How Long? The Life Span of a Dance Company

By Kim Konikow

… Then silence and stillness. Or, as Cunningham’s long-time collaborator, composer John Cage, might remind us, a silence filled with the sounds of life going on and a stillness fraught with beautiful remembered motion. Let’s hope that his adventurous spirit does just that to choreographers yet unborn.
 – “Walking With Merce,” blog article by Deborah Jowitt, December 11, 2011

What constitutes the life span for a dance company? Is it better to see a company close rather than become a shadow of what it once was? Responding to a recent Facebook inquiry, Houston-based dance writer Nancy Wozny stated, “The life span of a dance company should be as individual as the artists themselves. Not every arts organization needs to be around forever. Some pop up as a result of a particular time in an artist’s life, and the world they operate in. Times shift and things do go away. I feel we need to be more welcoming of things that end.”

It would be remiss to discuss this topic without giving some focus to the recent closing of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. No one knows what the field-wide impact of this will be, in the short or long term. Andrea Snyder, American Dance Abroad’s co-director and former executive director of Dance/USA, felt that “this was an interesting moment, the first in our lifetime, where we could actively participate in the finale of one of the most significant companies in contemporary dance. It’s hard to imagine the company not existing.” That said, she expresses respect and admiration for the decision to not compromise the intent, mission, and focus of what Cunningham created.

Over the decades, many dance companies have come and gone. Ballets Russes had an amazing life, especially under the direction of the inimitable Sergei Diaghilev. The two companies that eventually continued dancing after his death carried on, but never achieved the original notoriety of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, lacking the brilliant choreographers Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsjky, and Leonide Massine. Katherine Dunham’s company also had a very long life, but given her stature, she was able to do scores of projects outside the configuration of a traditional dance company, including Broadway musicals, Hollywood films, and more. Yet, without her, the company had no reason to continue.

From Switzerland, Shonach Mirk-Robles, educator and former prima ballerina with Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, talked about his plan to collectively continue the company, to respect the heritage, and provide a platform for younger choreographers. “When Bejart’s testament was opened, he had left the whole company in the hands of his principal dancer. Unfortunately, in the first year, more than a third of the company left…. Now this guy has seen the errors of his ways, and is trying to make things better, but it’s likely too late and with the financial situation these days, the entire future of the company is in peril.” It is important for legacy companies, like Cunningham’s, Balanchine’s, Graham’s, and others, to plan for future continuity while their chief founder(s) can clearly articulate their wishes.

Snyder noted a few dance companies that had their place in the field for a discrete period of time, such as Senta Driver’s company Harry and Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, but no “name” companies are currently doing their work on a consistent basis. “A few choreographers like Ulysses Dove and Choo San Goh set up avenues for their work to be reconstructed before they passed on,” noted Snyder, “but still, the work won’t be seen often. It’s a loss.”

David R. White, artistic director at The Yard in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and a community cultural development specialist in New Hampshire, stated, “Mortality/immortality is an issue – always. As a field just about fully losing that generation of contemporary dance, there was nothing improvisatory about the closing of Merce’s company. He had watched earlier progressions of other companies and was ultimately a rational person himself. A company structure can dominate the life of an artist.”

White continued, “Balanchine formed the School of American Ballet and eventually the New York City Ballet. By establishing the Balanchine Trust to maintain his legacy, other companies can take up his mantle even though NYCB is the direct repository for his work. Anniversary or periodic companies that exist or appear and then go away give opportunities for different outcomes.”

Snyder points out that some companies are well prepared for succession and find a way to maintain themselves, such as the Jose Limon Dance Company, and others, like Nikolais, where people have stepped in to maintain a choreographer’s legacy. “Graham’s has the best potential to re-imagine what was, with new relevance to the 21st century, but the results are yet to be seen. Where will we be able to see these works of great quality, saturated with social and cultural allure, if not in repertory companies that are capable of carrying on select works of the past?” she questioned.

The Joffrey Ballet still retains its founder’s name after 50 years, and has gone on to a successful new life in Chicago under its third artistic director, Ashley Wheater, who did a four-year stint at Joffrey during his performing career. And, at the San Francisco Ballet, the nation’s oldest professional ballet company, founded in 1933, Helgi Tomasson has served as artistic director and principal choreographer for over 25 years; at some point he may move on, but the company as an institution, imbedded in the bedrock of the Bay Area cultural scene, will certainly continue.

Barbara Dufty, executive director of the New York-based Trisha Brown Dance Company, believes that most performance work is ephemeral and can’t really be reproduced for future generations of audiences and dancers. There may be a video, or evidence in muscle memory, but some alteration happens when it’s passed on. She feels that nothing can recreate the singular power of a creative artist disseminating his or her work; it simply won’t continue in quite the same way. The new work may still have integrity, but it will be different. “Celebrate the life of the artist,” she said, “each will be unique in how they see their work going forward.”

The Eliot Feld Ballet has morphed into Ballet Tech Company, following Feld’s longstanding devotion to training young people, particularly in the New York City public schools. The Limon Dance Company, now the Limon Dance Foundation, continues the legacy of its founder through reconstructions and a school, in addition to new works. Dufty thinks that young people could see the Limon Company in performance, and not knowing the history, their lives could still be changed based on the powerful messages of the work.

Many choreographers have chosen the structure of a formal company for their work to continue over time including Trisha Brown, Robert Moses, and Margaret Jenkins. One hopes that plans for succession are in place. Some independent chorographers began their work with a group of dancers, and moved into the formal company model as that was generally the expected norm to achieve funding and gigs. Phyllis Lamhut, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Ralph Lemon were among others who built companies but later returned to project models of operation.

