Bridging the Gap: The Rocky Landscape of Today’s Dance Business

By Lizzie Leopold

I imagine one of those old, rickety, wood-and-rope bridges. It hangs precariously between two sheer cliff faces, swaying in the wind. To cross it is to take your life in your own hands. But there it is, tempting the impasse. The divide is the growing gap between small, independent dance companies and artists and larger, more established organizations. The bridge remains, but it is worn by the weather and fraying over time. We either re-build this passageway now or watch the dance community split in two.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, both modern dance and ballet have been negotiating the promise of institutionalization, from dance maker to dance company. A dance company offers a more stable way to create techniques, experiment with new choreographic ideas, and produce work with a ready-made group of dancers and often a dedicated studio and theater space. But because these resources are finite and, more importantly, because great artistic ability and great business savvy rarely coexist, the dance field has unintentionally created an impasse.

With a rather short history, looking back a mere 100 years brings us almost to the inception of these issues. The journey from dance maker to corporation is clear in retrospect. But now that we have arrived at a place and time where dance companies can become and maintain multi-million dollar corporate structures, how has that affected the field from the bottom up?

At the starting line, when Martha Graham began her journey from one-woman-show to the Martha Graham Dance Company, she was not competing with multiple, large corporate dance structures. Today’s young dance maker is in a much more daunting position. He or she is competing for funding, venues, and visibility with much more financially intimidating and experienced businesses.

Dances don’t live forever. Choreographers don’t live forever. But do dance companies? I have often mourned the loss of Ballet Russes productions or Denishawn works that I read about but will never see myself. They have been sacrificed to the dance gods, made fragile by the very thing that defines them. They are gone as soon as they exist and for one reason or another did not survive in pictures, video or notation.

As a community, we all feel the loss of choreographic voices that have passed on. The dance family tree is small and we are all related, and when a dance maker passes away we feel the void of unmade works and the importance of legacy and reflection. But the mortality of the dance company is much more precarious and undefined. I relish in the large-scale successes of the field and wonder how this stability will change the artistic output in the years to come.

Stability may be a misleading word. Dance companies, large and small, struggle for funding and attention. But it is these large not-for-profit structures that have the resources and know-how to make a footprint and keep it there. They have paved the way for the rest of us, yet the journey has changed drastically in their wake.

This specific time in our history is particularly potent for this discussion as we watch how the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Foundation have negotiated their founder’s death. A mere two months before his death, in June of 2009, the Cunningham Foundation announced its Living Legacy Plan in order to confront the future without its founder. It “addresses key artistic, preservation and administrative issues—including a world tour, the troupe’s eventual dissolution and digital preservation of choreography.” The dissolution of the company is a bold step that many in the dance world have feared. Carla Maxwell of the Jose Limon Dance Company is quoted, “The overwhelming thing that hit us all when Jose died was that if disbanded, an entire lifetime of work was going to disappear.”

The Living Legacy Plan avoids this disappearance of dances through the invention of “dance capsules” that will be available for legal and carefully monitored licensing and staging of specific Cunningham works. Cunningham’s legacy will be preserved in his works, not in the nonprofit bearing his name. A successful separation of dancers from dance is a frightening proposition. Never before have dancing bodies been so emphatically separated from the work itself. It is by no means certain that the work will survive. The works will exist in “capsules” and digital form, something never before done so completely. These capsules will include Cunningham’s notes, the best rehearsal and performance footage, input from dancers who have staged revivals, photographs of costumes and sets, music instructions, original program notes, and the list goes on. This super breed of performance document will either prove a brilliant method of preservation or a sure way to codify an artwork into a stale, salable commodity.

The Cunningham company is currently finishing up its Living Legacy Tour. No dance company of this size and success has ever accepted its mortality so publicly. While we wait anxiously to see how this all pans out, it is important to note that its very doing acknowledges a problem. The dance field has adopted a not-for-profit organizational structure that works, and our successes have created an infrastructure that changes the shape of the field. Whether we think of it as a bridge, a road or sea—the distance between the larger, more historic, more established companies and the small, independent, up-and-coming artist is not easily traversed. Maybe Martha Graham lamented the lack of road. Today, we lament its rocky terrain.

The solution to this problem is not clear cut because dance is a field whose history only exists if we continue to remount it. The larger, more established companies house most of this history and take on the enormous task of preserving it, both on and off the stage. As much as the young company envies the 50-year head start of its forbears, it should be keenly aware of its lighter load. Multi-million dollar budgets come with enormous fiscal responsibilities, in addition to historical ones. The solution may be in convincing ourselves, the press, and the dance-going public that size and success are not synonymous.

Arts writer Zachary Whittenburg of TimeOut Chicago weighed in on this divide bluntly. “It’s show business,” both words having equal weight. He points out that both sides of the divide have their advantages and their challenges. The business of making dance inevitably affects the art of dance making. Yet, as these established businesses deny mortality, they cast a shadow that influences growth and alters perspectives from the ground up.

Lizzie Leopold holds a BFA in dance from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, with thesis work at the intersection of choreography and commerce, specifically focusing on Le Sacre du Printemps. In fall 2011 she will begin work on an Interdisciplinary PhD in Theater and Drama Studies at Northwestern University, continuing to focus on the intersection of dance and business. Her work has been presented at the Congress on Research in Dance 2011 Special Topics Conference and the Cultural Studies Association Conference 2011. Lizzie is the founder and Artistic Director for the Leopold Group, a Chicago based not-for-profit modern dance company. In addition to choreographing, Leopold has danced with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She currently serves on the Alumni Board of Governors at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater and Dance.


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