Dancing Through Tough Times

The Great Recession has hit us all hard. Dance is no exception. From Alvin Ailey to Dance Theatre of Harlem to Bill T. Jones, a look at how America's best black dance companies are faring in a tough economy.

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In fact, black company directors have always been particularly community-minded. Brooklyn-based Brown became an integral part of his neighborhood a long time ago. But recently, the recession hit him hard. He pays members of his company for a full year, but this spring it became too much to maintain their dental insurance as well, and he was considering giving them a furlough in July. ''I thought to myself,'' he says, ''what do I do? Teach more to bring in more money?'' In the end, he taught more and gave them a furlough.

A saving factor in dance is that no one goes into field to make money anyway. They do it because they love it. This doesn't mean they want to starve but only that they expect to sacrifice. Certainly hard times haven't dampened Brown's creative spirit. After two years of thinking about choreographing a new piece to a Stevie Wonder song, he had finally begun working on it. Describing the piece, he sounded ecstatic. Its title? ''Wonderful Place.''

''My concern,'' says David Rousseve, who founded his company Reality in 1989, ''is that our work will become marginalized, as presenters fear bringing our dances to mostly white audiences. They have tough choices, I know, but it would be a mistake to segregate dances that are meant for everyone.'' Like Zollar and Bebe Miller, Rousseve now spends considerable time teaching at a university; in his case, he joined UCLA's World Arts and Cultures Department in 1996, where he is currently professor of choreography and the former department chair. ''At least, I can always make work on students,'' he says, ''unlike choreographers who have to depend on maintaining a company. But still, I share the same basic concern--who is going to see my work?''

Ironically, Zollar finds that more students than ever are signing up for dance at Florida State University, where she holds the position of tenured professor. It gives her enough free time to still run her company.  ''You might think that the recession would have them all heading for secure fields,'' she says, ''but it's the opposite. They seem to think, `well, I saw my parents sacrifice their dreams for a steady job and look what it got them--lost pension benefits and no security. So I might as well do what I love.'''

She believes that dance companies like New York-based Urban Bush Women are going to have to go back to pre-funding models. She recalls her first years in New York as a young dancer and being able to see all kinds of dance thanks to now-defunct Dancemobile, which presented dance for very low prices. Always community-minded, she established an ongoing summer institute in New Orleans in 2009. It not only enriches the people of the city, she says, but it also gives her dancers a chance to interact with audiences and connect with new ones--the idea being to use movement to build a movement.

Other choreographers also noted that audiences are now much more interested in meaningful dance. Reggie Wilson, who started his company, the Fist and Heel Performance Group in 1989, has always choreographed complex works related to the spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora that take time to research and produce. One such example was last year's brilliant ''The Good Dance,'' a multi-year collaboration and cultural exchange with Congolese contemporary choreographer Andréya Ouamba and his Senegal-based company 1er Temps. ''I think in the long run,'' Wilson says, ''that dance will come out of this successfully. We'll have to cut back, collaborate, share and be innovative --f or instance, [the performing arts institution] Dance Theater Workshop just established a partnership with Bill T. Jones.''

Bebe Miller left New York for a professorship at Ohio State University several years ago, continuing like Zollar to choreograph for her own company. But her troupe is what she calls ''virtual,'' and works together on a project by project basis. Having this security allows her to choreograph work in a more leisurely time frame, and to some degree, protects her from the vagaries of the marketplace. But she has her concerns nonetheless. ''If there's less touring,'' she says, ''how are people going to get to know work outside their small circle? We have to find ways. I've been in this for awhile, and I know funding didn't make us. Artists are not driven by economics. We all have to band together and pool our resources, if only rehearsal space. We also need to maintain a critical dialogue and that's disappearing. You have to have exposure to new blood. We're going to have to pick up the camera and learn how to make more dance videos. Films get around. Start those cameras rolling.''

One dance organization is -- surprisingly -- thriving in spite of the recession. The Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center started in Brooklyn 35 years ago to facilitate artistic collaborations, such as performances, workshops, seminars and community projects for people of color, relying on volunteers to keep it going. (Both Urban Bush Women and Evidence performed there in their early days.) But while other dance organizations are struggling, THPAC'S audiences doubled in 2008,  according to the executive chair Alex Smith. It has also begun an archival program to preserve historically important photographs, tapes and films. ''We were sharing from the beginning,'' Smith says. ''Dancers here often danced in more than one company. We've learned how to present in a very economical way. We did our 2005 season with $5,000, thanks to people taking very low fees.'' That's not to say that the recent 60 percent cut in funding from the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, didn't hurt. ''All I can say,'' he adds, ''is that we'll find another way. That's my advice, `always look for another way.'''

Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, "A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student."

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