Dancing Up a Storm

Collaboration and dialogue are essential for American dance companies to take their place on the world stage.

“It is in our interest to be aware of the international dimensions and practices of the industry in which we operate”

It may come as a shock to those who see America’s position as geocentric, but the fact remains that in this global era, the amount of cultural exchange between the United States and the rest of the world is seriously lagging behind the initiatives of other countries. Across Europe, Latin America, Canada, Asia and even parts of Africa, cultural ties are usually stronger and more prolific with each other than they are with the US. So despite the distance, difficulties and the financial shortcomings, America has to strive to participate in a dialogue of exchange and reciprocity and support a policy of engagement and collaboration.

Americans have had an impact on European dance since the days of Isadora Duncan. Forsythe, Morris and their ilk have continued the tradition of influencing the evolution of dance around the world. In addition, a number of US choreographers and dancers continue to spend a fair portion of their time creating work and teaching in Europe—having decided that rather than sitting in America and complaining about how much more funding there is on the other side of the Atlantic, it is better to crash the party and avail themselves of some of it. The resultant cross-cultural collaborative projects are a vital (perhaps even the most significant) part of the ongoing dialogue between the United States and the rest of the dance world. Given that this type of activity leverages much needed foreign funds for American artists, the exercise should be better understood and supported from the US side.

My personal favourite experience with this type of collaboration was the Jess Curtis/Gravity 2001-02 work entitled Fallen. Curtis made Fallen in collaboration with members of his own ensemble and Company Fabrik from Potsdam. We raised about $25,000 for Fallen in the Bay Area and the Germans raised around $45,000. Not a whole lot, but enough to make the piece and perform it as part of residencies in both Potsdam and San Francisco. Jess and Fabrik then took Fallen to Edinburgh and, out of the 1,000+ companies battling it out on the Fringe that year, they won a Fringe First. Almost as a direct result, they subsequently performed Fallen over 120 times in seven countries. Somewhere here, there was a lesson to be learned.

The above examples show that Americans are not completely absent from the scene and there are numerous individuals and groups who have taken the initiative to keep cross-cultural exchange alive. It is time to take stock of what this investment denotes and the best ways to build on it.

The irony of the American position is that although it is one of the richest countries in the world, its national arts agency is funded at a significantly lower level than even some small ex-Soviet states. A Google search indicates that Estonia, for example, spends about US$5.5m (€4m) for 1.3m inhabitants = $4.20 per person; USA $167m for 307m inhabitants = $0.54 per person). In turn, these states’ arts funding is dwarfed by their Western European and some Asian counterparts. There are two main points to be made in light of these numbers. First, the federal government needs to significantly increase the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) just to try to keep pace with the most impoverished nations of Europe. Even if we are successful in our lobbying efforts (and more likely as an alternative if we are not), the private sector of US foundations has the ability to help address the resources gap and needs to be approached to augment this as well. Second, funds need to be spent strategically to strike a balance between creating international opportunities for American artists to tour and ensuring active US participation in the international crucible of ideas—above and beyond just underwriting touring engagements.

Perhaps the most important aspect of making a commitment to a US policy of engagement is in the encouragement of international collaborations between American artists and their international peers. There is an honorable tradition of US artists who have hitched their fortunes to working in the international realm. In these times of economic necessity, it is even more important that this practice becomes a recognised priority of national policy. In addition to the invaluable cross-cultural dialogues that these projects result in, they can also leverage funds from other countries, which in turn can lengthen the shelf life of a work. If the finished product can be performed multiple times in different countries, it becomes a far more worthwhile return on the investment.

It is also important that American agents are able to participate in this international dialogue. It allows them to have a more informed opinion about the global state of the industry in which they work. It also helps empower them to become the catalysts for US artists increasing their engagements abroad and for international artists to gain access to the American market. Crucially, they bring another American perspective to the international table. Investing in research opportunities for and the education of American presenters and agents is just as important as providing larger subsidies to make American artists more competitive on the international circuit. It is in our interest to be aware of the international dimensions and practices of the industry in which we operate.

The inclusion of more American presenters is critical to this equation. If we are to acknowledge that to expand opportunities for American artists abroad is a benefit to all, then it must also hold true that we want to expose our communities to the ideas of international artists for the same reasons. And American booking conferences have far more to offer in terms of workshop presentations, plenary sessions and opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. Also, as many of our international colleagues are becoming wary of the spectre of their own national funds being eroded, maybe now is a good time to share American best practices of thrift and inventiveness in terms of developing alternative funding sources and stretching budgets (even as we fight to increase government funding here).

In Dance America, An International Strategy to Export American Dance (2010), authored by Carolelinda Dickey and Andrea Snyder, it is positioned that a number of US programme providers must come together and work collectively to implement a policy that sees the American non-profit arts industry coming to terms with a leadership role in a global economy.

We can have a vital role to play as a counterpoint to some of the negatives of globalisation. Artist-to-artist exchanges and people-to-people contacts are vastly superior to inter-governmental brinkmanship, 24-hour news cycles, global hedge funds or corporate takeovers. We can turn competition into cooperation and in fulfilling our missions increase international awareness of the value of artistic voices and ideas from the United States. At the same time, we can expose ourselves and our audiences to the work of artists that represent the myriad cultures and traditions from around the world and work with them in a spirit of sharing.

Social Justice, 2007