What’s Wrong With Modern Dance?
By Lou Fancher
One more too-long ballet brings time to a standstill. Gratuitous, quasi-violent encounters between human bodies or between dancers and gravity during a modern dance piece elicit yawns instead of reflection on mortality, fate, or danger. People who haven’t spent most of their lifetime steeped in dance may ask a dancer buddy/expert: Is dance doomed? Specifically, is classical ballet able to relevé—rise up on its toes—but no longer relevant? Has contemporary dance reached a crisis by reaching out to mainstream audiences? (Think: So You Think You Can Dance.)
All of which became urgent in early 2016, when this ruminating, waiting-for-a-dance-to-end writer encountered Cal Performances’ season catalogue amid the detritus of holiday wrapping paper and too many Nutcrackers.
The March/April calendar was most intriguing. Within a 24-day window: Mark Morris’ 1988 masterpiece, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; choreographer Trajal Harrell’s The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater bringing three programs that include Ailey’s earthy, muscular Revelations; ballets by Robert Battle, the 58-year-old company’s third artistic director, and other works. (This springtime focus leapfrogs over January’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Rice and Chitresh Das Dance Company with Shiva in late February.)
The Morris work puts the choreographer’s distinctive American blush on Handel’s pastoral baroque-era opera that is based on two poems by Milton. Harrell perplexes and stimulates audiences—often with vogue-laced investigations of American historical or cultural issues and time periods, but in Berkeley his postmodern slant will angle East to Japanese dance theater’s Butoh. The Ailey company is civil rights in a time capsule—offering profundity from the cornerstone Revelations to fresh-off-the-rack West Coast premieres by some of the 21st century’s most original African-American voices.
Are the March offerings a celebratory feast and revival, or a sign that presenters must step out on a limb and grab at cultural and historical diversity to counter the dullness of dance and attract an audience? With 22 years in the field as a ballet master, setting and rehearsing dances for professional companies, I found dance in such a crisis a disturbing idea.
If you’re not a dancer … well, forget that idea, because everyone is a dancer. We all dance as children. Not only that, we once couldn’t help but dance. Childhood wiggles and wildness are an exuberant ballet that usually ends when an adult scoffs, a peer mocks, or a kid gets stuffed into tights and his or her inner light goes out. Occasionally, the glow continues, and a dancer is in the making. But we all dance before falling into commerce, law, medicine, computer science, or some other industry.
So is the art form losing ground?
Except for Nutcracker, there are few “sure things” in dance. Presenters hoping to fill large venues like Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall or San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts have to hit a target by appealing to everyone from fanatics to fringe hangers-on. Or do they? And what alchemy attracts a crowd?
Cal Performances Associate Director Rob Bailis says commitments to the life cycle of Mark Morris, Ailey, and other companies including NDT and Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra have allowed an informed, invested audience to develop. “The more fluent an audience becomes in the body of work of an artist over time, the more likely they are to accept the natural variations that occur,” Bailis said. “Given the opportunity and the incentive, they will seek context for the artist whose works they know well in the company of other works by other artists they know less well.”
Unpacking this idea, Bailis is calling up a noteworthy point: Most people see a dance only one time. It has to bite them in the ass, tickle their sense of humor, make them cry, rage, or more. It’s OK to leave an audience perplexed, but a choreographer must leave them hungry for more—or presenters suffer the slow death of a half-filled theater.
If you’re old enough to have experienced dance’s 1970-’80s heyday, when regional companies sprouted like proverbial weeds nationwide and big companies built themselves up in New York City and San Francisco, you can wonder what happened between then and now. Today, many companies are known as “pick up,” with dancers hired for specific gigs, not whole seasons—and frequently not paid for rehearsals at all.
“People built companies; Dance on Tour gave companies opportunities; federal support was profound,” said John Killacky, executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt. “The dance field professionalized itself in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Killacky came to the Bay Area in 1996 from his curatorial position overseeing performing arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn. He served as executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts before becoming program officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation, a position he held for seven years.
The 63-year-old arts presenter, writer, and filmmaker watched dance company structures dismantle in the 1990s. Only the dance works pushed to spectacular scale succeeded in drawing large audiences. Great masters like Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and others, he says, are still making work, but it is less interesting or merely repeats past success. “Mark Morris tries, but after that, the whole generation that followed isn’t able to tour and build companies where they could pay their dancers,” he says. “The mechanism has changed: More dancers are hired on a project basis. They get fantastic dancers, but not idiosyncratic dancers. Deeply investigative practices: That seems to have completely evaporated. The crisis in modern dance is lethargy.”
If there are slivers of hope, it will come from companies offering not just extraordinary technique, but choreography that offers relevancy. Killacky mentions Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, English international choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. Bailis puts his faith in longterm commitments: “I believe an audience will risk with you as much as they trust you, and simply put, building trust takes time and repetition.”
And at New York University, academia opens a window on new thought with the Center for Ballet and the Arts department that opened in September 2015. Claiming on the program’s website that ballet today is “adrift” and “inaccessible,” the center promises to serve as a “think tank” for “expanding the way we think about ballet and bringing vitality to its history, practice, and performance in the 21st century.”
For this dance-goer, it circles back to dance’s origins. Not only to the historical forms that gave rise to ballet, modern, jazz, tap, hip-hop, Japanese, Indian, and the world’s vast dance traditions, but to childhood—and that wild, weird, and wonderful impulse to be bodies in motion that we all share. Capture that flag; dance will no longer be in crisis; it will be crucial.