Arts Desk

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

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  • Former Dance Lover

    Amen. Dance is my first love. I even have a degree in it, but after living in this town for a few years, I have given up and decided to become a theater person. Too depressing to watch trite work.

  • Lily

    No mention of Baltimore, your neighbor to the North. We lack a lot of the things DC has: professional venues, dance critics, studio space. But maybe that's what makes our emerging scene so electric. Taking after our pals making DIY/DIWO music and theater in Baltimore, we are aware of our audience, get creative with the environments we have to work with, and keep things juicy and humble through collaboration. We like to be loud and sweaty. And we want you to join us.
    For example, read about our first ever Baltimore Experimental Dance Round Robin here:

  • Meredith Rabil

    Hi Amanda,
    I really enjoyed this article, as so much of what you wrote is totally on point for the D.C. dance scene. I'd like to invite you to check out the company I dance for, DEVIATED THEATRE. Our company has received slight negative feedback or understanding of the work we do from the immediate dance community in D.C.(ppl whose names have appeared in this article). But yet, the public and ppl who have come to see us say they feel refreshed by the work we are presenting.

    The D.C. dance scene is ready for a shift, and I think you certainly highlighted why!

  • Megan Morse Jans

    After leaving the DC a few years ago to start my own work in Annapolis, I feel like so much has changed in the DC Modern Dance Scene. Some of its great, some of it needs work, but all of it still contributes to the vibrancy of the city's arts community. I think we should be thankful that we have so many platforms to help young artists to cut their teeth choreographically. Times are tough, and the fact that there is work being produced at all is a sign that the community is strong and thriving. Don't forget about the other artists that are doing amazing things like Daniel Burkholder, and all the amazing aerial dance companies like Arachne. Not to mention risk taking artists like Francesca Jandasek and Stephanie Yezek who are collaborating as BARE Dance this summer at Dance Place. Also UMCP is now home to Pearson/Widrig, complete with a revamped MFA program. I think we're about to see majorly cool things happen dance-wise in the city.

  • km

    Great article. I agree - and think one of the contributing factors to the dearth of creativity and innovation is a lack of writing about DC artists. Ironically DC is home to a Pulitzer award wining dance critic - Sarah Kaufman at The Washington Post - but her writing is rarely about DC dance-makers. Checking the last 3 or 4 months of her articles she covered ballet companies, maximum India at The Kennedy Center, how male models walk at NY's Fashion Week, dancing in The Adjustment Bureau, and most recently the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. The only DC companies she wrote about in these months were The Washington Ballet and Dana Tai Soon Burgess. If the city’s dance critic doesn't discuss performances by artists here, where are choreographers getting realistic feedback and/or support? I have heard people criticize Abrams for naming certain choreographers in this article. If someone were writing about the scene here maybe these comments would not have come as such a surprise. Dance criticism serves many valuable functions: this article could be a first step toward honest dialogue.

  • david

    This is a wonderful and thoughtful piece. I have been thinking many of the same things about Boston's dance community and, though I live and work in New York City, I would love to see dance thrive in Boston which is my home town. I would add that experimentation, development and exploration can still be done with classical vocabulary or traditional modern (as opposed to contemporary or new) forms or tap or what have you. Just as one can still write in English and experiment or write for piano and experiment. It's not the language per se, it's what's done with and through it. Obviously there is great potential here.

  • Laurie

    Amanda this is incredible. I am from Baltimore and danced in the DC area before moving to NYC to perform with Nicholas Leichter Dance and Urban Bush Women.

    The need for new, progressive dance works and a revamped, innovative structure that supports it is long overdue. I appreciate your boldness in making work like this.

    The larger systemic structure of dance arts in this country (particularly the standard not-for-profit set-up for dance companies), is antiquated and only benefits a small elite few, who generally only appeal to a smaller elite constituency who support it.

    Contemporary dance is in need of an overhaul, from a process, production and even marketing/advertising standpoint. Mainstream audiences continue to have no idea about dance arts simply because artists are not utilizing more cutting-edge, progressive techniques to do so...and why would they? When most dancers are taught to believe that to "market" dance is selling out. Or if your leg isn't at "six o'clock" then you should just sit down. It's the same voices, saying the same things. That's why the work looks the same.

    Call it sell out if you want, but dancers and choreographers need to step way out of the box to promote and sustain dance arts in america. #imjustsayin.

    Again, awesome job. I will do my best to circulate this on the NY scene as well, trust me, it's still needed here too.

    Laurie M. Taylor
    CEO, Soul Movement Choreographic Projects
    Dancer, Nicholas Leichter Dance and Urban Bush Women
    Facebook: Laurie M. Taylor/Soul Movement
    Twitter: @lauriemtaylor

  • Karyn

    Well stated. The deadening of modern dance is not exclusive to DC. It is happening in too many places. My theory is restricted funding had limited the pool of talent that can still afford to work, the resources (studio, stage space, accompaniment, costumes, etc) to create great art, and perhaps the courage of choreographer, dancer and funder to create and present daring work. Additionally, the economy keeps dance makers and dancers from traveling and exchanging ideas. Smaller budgets limit the number of dancers that can be employed and working together for a strong, cohesive collaboration over long periods of time. Modern dancers seem to be dancing seasonally with more than one company gaining broader, but not deeper connections with an audience.

    I teach my students that the most important part of their job is to move an audience....Move them emotionally as well as physically in their seats. The performances that I see seem to focus on athletic ability instead of artistic connection to the audience.

    When dance returns to giving something to an audience, the audience will return to experience art coming full circle.

  • Christopher K. Morgan

    Thanks for this insightful article. I agree with so much of what you write, and am thankful you are forthright enough to say it. Though it may not be what we want to hear as a dance community here in DC, it is absolutely what we need to hear. I take it as a personal challenge to develop better, stronger and more innovative work, and to continue to deepen my process. There are so many obstacles we all share (and in many different communities)... lack of time, finances, resources, well trained dancers... but to reap the benefits we have to invest the time in developing artists here, classes, workshopping material, experimenting and taking risks.

    Thank you,
    Christopher K. Morgan