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.


You can find thrilling black dance companies in every part of the country, a fantastic improvement over the situation 50 years ago when dancers of color could hardly find a professional troupe to join. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem started the revolution: The first was the triumph of choreographer Alvin Ailey in 1958, and the second was the hard-earned achievement of former New York City Ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell in 1969. But fate has not treated them equally. The Ailey company ranks as one of the most popular dance troupes in the world, with a touring schedule that matches that of any pop star. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, on the other hand, nearly went out of business in 2004, a victim of substantial debts and poor management. Its once-sparkling troupe disbanded, and its stellar school, as significant as a community center and as a ballet academy, almost closed. The main company has been sorely missed.

Judged by financial success and stability, they stand poles apart, but they both must now deal with a recession that is changing how this country supports the arts. They also both gained new leaders recently. The Ailey company named Robert Battle -- a dancer and choreographer who headed his own troupe, Battleworks -- as the replacement for artistic director Judith Jamison, who retires in 2011. DTH appointed Virginia Johnson, once the company's prima ballerina, and afterward editor of the ballet magazine Pointe, artistic director of that troupe in spring 2009. How these leaders and those of other black dance institutions deal with today's economic realities will affect our culture for decades to come.

Calling herself a born optimist, Johnson finds that the current cuts in government and private funding for dance creates an invigorating climate. ''When money is tight,'' she says, ''you have to be far more rigorous in evaluating and defending your needs. Funders want to know that their gifts are well spent. It strengthens your ability to make decisions. It makes you sharper about your goals. It's a far different world than the one in which I made my career as a dancer. I can feel a sense of nostalgia for that time, but I'm also excited to be back here, rebuilding the professional company for the 21st century. It brings out my dormant creativity.''

As an example of how DTH now reevaluates its resources, she mentions Robert Garland, who has long been the resident choreographer. It turns out that he possesses computer skills equal to his choreographic artistry. ''He's discovered how we can connect across the globe,'' she says. ''We can have conversations with artists everywhere and discuss our mutual concerns. We share him with the Studio Museum, so in a sense, we're also creating a family.'' More light appears at the end of the tunnel with the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, which is the junior company, opening the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Lee, Massachusetts, June 23-27.

Battle hasn't fully assumed the role of artistic director at Ailey yet, but he has had plenty of experience running Battleworks since 2001. Before his appointment, he had already seen touring for his troupe begin to dry up. ''Presenters were being more cautious,'' he says, ''and going for the touring Broadway show, like Stomp over a small contemporary dance company like mine. With those, they felt they would get a guaranteed audience. It made some of my colleagues and me begin to think of creating shows, rather than presenting our regular repertory. It's something Momix [Dance Company] has successfully done for some time.''

He began looking at other ways to survive as well. ''I think we have to face the fact that the old model for a small dance company isn't working anymore,'' he says, ''and we have to redefine our model to stay relevant. To begin with, I think we should share resources. Last year, it worked very well when my company shared a program at the Joyce Theater with Larry Keigwin. It was a great financial solution for us both, since renting the theater on our own would have been prohibitive.''

Over the past 50 years, two types of companies have evolved. The repertory model performs dances by many different choreographers, like Ailey, DTH, Philadanco!, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Dayton Contemporary Dance, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Lula Washington Dance Theater. The other mainly presents works by its founding choreographer, such as Garth Fagan Dance, Ronald K. Brown's Evidence, Jowale Willa Jo Zollar's Urban Bush Women and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Battle believes that single choreographer-style troupes, like his, might be a thing of the past. ''I think you have to be able to appeal to a wider spectrum,'' he says, ''like Ailey has always done.''

But he worries that the decrease in funding and the need to appeal to the widest possible audience will curtail the nurturing of young creative voices of the 21st century. ''There could very well be a tendency to go with the tried and true,'' Battle says. ''Young artists need time and space to develop, to be mentored. Collaborations with other institutions might help. My company recently had a residency at New York University. Everyone in the community needs to get into this conversation and create a movement to find new ways to survive and thrive.''

But this year her company also won a lot of international tour dates and a great deal of attention for its 40th anniversary. ''We can take advantage of year-round invitations,'' she says, ''because the company gets 52-week contracts and we always have our dancers available.'' That being said, she has lost many of them to the four Broadway shows with large black casts, The Lion King, Fela, The Color Purple and The Little Mermaid, where they can make much higher salaries. As for ways that she has found to cut back administrative costs, she says laughing, ''Instead of doing five jobs here, I now do 10.''

Parker's Denver-based company also celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. And she, too, has had to double her workload and that of her staff. But she gets satisfaction from nurturing young choreographers in her 16-year-old summer institute and speaks proudly of the theater she established 20 years ago. ''I focus a lot on children,'' she says. ''Dance is like breathing. It's connected to the earth. We have to move our bodies in this society and have a physical experience in nature. That's what I teach them, how to apply the philosophy of dance to their lives. We bring this into the schools. Art must be functional.'' Garth Fagan would certainly cheer her on. Having also started his company 40 years ago, he knows the ups and downs of a life in dance. But what concerns him most now is the lack of education in the arts. ''If you don't build audiences,'' Fagan says, ''it doesn't matter whether you have funding or not. Youngsters in school and at home are not being exposed to the arts. Until that changes, we'll continue to lose our public.'' From the beginning, he has gone into the Rochester, N.Y., community with his dancers to let them in on the magic of dance and its applicability to every aspect of life.