Life After Lerman: The Dance Exchange Ponders a Future Without Its Founder
The group of revelers who gathered at Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre in mid-June to commemorate choreographer Liz Lerman’s exit from the eponymous dance company she’d founded 35 years ago was about as swanky as they come. The host committee included notables like Dance magazine Editor Wendy Perron, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and avant-garde Japanese dancers Eiko and Koma. The reception teemed with dark suits and little black dresses.
Fast-forward six weeks to an event at the company’s Takoma Park studios. Some 100 D.C. dance community regulars joined neighbors clad in jeans and tank tops on metal folding chairs as the company’s new staff—sans shoes—introduced a low-tech show of new dance pieces.
The contrast between the two scenes offers a glimpse into the challenges facing Cassie Meador, Lerman’s successor as the artistic director of the celebrated outfit, now renamed Dance Exchange. On the one hand, she needs to maintain the reputation and relationships with big-name artists, academics, and funders that flourished under Lerman. On the other, she’s vowed to cultivate a stronger local presence. To do both—and to remain financially solvent in the process—will require better balance and more focus than your average prima ballerina can muster.
Taking the stage after Liz Lerman is no enviable task. A groundbreaking figure in American modern dance, she was one of the first choreographers to insist that dance isn’t the realm of only the highly trained. “Some of the artistic questions that Liz has asked in her work, like ‘Who gets to dance?’ have really helped move the dance field forward on a national level,” says Suzanne Callahan, a former National Endowment for the Arts grant maker who now administers an audience-engagement project for Dance/USA. For her work, the charismatic Lerman was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow—better known as winning a “genius grant”—in 2002.
The grant brought major opportunities: invitations to perform across the country; a chance to collaborate with prominent scientists; a request from Harvard Law School to choreograph a piece about genocide. But the new activities meant the company spent much less time at home. Dance Exchange fans in the Washington area were lucky to catch a performance just once a year.
When Lerman announced she was stepping down in January, she tapped Meador, 31, as her successor. The departure itself would’ve been enough to make supporters nervous: The history of dance is full of visionaries who eventually walked away from the companies they founded, and not all successors have an easy time.
“For some people, it’s worked out OK,” says Dan Joyce, associate professor of dance history at George Mason University. Ensembles that rely on a variety of choreographers, like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, tend to succeed, Joyce says. Ones that hew rigidly to their founder’s creations, like the Martha Graham Dance Company, often stumble. It’s also important that the group has a sound organizational structure to take on new jobs.
Those criteria suggest good things for Dance Exchange. Lerman always emphasized multiple voices. Her collaborative style resulted in an unusually dedicated staff. Meador, who’s been with the company in one form or another for nine years and was groomed for the artistic-director job, says she’s determined to continue in the same vein.
Likewise, other staff, including interim Managing Director Ellen Chenoweth, don’t plan on changing much. Lerman’s name no longer heads the company, but the group will continue to hold residencies at universities and communities around the country, and it hopes to keep working with national and international artists.
But the company does have a few new ambitions. Meador, unlike Lerman, isn’t a national figure. She’s a Takoma, D.C., resident who eats and shops locally. That philosophy applies to her dance predilections, too: She’s pledged to invest in the immediate community by fully utilizing the company’s large studios. That means more local performances, more classes for kids and adults, and a regular Thursday-night workshop called the Home Series, which will feature a variety of creative activities for dancers and nondancers. (As a regular student in the company’s professional-level classes, I’m a beneficiary of these new activities.)
“We want to maintain our national and international presence and partners,” said Meador. “But we also see this building as a very vibrant hub of activity for this region and beyond, a destination place. We want to build our local base.”
At the same time, the group has hatched a formidable plan for a big new piece that reflects Meador’s interest in environmental issues. Called How to Lose a Mountain— Meador calls it “the Walk”—it involves dancers walking 500 miles from D.C. to a former mountain in West Virginia that’s been coal-mined out of existence. Along the way, the dancers will visit wind farms and nuclear reactors, hold workshops, and collect stories from the communities they pass. It’ll all be mapped and trackable online, and eventually—in 2012 or 2013—woven together into a major stage piece.
Big multistate project. Newly robust presence at home. And ongoing artistic alliances across the country. Is it all doable? No matter how gifted Meador might be, tackling a range of new projects without Lerman’s good name behind them will be a big risk.
For now, the staff is hunkering down, fiscally speaking. The company has been scaled back from eight dancers to three. All of the dancers now fill administrative roles, too. They’ve decided to cut back on touring; while performances around the country bring in money, they’re also expensive to stage.
According to Dance Exchange leaders, the balance sheet is looking OK, but not great. Grants and contributions to Dance Exchange have fluctuated over the past five years, from under $500,000 to almost $1 million, but staffers say a few of their biggest donors—such as the Metlife Foundation, which has been partnering with the company for its Healthy Living Initiative over the past few years—have upped their giving to support the company during the transition. And Meador and the staff have already found substantial money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Performance Network to cover the creation of How to Lose a Mountain.
Dance Exchange spokeswoman Emily Macel Theys offers few specifics about this year’s numbers. “We know it will take time to build our local presence,” she says. “But from what we’re seeing already, people are eager and interested.” Theys says the first two events under the new leadership drew more than 100 people; Friday technique classes average 20 dancers a week.
Still, Meador and Chenoweth say this year’s budget will be smaller than last year’s $1.2 million. They hope to partially fill the gap with donations from locals who appreciate the company’s renewed presence, but that seems uncertain. Sure, the company has a cohort of dedicated individual contributors who give year after year—people like Elliot Rosen, a former Dance Exchange board chair who now runs the consulting firm BayFirst Solutions. Rosen is one of the company’s biggest donors, and he says he plans to continue to give generously, in large part because he believes in Meador as a leader and choreographer. “I have an enormous amount of confidence in Cassie,” he says. “I think her ability to generate interest and raise money is very strong—and I think she’s more interested in that, and more comfortable, than Liz.”
But increased local giving may be a difficult target to meet—particularly since the group doesn’t seem to have any new plans for raising that money other than holding fundraising events, which it’s never done in the past. Not only is this one of the worst funding environments for the arts in decades, it’s also a very tough region for giving. “There are a lot of nonprofits in this area, both local and national, and they’re all competing for the same donor base,” says Alexandra Nowakowski, executive director of CityDance, whose professional ensemble recently dissolved. CityDance, she says, was never able to fund the company through individual giving.
Peter DiMuro, director of the local dance service organization Dance/MetroDC and a former member of Dance Exchange, agrees that surviving through local revenues is tough. “I remember our managing director saying, ‘We have to raise money to stay home.’ You’d want to do a big community project locally, but you’d have to find the money to do it.”
Meador does have a few unconventional ideas. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, for example, Dance Exchange launched a new initiative to engage students in conservation by getting them moving; that resulted in a $50,000 grant and plans for future collaboration.
Meador could yet be capable of more. After all, when Lerman started out, she wasn’t a profound, decisive leader—just a young choreographer with ideas. Looking at Dance Exchange from that perspective—not as a company that’s just lost its well-known founder, but as a group of young choreographers who can benefit from unusual advantages like an existing fan base, a building they own, dedicated staff, healthy relationships with donors, and a strong institutional history—the outfit’s second act could prove as intriguing as its first.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery