A pandemic took place between the last blog and this one. Lots happened, including our creation and development of Curbside Theater. This entry is a geeky look at the US modern dance world, and how its most important institution has become university dance programs.
After the pandemic, SB Dance went all in on an outdoor mobile program called Curbside Theater, crafting a 50-minute piece that I’d consider comparable to the quality of art we made for theaters, presenting hundreds of shows to thousands of people– most of whom would never step foot in a theater– and making plans for much more. It’s been a strange trip with a bunch of wonderful people who often remind me that “curbside” is just a fancy word for gutter.
Curbside is disruptive in the sense that it makes just about any person or entity into an impresario for the night. It bypasses the curators that control what audiences see onstage. Curators are key in dance because it’s a resource-intensive art form– usually requiring flat sprung floors, lighting, sound, several long hamstringed humanoids,etc– that, unlike cinema, has no chance of making money. Curators choose a season of shows at a theater. Traditionally, they are citizens of creative centers like New York, where their lives revolve around art, celebrity, money, and schmoozing.
About 30 years ago, universities emerged as a new genre of gatekeeper. As funding decreased and national dance touring programs tanked, accomplished choreographers closed their companies, got fast track credentials, and filled tenured positions at universities. Major choreographic premiers are now presented in partnership with universities like Berkeley and SUNY. To rope new networks into the audience (a la Nutcracker), regional dance companies sneak non-professional university kids into a piece on the program. Though criticized as a pyramid-scheme for student dancers, academia is probably the most powerful player in US modern dance world. Nowadays, universities either pay or have paid or will pay the salaries of most dance curators and bureaucrats.
The era of university dominance in dance is concurrent with a period of declining attendance in the US, a trend not evident in Western Europe, Canada, or Mexico, places where academe doesn’t wield as much power. This is something I’ve been wondering about as I go about marketing a disruptive product like Curbside. Attending the virtual APAP conference in January 2022, I was flabbergasted that the main topic of conversation was how soon things would go back to normal or better-than-normal in response to pent-up demand. Folks are optimistic because everyone’s balance sheet looks good after being salvaged by Rescue Act monies. But what about those years of declining attendance? What about decentralization trends like remote or hybrid work? Are those folks really going to drive downtown to the theater?
My sense is that if you’re getting paid a university salary, you don’t think about it too much. Academics aren’t obligated to worry about attendance the way I do. The purpose of the ivory tower is to shelter them from the storm. But what happens when academe is sheltered from a storm that it sets in motion.
To be continued…