A pandemic took place between the last blog and this one. During that time, 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 gatekeepers that controls what audiences see onstage, especially in dance which usually requires costly production rigamarole like flat sprung floors, lighting, sound, and long hamstrung humanoids. Despised in the same largess to which their asses are kissed, gatekeepers are traditionally citizens of creative centers like New York, where their lives revolve around art, celebrity, and usually money.
A new genre of gatekeeper emerged in the US over the past several decades: the university. As national dance touring programs tanked at the turn of the century, accomplished choreographers closed their companies and started getting fast track credentials– kinda like executive MBAs for artists– and filling tenured positions. Most premiers of major modern companies are now presented in partnership with universities like Berkeley and SUNY. Regional dance companies often include university students in their programming with the expectation of roping student family and friends into the audience a la Nutcracker. Though at times bearing a pyramid-scheme flavor, academia has edged out the New York mafia of tastemakers to become undoubtedly the most powerful player in the US modern dance world.
The era of growing university influence is concurrent with a period of declining attendance in the US, a trend not evident in Western Europe, Canada, or Mexico. Is it a coincidence? Or is it causal? This is something I’ve been wondering about as Curbside disrupts the usual way of doing business and opens my eyes to a system that seems peculiarly optimistic about a post-pandemic environment. 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. It’s true that everyone’s balance sheet looks good after being filled by Rescue Act monies. But how about years of declining attendance accelerated by a dose of post-pandemic decentralization? Are those audiences really coming back? Or are they just coming back to universities, urban centers where tastemakers live, and nowhere else matters?
To be continued…