"Triage," a term originally coined on the battlefield, describes a system used to allocate a scarce commoditymedical aid, for exampleto those capable of deriving the greatest benefit from it. In such a system, victims of disaster are sorted to unnaturally select those with the greatest chance of survival.
Choreographers and producers use this term in discussing the current dance climate, With its collection of crises: reduced subsidies of the arts compounded by the rising cost of living in New York City, AIDS, thinning media coverage, and an increasingly apathetic public. Something, or someone, has to give.
With the National Endowment for the Arts drastically cut back and restructured, how will its remaining funds be parceled out? "The budget is a laundry list of priorities," says David White, executive director of Dance Theater Workshop and the National Performance Network. "[The endowment's cutbacks represent] a systemic change in the identity of the Republican partybecause arts funding in this country is largely the creation of Republicans." That's hard to imagine, with visions of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority leader Dick Armey dancing in our headsor, more accurately, not dancing. But philanthropists like Nelson Rockefeller (who founded the New York State Council on the Arts in 1960) and Nancy Hanks (founder of the NEA in 1965) were both Republicans and Liberal-minded culture seekers.
The NEA sparked the legendary "dance boom" of the 1970s, prompted in part by the Endowment's dance touring program, which made it financially possible for companies to go on the road and earn money to support shows back home in New York. This infrastructure began to crumble under Reagan, and hasn't been repaired.
Culture has now officially slipped down on the government's list of priorities, and as the NEA's financial and personnel downsizing and organizational restructuring take effect, even the biggest and best arts undertakings are feeling the pinch. Dance, never a well-funded or particularly mainstream art form, may be hit the hardest. According to Douglas Sontag, administrator (and last remaining staff member) for the NEA's dance program, dance funding decreased to $6.8 million in fiscal year 1995, down from its peak of $9.2 million in 1990; this year the Endowment estimates that amount will dip below $3 million.
Gone are grants to individuals, which included choreographers' fellowships; the true victims, then, are emerging artists whose fledgling companies are not yet established enough to carry weight in the company grant category. Greatly reduced are site visits to performances by NEA representatives. "The NEA administration is now very top heavy," says Mark Russell, artistic director of Performance Space 122. "They've fired a lot of people who were contacts with the field, who kept the organization in touch." Can the Endowment administer grants effectively if it no longer has the means to keep its fingers on the pulse of American culture?
Will those who started out without government support fare better? Pre-NEA dancers like Murray Louis, who's been in the business since joining the Nikolais Dance Theater at the Henry Street Playhouse in 1949, remember what it was like to make something out of nothing. "When I got my first grant from the NEA in the '60s, I stared at that checkI'd never seen anything like it in my life!" Though government funds are easy to get used to, perhaps these veterans maintain reserves of resilience not as deep in younger, NEA-accustomed artists. "The Paul [Taylor]s and Merce [Cunningham]s are still going to be here, because when they started, the subsidy was internal, explains Charles Reinhart, codirector of the American Dance Festival and Paul Taylor's first manager. "They are children of the Depression, they know how to get by."
Trisha Brown, who's been choreographing in New York since 1960, disagrees, arguing that the good old days can't be compared to the current situation. "The reason you can't refer to pre-NEA as an example of survival is that the economics have changed so drastically. [In the '60s] one could find an old loft and sand the floor and put in space heaters for $100 a month, and voilà!" Now half a dozen young dancers must often crowd together in an apartment in order to afford to live here; rehearsal space costs extra.
Sarah Skaggs came to New York in 1980 and is now on her sixth choreographer's fellowship, but she has never depended much on government money. She lives on her salary from a night job at the World Trade Center, and pays more for rehearsal space than for rent on the small studio apartment she shares with her boyfriend. This lean living has informed the "found object aesthetic" inherent in her workwhat was once scrimping out of necessity has evolved into her signature. "We say that if we were to put our work up at the New York State Theater, we would still use the same approachit's become our vocabulary." What does concern her, though, is that since individual ice grants, which were her company's lifeblood, are now defunct, she may have a harder time paying her Juilliard trained dancers' monthly salaries, and may either have to settle for less experienced dancers or disband her company altogether.