More recently, younger companies were created with a particular life span directive in mind. Amy Smith, co-director of Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia, commented, “I personally think and wish that more companies would fold up when founders leave or die. There will always be plenty of younger artists in the ecosystem to take their places. In Headlong, we have agreed that when the three co-directors are done, the company is done. Basically, if two of us want to keep going, we will, but less than that [and] we are done.” The three believe that many artists and companies stay past their welcome and use more than their share of available resources; they will try to avoid that, should the time come.

Debra Cash, a Boston dance critic and historian, commented, “One of the things to look at is the issue of how copyright/licensing to older work is being handled; the earlier generation – Graham, Limon, Cunningham – all dealt with it differently. It seems useful to me to make distinctions between the preserving of work and legacy, which might be a technique, ephemera, etc., and the continuation of a company or its membership in some other form either ‘so it continues to live’ or so that it is available for ‘historic inquiry’ by students and scholars.”

Two active dance makers weighed in on the topic. Liz Lerman, founder and choreographer emerita of Dance Exchange in Maryland, feels that the life span of a company is really individual. Her decision to leave the company she founded and nurtured evolved over many years. She wanted to pass it on, but there was still a perception, particularly among funders and presenters, that she needed to be engaged. It was hard to convince the Dance Exchange board and company that things had to change. In recent years Lerman tried utilizing a number of different models and structures from within, but change didn’t prove possible. When she saw the younger people in the company were ready to take charge, she realized she could push for more changes from the outside, and announced her resignation.

Lerman said, “Dance Exchange is as much an idea as it is a bunch of dancers. The philosophy is the needs of many people playing with those ideas. My leaving would make it possible for the ideas to flourish better. Given the history, building, and philosophy, I didn’t want to close it. The traditions are moving into new directions. It’s been fantastic; there’s a great energy about the potential.”

Ralph Lemon, artistic director of Cross Performance in New York, had felt for a couple of years that that it was really difficult to maintain the consistency of a performing company, given the unpredictable nature of making work, scheduling home seasons, touring, and the daily grind to raise money to support the institution. He recalled sitting in a Cunningham company performance as one of the moments that clarified his own next steps: “I knew I couldn’t have that company-thing any longer.” He was privy to certain artists who were working differently – David Gordon, Douglas Dunn, Lucinda Childs – and they all seemed to work in ways that were more flexible, and weren’t about consistent dance company structures.

He called in a supportive group of advisors and began to create a new model for making his work. Producer Ann Rosenthal was just beginning MAPP, MultiArts Projects & Productions, which has served as Lemon’s form of a structured administration. He feels this allowed him to focus on what was important – the flexibility to work with the people he was interested in and the projects he wanted to take on, plus allowances for a longer timeline for all aspects of creation and performance. “I was honoring what I’d always been attracted to about the art form, its ephemera,” he said. “I was less interested in the legacy. But documentation is also fodder, a way to play with the work as well as the process, how to write about the making of the dance… That’s a whole other artistic point of view – not about the stage, but the creativity of video.” Some aspects (film, writing, etc.) of all Lemon’s highly interdisciplinary work ‘remain’.

Merce had witnessed the disappointing trajectories of more than a few companies; he understood what could happen to his own company over time if it tried to persevere without the infusion of new works and his presence.
But if anything, the closing has made my experiences of him and the company all the more valuable. – “Jumper; A planned ending for Merce Cunningham Dance Co.,” blog article by Diane Ragsdale, January 15, 2012

He continued, “The new kids on block are interesting,” mentioning dancemakers Maria Hassabi, Trajal Harrell, and Miguel Gutierrez. “They don’t have companies, or bow to society’s demands of a structure.” He tries to study what they’re doing. “It’s rougher for them now, with less funds. Lots of the young artists are homeless, not landing anywhere, but traversing with a much larger global view.” He adds, “Merce isn’t here anymore; this giant created a container for what good, brilliant, experimental genius was about. Maybe we’re stuck and might need to relearn what’s good.”

While the closure of the Cunningham Company is one of the more dramatic dance events of our generation, it does not signal a cessation of the creative forces afoot in the dance world. Our field continues to evolve. There are many areas of discussion surrounding this question of legacy continuity, including succession, preservation, and quality, among others. And numerous more artists’ stories are not captured here. We welcome your comments.

In response to Robert Johnson’s review, “The Merce Cunningham Company takes its last bow” in The [New Jersey] Star Ledger Jan. 2, 2012, reader NJR wrote: “…I have an appreciation for the poignantly ephemeral nature of performance art. There is certainly a way in which the energy and vision of particular individuals inform the spirit of any live performance; clearly, without the living breathing presence of Cunningham himself, his creation cannot be the same.”

In September, Kim Konikow embarked on a personal journey to determine her next steps. Her rich and varied background in the arts will provide the base for exploration. Most recently, Kim served as Dance/USA’s event manager, among other positions over the past 11 years. On the local level, she serves as the chair of the Washington County Arts Council in Southern Utah. She and Gracie (her standard poodle) reside in Zion Canyon, surrounded by peaceful beauty and amazing friends. As a consultant via artservices & company, Konikow provides a broad range of expertise to arts organizations around the country, specializing in work with nonprofits, independent artists and funders. Facilitating artistic growth with a focus on resource development is a primary goal, through practical assessment of current circumstances; qualitative research, evaluation and reporting; creative project management; and realistic strategic planning with achievable goals.


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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of Dance/USA.

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