Next Steps: Dance Theater Workshop and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company Merge

The dance community is taking a wait and see attitude when it comes to the recently announced merger between New York’s venerable Dance Theater Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. And many observers say they are cautiously optimistic that the merger, unprecedented in the American dance world, will succeed at a time when so many groups and venues are struggling to survive.

DTW is the downtown Manhattan producer of modern dance, founded in a loft in 1965 as a choreographers’ collective. Over the years it has nurtured many choreographers, dancers, and performing artists from Mark Morris and David Parsons to Molissa Fenley, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bill T. Jones. Since its founding in 1983, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance has gained an international reputation especially for Jones’ choreography, which has dealt with a range of issues from racism to mortality.

“I think everyone is curious to see how it will all pan out but I’m confident about it,” said choreographer David Parker, artistic director of The Bang Group and a regular presence at DTW, from his first appearance there as a tap dancing astronaut in a 1982 production through a number of appearances and residencies, including eight seasons of presenting his “Nut/Cracked.” This past month he received a MOVE (Motivating Ongoing Vision and Excellence) Award for his artistic work and sustained commitment to DTW.

Arts administrator David R. White, who spearheaded much of DTW’s growth during his almost 30 years as its executive director and producer before leaving in 2003, echoed the comments of many observers when he said the merger was an intriguing, new attempt to address an old problem in the dance world. “I think it’s probably a good thing. I support it. There’s a logic to it and in difficult times you come up with interesting and imaginative strategies to solve what might be seen as an array of problems,” said White, who has been called the godfather of New York’s downtown dance scene. “Sustainability issues, which effect a company like Bill’s and an organization like DTW, on the face of it, are very different in some ways. But my feeling is that given the situation of funding, of general economics, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for people to sort of invent or dig deeper into old solutions.”

The merger, which will result in a new nonprofit group – New York Live Arts or NYLA – is expected to happen in January once the New York State Supreme Court approves the merger pending  authorization by the offices of the New York State Attorney General and the New York State Department of Education. After the merger gains legal approval, the new organization will be based at the DTW building in the Chelsea section of New York City.

For the two organizations involved, the merger is seen as a win-win. DTW officials said the merger will allow the organization to stabilize fiscally. The organization had been struggling financially since it opened its new facility in 2002. DTW’s operating budget for the current fiscal year is roughly $2.4 million; the organization has outstanding bonds in the amount of $2.955 million, but, according to DTW officials, it has never been able to afford the $400,000 debt service on the bonds.

The Jones dance company raised more than $3 million in cash and pledges to be used to pay off the majority of the bonds once the deal closes. The remaining $500,000 plus interest will be paid off by the end of 2014. In return, Jones’ dance company will have the permanent home it has been searching for. It currently rents rehearsal space in the New York theater district and the 10-member company also rehearses during residencies with several partner institutions, including the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago and Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. The $3 million mortgage Jones’ dance company will pay is considered a bargain compared to what the company would have had to shoulder if it had purchased or built its own facility.

While some immediate changes will take place once the plan is approved in terms of new titles for various officials and the departure of DTW’s current executive director, Andrea Sholler, the real changes for both entities won’t be on display until the 2011-12 season. Artistically, much remains unknown about NYLA, but Jones said he will be collaborating with Peterson to determine the performance schedule and is looking forward to helping other artists through NYLA. Plans for the upcoming season, which Jones has begun to consult on with Peterson, will begin to be announced in March, though it is believed Jones’ influence will be seen more in the 2012-13 season, officials said.

Until then the most immediate changes will happen internally as officials from both entities assume new positions. Jones will become executive artistic director of NYLA, overseeing the entire organization; DTW’s artistic director, Carla Peterson, will be NYLA’s artistic director, overseeing the presenting arm of NYLA as she does now for DTW; Jean Davidson, present executive director of the Jones company, will become NYLA’s chief executive and executive director, overseeing the business operations and development end of NYLA.

“I’m interested in promoting the next generation and helping mid-career artists who have been working away for many years trying to make a certain type of art,” Jones said. “I want to be part of that because I think that’s an important part of the discourse in this country.

“I would like to put [my connections and expertise] at the disposal of another entity that hopefully will have an ever-expanding cultural footprint that will also satisfy my need to participate in the world of ideas,” added Jones, who last month was among the 2010 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts.

