Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to merge with Dance Theater Workshop

'Thought-artist': With the merger of his company and the storied Dance Theater Workshop, choreographer Bill T. Jones will be the executive artistic director of New York Live Arts.
'Thought-artist': With the merger of his company and the storied Dance Theater Workshop, choreographer Bill T. Jones will be the executive artistic director of New York Live Arts.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010

When choreographer Bill T. Jones picks up his Kennedy Center Honor on Sunday, he will be receiving it not just as the longtime director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the Tony Award-winning choreographer of "Fela!" and "Spring Awakening." Jones, it was announced Thursday, is now also the executive artistic director of a new organization, New York Live Arts, dedicated to producing and presenting dance and other performance art.

But there's a catch: The merger of Jones's company and Dance Theater Workshop must be approved next month by the New York State attorney general. "We have no reason to believe it wouldn't be approved," said Andrea Sholler, DTW's executive director.

The move rescues DTW, a longtime presenter of emerging and independent artists, from its $2.9 million debt. Jones's company will pay off most of that, with the promise of more than $3 million in cash or pledges. In return, Jones gets a home for his company. The troupe, founded in 1982, has had to rent rehearsal space around the city, but after the merger it will move into the building DTW owns at 219 W. 19th St. in Chelsea. It will perform in the 200-seat theater there every other year.

DTW has a long and storied history in the New York performing arts world. It was there in 1983 that Whoopi Goldberg was discovered by Mike Nichols, who moved her standup routine to Broadway. That Broadway link may be continued through Jones's oversight of the new entity, where he says he will be "the lead thought-artist," a moniker that he acknowledged "sounds a bit Orwellian." Jones described his role as steering the organization in new directions. "Can we build bridges from the New York dance-theater tradition - Broadway - and this outpost of the avant-garde?" he asked.

"There are probably people who come into DTW who do very peculiar things that are way off the radar of people who go to a Broadway show," Jones said. "But their works are entertaining and energized. Why can't we find a broader audience for those people?. . . . It's not, 'Oh, God, he's going to turn DTW into Broadway.' But I do think there's an unexplored resource in the downtown dance scene that could add new blood to popular theater culture. And I do want the new entity to be more populist."

His views are in keeping with where Jones's own career has headed, with his Broadway successes. And that success is exactly what DTW's leaders are hoping will rub off on the new organization.

"We need a star," Sholler said. "We need someone to help draw attention to what we do." She says she is hoping Jones will bring in audiences and funders who "are much stronger than what we could have on our own." In a move planned more than a year ago, Sholler will be leaving the organization. Jean Davidson, executive director of Jones's company, will be the new entity's executive director. DTW Artistic Director Carla Peterson will keep her position, although the differences between her role and Jones's are being worked out.

Arts activists have been watching the deal with interest, as many organizations debate how to cut costs and raise their profile in tough economic times. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser says that New York Live Arts' dual mission - to present artists and to produce art, through Jones's works - can offer "a great deal of programming flexibility," similar to what the National Symphony Orchestra and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet offer him.

"We have something to express, and it's distinctive, and no one else has it."

Kaiser says he was "very minimally involved" with the merger, telling the groups in recent conversations that "you have to be really clear on budgetary issues, particularly in a bad year. What happens when you have a bad year, what do you cut?" He said he is "very optimistic" about the deal.

"I think together, well managed, they could do something very novel. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with."

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