AIDS, of course, has broadsided the dance world. In the past decade, the disease has claimed the lives of at least two hundred people in the dance community alone, according to records compiled by Dancers Responding to AIDS (DRA)danseur Rudolf Nureyev, Susan Marshall company member Arthur Armijo, choreographer Arnie Zane, videographer Michael Schwartz, and on, and on. Today, many in the field are living and working with HIV; others are stricken with full-blown AIDS, too ill to create much art.
Paul Taylor dancer Hernando Cortez founded DRA in 1993 in an effort to help alleviate the burden. "He decided something had to be done, because three men in the Taylor Company had passed away since 1990," says Denise Roberts, associate director of DRA and a former Taylor dancer. DRA's mission is to enable dancers living with HIV to obtain the services they needproviding rent money, food, caseworkers, whatever is necessary. Affiliated with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, DRA raises money through the Actors' Fund AIDS Initiative.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo did a benefit performance for DRA last December. "We keep people on salary as long as possible," regardless of their health. We have a good insurance policy, under which the dancer doesn't have to contribute anything,' explains the Trocks' associate director, Tory Dobrin. "We've expanded the 36 company to 15 or 16 dancers, even though we can do the program with 12, so that we can juggle casts to make it less physically stressful on individuals. It's a struggle to do all this, but it's necessary."
In addition to the obvious tragedy of losing close friends and colleagues to AIDS, the disease is taking its toll on the art of dance. "Many Paul Taylors of the world are not going to get their chance, because they're dying," Roberts says. "It's a personal and a professional loss."
But some dancers have used AIDS as a motivating force in their work. "Look at Bill T. Jones," says David White, who himself has lost colleagues to the disease: close friend and associate producer Bob Applegarth, and two DTW founders, Jeff Duncan and Art Bauman. "Bill T. Jones is one artist who has emerged in a major public way around subject matter that 15 years ago would have been utterly marginal." In 1992, Jones began creating the controversial Still/Here, exploring the real-life experiences of people living with various terminal illnesses. "I don't want to be a Pollyanna and say this is great," says Jones, who has been living withHIV for 12 years and whose longtime professional and personal partner, Arnie Zane, died of AIDS in 1988. "But it's the only way that creative people can cope with disaster. You have to accept it and make it work to your advantage."
While Jones is often hailed as a genius and a visionary, not all viewers cheer his resourcefulness. In her notorious New Yorker article "Discussing the Undiscussable" (December 26, 1994), Arlene Croce railed against what she termed "victim art," using Jones as her punching bag. With decreasing dance coverage a persistently looming problem, it's a shame that such nay-sayingespecially of an artist who is so obviously not leaning on issues for lack of talentis taking up valuable and limited space.
Shrinking space for dance journalism poses a chicken/egg dilemma: is there less audience interest because there is less coverage? Or is there less coverage because there is less interest? Nationally, mainstream newspapers are cutting back their coverage, drastically in some cases. Reviews at New York area papers keep getting shorter. A significant casualty for dance writing is the loss of two Pulitzer Prize-winning critics: Martin Bernheimer, who retired from the Los Angeles Times in February after more than 30 years there; and Alan "Mike" Kriegsman, on leave from the Washington Post until his official retirement on July 2, when he will become critic emeritus. Both newspapers are currently in a "transition period," trying to figure out how to cover dance in the absence of these heavyweights. "As reviews get shorter, they become less interesting to read, so the dance-reading audience shrinks, which contributes to the idea that there should be less dance writing," explains Lewis Segal, the Times' only full-time dance writer (other than Bernheimer) since 1984, who has managed to hold onto his job despite the dance department being "downsized by attrition" over the past few years. "I feel like a dinosaurhow many publications have full-time staff writers in dance?"
The Baltimore Sun uses no staffers in dance, just one freelance critic who published a mere 22 reviews in 1995, fewer than two per month "There's not tons of interest," reasons Stephen K. Proctor, the daily's assistant managing editor for features. "Dance has by far the smallest number of followers in the cultural arts, because people have a more difficult time understanding it."
