Assessment of American concert dance world: Needs Improvement

I have seen the dance world from multiple perspectives. I have studied dance most of my life and performed, choreographed, and taught dance. I have learned about dance (with a degree to show for it) and read, thought, and written about dance. I have worked in administrative roles for dance education, presenting, and service organizations. I have engaged with Dance/NYC, Dance/USA, the Congress on Research in Dance, the Arts and Business Council, and the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. I live in New York City where I see dance performances and hobnob with a variety of dance professionals on a regular basis.

And my consensus from observing the dance world from these diverse vantage points is: 1) I love it; I believe in it; I’m not done with it, and 2) It needs a lot of work if it wants to grow and sustain.

I have compiled here a list of problems or areas that I think need improvement in the large context of concert dance in the U.S. I have been thinking about these things for a while, but when I went to actually write down a list, I was surprised that I came up with so many – 20 in total. Because of this, I decided to divide them into categories, so that the full list wouldn’t be as overwhelming. Thus, here is my current list of areas of need for American concert dance

Coming together

  • There is not enough connection and caring among the different sectors of the dance world. I often refer to the 4 A’s and an E: Artists, Administrators, Advocates, Academics, and Educators. I feel that there need to be communication bridges between each of these groups as well as mutual respect and concern for the health of each sector.
  • Specifically, academic researchers and writers tend to be very exclusive. I spoke about this in my review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference last November. I particularly wish that academics were more inclusive of the rest of the field in their studies and also shared their findings with a broader audience, sparking positive change by sharing the knowledge with those it actually affects.
  • Once connecting bridges are established between the different sectors, there needs to be more discourse among people in dance. We need to come together to talk about issues and discuss solutions.
  • I feel dance writers could play a critical role in helping this discourse to happen – using media platforms to bring up topics and engage conversation (not just providing dance criticism). In order to do this, though, we need more opportunities, support, and compensation for dance writers.
  • To fully bring everyone to the table and working together to promote change, we may need to improve our current service organizations and possibly create new ones. For example, I think the Dance Critics Association and Dance/USA could benefit from clarified missions and rejuvenated energy. And with so many separate organizations for each professional group (though each useful), is there need for a national umbrella organization for all things dance, to at least bring representatives from each community together for cross-conversation?

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Book Review: Private Domain

Dancing was it. Dancing was what life was all about. If you wanted to be a dancer, you didn’t just want it, you felt chosen to be one… In my case, even before learning to dance, I was positive I’d been ordained to do it.  -Paul Taylor, Private Domain

Back in August (within the last glorious weeks of summer in the city), I had the great fortune of being able to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company performance at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. (See the review here.) It was a gorgeous summer night, and as the sun set and the stage lights shone more vividly, I joined the hushed crowd to marvel at the movement and the music. As a long-time fan of Paul Taylor and his work, it was great to simply see another performance of the company (and for free, at that). But beyond viewing works I had never seen before, it was amazing to witness the massive crowd gathered to watch concert dance – hundreds of seats filled and all focused silently, respectfully on the stage ahead. Though I did not realize going in, it was also exciting to be present for the special celebration of Paul Taylor’s 80th birthday as well as the parting performance for 3 retiring company members.

After the show, I felt moved to finally read the copy of Paul Taylor’s autobiography, Private Domain, that I had picked up at the Strand a while back. And I would definitely recommend doing so if you haven’t already. Published in 1987, the book covers Taylor’s early dance career and the first several years of working with his company. From one anecdote to another, it offers a unique view into the mind and history of one of the most prolific and legendary modern dance choreographers. I absolutely loved learning little details about Taylor that I never knew before, like how he is fascinated with bugs and nature and that for many years he lived in the studio loft that the company rehearsed in. And as a dancer, I definitely enjoyed his portrayals of rehearsing and performing, experiences and feelings that perhaps only other dancers can truly understand. Beyond exploring the artist, it is also interesting to uncover more about Taylor as simply a man – his thoughts, his weaknesses, his humility. And beyond Taylor himself, the book offers a rare glimpse into the early world of modern dance, ripe on the heels of the pioneers and still fighting for acceptance.

