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December 15, 2005

Artsjournal forum

Artsjournal has held a forum on their site for the next few days: “The Center of the Dance World?” on the place of New York in the dance world inspired at first by Gia Kourlas’ article in the Times and also referencing a piece by Wendy Perron.

I’ve made my own comment there but my other thoughts on the matter are potentially digressive so I’m going to make them here rather than there. I’ve been trying to write on this for a few days now, and haven’t been satisfied with anything I’ve written yet, so it’s either post what I write on this attempt or it’s a sign to stay silent. I’ve never really liked roundtable discussions and I don’t feel in sympathy with large portions of the conversation. It’s from the point of view of modern dance and that’s not my viewpoint.

I don’t think what Gia noticed is preventable. The New York dance community is going through the life cycle of any arts community and passing out of its youth into its middle age. It is not a graceful process but it is a natural one. I agree with John Rockwell that “cheap rents” had much to do with the fecundity of the time and with Tobi Tobias that it wasn’t just that. Dance in the New York in the earlier part of the last century was a place one could pioneer. There was room and opportunity and as Wendy Perron mentioned, a sense of being unencumbered by the past. Part of the reason we can boast of so many geniuses is that the field was inventing itself. Balanchine, Graham, Tudor, Cunningham, Taylor. . .each had the room stake their claim.

There’s no way to reclaim this. The fantasy of having the sort of artistic environment possible only in a field that has never been plowed is part of the confusion and awkwardness we’re going through. The closest I see to this sort of energy in the New York scene is in the burlesque revival. But in general, we are no longer a city of pioneers – we’re the establishment. We need to learn to do this well.

There are several tenets accepted within the discussion I question. The first, and I say this as a choreographer as well as a dance watcher, is the idea that new work is the most important objective right now. New work is essential to a healthy dance community and without it we have no progress and no legacy. Heaven knows I’m dying to see good new work and jubilant if I do. There’s a lot of crap out there. We are not in a golden age of dance. We’re in a holding pattern. Surveying the landscape, our job seems to be to keep things together until the next geniuses appear. I’d rather preserve first-rate older works than make room for second-rate new ones. That includes my own work. There, I’ve said it.

Rebellion and renewal are important aspects of dance history and creativity. Generations have created their dance canon out of the ashes of the previous generation. But, iconoclasm is not the only means of progress. There is also an additive model for art; rather than each generation recreating itself, they can seek to add or build upon what has come before.

Maybe it’s time to look at alternatives to the cutting edge. If we’re the center, maybe we need to strengthen our center as well as our extremities. We have created institutions, and these are potential powerhouses. NYCB, ABT, Cunningham, Taylor and now Morris – what can we accomplish on an institutional model? This leads to another model we may need to question – that of the choreographer-driven institution. The fight over whither NYCB rages hard and long – what do you do when the genius dies?

I question the implicit notion that originality equals creativity. Originality as a reason for making art is overrated. Most things are only original to people who haven’t seen their antecedents. The external demand put on artists to be original is responsible for a lot of lousy art. What most people call originality is a natural by-product of an artist speaking honestly, clearly and urgently. Say the thing you must say and it will become original.

This is a contrary post, yet I do share several underlying concerns with the posters. Funding is also essential. However, as far as I’m concerned, peer review is another word for “clique”. We don’t police ourselves well, especially in funding. If I were king, I’d try to work on a tiered model, with the first level of funding being modeled on The Field’s Fieldays: non-curatorial. If you can demonstrate the commitment to show up reliably and deliver a work, you get some time onstage and a place to perform. If you do well at that, then a bit more money to help do something a bit more elaborate. And so on.

We need to get people interested in art, a monumental task in a nation temperamentally suspicious of it. We need to get people into the theaters. Tere O’Connor and I probably don’t see eye to eye on much, but we do agree that Movin’ Out is crap, the kind of crap you leave with a headache and leaves people thinking they've seen art when all they've seen is pop. I wouldn’t take kids to it either. I’d take them to that haven of satanic patriarchic hegemony and show them A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at December 15, 2005 1:43 PM

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PNB's video recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be enough to inspire anyone.

Posted by: Edward McPherson at December 23, 2005 3:41 AM

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