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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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.

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.

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