The Post is down to one or two dance reviews per weekend, from five or six a few years ago. "We're in the process of figuring out how we will cover dance from now on," says assistant managing editor David Von Drehle. "There are still important and exciting things going on in the dance world, but in terms of new trends, it is not as vibrant a scene as it once was." Von Drehle attributes the increasing difficulty in covering dance to the art form's current sweeping scope. "What is dance now?" he asks. And then, like the Sun's Proctor, he explains that the Post, "unlike the New York Times, is a mass-market newspaper; we have to be more conscious of writing for broad audiences." Both Bernheimer and Kriegsman bemoan two trends they see developing in dance coverage. The first is that jack-of-all-trades writers are being called upon to kill multiple arts birds with one stone, as opposed to specialists covering a single beat that they understand thoroughly. "Newspapers are downsizing, and they want to get the biggest readership bang for their buck," sniffs Kriegsman. But at the L.A. Times, things may be looking up; Bernheimer, who covered music as well as dance, believes he is going to be replaced by two people.
Another unsavory trend is editors favoring feature stories over reviews; as features run in advance of performances, serious critics often derogatorily refer to them as "puff pieces," seeing them as not much more than advertisements. "It's the journalistic mentality noweveryone's more excited about what's going to happen," Bernheimer quips.
Some smaller dance-specific publications are struggling or folding altogether, such as Anita Finkel's New Dance Review, founded in 1988. Alexandra Tomalonis, editor of Washington's DanceView magazine and a stringer for the Post since 1979, criticizes mainstream publications for caving in to couch-potato sloth: "Editors ask, 'Why should we devote eight inches to something that 100 people see, when TV reaches millions?' To that I say, 'How many people were in the room when Beethoven played the Apassionata Sonata?'"
The state of the NEA may be a symptom of a deeper problem. In the wake of governmental attacks on the art worldfrom economic cutbacks to censorship crises, "there has been a big apathetic shrug from the American public," says David White. The only protests have been by those personally affectedthe artists themselves. "The people of the United States are not standing up and saying, 'Don't do this.' It's their national heritage as well, but they don't care, says choreographer Elizabeth Streb. "That is not their fault or the government's faultthat is our fault."
Most likely, it's everyone's fault: the government, for slashing educational programs which expose young people to the arts; the artists, for encouraging a sense of elitism, feeling that performing for the same hundred already-in-the-know people is enough; the media, for prioritizing other coverage and thereby sending the message that dance doesn't matter; and the American public, for closing its eyes to new and different forms. Whoever's to blame, the end result is that art, especially dance, is not a part of everyday American life. And whether or not it's their fault, it's up to the artists to remedy the situation. Dance artists have to find new ways to make money and reach potential audiences. To accomplish these tasks they've got to become better businesspeople, according to many in the field.
"Our society is so much about buy and sell," says Ralph Lemon, who dissolved his own 10-year-old dance company last October. "Particularly in dance, which is almost entirely dependent on outside support, we have to come to terms with our relationship to commerce." Lemon became a poster boy for dance's plight when his picture ran on the front page of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section ("When Disbanding Is the Only Logical Step," August 6, 1995). Despite the bleak outlook of reporter Jennifer Dunning's story, the 42-year-old choreographer is optimistic, seeing the need to rethink traditional company structure as an opportunity. "I'm calling it a two-year creative sabbatical. I'm giving myself time to experiment with how dance translates to other mediums, to find as large a perspective on it as I can," he explains. "Now I get to make my own rules." And Lemon has his dancing feet in other media already: a photography book, a video documentary on Haitians in Miami, and a film-dance duet with Bebe Miller.
Artists fight the perception that they're charity cases, presenting their work instead as a valuable commodity. "Writing 5,000 thank-you notes to presenters and funders makes me feel bad," says Elizabeth Streb. "Bill Gates doesn't have to write thank you notes to everyone who buys Windows 95they have Windows 95!" Currently researching ways to perform her athletically driven work in malls, she reasons, "developers buy fountains and plants for millions of dollars to put in their mallswhy not have that hunk of money go toward the arts? That would make dance exist in the real world."
