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Counting our blessings.

The year draws to a close. In late November most of us participate in our original North American feast-festival, Thanksgiving. Celebrated with family or friends, it marks the beginning of a six-week frenzy of holiday activities. If we could gather the dance clan around the table for Thanksgiving this year, what might we have to be thankful for? I recently had a long conversation with Dance/USA's director of information services, John Munger, about his extensive study of dance data, which might be subtitled Good News.

Munger's first point was that the companies we are tracking--Dance/USA focuses on approximately 40 companies based around the country, including large and medium-sized ballet, modern, and other genres--have, on average, maintained the length of their contracts and the level of pay. This is the case despite numerous situations in which troupes are digging their way out of accumulated deficits. The task of increasing work and pay for dancers is far from over. However, many of our institutions are relatively young. In the current environment, we should be thankful that we are holding our own in so many places.

Another of Munger's points was that companies are continuing to acquire and create new work at a consistent pace. The average number of new works per company since 1992 is four a year. I was recently in Richmond, Virginia, for the opening weekend of Richmond Ballet's season, which featured Balanchine's Allegro Brillante and two newly commissioned works. RB's board president, Bob Satterfield, commented to me on the company's high commitment to new work. "It's good for the dancers, and our audiences love it," he told me. "We wouldn't have it any other way." This point of view is the soul of American dance.

A third area of strength may be found in the creative, entrepreneurial ways in which choreographers are reinventing and redefining the nature of the dance company. A manager of a good-sized modem company lamented to me this summer, "We are successful, but we are a dinosaur. This probably can't happen with the next generation; it won't be sustainable." More and more, according to Munger's research, artists are involved in collaborative artistic directorships, performance activities in nontraditional venues, and project-to-project efforts which often involve the same dancers. Choreographers are moving around more than ever, working with many companies.

Does it mean that in fifty years there will be no more dance companies? Of course not. It simply suggests that as our field matures, our artists are branching out, finding where they can flourish, and proceeding on pathways that are not necessarily those of their predecessors. Just after returning home from the September Choreographer's Retreat at Jacob's Pillow, one choreographer told me, "Everyone's story was so different, and everyone's risks looked scarier than my own. But to them, my risks were the scary ones. I found so much generosity and courage in that."

Munger then pointed out that presenters and producing organizations are finding increasingly creative ways to engage their communities. The work of the National Task Force on Dance Audiences reinforces his observation that we are learning more about the connections between dance artists and the general public. New insights into how and why adults learn about the arts are emerging through research, such as that conducted by Arts Action Research on behalf of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. All of these efforts help to raise our art in community esteem. It is slow going. But better slow than stalled.

Munger summed up: "What we're seeing is a lot of variety developing in the field--variety in identity, practice, and finding success in places where we've never looked for it before. Perhaps it suggests that the audience, too, is broadening the ways it can see and relate to dance."

This year at Thanksgiving dinner, we can criticize the hostess's sage dressing, fight over the light and dark meat, and have those inevitable family "conversations" about politics and religion. Or we can take pleasure in the bounteous and varied culinary delights the table contains. I, for one, plan to focus on the pleasures. Pass the turkey, please.
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Title Annotation:Dance/USA; John Munger, director of Dance/USA has an optimistic view on the state of US dance with companies either creating or acquiring new works continually
Author:Brooks, Bonnie
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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