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Precarious pointe

Ballet and modern dance face a new reality with the loss of talent and audiences in the past decade. Can they survive?

By JOHN FLEMING
Published November 5, 2006


Fifteen years ago, the Kirov Ballet gave three performances at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. The two I attended - one the evening-length Giselle, the other a mixed repertory program that included George Balanchine's Scotch Symphony - remain a high point of my time covering the performing arts in the Tampa Bay area.

The hall was sold out both nights, and even to taped music the dancing of the legendary Russian troupe was luminous. With a dressed-up crowd, there was a sense of not just artistic but civic occasion that was electric.

A few weeks ago, I went to another dance tour that had two sold-out performances, this at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa. The atmosphere there was electric, too, but in a very different way.

Teenybopper screams and cell phone cameras hailed the 10 finalists from the hit TV dance contest show So You Think You Can Dance. Performed to deafening pop music, their brief numbers no more than a minute or two long often had an eye-popping athleticism. But a lot of the performance owed more to cheerleading routines, Las Vegas floor shows and strip joints than ballet and modern dance.

I enjoyed the high energy, but the flashy spectacle was far removed from Giselle. In a way, it felt like an assault on ballet and modern dance, art forms in crisis that are not just under challenge from pop culture but are also suffering from their own failure to maintain excellence and cultivate a new audience. Classic dance won't disappear anytime soon, but its future is not at all clear.

Star power dimmed

Dance has always been the stepchild of the performing arts, receiving much less attention and support than theater, classical music and opera. But these days, ballet and modern dance are barely on the cultural radar screen. The last big dance star was Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he stopped seriously performing quite a while ago.

At the same time, TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars keep getting bigger. Hip-hop and other of-the-moment dance has exploded from music videos to become the advertising trademark of national brands such as Gap, Target and Dr Pepper. A stylish choreographer like Mia Michaels (whose work is featured on So You Think You Can Dance) is in hot demand for everything from Celine Dion's casino show to Cirque du Soleil to the Joffrey Ballet.

But the commercial cachet of dance doesn't seem to be generating much curiosity about its more artistic forms.

"I'm not sure there is a connection between seeing a reality show and going to see a dance company like Paul Taylor or Dayton Contemporary Dance," said Robert Freedman, chief executive of Ruth Eckerd Hall, mentioning two modern dance companies he is presenting this season. "There seems to be a disconnect between seeing something striking on TV for 30 seconds and knowing that you can experience a whole evening of that."

In the Tampa Bay area, which lacks a professional ballet company, the dance scene has sometimes seemed nonexistent. Fifteen years ago, the well-regarded Tampa Ballet had just moved to Denver to become the Colorado Ballet. It was succeeded several years later by Bay Ballet Theater, which collapsed after struggling for a time.

Miami City Ballet returns year after year to perform The Nutcracker at Ruth Eckerd Hall, and the area's many dance schools frequently do a fine job with Tchaikovsky's holiday classic, with guest artists in the principal roles. But seeing any of the rest of the ballet repertory has depended on catching the occasional tour, primarily by Russian or European troupes in warhorses, or the small companies of Sarasota and Orlando.

Leading U.S. ballet companies, such as New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey, rarely tour anymore for financial reasons.

There is only one modern dance company in the Tampa Bay area, Moving Current, that manages to pay its choreographers and dancers more than a nominal amount. With some beautiful dancers, notably co-founder and artistic director Erin Cardinal, strong esprit de corps and an interesting mix of choreography, Moving Current does splendid work. But even after 10 years, the company's audience for a performance is often no more than 150.

"The hardest nut to crack has been contemporary or modern dance in this market," said Judith Lisi, president of TBPAC. The center has a half dozen dance programs on its schedule this season but often loses money on such bookings.

"Beijing Dance Company was incredible, and we sold 300, 400 tickets," said Lisi. "We did the 50th anniversary tour of Merce Cunningham, a great show - 400 tickets. David Parker - 400 tickets. I'm glad we did these, but I can't do it on a regular basis."

The rise and fall

The bay area is not alone in suffering from a dance malaise. This summer, the Ohio Ballet folded because it ran out of money. To cut costs, the Atlanta Ballet opened its season in October without an orchestra. The Toronto International Dance Festival announced that it was in danger of going under.

Ballet and modern dance are faring worse even than symphony orchestras, whose struggle to find younger fans has been well documented. Considering the cultural obsession with appearance and sexuality, dance's demise seems puzzling. As dance critic Apollinaire Scherr asked in the introductory post of her blog Foot in Mouth: "If nearly everybody likes to move and watch others move, why are dance audiences so small?"

Laura Jacobs, dance critic for arts periodical the New Criterion, put her finger on a little talked about reason for the decline in dance: the fall of the Soviet Union.

"We can't underestimate the loss of Russia as an exotic source of artists," said Jacobs in a phone interview.

"Whenever dance springs into mainstream importance, it's almost always due to a dancer. And that dancer, a man or a woman - usually a man - what is it they do? They excite, they arouse audiences. Overwhelmingly, these dancers have been Russian: (Vaslav) Nijinsky, (Rudolf) Nureyev, Baryshnikov. Usually, they bring some sort of sexual vibe to the art.

"And then there was the dancer as a symbol. A symbol of freedom, even of bravery. When Nureyev, Baryshnikov and (Alexander) Godunov defected - made, as the press would say, their 'leaps to freedom' - these were big political statements, and they got everyone's attention."

