In the last post, I wrote about how universities have come to be the dominant player in American contemporary dance. This post describes my theory about how universities have caused a decline in attendance.
Here’s my thesis:
1. Over the past 3 decades, university dance departments have become the dominant institutions in US contemporary dance. Off campus, university graduates have become a new generation of dance curators.
2. Universities encourage the creation of a certain style and format of work that I’ll call “Uni Dance”. Uni Dance fits into repertory formats to serve more students. It focuses on vocabulary because that’s what students dig. It satisfies academic appetites about current issues like identity, inclusion, etc.
3. Developed for student, faculty, and academic consumption, Uni Dance is less appealing to common audiences who don’t understand the codes and signals that academics take for granted.
4. Underwritten by states or endowments, universities thrive and so does the market for Uni Dance. More and more artists make Uni Dance.
5. Never very strong to begin with, and finding Uni Dance incomprehensible, the common audience for dance withers, reduced to ticket-buyers for big name modern companies, ballet, and Instagram.
6. Sheltered from market forces, Uni Dance replaces dance for common audiences, at least for professional live production. Dance for common audiences never disappears; it pops up in excellent broadcast talent competitions and social media, though both formats require abbreviation of complexity and concept.
What evidence do I have? Comparisons with other fields are helpful. Let’s look at film departments, where students are exposed to and often produce vastly non-mainstream cinema, some of which is oblique and appeals only to a cult of nerdy film students and their teachers. Good on them. That’s what you’re supposed to do in art school. But cult-like nerdy films represent a teeny segment of a huge market. Uni Dance represents a huge segment of a teeny market.
Now let’s look at poetry departments, where almost the entire audience and all the good jobs reside. Mark Edmundson explored this subject in an excellent Harper’s Magazine piece called Poetry Slam. Edmundson describes how, to thrive in the academic process, “you often must write in the mode of the mentor—you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key.” To him, one problem with contemporary poetry is “shut[ting] out the common reader…readers rightly look to poets to make sense of the world, even if it is a difficult sense—and not to pass half the job off to Ph.D.’s.” Boy does that smack of much modern dance.
University-educated curators would not agree with my thesis. One recently argued that because support for American artists– especially traditionally underprivileged ones– is so crappy compared to other countries, US audiences only experience nostalgic, superficial, dumbed-down dance work. According to the curator’s thesis, if we build a better funding and development system, artists will engage their communities with profound modern dance work. Subsequently, a stampede of ticket-buyers would rush to theaters to see art that reflected their lives and values.
I don’t buy it. Undoubtedly, American artists are underfunded. Certainly, tickets are cheaper in Europe and production values are higher. But European audiences and the work they see don’t strike me as more in tune with each other. The productions I’ve experienced in France are simply more approachable. But return to the curator’s line of reasoning. Follow it a little further and we arrive at the notion that US audiences aren’t educated enough to appreciate fine Uni Dance. Paternalistic bs.
Look, I’m delighted that there is solid employment for so many artists in universities. Many of my friends and many artists who I admire work there. Many terrific dancers in my company were educated there. At the same time, I suspect that American modern dance departments are responsible for perverting the industry they are supposed to study and reflect. I don’t believe it will ever happen, but university dance should cop to its malevolent power, bring it to the attention of students, and set up structures that modulate the huge gap between itself and common audiences. This won’t happen because art school in a research-centered institution is like a round peg in a square hole to begin with: like play money, terminal “professional” degrees and faculty “research” are currencies only accepted by the issuer itself. Again, good on them. Enjoy yourself in art school. But recognize that you’re doing the outside dance world no favors.