BWW Review: STEPS BEYOND FOUNDATION Artists Talk: Dance Criticism in Uncertain Times
The Steps Beyond Foundation, Steps on Broadway's non-profit arm that launched in 2015 with Diane Grumet as Artistic Director, offered a panel discussion entitled "Dance Criticism in Uncertain Times: A conversation about art & politics". The event on the evening of April 8th 2017, the most recent in the Artists Talk Series in the Steps Studio Theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side, tackled questions about the effect of the current political climate on dance, dance criticism, and the arts in general.
Moderated with engaging expertise and enthusiasm by Allen Maniker M.D., Chairman of the Board of Steps Beyond Foundation and a dancer-turned-neurosurgeon, the repartee was lively as well as thought provoking. Panelists included Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine's Editor-at-Large; Siobhan Burke and Brian Seibert, New York Times dance critics; and Apollinaire Scherr, Financial Times arts critic.
Dr. Maniker, a Juilliard graduate, started by showing a clip from "The Green Table", Kurt Joos's iconic 1932 ballet depicting the futility of that era's peace negotiations. The intention was to point out the possible parallel between Joos's political statement and the challenges facing dancemakers today. A press release about the Artist Talk quotes Grumet as saying that the panel discussion and a subsequent Performance Lab scheduled for May 20th constitute "a response to concerns in our community due to the election and proposed government policies. What is happening politically affects every aspect of the arts; from funding, to artist's visas and ultimately, censorship."
After encouraging the panelists to detail how they receive review assignments, a tangent that took up perhaps too much time, Dr. Maniker then asked about the current state of dance criticism in print and online. The responses were disheartening in that all the publications represented now have far fewer dance reviews and those reviews that do appear are painfully short, as skimpy as a mere 300 words. Wendy Perron noted that Dance Magazine no longer has any reviews at all.
That's when Dr. Maniker finally segued back to the advertised topic of the evening, uncertain times. Not surprisingly, the key concern that was addressed is the threat to the National Endowment for the Arts under the Trump administration. While I wholeheartedly agree that defunding the NEA would be a blow to the arts and an embarrassment for the United States, I'd like to mention that the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs is the largest cultural funding agency in the nation. The DCA web site reports a Fiscal Year 2014 expense budget of $156 million and a capital budget of $822 million over the next four years. That money is for NYC's five boroughs only, compared to the NEA's 2016 budget of $147,949 million for the entire country. I am keenly aware of this because during the almost 15 years that I was the Founding Artistic Director of Ballet Ambassadors, an outreach company in NYC, we were generously supported by DCA for our work with underserved and homeless children and youth in the five boroughs.
Even so, I know that losing NEA funding would be disastrous for countless worthy arts organizations all across the country and for the communities they serve. The audience at the Steps event voiced loud and clear worries about that possibility along with shouted references to the comparable cost of the President's trips to Mar-a-Lago and the security for his wife and youngest son in the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. To Dr. Maniker's credit, he did not allow the discourse to devolve into an all-out repudiation of the Trump administration but steered the comments back to how dancemakers might respond to current political events in the way that Joos did with "The Green Table" in his time.
I'll admit that I was surprised to hear some panelists dismiss as mere entertainment or escapism such works as Ratmansky's "Whipped Cream" for the American Ballet Theatre and even that staple of the classical ballet canon, "Sleeping Beauty". Why, I wonder? After all, Balanchine choreographed the first version of his comedic masterpiece "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" in 1932 for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the same year that Joos choreographed "The Green Table". Surely we don't want a steady diet of politically themed art at the expense of, to use a time worn but applicable phrase, art for art's sake.
That said, other panelists reacted with eagerness to Dr. Maniker's suggestion that the opportunity to review a choreographer's work about something such as a pro-life scenario might present itself. Brian Seibert allowed that although he might not share the choreographer's viewpoint, he would welcome the chance to give credit for artistic accomplishment if the work had artistic merit.
Finally, as we contemplate the future of the arts in America in light of this era's politics, let's not forget that the first Continental Congress in 1774 passed what has been dubbed the anti-theater law: "We will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments." [Emphasis mine} The law was eventually repealed, and we've come a long way since then. Yet we don't want to backslide in any manner. Dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts could be a sorry step in that direction, both because of NEA's endorsement of our nation's arts and because of the funding to keep it going.
Hey, Ivanka! Remember your days at the School of American Ballet and your childhood performances in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker"? How about speaking with your father regarding the importance of the arts in America? We'd all thank you very much for that.
The second part of the Artists Talk Series about uncertain times will be a Performance Lab. "Choreography in Uncertain Times" will begin at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 20, 2017, also in the Steps Studio Theater. Tickets will be available for sale in early May. The Performance Lab Series offers artists an opportunity to showcase their work in various stages of development. Emerging and established artists are welcome to apply.
Sondra Forsyth is the Editor-in-Chief of BroadwayWorld Dance.