Düsseldorf, Dance/USA, and the Case for American Engagement — Part 1

Editorial note: This article appears in two parts. Click here for Part 2.

Part I
Tanzmesse 2010
The 16th bi-annual Internationale Tanzmesse NRW took place in Düsseldorf this past August. The combined festival and booking conference featured dance performances, open rehearsals, showcases, and receptions highlighting the work of more than 100 artists from at least 20 countries.

Since 2002, Dance/USA, with the backing of the National Endowment for the Arts, has introduced an American perspective into the proceedings. The presence is described by Dance/USA Executive Director Andrea Snyder as “an evolving work-in-progress.” The fifth such outing heralded performances by four U.S. companies and the creation of a new and improved Dance/USA exhibition booth (courtesy of Dance/USA’s partner Dancers Groups’ Wayne Hazzard) of which everyone in the U.S. contingent was justly proud.

Dance/USA’s presence at the Tanzmesse represents a comparatively significant investment by America to bring international visibility to its modern dance community. Dance/USA, with the support of the Tanzmesse, raises money from such funders as the NEA to support the costs of getting American artists selected by the Tanzmesse curators to perform in Düsseldorf (as well as non-performing dance artists, presenters, and managers who make up the delegation). Just as importantly, Dance/USA helps provide a platform for American aesthetics, opinions, ideas, and practices to be seen in the international arena.

The individual artists who get to travel to perform their works for a new audience obviously benefit: their horizons are expanded by being exposed to the work and feedback of their international peers. It is also significant because U.S. dance artists have developed a substantial body of work that sometimes differs in convention, structure and form from the material being generated by their contemporaries from other countries. If Dance/USA had not taken this initiative a distinctive American voice would be missing from the equation.

Beyond Tanzmesse: Other American Interactions and Exchanges
Americans, of course, have had an impact on European dance since the days of Isadora Duncan. Choreographers like William Forsythe, Mark Morris and their ilk have continued the tradition of influencing the evolution of dance around the world. Indeed, as we were sojourning by the Rhine, Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet was headlining in Edinburgh, which followed successful appearances earlier this summer at festivals in Montpellier and South Korea. It is also worth pointing out that among Lines’ first performances abroad was the company’s 2002 appearance at the Tanzmesse.

In addition, a number of U.S. choreographers and dancers continue to spend a fair portion of their time creating work and teaching in Europe—having decided that rather than sitting in America and complaining about how much more funding is available on the other side of the Atlantic, they’d rather crash the party and avail themselves of some of it. These resultant cross-cultural collaborative projects are a vital (perhaps even the most significant) part of the ongoing dialogue between the United States and the rest of the world. Given that this type of activity leverages much needed foreign funds for American dance artists, the exercise should be better understood and supported from the U.S. side.

My personal favorite experience with this type of collaboration was the Jess Curtis/Gravity 2001-02 work Fallen. Curtis made Fallen in collaboration with members of his own ensemble and Fabrik Companie from Potsdam. We raised about $25,000 for Fallen in the Bay Area and the Germans raised around $45,000. Not a whole lot, but enough to make the piece and perform it as part of residencies in both Potsdam and San Francisco. Curtis and Fabrik then took Fallen to Edinburgh and, out of the 1,000-plus companies battling it out on the Fringe that year, won a Fringe First. Almost as a direct result, they subsequently performed Fallen more than 120 times in seven countries. Somewhere here, there was a lesson to be learned.

These examples show that Americans are not completely absent from the European dance scene and numerous individuals and groups have taken the initiative to keep cross-cultural exchange alive. However, the presence of the Dance/USA contingent as a formal representative of the country’s dance industry is a statement that shows the United States takes the international dialogue seriously and wants to be engaged at the highest levels. The past five Tanzmesse outings, as Snyder points out, have been experiments. It is time to take stock of what this investment denotes and think about the best ways to build on it.

