Work in Progress: What’s Wrong With D.C.’s Modern Dance Scene?
On paper, Contradiction Dance’s March appearance at The Phillips Collection had the makings of a great performance. Museums can be intriguing places to see modern dance, and this suite of pieces was inspired by the work of David Smith, an important abstract expressionist sculptor whose creations were on exhibit there. Plus, Contradiction is led by Kelly Mayfield, one of the city’s most beautiful and experienced movers.
I should have known better. The dancers preened with little sense of presence, showing off uninventive choreography that demonstrated their high arabesques and little else. Worse, the suite’s underlying theme—about trying to appear cool in a museum full of baffling abstract art—felt like a cop-out, hardly doing Smith’s sophisticated sculptures justice.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a fluke.
There are plenty of opportunities to make and see dance in D.C. But most local dancers are stuck depicting underdeveloped ideas in a movement style that was popularized several decades ago, one that’s muscle-bound and linear and draws heavily from the ballet vocabulary. Sure, it can be attractive—but what about original and smart? Modern dance has moved on, and choreographers elsewhere are developing new ways to present abstract concepts through the body. But you’d hardly know it by watching many Washington-area dance companies.
Arlington-based Jane Franklin Dance is a good example. One of the area’s most prolific dancemakers, Jane Franklin clearly has an innovative side, frequently choosing unorthodox performance venues. But no matter where she is, the choreography always looks the same: a generic series of phrases with muted emotional tone and little obvious connection to site or theme. It’s always pretty, though—and that’s been enough to earn the company consistent funding from the county and public acclaim. Her group was even named “best dance company” by this paper in 2008.
My complaints about low quality and low standards aren’t coming from a dispassionate observer of modern dance. As a local dancer, I’m deeply invested, too. A handful of rigorous, forward-thinking creators can infect an entire arts community with an itch for exploration, and I want that. So do other local dancers. “When I go to dance concerts, I feel like I’ve seen it already.,” says Boris Willis, a local dancer, teacher, and videographer who’s been in Washington since 1989. “Nothing I’m seeing reminds me, ‘Oh, this is how a 21st century person moves.’”
So is there simply something about D.C. that doesn’t encourage serious, intelligent exploration? Lisa Traiger thinks so. “Most of the choreography these days is not very adventurous and groundbreaking, absolutely,” says the longtime critic, who contributes to The Washington Post and Dance Magazine and blogs at DanceViewTimes. “But this is not the edgiest of cities.”
The Washington-as-a-conservative-town trope is reliable, but it ignores the big picture. The scene has certainly grown and changed. In the early ’90s, there were a few struggling companies and only one or two theaters that could host dance. According to Dance Metro DC, a dance services organization, there are now about 80 companies in the area, which includes a large number of new groups and solo choreographers, a good handful of mid-sized companies that have been around for at least a couple of years, and a few well-established ensembles that have been practicing for a decade or more. Just about everyone converges on Dance Place in Brookland to perform, see shows, and take classes; after 30 years, it’s still the city’s hub of modern dance and one of the only places to find regular advanced-level classes. The number of performance venues has swelled in that time, though, and now includes the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Sidney Harman Hall, and Atlas Performing Arts Center in the District and Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier.
And there is some solid dance happening locally. CityDance shows, for example, invariably include a couple of strong pieces that pack a visceral wallop. There are a few forward-thinking choreographers like Tzveta Kassabova and Kelly Bond who meticulously craft high-quality performances. Well-established groups like Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. and Gesel Mason Performance Projects not only regularly perform new work at the city’s performance venues but take it on the road, too.
Which is undeniably progress. But beneath the surface, most local choreographers give little attention to the slow process of developing creative ideas—and it shows. After all, making good dance takes time, and benefits from exploration and rigorous dialogue; it can’t simply be a sprint to the finished product. But Washington choreographers seem largely uninterested in investing that kind of time and energy. To boot, the city lacks a range of supporting structures: Few challenging, high-level classes are available. Studio space is expensive. Only a few venues for showing in-progress work exist, and those that do are underused.
Take other cities where small dance scenes have become hotbeds of creativity. In the past few years, a small coterie of L.A. movers has established a range of activities designed to unify and strengthen the dance community. They include a weekly professional-level class taught by a collective of local and guest teachers; a popular monthly forum for in-progress work called Anatomy Riot; and Itch, a journal of arts and culture with a particular focus on movement. Though still relatively new, the projects are raising the art form’s visibility.
