It's beyond dispute that Washington has come a long way as a dance town over the past decade. Even those who persist in repeating adnauseam, the fiction that until the Kennedy Center the city was a "cultural backwater" -- it never was that -- now concede that it is an artistic center of national import, and that in quantity and range of dance activity it stands second only to New York.
For the most part, however, the improved status of Washington with respect to dance has more to do with glamorous visitations (at Kennedy Center and elsewhere) than with indigenous enterprise. Lavish physical facilities, and the spotlighting they seem automatically to confer, have made the city at once a major showcase, an international crossroads, and a launching pad for works and careers. Dance artists and groups who make their home here, by and large, still labor in the shadow of the mighty. This hasn't prevented them from multiplying their numbers or making large strides artistically; although some have fallen by the wayside, including the much lamented National Ballet, many more have risen to take their place.
A few have achieved wide recognition. Choreographer Choo San Goh, whose ballets have been acquired by numerous major companies in this and other countries, and fledgling ballerina Amanda McKerrow, our Moscow gold-medalist, have been featured in that barometer of fashionable winds, People magazine. Melvin Deal's African Heritage troupe has become such a model of its kind that it has spawned a whole family of similarly oriented companies, in Washington itself and in other cities. Dancer-choreographer Jan Van Dyke and the Washington Ballet have made a mark, if not as mass phenomena, then at least within the profession. Yet even Van Dyke admits that "the one thing New York has is access to national media and producers in the field, which makes a major kind of success much more possible."
Still, public awareness of Washington's dance credentials tends to center as much or more on the city's emigre's -- dancers like Marianna Tcherkassky and Kevin McKenzie, now principals of American Ballet Theatre; Patricia Miller and James Canfield, prominent in the Joffrey Ballet; Virginia Johnson, a leading light of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; or Kenneth Rinker, formerly a brilliant soloist with Twyla Tharp's company and now amassing a reputation as a choreographer.
Meanwhile, New York remains not just the Big Apple but the Big Time as far as dance renown is concerned. Virtually all the nation's major companies and artists in every area of dance performance reside there, along with the most esteemed teachers in each field. The preponderance of new works, idioms and esthetic currents continues to originate there. As Larry Warren of Maryland Dance Theatre puts it, "There's always the temptation to get that New York feedback."
And unlike Washington dance artists, who have only the modestly endowed D.C. Arts Commission to draw upon for local governmental aid plus relatively meager business and foundation sources, dancers, companies and choreographers in New York can look to a comparatively generous pool of funding from the city itself, the New York State Council on the Arts and the nation's most massive agglomeration of corporate and foundation headquarters.
In view of all this, if you ask a Washington choreographer, company director or dancer if it's possible to fulfil oneself in a dance career here, what you get is resounding -- and understandable -- ambivalence. You'll be told of a passionate loyalty to Washington, a love of the city and its life style, a welcoming of the distance from and independence of New York trendiness, an attraction to the sense of community Washington dance people have been trying to cultivate among themselves. On the other hand, you'll hear a recognition of New York's unique position as the world's dance capital, and a yearning for the imprimatur, the contacts, the money, the publicity and the continual ferment and excitement that this ultimate cosmopolis alone seems able to supply.
After her triumph in Moscow, as the first American ever to take top honors in that city's prestigious international ballet competition, 17-year-old Amanda McKerrow might have flown the coop immediately. Instead, she chose to remain with the Washington Ballet for the rest of this theatrical year -- but for how long thereafter?
"Aside from feeling that I owed it to my teacher, Mary Day, to stay the year," she says, "I really thought and still think there's quite a bit more I can learn here. I also think it would have been very difficult for me, with my limited experience, to go straight away into a giant company, say like American Ballet Theatre.
"Besides, Choo San Goh is here, and I love working with him. The repertory I'll be getting into this season will challenge me; I'll be doing several new pas de deux and some roles that will give me a chance to develop the dramatic side of my dancing. After this year, I think I'll really need to move on; I don't want to get too content here. I guess I see myself eventually in a large company, starting at the bottom and working my way up."
Jan Van Dyke, for years one of Washington's liveliest movers and shakers, is back in New York (she's had two previous periods of residence there), giving herself two years to see if she can establish a studio and teaching practice there. "I realize now that you have to invest yourself here a while before people take you seriously," she says, "and for the present I want to give myself that chance.
"Yet there are dance people here who are supposedly 'making it' who don't have half of what I had in Washington -- my own studio, being able to work consistently, being able to feel that I was making a real impact in the community.
"On the other side, good dancers to work with are a dime a dozen in New York, whereas in Washington, many good ones leave early and the ones that stay tend to become complacent."
Liz Lerman, whose adventurous Dance Exchange moved into the Lansburgh Building this year, plans to spend six to eight months in New York on her own. "Now that the Dance Exchange is on a stable footing, I feel a need to look around, take stock and see if I can make myself better known outside Washington," she says. "I don't think at all that the best, the most interesting work necessarily comes out of New York, but there's this atmosphere that if you're not from New York, you're 'local,' but when you're from New York, you're 'national.' "
Greg Reynolds, whose Dance Quintet is another Lansburgh tenant, was born and reared in Washington and has put in his New York time -- as a principal dancer of the esteemed Paul Taylor company for four years. After a tour of the Soviet Union with his own troupe, he set up shop in Washington and now feels wholly committed to his home town. "I'm militant about being in Washington. Good art isn't bound to New York, it's wherever it happens. If anyone comes to know my company's reputation, it'll be from what we do here and on tour."
Doris Jones' ideal for the Capitol Ballet -- the integrated troupe she co-founded, currently in suspension for lack of funding -- was to introduce persons remote from cultural glitter to the enchantment of fine theatrical dancing. She recognizes, however, the inevitable lure of New York for young dancers. "New York has a drive no other city has, and sooner or later young professionals need to go there. The trouble is that too many young ones go before they're ready -- they don't realize how many talented dancers are walking the streets there."
A dancer who has led a sort of shuttle existence is Brian Jameson, who was trained at Mary Day's Washington School of the Ballet, danced with the Washington Ballet in major roles, left to join the Feld Ballet in New York, returned to Washington, left again for Feld, and is now back with the Washington Ballet.
"I went to New York originally, when Feld accepted me in an audition, to further myself," he says. "I did a lot of dancing with Feld, I had substantial parts in six of the 10 repertory ballets. But it was a wildly erratic experience; we toured to every city in America, and in two years played only one New York season.
"We'd be laid off for months at a time, then called suddenly to rehearse a week for a cross-country tour. I never worked enough weeks in a row even to collect unemployment checks; I worked in a gift shop, in a hair salon, as a receptionist, and began to realize maybe this wasn't temporary but permanent. I was afraid at first that if I returned to Washington people would think I wasn't good enough for New York. It took me awhile to delve into myself, but then I knew I had to put my life in order and live in a place where I wouldn't have to prove myself over and over again."
His sentiments are shared by Maryland Dance Theatre's Larry Warren, whose steadfast aim has always been to "achieve a high artistic standard and do it outside of New York where people are piled on top of one another trying to answer questions nobody is asking."