For artists like Parker, who use DTW’s 184-seat Bessie Schonberg Theater or its two rehearsal studios, officials acknowledge that scheduling for those spaces will get a little tighter because Jones’ company will be the full-time resident company of NYLA. Tentative plans call for the Jones company to perform at the Schonberg Theater every other year in addition to its usual national and international touring schedule. The length of its home season has not yet been determined. But officials said NYLA would continue its rentals as well as artist residencies, which include studio space and theater time.

This season, DTW is overseeing 12 studio series residencies (each of which includes two nights of showings at DTW); offsite residencies with the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC), housed in Florida State University’s Department of Dance; six Fresh Tracks residences; and eight technical theater residencies. DTW will present full work by 23 artists or companies on site and three works offsite.

DTW’s Guest Artist Series will see about 16 different companies present work in the Schonberg Theater, including Siti Company with whom DTW has a long-term partnership. Additionally the annual DanceNOW/NYC Festival presents short pieces by at least 40 artists each year and the Barnard Project presents work by four different choreographers set on Barnard College students. “We still plan to be of service to the dance community by opening our facilities for rental to the dance community at subsidized rates,” Peterson said. “We’ll also be looking for a partnership externally so we can send artists out of the city for some space and time to just focus on testing out new ideas. So the residencies may not be completely within our footprint, but they will still exist.” Officials said while NYLA will remain focused on dance, it will also expand programs supporting other performing art forms.

One of the most obvious results of creating this new entity will be that two of the contemporary dance world’s long-established organizations will, technically speaking, no longer exist. Many observers of the merger, even while acknowledging the positives of the plan, seemed particularly concerned that the legacy of the 45-year-old DTW would be lost.

“I think, in some respects, looking at how to aggregate resources differently is overdue. I think this collaboration is potentially positive. But I’m not quite sure why the name of DTW isn’t being repositioned within the structure that is this New York Live Arts,” said longtime arts administrator Bill Bissell, who leads Dance Advance, a funding program for dance in Philadelphia. “The name of DTW does carry some weight, some worthiness. But we have such short memories in the dance field and that is really unfortunate.”

Those involved with the merger said losing the names of both of the existing organizations was a relatively minor concern overall, but was nevertheless crucial to creating the new organization. “Those people [questioning the loss of DTW’s name] have got to get over it. What else can I say?” Jones said. “I’m tied to my name as well but we’re all going to be building something new called NYLA and this company will be a project of NYLA, just as Fresh Tracks will be a project of NYLA and the Suitcase Fund will be a fund of NYLA, and the residency program will be a project of NYLA.”

Jones and others said that the most important thing was that DTW’s existing programs would continue under NYLA. The Suitcase Fund, formed in 1985, supports the research, creation, and dissemination of artists’ work to communities around the world. Fresh Tracks is a performance and residency program for emerging artists that includes peer mentoring and professional development workshops. “The best way to maintain any legacy is by continuing to carry on the important work of the organization,” said DTW’s board president Paul S. Engler. “Given that many of Dance Theater Workshop’s current programs such as Commissioning and Residency, Presentation, The Suitcase Fund, Studio Series, and Fresh Tracks will continue with New York Live Arts, it is clear that there will be many aspects of Dance Theater Workshop’s history that will remain intact.”

Given that there is no model for NYLA to follow in this country, arts executives said there will undoubtedly be growing pains for the new organization as it figures out various issues. Choreographer Brenda Way, whose ODC/Dance in San Francisco operates its own theater and studio, said she sees the merger as a smart idea for all concerned. But based on her 37-year experience running a dance company as well as theater, Way cautioned that NYLA will have to grapple with two central issues.

“The scheduling challenge is a major issue. When you’re presenting people and you’re curating a season, you’re trying to move around to take advantage of what’s best and what you want to present as well as [maintain] a home company that has its own touring schedule and needs space as well,” Way said. “Both sides lose a little flexibility.”

The other challenge Way sees ahead for NYLA is the matter of finances. “The economic divisions are going to be a challenge. What happens if money comes in on one hand and not as much on the other? We still have to deal with what is the best income stream,” she said. “Where is the contributed income coming from? How will the funding be allocated now? If part of us isn’t pulling the weight financially, does the other [part of the organization] take care of that part [that isn’t bringing in as much money]? The answer is ‘yes’ for us. But they’ll have to figure those types of things out.”

In the meantime, artists who use DTW like choreographer David Parker are hoping for the best from NYLA. Said Parker, “DTW is a well known entity and so is Bill. I think Bill will work with Carla to respect the achievements and the work that’s being done as well as find new ways to support artists.”

At this point the dance field will simply have to wait and see.

Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for 26 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is assistant editor of the webzine The Diversity Factor. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.


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