In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, about a dozen independent choreographers engaged in a similar campaign—trying to seriously boost discussion and learning opportunities—a few decades ago. Their effort bore fruit, and the area is now known for its dynamic dance scene. “People are dead serious here,” says John Munger, a self-described “dance elder” who’s been involved since the late 1970s. “They’re focused on making high-quality art.”
The best example of a blossoming dance community is Philadelphia. In the past two decades, Philly has gone from a sleepy dance town characterized by a couple of big companies and a few scattered experimentalists to the home of a range of risk-takers devoted to a collaborative, process-intensive style of artmaking. These days, Philly has some 140 modern dance companies. “There’s definitely a ton of stuff going on; it’s hard to make it to everything,” says Gabrielle Revlock, 30, a Philadelphia dancer and choreographer whose work leans toward the radical side of contemporary.
Many in Philadelphia see the 1993 arrival of Headlong Dance Theater—a company that performed at Dance Place last month and is known for its unclichéd approach to movement—as partially inspiring the current era of local dance. Headlong’s three collaborators—David Brick, Andrew Simonet, and Amy Smith—came in with a specific attitude toward making dance that set a tone for the city: “You have to figure out how to do things on your own,” says Brick. The company wanted to focus on making work and building an audience, rather than spending time raising money. “We said, ‘Perform often and for free’—we made work in bars, at weird hours, at places like rock ‘n’ roll venues. It gives you a lot more leeway to try things out.” The money eventually came.
Meanwhile, the three reached out to create a web of other like-minded folks—not just dancers, but theater nerds and visual artists, too. “When people are networked together in a supportive but rigorous community, when [you’re] being challenged and loved, artistically, it makes you want to up your game,” Simonet says.
Almost two decades later, Philly has been transformed. Dancers there can take professional-level classes any day of the week and rent studio space for as little as $8 per hour, and the city now has five venues dedicated to experimental work, with multiple performances occurring every weekend. Funders give grants simply for professional development, well-established companies act as mentors to promising young choreographers, and new companies and dance-related organizations are springing up all the time.
Brick calls all of this “the ecosystem.”
OK, that’s Philly. With its cheaper rents and liberal-minded audiences, it’s impossible to compare it directly with Washington. But there’s no reason D.C.’s dance community couldn’t take on some of that DIY approach and develop a more process-oriented way of working. Right now, many of Washington’s choreographers look at making art from the old-fashioned business-model perspective, and establishing a company, a website, and a fundraising mechanism seems to take precedence over creating powerful, transformative work.
“When people say, ‘It takes money for me to put on a show,’ I say, ‘Then don’t put on a show,’” says Peter DiMuro, head of Dance Metro DC. He added that one of the most interesting dance performances he’s seen recently occurred in the window of a 14th Street NW furniture store, but that unconventional shows like that tend to be rare. “When I hear the argument, ‘Well, I want to be paid for it,’ I think, ‘Well, no one’s getting paid for anything anyway, so why not do it?’”
There are some glimmers of change—and some growing pains. There is Dance Metro DC itself, which just split off from its parent organization, Dance USA, potentially allowing the group more freedom to promote dance in the area. DiMuro says he has some new ideas, including a program he’s calling the Greenhouse, which would help artists create shared evenings of work and collaborate on projects.
There’s also the Eureka Dance Festival, a two-year-old project by dancers Kate Jordan and Orit Sherman whose website and press materials tout a comprehensive vehicle for new choreographers. The festival initially sounded like it could provide many of the elements D.C.’s dance scene has been missing: master classes, in-progress showings, and affordable performance opportunities. Unfortunately, the project’s shows have been characterized by juvenile, middling-quality work, calling into question its overall focus and rigor. But its emergence signals a growing awareness that time, practice, and creative dialogue are necessary ingredients for developing good dance.
And the Dance Exchange, arguably Washington’s best-known modern dance company, is about to change hands. What that entails won’t be clear until founder Liz Lerman formally steps down at the end of June, but projects manager Ellen Chenoweth says she envisions transforming the studio into a hub for local dance. “My hope is that every Thursday night, there’ll be something Dance Exchange-hosted in the space—classes, workshops, skill shares,” says Chenoweth. “We’re an established institution and we want to use that umbrella as a space for emerging choreographers and artists who might not have that mechanism.”
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield