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A Web & Radio Guide to the Arts, hosted by Chris Roberts

State of the Arts: Dance
by Chris Roberts
Minnesota Public Radio
January 18, 2002


The Twin Cities have one of the best dance scenes in the country, but it's under-funded, under-covered, and desperately trying to build an audience.

  Shapiro and Smith Dance is just one of many dance companies that moved to Minnesota from New York or elsewhere to take advantage of a strong artistic community with numerous grant-making foundations. As a result Minnesota is now seen as a hub for serious new dance.

Photo courtesy of Dan Shapiro

Put your ear to the ground and you could well hear the sound of dance being created in Minnesota, especially the Twin Cities. From ballet dancers contorting their bodies in the state's dance headquarters, Hennepin Center for the Arts in Minneapolis, to a modern dance student at the U improvising to Ani DiFranco, to percussionists warming up before a dance rehearsal at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul. Over in Minneapolis, Philip Bither, who's in charge of the Walker Art Center's Performing Arts Program, says the Twin Cities are recognized as a national dance hub.

"The Twin Cities dance community is one of the strongest in the country," Bither says. "There is not the same kind of resources or the same kind of talent that exists in the Twin Cities. There simply is not that same kind of expanse of dance work in other U.S. cities."

There's a dizzying array of dance styles in the Twin Cities. Classical and modern ballet, seemingly every variation of modern dance, and a plethora of ethnic dance troupes defying the state's reputation for homogeneity. But ask Dale Schatzlein, director of the University of Minnesota's Northrop Dance Series, and he'll tell you the dance scene just skips by most people.

"I don't think the average person in the Twin Cities really realizes how much dance—what huge level of creative talent—there is in the Twin Cities, as compared to a city the same size," Schatzlein says. So say you take a San Diego, which is approximately the same size as the Twin Cities area, there would be nowhere, nowhere near the kind of and quality of dance that's being presented in a community that size."

The president of the Jerome Foundation, Cyndi Gehrig, says just as theater truly gained a foothold in Minnesota through the vision of Tyrone Guthrie, dance also had its pioneers.

"It certainly started with the strong women who began companies, built on schools, and had ambitions that were larger than the state," Gehrig says.

Gehrig is talking about Loyce Houlton, founder of the Minnesota Dance Theater, and Nancy Hauser, founder of the Nancy Hauser Dance Company and School. Both nationally recognized choreographers came to the University of Minnesota in the early '60s to teach and quickly became dance movers and shakers.

"And to that history was added the development of the Minnesota Dance Alliance which came from the Minnesota Independent Choreographers Alliance," says Gehrig. "You add to that the Northrop Series and the people who have run the Northrop Series and what they've brought to the community. The Walker Art Center was terribly instrumental and important in bringing avant-garde companies to the community for the first time. So each incrementally builds on the other."

As the dance scene began to percolate, new companies launched and independent choreographers started churning out quality work. The sheer level of activity and the healthy funding climate for dance started generating a national buzz. Nationally and internationally renowned choreographers from outside the state, most notably New York, started relocating here. Gehrig says its been giving the scene another infusion of talent. It would seem then the Twin Cities dance scene enjoys robust health. But Gehrig says while it's healthy in terms of artistic quality and activity, the dance community suffers from receiving too little financial support.

Dance ticket sales rarely cover production costs. That's true of many arts programs, but the disparity in dance is usually far greater than for other disciplines. That makes dance artists even more dependent on philanthropic support. Neil Cuthbert, arts program officer with the McKnight Foundation says in these post-9/11 days, with the sagging economy, the funding picture is more uncertain than it used to be.

"It's challenging, and funders are increasingly getting hit by large numbers of requests new groups all the time," he says. Cuthbert says a dance company might pull 2,000 to 4,000 people in the course of a year. Some might pull in 10,000. "That might be great", Cuthbert says, "but it's not going to be high on the radar when you have other institutions or even theaters—other forms of entertainment—where their audiences are in the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. It's a scale thing; smaller arts groups have a harder time."

The dance community also absorbed a blow with the recent folding of the Minnesota Dance Alliance. It was once the prototypical dance service organization/presenter in the country. In the mid-'90s, the MDA suffered a financial crisis after taking on more than it could handle, including the operation of a venue, in an effort to better serve the burgeoning scene. June Wilson was hired to nurse the organization back to health following its collapse.

"People stopped trusting the work we were doing, artists stopped wanting to be connected to the space, and so it was a dramatic decline also after our financial crisis that we could never really recover from," says Wilson.

  Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater uses movement to explore ideas and issues that have an impact on our everyday lives, whether it's death and dying, or parent-child relationships.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Pimsler

Wilson says the MDA is not dead. It's working to redefine its mission and will move away from a service and presenter orientation toward figuring out ways to connect dance with general public. It's a blow to a community where it continues to be nearly impossible for dancers themselves to perform and make a living. Almost all have second jobs to barely pay their bills. Jennifer Hart, is a budding choreographer and dancer with the Minnesota Dance Theater. She says with health insurance and unemployment benefits, it's too expensive to form permanent companies. Hart says choreographers use what are called pick-up groups in their productions, hiring dancers on a per-diem basis.

"It does really save them a lot of money to do it that way, but it's really created a hardship on dancers actually in the U.S., because the pay doesn't support the work," says Hart.

Choreographers face other challenges. While funding in Minnesota is strong for emerging artists, it becomes harder to obtain for established artists, especially to move themselves or their organizations to the next level. Beth Corning, of Corning Dances and Company, says she spends more time with administrative duties than with artistic work. Corning says choreographers are in dire need of arts administrators or managers, to do what they don't have time to do: market dance.

"It's very important, because this is going to change the face of dance in Minnesota. This is going to take Minnesota out of Minnesota. It's going to take it throughout Minnesota. It's going to open the doors up. It's going to stop having us spend $60,000 on a performance that lasts four nights and then it goes down the toilet because we don't have the marketing system to take it elsewhere," Corning says.

The biggest problem facing dance anywhere in the country is how to develop broader, larger audiences. While there's a loyal, larger-than-average core audience for dance in the Twin Cities, artists bemoan how they see the same faces at concerts. The problem, says James Sewell, founder of James Sewell Ballet, is how the general public perceives dance.

"They think it's something they're not going to understand; that if they go they'll be bored and confused," Sewell says. "And with ballet in particular, people have this image of stuffy ladies in furs are the people who go to ballet, not somebody who would enjoy going to a baseball game would enjoy going to the ballet, and that is absolutely the truth. But people don't realize that this is a progressive art form. It's not just about fairy tales from the 19th century."

Some look at the audience problems from a cultural perspective. Choreographer Robin Steihm, founder of the Dancing People Company, says Americans just don't have an ingrained appetite for performing arts.

Steihm just visited Belarus with her company. "We performed to a packed house of people just from the city we were in, the city about the size of Rochester. There was a dance festival there and the theater with 1,500 seats was sold out every night for a week. It's just in more in their society in their culture to go to live theater than it is in ours."

Steihm says that hesitancy to take in a dance performance is even more prevalent in outstate Minnesota. Yet, Alan Fields, director of Minnesota Ballet in Duluth, one of the state's largest dance organizations, says Minnesota Ballet's success over its 36-year existence proves an audience can be created outstate. Fields has secured a grant to bring in even edgier companies to perform in Duluth, and he's hoping other arts presenters around the state will follow his lead.

"I knew that we weren't going to get companies just automatically coming up here due to finances so I wanted to find a way to bring them, to entice them here, because I'm a firm believer that the more dance we have, the better. I think you get your audience engaged and involved, and get them used to coming to the theater, then we have a built-in audience," Fields says.

According to most in the dance community, the key to building audience is media coverage. They say the passing of esteemed Star Tribune Dance Critic Mike Steele, who gave them a regular presence in the paper, has left a gaping hole. Jeff Bartlett, is artistic director of the Southern Theater, which presents the best in Twin Cities dance. Bartlett says newspapers don't believe there's a large enough dance audience to warrant much coverage.

"Unfortunately, the other side of that vicious cycle then is if the newspapers aren't raising awareness of dance in this town—and they're not—and, to me, incredibly so, because the level of quality of the work is so amazingly high. Then the audience is going to stay small. So it's a little bit of a vicious cycle that way," says Bartlett.

There are other factors preventing dance from realizing its full potential. Some say it would be great if Minnesota had a regional dance company as well-known as the Guthrie Theater. Many yearn for a marquee-style venue people could associate with dance. Some are hoping the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis will become that, if and when it's restored. A more prickly issue is the question of whether there's too much dance in Minnesota for the market to support. June Wilson of the Minnesota Dance Alliance says no.

"I think we need to create the market though," she says. "I think there's enough dance, and ultimately the market can support it, but we haven't done our work of helping the market understand what dance means—what's out there and how to connect it. So no, I think it's actually a nice critical mass, particularly given that we have a core of really strong artistry, we have a core of spaces and presenters who are informed and can actually support that, and now we really just have to build the market for it."

The sad reality for the dance community is if that is to happen, the burden of getting the word out will continue to fall on the shoulders of dance artists alone.

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