even getting nudged out on their home turf. Theaters here have a reason to embrace foreign troupes -- their governments often help out with travel costs, making them a relative bargain over their fee-dependent U.S. counterparts. State support can also mean that foreign troupes have richer production values. Think of the visual impact of Germany's Pina Bausch, with her heaps of pink carnations or water-flooded sets.

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