The Funding Landscape and Priorities
The irony of the American position is that although it is one of the richest countries in the world, its national arts agency is funded at a significantly lower level than even some small ex-Soviet states, whose funding is in turn dwarfed by their Western European and some Asian counterparts. A Google search indicated that Estonia, for example, spends about $5.5 million for each of its 1.3 million inhabitants: $4.20 per person; the NEA in the United States spends $167million for 307 million inhabitants: $0.54 per person. There are two main points to be made in light of these numbers. First, the Federal government needs to significantly increase the budget for the NEA just to keep pace with the most impoverished nations of Europe. Even if we succeed in our lobbying efforts (and more likely as an alternative if we do not), private sector U.S. foundations have the ability to help address the resources gap and need to be approached for supporting what is essentially cultural diplomacy. Second, funds need to be spent strategically to strike a balance between creating international opportunities for American artists to tour and ensuring active U.S. participation in the international crucible of ideas—above and beyond just underwriting touring engagements.

Even with a paucity of funding, choosing one direction over the other is not acceptable. Just getting a gig does not impart knowledge, and knowledge of what goes on over the horizon does not necessarily equate to active engagement. True and meaningful exchange is the confluence of the two. Although it may only be possible to take halting steps with the limited funds available, ultimately the goal should be for U.S. dance artists (and presenters, managers and audiences) to be familiar with and fully engaged in the global dance community and secure of their own position within it. It is going to take more than the tenacity and derring-do of individual artists to achieve this (essential and noble as these heroic feats have been and continue to be) and more than passing overseas forays by U.S. presenters and booking agents. It must be an intrinsic component of our arts policy at the national level to actively engage the United States in the broader world of dance.

This is imperative. It may come as a shock to those who see America’s position as geocentric, but the fact remains that in this global era, in most instances the amount of cultural exchange between the United States and the rest of the world is seriously lagging behind the initiatives of other countries. Cultural ties among Europe, Latin America, Canada, Asia, and even some countries of Africa are usually stronger and more prolific with each other than they are with the United States. Therefore, despite the distance, difficulties and the financial shortcomings, America must strive to participate in a dialogue of exchange and reciprocity and support a policy of engagement and collaboration.

Because of the comparative penury of the non-profit arts industry in the United States, a resolute international policy toward engagement, competitiveness and visibility cannot be confused with another gambit for American dominance, which might otherwise push the French—among others—to apoplexy. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite. To demonstrate the richness, nuance, and complexity of American culture on an international stage is to show the world that the United States is a more intellectually vigorous country than Hollywood, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, gangster rap, or reality television makes it out to be. To demonstrate the richness, nuance, and complexity of American culture on an international stage is to show the world that the United States is a more intellectually vigorous country than Hollywood, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, gangster rap, or reality television makes it out to be. It serves to highlight that America has both unique and pluralistic artistic voices whose presence is essential and can make a valuable contribution to a vibrant international discourse. If we believe in the work that is being created by American dance artists, then their presence on international stages can only add to the quality of the world’s arts experiences and further the evolution of contemporary dance in all cultures.

A native of England, Andrew Wood has lived and worked in the United States in the performing arts industry for 20 years. He is the founder of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), which works with multiple Bay Area non-profit organizations and artists to produce an annual series of events that comprise the Festival. SFIAF both commissions and produces new work by local artists engaged in international projects and presents the existing repertoire of ensembles from around the world with many of them making their U.S. or California debuts at SFIAF. Each festival takes three years to plan and implement. Since conceiving the idea of SFIAF in January 2001, Wood has had the good fortune to work with many world-class international artists and their equally brilliant local counterparts to present their projects on the festival’s stages. Prior to creating SFIAF, Wood was the director of ODC Theater. In just three years, he transformed the venue from being primarily a rental facility with an annual income of $150,000 into a multi-disciplinary presenting organization with a budget of nearly half a million dollars. Wood’s other experience working for presenting organizations has included Life on the Water and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. He has also been an artist manager and has arranged touring engagements for numerous ensembles, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe.


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