Words are important, so grab your thesaurus.
This past week, in the Wall Street Journal culture writer Pia Catton wondered how much enthusiasm there can possibly be for dance and if it can be sustained. In the article, leaders of the field in New York referred to a vocabulary for future survival. Lane Harwell, director of Dance/NYC, spoke about dancers as a “community trying to find a new language” for what we do, as well as searching for new ways to interact with audiences. Bill T. Jones, whose company’s merger with Dance Theater Workshop will give birth to the new entity New York Live Arts, is described as wanting to stay away from the word “dance,” preferring the more opaque terms “body-based movement” or “body-based performance.” Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, discussed the challenges of changing terminology. What do you do when a “revolutionary,” “rebellious” art form becomes “classic”? Jonathon Hollander, artistic director of Battery Dance Company, used the word “nutrition” instead of funding, and the word “entrepreneurial” to describe what dance companies need to become. (Dancers have always been “entrepreneurial” but that used to be a business word; now it is an essential element to a dancer’s lexicon.)
So, grab your thesaurus everyone. We need new words, new ways of thinking, and new methods of engaging with the public because our federal funding is once again under severe threat to be cut and it is up to us (as usual) to figure out how to exist, and what our existence will look like. What words and ideas appeal?
Does the word “dance” need to be replaced with “body-based performance” so that more people will attend contemporary concert performance? Do more people appreciate and relate to theater experiences than dance? Does a clearly explained combination of art forms sell more tickets and render our art form more profitable and appreciated? Or does it denigrate the form by erasing its most common denominator? What, then, is in a name? To my ears other names for dance sound coldly intellectual and far removed from the vital human body. But maybe this radical shift of language precipitated by New York Live Arts will bring energy and revitalization to our field. I hope so, because I feel a loss of identity and that makes me sad. I am a dancer.
Last weekend, Dance/NYC sponsored its Mid-Season Symposium in which arts professionals converged to discuss such issues. How do we engage people in our work in new ways, how do we get our communities to support dance, and, finally, how do we survive in an even more precarious financial situation? Different words, but pretty much the same questions that were asked in a 2009 Dance/USA Winter Symposium: “What happens when budget cuts bring you to the threshold between do-able and not do-able?”
I appreciated that representatives from our U.S. government attended the symposium and stood with us voicing their support and appreciation for dance (even as many of their peers attempt to cut our funds).
Ann Berry Howe, senior counsel and senior advisor to New York State Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, spoke to artists about how to advocate for ourselves and each other. Howe, who laughed that she was a dancer “back in the days that dinosaurs walked the earth,” urged usually quiet dancers to get out of the studio and act, speak up about what we do and how we contribute to our communities. Even if done in small ways, getting out and talking is an important form of advocating. Howe remarked that Sen. Gillibrand didn’t recommend cuts for the arts but endorsed a budget increase, citing how arts bring commerce into our communities. Her counterparts from other states need to be convinced, however. Howe implored us to speak, or write, to representatives about supporting the arts. Many representatives have Facebook pages. Friend them. Talk to them. One dancer at the forum suggested we put our representatives on speed dial and quickly call them about important issues during breaks in our days.
Maura Pally, deputy assistant secretary to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, talked about how the State Department could facilitate dancers performing abroad. If your company is going abroad, the State Department wants to help you. Maybe it cannot give you or your company funds directly, but if you give them enough lead time, it can provide you with names of interested people in the city or region you will be visiting, and suggestions for places where you can hold workshops. Staffers at State can even connect you to a U.S. diplomat abroad who might want to throw you a party.
Amy Fitterer, the new executive director of Dance/USA, also shed light on how dancers can advocate for each other, and how Dance/USA is working on new programs to help our government learn about the power of dance. One new program in particular that she highlighted was making sure that cultural attachés, while in diplomatic training, would be fully advised about the possibilities of dance as cultural diplomacy and the resources that Dance/USA can provide.
These speakers were not painting a peachy picture of the future in terms of financial support. But they emphasized that if we can cooperate and work with them, they are there to help us. Dancers are not alone. Certain government leaders understand how vital dance is to our community and are eager to find new vocabulary and ideas too. They want to be more “creative,” less “bureaucratic,” and more “accessible.”
Perhaps a new language for dance is not about inventing a new vocabulary for what we do, but about using our words. Words — written, spoken, texted, Twittered, Facebooked — say, “I am part of our community. I am a dancer. I live here. I bring color and vibrancy and money to our community. I eat in your restaurant. I shop at your store. Without my work, our community becomes less rich. Here, I want to invite you to take my class and see my friend perform.”
Perhaps our new language and new engagement revolve around a very traditional concept of communication: “conversing with our neighbors.”
Christine Jowers founded The Dance Enthusiast in 2007 with web designer Will Arnold. The Dance Enthusiast is the web extension of the non-profit Moving Arts Projects, originally founded to create performance projects celebrating the powerful stories of dance history and individual dance artists. Jowers writes, edits, acts as videographer, and interviews artists. In addition to her web work, she performs, produces, and teaches. Prior to creating her own company, Jowers performed with Maryland Dance Theater, The Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and The Doris Humphrey Repertory Company in New York.
Top: Martha Graham in her “Lamentation”
Below: Christine Jowers rehearsing Jean Erdman's “Creature On a Journey,” circa 1943, photo Briana Blasko
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