Battleworks: A Column By Robert Battle
You’ve seen it in the news, but maybe you’re not aware of how this economic crisis is affecting you in unexpected ways. Funding for the arts is the first thing cut during financial crises, and your ability to choose from a selection of high quality dance performances (or gallery openings, concerts, and theater shows) will dwindle as the economy takes its toll on the arts. As the Artistic Director of a young modern dance company in New York City I would like to take a moment to talk about how dance is being affected by this current financial predicament, and throw out a couple of ideas about how dance could change to fit into the new climate.
The vast majority of modern dance companies are not-for-profit. The product we are providing is not returned in earned income, which basically means the box office receipts and presenting fees we receive cover only a fraction of the costs of producing a show. The majority of our income comes from individual donations and institutional funding from grants and corporations.
In the last few years, government and corporate sponsors have cut their funding for the arts, and wealthy patrons are less and less likely to make donations as their own purses tighten. Turn on the news today, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it’s only getting worse.
So, what’s a young modern dance choreographer to do? I don’t propose to have the full answer, but I can talk about my experience working in the field. Keep in mind as I say this that I am the head of my own dance company, Battleworks Dance Company, which performs my choreography in New York City, where we are based, and throughout the country.
I created my company along the model set up by our modern dance pioneers that perhaps doesn’t speak to our current situation. The truth is the old company model that revolves around a single choreographer needs some re-thinking. It seems to me that most of the dance companies that have not only survived but have thrived are repertory based. These companies are able to cater to a wider range of audience tastes because they are not focusing on one choreographer’s artistic vision. They can afford to have experimental works in their repertoire as well as tried and true audience favorites, and they can more easily adapt to the changing climate of the day.
However, when all has been said and done, the main obligation I feel is to my dancers. The family I have created with Battleworks is not something I can lightly let go, and maybe this is the real reason for the persistence of the single choreographer model in modern dance. In a field where no one is doing it for the money, personal loyalty becomes a real driving factor.
I hope both models can coexist. For the single choreographer model to survive I think the key is to pool our resources. This isn’t a groundbreaking statement—sharing staff and dancers has been around since the beginning of the field—but it begs the question: what other ways can we come together for the common good of our profession?
In the meantime, while we are all pursuing new models and competing for fewer and fewer resources, you can expect to see a number of modern dance companies go under. Debt and reliance on volunteers and in-kind donations will plague all but the largest companies. Until dance performances become as popular as sporting events or rock concerts so we can charge hundreds of dollars for a ticket, or until the government adopts the European model and subsidizes the arts like they should, it looks as though 2009 is going to be a dark year for dance.
Column By Robert Battle
Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre