Rumblings and discomfiting whispers about the denseness and arcane programming choices of modern dance concerts have been percolating for a while. Recent real-life whispers I’ve overheard verify what I’ve long understood: modern and contemporary concert dance are not populist forms and, face it, they never will be. Like contemporary classical music or abstract painting, they’re for a rarefied few who appreciate design, music, movement, conjoined together into a collaborative whole. But without the cheesecake, soft-cell sex and glitter of “Dancing With the Stars” or even the “everything is beautiful at the ballet” glamour and glory of “Swan Lake,” modern and contemporary dance will never make it big.
There’s a reason that modern dance, born in church basements and social halls, on lawns of women’s colleges and loft-like salons, has had small audiences. And always will. That was emphasized at a DanceMetro DC program I attended in August at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. The half-dozen local D.C. area companies ran the gamut from the bubbly kids of Tappers With Attitude to a treacley balletic piece of Eric Hampton’s performed by CityDance Ensemble. But the head-scratcher of the night, to judge from the middle-aged couple sitting directly in front of me, was Daniel Burkholder’s “My Ocean Is Never Blue,” an improv-based work that has been performed in various venues and guises over the past year and a half as Burkholder collaboratively with his dancers explores issues of conservation, environmental responsibility, community and the individual’s relationship to society. Burkholder, an adept improviser and committed performer, structures his dances with solid bones upon which open-ended elements unfold and action begets reaction a drip becomes a gush, a dribble of an arm flows into a wash of full bodied contact-based interplay. I personally liked the groupthink of the piece as dancers flocked, then subdivided and regrouped, like schools of fish in a pond. The recorded score, I thought, should have proved amenable to D.C. policy wonks and EPA bureaucrats with its ruminations on water, its presence and scarcity, its scientific by-the-numbers factoids.
But that neatly dressed couple in front of me wasn’t having any of it. At first salt-and-pepper hair and khaki pants snickered at the wallpaper-like perpetual motion of the dancers in their loose cotton-knit pants and tops. Prim polo shirt looked at him and giggled too. I could see the red flag of pretension rising in her mind’s eye as she heard predictions of environmental disaster looming in this seemingly innocuous and, for novices, hard to parse choreography. He grabbed her hand and squeezed, trying to stifle his laughs as the piece proceeded, dancers intermingling, aligning themselves in rangy motion and then breaking free. Then their heads touched, he murmuring, she nodding. I wasn’t privy to their whispers but soon enough the unheard became clear. Before the lights came up and the dancers took their bows, the couple rose and walked out. Sure it was a free performance on a mild summer night, nothing ventured, nothing gained. But evidently modern dance – or at least modern dance of a certain sort -- didn’t do it for them; there wasn’t enough to keep this seemingly well-educated, well-appointed couple in their seats for the rest of the program.
Modern concert dance isn’t always easy or pretty, or meaningful, or even especially good. But then again, neither are other forms of entertainment. The world if full of bad movies and cruddy TV shows, second-rate music and bad ice hockey. But somehow people seem to think there’s more at stake when coming into a dance-centric environment. Audiences get nervous and apprehensive about feeling inadequate or stupid or not understanding everything that happens onstage. Movies and television don’t have that problem for the most part because the narrative usually carries and coddles viewers along. Music, too, at least the popular kind, has lyrics and a steady rhythmic beat to keep its listeners attuned and tapping. Modern dance, though, is more risky – as it should be, for it was birthed in revolt against the staid contrivances of ballet. But audiences aren’t really willing or ready to take the journey that most modern dance provides. Even ballet of Balanchine’s sort can be a tough sell. I recall a few years back hearing a helmet-haired woman of a certain age remark at intermission that a performance of “Agon” was just too modern for her.
So modern dance isn’t necessarily narrative, it isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t easy to digest. That makes it a tough sell. I’m continually impressed that modern and contemporary companies in the D.C. area are even surviving in this climate. And each year another handful of fearless dancemakers try to make a go of it here. In the past year or so we’ve seen more than a few stalwarts on the local scene celebrate a decade or more of making and presenting work. Each time I attend a locally produced concert, I scan the audience and the program booklet and see new names and faces rather than the same old suspects; I’m pleased and amazed. That individual companies – CityDance Ensemble, Edgeworks, BosmaDance, Jane Franklin – carry audiences of their own and can present a full evenings of work, remains a great accomplishment. I remember in the not too distant past, some two decades ago when I began writing about D.C. dance, many companies could fill a full evening concert program. Then dance concerts likely were likely showcase programs or shared bills, with a handful of small companies showing one or two new works
Lucy Bowen McCauley is one dancemaker who keeps coming back, year after year to the Kennedy Center with a self-produced program. The company, now in its twelfth year, is a hybrid – a contemporary company with a strong balletic base. Bowen McCauley should be commended for her commitment to live music, present in each of the works presented on Sunday afternoon at the Terrace Theatre. It’s truly her calling card; not many chamber-sized troupes are willing to commit to using live music, often in the modern classical vein – it’s expensive to rehearse and perform. But the result does raise the company up a notch on the local dance scene. Another wise move Bowen McCauley has committed to in recent years is using local dance students in separate works to fill out her programs. This time that included nearly 30 pre-teens from Arlington’s Kenmore Middle School. Later, seven young adult dancers from the Maryland Youth Ballet (where Bowen McCauley teaches) performed “Brahms Fantasies,” a spring-like romp showcasing the MYB dancers’ technical proficiency and their youthful vigor.
Back to those middle schoolers, though. Kenmore is a majority minority school and the company is in a year-long residency there. This is the type of program that smaller dance companies covet because it brings in funding and allows their dancers to get paid for daytime teaching. It hopefully builds audiences by attracting in parents, neighbors and friends. Obviously, companies and even funders wish that they would continue to attend even if their children aren’t dancing next time.
Behind me on Sunday a family of three sat, dressed in their church-Sunday best. Their daughter was among the Kenmore youngsters McCauley worked with for the opening piece. But the program was a tough sell. Bowen McCauley is a temperate and sensible choreographer who favors structurally sound choreography. Her dancers include experienced pros like Alison Crosby and Robert Sidney, founding company members, and newcomers who haven’t yet fully assimilated the cool, calibrated style McCauley favors.
The opener, “Bowing,” featured Yvonne Caruthers accompanying with Britten’s “Suite for Solo Cello No. 1.” Like the world premiere “Fratres,” using an Arvo Part work for piano and violin of the same name, the piece favors abstracted movement, but both lack in dynamic interest, emphasizing instead shape-oriented configurations and static poses. I’d like to see Bowen McCauley urge her dancers to take more risk in freeing themselves from moving from point to point. Instead they seem always to be parsing out the next phrase: getting wrapped up in a particular curve of the back, placement of the arms and head. Ultimately what comes though is a moving filigree of poses instead of a choreographic whole.
The family behind me was clearly puzzled. After the second piece, the mother wondered if it was intermission and the kid asked if it was over. They were placated by a ballet solo en pointe danced by guest Victoria North. “Requite Me Not” was a sweet bagatelle that featured a smart interplay between North and tenor Gran Wilson, who sang excerpts from Robert Schumann’s “Dichterlieb,” accompanied by pianist Jeffery Watson. As in other works of on the program, Bowen McCauley incorporated her musicians into the performance carefully spacing them and allowing them to interact with the dancers, an appreciated attempt at gesamkunstwerk that added much richness. By intermission, mom was making excuses: telling her husband and son how prestigious it was for their daughter to dance with this company for the entire year and perform at the Kennedy Center. But she admitted, “It’s a shame. I really don’t have any idea what’s going on in these dances.” Out came the candy, crinkly wrappers and all, to placate brother for the second half.
Luckily for family of three, Bowen McCauley ended the afternoon with a no-brainer, “Gustatory Romp,” which again featured students, this time 22 high-school singers from H-B Woodlawn Secondary School (again, the better to sell tickets). The five sections featured a smorgasbord of food-related songs from the melancholic “If Music Be The Food of Love” to the jamming “Java Jive” and the spicy “Chili Con Carne” and finally the homespun “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.” The women in brightly colored dresses, the men in slacks and dress shirts took well enough to the jazzy, showy routines Bowen McCauley devised. Lots of cheeky shoulders and hips, a few folksy grapevines, a swingy lift here or there, nothing too outlandish and all easily digestible. Behind me I could hear mom sighing with relief. The family left sated: they saw their daughter open the program and enjoyed the cute-smart lyrics accompanied by easy-on-the-eyes playful dancing at the program’s end. All that modern/contemporary stuff in the middle, well it might as well not have been there from the family’s reaction. I’m sure it will soon be forgotten.
This is the problem with modern dance: if it leaves too much to chance, too much that is hard to comprehend audiences will feel inadequate and why should they return?
Bowen McCauley Dance’s program fared well enough for regular dancegoers, with its interplay between abstraction and contemporary ballet, plus a fun throwaway closer, but regulars aren’t enough for companies to grow on. Can these modern companies find a way to build while presenting dance that for outsiders or newcomers looks abstract? Sure the post-show discussions
This issue reaches beyond modern companies. Witness the recent introduction of Christopher Wheeldon’s new company, Morphoses. In the New Yorker, Joan Acocella examines his attempt to make contemporary ballet accessible via video and other accoutrements. Concert dance in the 21st century is, indeed, in flux. Clearly this matter extends far beyond a few middle of the road companies in my neck of the woods. Hard to know where that flux will ultimately lead.