Navigating the Thicket, Then and Today

Sage Words from Ivan Sygoda as He Departs From Pentacle

Interview by Mindy Aloff

Navigating the Thicket, Then and TodayIvan Sygoda has been a fixture in the dance world since he joined Pentacle as tour manager in 1976 after a first career teaching French language and literature at various colleges in the Northeast. This month (July 2013), he transitions from director to founding director. Dance writer Mindy Aloff spoke with Sygoda about the changes the dance field has undergone and what he thinks about current trends exclusively for From the Green Room.

Sygoda became director (with Mara Greenberg) of Pentacle in 1979. In 1981 and 1982, he conceived and produced “Men Dancing” at the Theater of the Riverside Church in New York. He was a contributing editor to Market the Arts! (FEDAPT, 1983) and to the second and third editions of the Poor Dancer’s Almanac (Dance Theater Workshop, 1983; Duke University Press, 1993); contributed a chapter to Dance from Campus to the Real World (Dance/USA, 2005); and has written articles for numerous arts publications. He conceived Pentacle’s “Marketing from the Inside Out” workshops for emerging and non-mainstream dance and performance companies, and has presented them in New York, San Francisco, Washington, Boulder, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. These efforts became Pentacle’s Help Desk service project (1999-2007) and its recently launched ARC (Advancement-Reinvention-Creativity) strategic planning project. Sygoda directed Pentacle’s National Choreography Project (1983-1988) and conceived and directed its National Dance Repertory Enrichment Program (1990-1995). He co-founded (with David White of Dance Theater Workshop) the New York State Task Force on Partnerships in Dance, now called DanceForce, of which he is currently a member. He has been a guest speaker and panelist on arts issues at professional conventions and on cable television and radio, and has lectured and led workshops on arts administration for colleges, universities and performing arts service organizations here and abroad.

Sygoda has taught arts administration for several semesters at New York University in the School of Continuing Education. He has been a selection panelist for state and regional arts organizations and councils around the country. He was a National Endowment for the Arts Dance Program and Inter-Arts panelist, and is a member of the Bessies Committee (New York Dance and Performance awards) selection panel. He is a past board member of Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance, having served both as secretary and as parliamentarian. He is a past president and board member of North American Performing Arts Managers and Agents (NAPAMA), served three terms on the board of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, served also on the board of the Western Arts Alliance and is a member of the New York City Arts Coalition Steering Committee. In 1996, he received Dance/USA’s “Ernie” award at the organization’s biennial Roundtable in Los Angeles. In January of 2000, he received the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Fan Taylor Distinguished Service Award “for exemplary service to the field of professional presenting.”

Dance/USA: The National Endowment for the Arts has been much diminished in the past two decades. Many choreographers, companies and presenters are seeking out different ways to fund their works outside of the traditional federal, state and local arts grants. Is the NEA still important for the dance field?
IS: It’s still very important because it’s so visible. Still, much has been lost. I rue the day the NEA was forced to abandon the program of individual choreographic fellowships, which were often the first acknowledgement a young dance-maker got. And it abandoned the overview panel, which had good people from various perspectives weighing in. It was an important forum that has only been replaced piecemeal.

D/USA: The NEA’s Dance Touring Program of the 1970s is still missed, isn’t it?
It would be, if people remembered it. The DTP, as we called it, was an extraordinarily successful program. Its cleverly designed structure insured that every dollar the government put into the program delighted every entity that touched that dollar on its journey from Washington, D.C., to the states to the presenters in those states to the dance companies that performed on their stages to the dancers who brought their salaries right back home to New York or Minneapolis or wherever. It was dismantled not because it failed but because it was asymmetrically successful. The intention was to reassemble the elements in a more sustainable way. Then the Reagan Administration came in [during the 1980s] and the reassembly process was short-circuited. A by-product of the program’s demise was that Pentacle, then a “cluster management,” had to transform itself into a more broadly based service organization in order to survive. Post-DTP, our earned income, derived from the touring commissions of our four or five member troupes, became as tenuous as the tour schedules of the companies. And so we [at Pentacle] began to do for many and eventually dozens of dance companies (instead of just the original few) the essential administrative functions they couldn’t staff in-house. The notion was innovative at the time: our name became the noun that described the structure. I understood this the day I heard someone say, “We need a Pentacle in Minneapolis.” Now we call it outsourcing.

D/USA: Dance companies used to perform regularly in colleges and universities. Do they still? Has anything changed on the college/university dance circuit and beyond?
IS: They do, but we tend to mis-underestimate the proportions involved. Our booking staff attends the regional and national (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) booking conferences, and they are an important source of the work we are able to get for our companies. But only 35 percent or so of the APAP membership consists of colleges and universities. The performing arts are also presented in churches, synagogues, parks, retirement communities and youth centers, often by people who don’t even call themselves presenters. Even on a campus, there are town-gown subscription concert series in large auditoriums, student activities presentations, which can be very different, dance department offerings in studio theaters, even efforts by “the dean’s commission on minorities” and such. The other side of these coins of opportunity is their very profusion. Where and how is an emerging artist to seek paying work? It’s a thicket that’s harder than ever to navigate.

D/USA: Could we speak about how dancers and choreographers today learn to shape their works for an audience, especially for general audiences outside New York? Why don’t more of those in the U.S. use dramaturgs, like choreographers in Europe seem to do rather successfully?
IS: I think that more of this happens than your question implies, but it isn’t always formalized into funded programs with paid mentors. A lot of dancemakers depend on trusted “outside eyes”: friends and colleagues  A lot of dance-makers depend on trusted “outside eyes”: friends and colleagues authorized to offer constructive feedback. Judging by some of what I see, a little more tough love might have been helpful. authorized to offer constructive feedback. Judging by some of what I see, a little more tough love might have been helpfu. Joyce SoHo had a choreographic residency program with professional mentoring that artists found useful. I once saw Phyllis Lamhut at work with one of the artists. She is sharp-eyed and tough, just what the doctor ordered. The legendary model of this kind of choreographic mentoring is the greatly missed Bessie Schönberg. Margaret Jenkins’ CHIME program on the West Coast adopts a differently effective mentorship structure.

Mindful of how sensitive creative artists can be in the midst of their creativity, Liz Lerman has evolved an elegant Critical Response methodology. I have often said in public that whenever I want people to think I’m smart, I quote Liz. But sometimes, in my rush to embrace dance that intrigues me, I become impatient with her slow dance of engagement.

Stepping back a bit, this may be the moment to say that the best dramaturg — my efforts to float the term “choreoturg” sank quickly — is the audience. I don’t mean your fifty nearest and dearest who come to cheer on opening night, but the ones who don’t know you well but believe dance can matter. They’ll let you know when something isn’t reaching them even if they can’t explain why. This is why it is so dangerous that so many dance-makers don’t get to tour much (if at all). The mettle of things is tested in the crucible of performance, and the performance needs to be completed by audiences of different kinds, dancers and non-dancers alike. If the core audience for contemporary concert dance is the fifteen people who study release technique with you, we ain’t none of us going nowhere.

I respect craft, as in “the craft of choreography,” but I am also suspicious of it. It only takes you so far. I assume you are interviewing me because someone somewhere thinks I am a kind of exemplary arts administrator. But I have never taken an arts administration course. My total training was the study and teaching of French literature on the college level. French literature, like all the arts, is about artists making choices. You get a perspective from that: If once every ten years there’s a great play, you get a grad course on the whole genre and an opportunity to dig deep. It does nobody any good to treat a dance like a version of a good [i.e., easy] read. You have to interrogate the text, to phrase it pretentiously. When I studied French literature, I needed to have a dialogue with Balzac or Flaubert. Too many people come out of arts administration programs knowing double-entry bookkeeping and techniques of grant writing, but they have never talked to an artist about the work and learned how that information is as critical to budgeting and strategizing as the rules of accounting. I get the impression that this is seen as a discomfiting challenge.

D/USA: Can you address the challenge of adjudicating dance work for grants and other opportunities?
IS: Dance uses all the vectors of time and space and energy that life itself does. It really doesn’t fit into flat rectangular frames and five-minute time spans. It kills me to see the infinite variety of dance reduced by bandwidth issues to the few virtuosic step-based forms that do fit though the eye of that needle. Panel evaluations are now mostly based on what you can screen in a few minutes on a monitor. That can work for ballet, jazz, tap, and other percussive forms, but not for dances whose power derives from the accumulation over time of distinctive images or motifs drawn from pedestrian movement or repetition or silences or any of the myriad other ways choreographers bend movement into meaning and emotion. This doesn’t mean I’m against digitalization. Susan Marshall’s Frame Dances were designed to work on a cell phone. And work they do!