In business relationships, there is always quid pro quo. This fall, Sarah Skaggs Dance will perform at One Penn Plaza, funded by the 34th Street Partnership. "It's not an art venue," Skaggs explains, "it's a real estate concern paying us to help promote their park." In pursuing commercial ventures, Skaggs retains a keen sense of her artistic integrity: while she would be willing to do almost anything on an American Express commercial ("to me, that's not selling out, that's surviving"), she recently turned down a high-paying collaboration with an artist because she foresaw a clash in their respective visions.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater successfully bridges the gap between art and commerce. While minority companies tend to be less able to obtain money from individuals and thus are more dependent on government funds, according to executive director Sharon Gersten Luckman, the Ailey troupe also relies on corporate sponsorsprimarily Philip Morris. Last year Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison and members of the company were featured in an American Express print and television advertisement; while the company made no money from the ad, it gained crucial exposure, including a plug for its December season at City Center.
"My life goal is to change the way we look at dance in contemporary America," says Skaggs, aware of the immensity of her endeavor. "When people see our work at the Joyce and say they liked it better in the gymnasium, then I've started to change their perspective." Inspired by Russian conceptual artists Komar and Melamid's "The Perfect Painting," Skaggs's mission now is to create "The People's Dance " through questionnaires distributed at her performances, asking the audience what they do and don't like about dance. She dreams of performing at Roseland with a rock group.
The champion of alternative spaces is Elise Bernhardt, executive director of Dancing in the Streets, which she founded in her kitchen in 1983 "to make dance accessible to regular folks, like me." The organization enables dancers to perform at nontraditional sitesfrom the Coney Island boardwalk to Grand Central Stationutilizing grants from Lila Wallace, J. P. Morgan, Con Edison, NYSCA, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, among others.
Elizabeth Streb (fittingly, a Dancing in the Streets board member) adheres to a strict open-rehearsal policy; sometimes attracting as many as a hundred spectators. She wants to go a step further and rehearse in a storefront, visible even to passersby. Ever fighting artist elitism, Streb sees herself as a laborer: "The artist is magical, but not any more magical than the construction worker who has to work in public." Streb's troupe, Ringside, incorporates children into its process with Kid Action, teaching a dance to children in the community, who then perform with the company.
The near absence of cultural exploration in American public school systems denies children the awareness of culture that would lead them to seek it out. Europe is more supportive of the arts than the United States, still providing almost unquestioning government funding: according to the NEA, public expenditure on the arts in Sweden is nearly 14 times greater than in the United States, in Germany it's 12 times greater, and in France more than 10 1/2 times greater.
Some say Americans don't embrace culture the way Europeans do because we don't have sufficient history. "Whatever constitutes the nationhood of this country is so young," says David White, whose Suitcase Fund, a DTW affiliate, enables American artists to work and study abroad. "We're all in a cultural preschool." Skaggs, heading to Austria with her company, thinks Europe's regard of culture as necessary to its quality of life originated in the church. "Our country was founded by people fleeing religious persecution, and without that religious base, art will never be an indigenous part of American culture." In Europe, these artists report, art is for the masses; most people would go to a dance concert as readily as we go to the movies. And it isn't because people in the United States can't afford cultural events. "Americans go to Action Park for $30, " notes Streb.
This is a sad comment on our society, and practically speaking, it results in empty seats at performances. "Where are our audiences going to come from?" asks Benjamin Harkarvy, artistic director of Juilliard's dance division, as well as founder of the Netherlands Dance Theater and former director of the Dutch National Ballet. "The exposure of young people to the arts builds the audience for the arts." Juilliard operates two outreach programs to schools, through which dancers perform for children and then engage in question-and-answer sessions. And the Joyce Theater invites public school classes from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx to watch dance performances.
Programs like these will struggle in the face of government cuts, which will in turn cause audiences to thin out and the arts to become more isolated than ever. And most crucially, Americans will continue to lead lives that are more goal-oriented and trend-driven, and less rich and well rounded, than they could be. Says Harkarvy, "A European friend of mine said to me after viewing things here, 'It's as if you Americans want to laugh yourselves to death.'"
Many optimistic souls see all this as contributing to a period of growth, albeit a challenging one, and believe the dance community will rise from the ashes more powerful for having survived it. The sustaining mantra of many in the field is that they didn't choose to be dancers; it's a necessity, like breathing, something they can't not do. Put simply by Ralph Lemon, "Dance will exist as long as human beings can move."