In the years right after glasnost, Russian companies upped the ante by performing the work of previously banned Western choreographers like the Russian emigre Balanchine. That political twist gave ballet wider relevance.

"It gave people an intellectual reason to be interested in dance, and not just a theatrical reason," Jacobs said. "They may never see Nureyev or Baryshnikov, but they may go to Paul Taylor, they might go see the Martha Graham Company, they might suddenly think dance has something to say to them."

Jacobs, author of an excellent new collection of criticism, Landscape With Moving Figures: A Decade on Dance, sees a massive cultural shift away from the arts.

"I remember, in my sorority house, all the girls gathered around the television to watch Baryshnikov and (Natalia) Makarova in a broadcast of Giselle," she said.

"Would that happen today? No, when you see classical dance today on TV or in a movie, you're seeing classical dance brought down, humbled, humanized by grafting it on to hip-hop or disco or some street form of athleticism.

"From being a country that admired the high arts and saw a trickle-down effect, we've become a country - and this isn't just dance, it's fashion, it's design, it's everything - that (transmits culture) from the street up."

Jacobs extends her cultural critique to the Internet. "There is something denatured in the kind of virtual world that so many young people are coming of age in, the world of screens and icons and buttons and those little synthetic beeps. What do you take from that to bring to a dance?"

Talent lost

A big issue for dance critics is the creative vacuum among choreographers of modern dance and ballet. There have been no clear successors to Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Graham, Taylor, Cunningham and other titans. One reason is that AIDS ravaged the dance world.

"A lot of talent died," Jacobs said. "What would they have done? We will never know."

Mark Morris is probably the most honored living American choreographer who is not eligible for Social Security (he turned 50 in August), and though his gifts are undeniable, he can be a tough sell in the United States outside of New York and a few other dance hotbeds. His most recent appearances in the Tampa Bay area, one with his own company, the other with Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project, both at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, were far from sold out.

"Mark Morris, for all his critical acclaim, is not a Paul Taylor," Jacobs said. "He just doesn't have the range. He doesn't have the expressive depth. And it's a very camp sensibility, which isn't going to speak to everybody."

Then there's Twyla Tharp, a true pioneer of modern dance. It looked as if Tharp had found an answer to the problem of dance's vanishing audience by going to Broadway, where her choreography to Billy Joel songs, Movin' Out, was a long-running hit. But now Tharp has taken a pounding for her Bob Dylan show, The Times They Are A-Changin', which opened to disastrous notices last month.

A glimmer of hope

Several weeks ago, I went to the annual conference of the Florida Dance Education Organization on the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College. It featured a night of local dance that was wildly diverse, from modern dance by Moving Current, Gaudere Danza and the Florida Dance Theatre to the Rolling Chair Dance Project, featuring performers in wheelchairs and on Segways, to the Rhythm in Motion tap dance troupe to Indian classical dance by Mohan Kulasingam.

The level of performance was high, leading me to wonder whether these dancers will be able to continue to grow artistically here.

"Florida is known as a place to go and recruit dancers from because there are so many retired professionals teaching in the state," said Gretchen Ward Warren, dance professor at the University of South Florida.

"All the major companies send recruitment people here for their summer programs. Every year we have ABT (American Ballet Theatre), the School of American Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, all of them come through here and hold auditions. The reason they do it is because there are tons of studios here. We have more magnet schools with dance programs in Florida, I'm almost positive, than any other state. So it's fertile ground."

Many dancers who trained at the area's arts magnet high schools, Blake School of the Arts in Tampa and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, as well as at the USF dance school, have left for greener pastures.

Some local dance studios are shaking up the old art form along the lines of So You Think You Can Dance. The Studio Dance Company, in a Clearwater storefront, has up to 300 students, from 3-year-olds to adults, taking classes such as Urban Ballet (combining ballet, jazz and hip-hop), workshops with music video choreographers and a clinic with the Orlando Magic dancers.

Natalie Fotopoulos, one of the finalists of So You Think You Can Dance, taught contemporary and jazz classes at All American Dance Factory in Tampa before hitting it big. She thinks the show is good for dance.

"We're the Solid Gold of the new millennium," Fotopoulos said. "I think this will spark a huge fire and it's going to spread and people are going to really appreciate dance."

One of the catchiest performances I saw at the dance educators conference was Ms. Fortune, an exuberant number by seven tap dancers in Rhythm in Motion to a Lauryn Hill song, Everything Is Everything.

"A lot of modern work is just way out there, and I think that leaves people feeling uncomfortable," said company co-director Jessica Wilt. "It's human nature to want to understand and to have a story to hold on to. With tap and hip-hop and other rhythmic dance forms, they immediately grab people's attention and make them feel good."

What all dance shares, however, is that it is ephemeral.

"Visual artists can keep their work forever," Wilt said. "As a musician, you can record a piece and that documents it forever. But with dance, you spend so much time on a piece in rehearsal and then after the performance it's gone."

Arlene Croce, longtime dance critic for the New Yorker, titled a collection of reviews Afterimages. Defined by Webster's as "a visual image that continues after the external stimulus has been withdrawn," the word perfectly sums up the fleeting beauty of this art form.

Let's hope it is not also a metaphor for the future of dance.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com