As for the bigger dance picture, I do think we’re in a bit of a lull, creatively speaking. I’ve been to too many concerts where little of value crosses the footlights, or where the information danced is accessible mainly to other dancers. Audiences have fewer compelling reasons to be interested in what’s on the stage, and audiences are dwindling. There are a dozen reasons for it, all amply detailed in the arts press: fierce competition for precious leisure time and money: the perceived improbability that a choreographer is a poet worth getting to know; the increasing foreignness for many, especially the young, of the theater-going experience. But yet … when I ponder dance, I love paraphrasing [poet] Marianne Moore: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Seeing it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine.”

D/USA: Increasingly, dance is being performed in non-theatrical venues: museums, parks, and so forth. Do you see this as a continuing trend?
IS: Old as I am, I wasn’t there, but I think dance even pre-dates indoor plumbing. So moving it inside was at one time the innovation, not vice versa. Taking it back outdoors and to other kinds of spaces we think of as non-traditional is really taking dance further back towards its roots in cultures and communities, back to a time when dance belonged to the people because it came from them. The very wise Liz Lerman has a speech that begins: “Once upon a time, everyone knew the steps to the dance.” In the intervening eons, dance fragmented itself, some might say balkanized itself, into my dance, your dance, our dance, their dance, art dance, popular dance, ethnic dance and even, lord help us, so-you-think-you-can-dance dance. This fragmentation can be a source of delight and also a source of anxiety. We worry so much about whether something is “good” or not. I am as guilty of this as anyone I know. I have to keep reminding myself that one of the glories of the art form is its promiscuity. I was on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) dance panels twenty, thirty years ago when we sent the mimes packing. (They either migrated to theater or simply went away. I didn’t look to see.) That instance of brutality achieved, we were happy to grant droit de cité to anything else a dance-maker called dance. There were always purists who objected to some heresy or other. These ones don’t point their feet. Even worse, those ones do. That one talks on stage. This one doesn’t have an idea in her head. That one has nothing but. Vive la différence, I say. Dance can happen anywhere and look a hundred different ways. The only thing that matters is whether it’s effective, and we each get to decide that for ourselves. You can bring the dance to the people for free in a public park. There’s a great kind of democracy in who’s taking the air. Or you can charge top dollar at a prestigious festival. Ticket price guarantees neither excellence nor relevance. I’ve been variously transported or bored stiff in every kind of venue.

If you take everything I just said at face value, I have a bridge to sell you. In my 37 years and counting in this business, I have seen something like 7,500 dance concerts. I have too much time, energy, and mind invested in teaching myself how to look at dance to believe sincerely in the democracy of taste. Some people have it in their mouth. But I worry about this because of the choices I see people making. More accurately, because of the choices I see people being given. I am asked to spend $20, $30, $40 for a ticket to a dance performance. Why on earth would we do that? We have utterly failed to create a next generation of people who assume it might make sense to devote a chunk of money and an evening of life to be in the company of a mind that thinks in movement. I am asked to spend $20, $30, $40 for a ticket to a dance performance. Why on earth would I do that? We have utterly failed to create a next generation of people who assume it might make sense to devote a chunk of money and an evening of life to be in the company of a mind that thinks in movement. Young people would rather go to restaurants, discos, or go online. They have lost the habit of attendance (if they had it to begin with). They get anxious about going to live performance. What do I do? How do I act? What do I wear? Who really “owns” that temple of culture on the hill? Do you remember what it felt like to attend for the first time a church of a different religion? I mean it; try to remember. That’s why we aren’t attracting as diverse an audience as we think we are. As a field, we aren’t dealing with it. We believe too readily in the efficacy of our own good intentions. We are in real trouble. Seeing concert dance has become a niche activity. I fear we are in a vicious circle: less perceived relevance, less coverage, less public awareness, less attendance, less perceived relevance.

Mindy AlofMindy Aloffs essays, reviews, profiles, and interviews on literature and the performing arts have appeared in many periodicals and anthologies internationally, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. The editor of several books, most recently the Agnes de Mille reader, Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World, Aloff is also the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation and of Night Lights, a collection of poetry. A former recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson and John Simon Memorial Guggenheim Foundations, she teaches dance criticism and history and a course for freshmen in the personal essay at Barnard College.


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