Overall, reading the autobiography made me like Paul Taylor even more and made me better appreciate his accomplishments in dance. I enjoyed every bit that I learned about Taylor and was left wanting more. (Apparently there are more books in the making, so my wish may be granted in due time.)

Weaknesses of the book: The writing itself starts out strong then gets a little weak in the middle (perhaps trying too hard to be clever). It also would be nice to hear background on more of his pieces, but the works are not really the main focus of the book.

Why it’s worthwhile: 1) It’s an honest, open depiction of the difficulties of an artist’s life – a poignant story no matter how famous the artist. 2) Especially around the celebration of Taylor’s 80th birthday, it’s great to look anew at such a remarkable artist and learn more about how it all began. 3) Dancers can particularly connect with the difficulties Taylor faced in his early career and feel comforted that they are not alone in their struggles.

Questions of reflection: How does Taylor feel about how his career has progressed since the book was published? What will future books (not written by Taylor) include? What will be Taylor’s greatest legacy? What is my own dance story?

Best audience: fans of Paul Taylor and his work, dancers that should hear how even the most successful artists have had to endure very difficult times

Amazon page (where you can buy the book): Private Domain

More on the author: Paul Taylor Dance Company website

*Also check out my first book review on Daniel Nagrin’s How to Dance Forever

Is Edward Hopper correct? Is pure dance impossible? (Part 3)

After much consideration and inner debate on the subject at hand, I come to my third and final entry in a series discussing the significance of a quote by the late visual artist, Edward Hopper. (If you have not read the first 2 parts, it would probably be good to do so before continuing: Part 1 & Part 2.) Previously I have discussed the meaning of Hopper’s words and how his opinion would translate to the art of dance. For my summation, I will present my perspective on the subject of “pure dance” followed by an examination of various performance examples. First, for one final time, here is the quote of interest by Hopper (as taken from a video retrospective produced by the National Gallery of Art).

There is a school of painting called abstractionist or non-objective, which is derived largely from the work of Paul Cézanne, that attempts to create pure painting – that is an art which will use form, color, and design for their own sakes and independent of man’s experience of life and his association with nature. I do not believe such an aim can be achieved by a human being. Whether we wish it or not, we are all bound to the earth with our experience of life; and the reactions of the mind, heart, and eye and our sensations by no means consist entirely of form, color, and design.

So, is Edward Hopper right? Is there no such thing as pure art or pure dance? For the most part, I agree with the opinion of Hopper as it relates to dance. I believe that there are those that create dances for dance sake, focusing solely on the medium – movement, space, energy, time, etc. And I think that some of them perhaps have the goal of creating a pure dance, a dance that is separate from the rest of human experience, while others simply do not care whether or not a piece has possible connections to reality. But whether they try to create a pure dance or not, I do not think that creating a pure dance is possible. I agree with Hopper that we are all bound to our experience of life, and seeing a dance (just another life experience) cannot be separated from the rest of our lived experiences. As an audience, we bring to the performance all that we know and have seen before. And our senses, our minds, and our hearts cannot react solely to the substance on the stage; they are naturally and automatically bound to respond to the performance based on our entire lifetime of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Because we are human, it is impossible for a work of art to be purely non-objective or abstract, no matter the artist’s intentions.

Also, some may choose not to acknowledge the connections to human experience; they may decide to focus on the form of the art and speak to it as a separate entity. This does not mean, though, that connections do not exist. The true reality of human experience does not change because of someone’s preferences or choices.

To flesh out these words, though, let’s look at a few examples of potentially “pure” dance. (more…)

Modern dance is still so new!

Hitting the year 2010 has made me (along with everyone else) think about the changes that have occurred in the U.S. in the last decade and century as well as what is to come in the future. For some reason I keep thinking how weird it will be in only a couple decades when I’m still enjoying classic movies from the 1920’s & ‘30’s, movies that will be 100 years old. Of course my thoughts turned to modern dance, and it struck me that the whole art form came into being not that long ago. On one hand, “modern dance” as we know it is almost 100 years old; but on the other hand, “modern dance” is not even 100 years old!

 And now, a look back into history:

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