A&E: It’s all in the footwork – Dance in Louisville shows encouraging signs, but challenges abound

[img_assist|nid=2476|title=Photo by Victor Simon/Warren Lynch & Associates|desc=Louisville Ballet artistic director Bruce Simpson with dancers Helen Daigle and Joseph Nygren Cox during a photo shoot for “Nine Sinatra Songs” by Twyla Tharp, which the ballet will perform this season.|link=|align=left|width=150|height=200]Children sway to music almost as soon as they can stand on their feet, which says dance must be one of our most intrinsic art forms. And yet, a view of Louisville’s arts landscape shows more emphasis on theater, visual arts and music. Mega-hit TV shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” may invigorate an interest in dance — but will such audiences want to vote on the outcome of “Sleeping Beauty”? (If she’s that tired, let her sleep!)

While dance, from the classical to contemporary, does play a dynamic role in Louisville’s arts scene, the arts organizations that sponsor and produce it are constantly tested in competing for audiences among other arts events and commercial media, not to mention in cultivating corporate sponsors. For audiences, the constant whir of technology has not only changed what we do in our leisure time, it has changed our very nature; we’re distracted, with a need for instant gratification at the click of a hand-held switch. As for corporate sponsors, programming directors at arts venues report that businesses are interested in sponsoring arts events that dovetail with their marketing agendas — and they often don’t see dance as a good fit. (For example, The Kentucky Center reported it was able to easily acquire sponsorship for performances with Tony Bennett, Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett, which wasn’t the case with lesser-known artists.)

So, what about Louisville’s dance audience? How large should it be? According to a 2002 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly 4 percent of the U.S. population participated in a ballet event in 2002, while 6.3 percent were involved with a contemporary, folk or tap dance event. Using those numbers as a guide, the Louisville region should have at least 40,000 people attending dance events. (That’s about 4 percent of our region’s cool 1 million.)

Photo by Julia Youngblood: Paul Taylor presented a world premiere of his piece “Banquet of Vultures” at The Kentucky Center last season.

Photo by Julia Youngblood: Paul Taylor presented a world premiere of his piece “Banquet of Vultures” at The Kentucky Center last season.

While Louisville hasn’t quite reached that height, the increase in subscriptions and single-ticket purchases in recent years could signal an upsurge in the popularity of dance. The Louisville Ballet reported a 26-percent increase in subscribers between the 2003-04 and 2004-05 performance seasons, and a 31-percent rise in single-ticket sales during that same period. While the Kentucky Center doesn’t have a dance series with subscriptions or any constant dance performance to measure against in subsequent years, last season it nearly sold out performances at the Brown Theatre by The Paul Taylor Dance Company and of DanceBrazil at the Center’s Bomhard Theater.

Despite this, there is a rub in identifying how to better market to these audiences and boost the numbers of those attending dance performances, especially as audiences increasingly tend to purchase tickets at the last minute. For example, 70 percent of the Louisville Ballet’s ticket sales in recent years were derived in a few short weeks leading up to a performance. (The Kentucky Center confirmed the same trend.) With this phenomenon, which is happening nationwide, dance companies and performance venues can’t analyze marketing plans until after an engagement’s conclusion — often too late for them to bolster strategies that have worked on that particular performance.

Enter Simpson
While we can unfurl many obstacles that dance must overcome in order to flourish even further, the Louisville Ballet is thriving these days. Artistic Director Bruce Simpson has a simple plan — excellence. Simpson over-emphasizes the mutual respect of dancer and patron so key in establishing a perfect balance. Four years ago, Simpson had offers for the directorship of two companies: the Louisville Ballet and the Texas Ballet Theater (formerly the Dallas Fort Worth Ballet). He chose Louisville because of the indispensable enthusiasm here.

Photo by Eddie Dant: David Ingram, a Louisville Ballet dancer, also choreographs works for his contemporary dance company Empujon!, which performed at the 21C Museum Hotel in August.

Photo by Eddie Dant: David Ingram, a Louisville Ballet dancer, also choreographs works for his contemporary dance company Empujon!, which performed at the 21C Museum Hotel in August.

Since making that choice, Simpson has fostered the entire company and inspired an extreme confidence, which exudes in the radically improved dancers. He methodically crafts his schedule with repertory of note, and when coaxing master choreographers to add new ballets to the company, he knowingly (and admiringly) holds off trickier works (they’ll arrive in the future) in favor of works appropriate to his dancers’ current aptitudes. This sensitivity ultimately creates the energy and excellence onstage that blasts to the back row of theaters.
Simpson’s brief tenure has been remarkable. By the end of this season, the ballet will have performed an impressive 21 Louisville premieres and seven world premieres. Before his arrival, Louisville had been deprived of works from the master choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine. But now Louisville has been presented with the staging of five Balanchine pieces in the past five years (as compared to 10 full works from the previous 50 years).

In November, Simpson continues his efforts to stir audiences with Balanchine’s “Agon,” arguably the most important contribution to dance in the 20th century. Performed with a pared-down elegance, “Agon,” which premiered in 1957, is loyal to the idiom of classical ballet and yet extends into a contemporary language, securing its place as an artistic and spiritual triumph. The piece is the quintessential contemporary ballet because it still appears freshly choreographed, and it represents the pinnacle of the bountiful collaborations between Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky. This great and greatly difficult ballet should — take my word — kick the Louisville Ballet up to Mount Olympus.

[img_assist|nid=2479|title=Photo by Victor Simon/Warren Lynch & Associates|desc=Christy Corbitt Miller and Robert Dunbar in the Louisville Ballet’s October 2005 performance of “Made to Be Broken,” choreographed by Adam Hougland.|link=|align=right|width=200|height=135]Other works of wonder the Louisville Ballet has presented during Simpson’s tenure include his perfect staging of “Swan Lake” in 2005 (the corps was so sharp you’d think Simpson threatened the dancers with a spanking); Choo-San Goh’s “Variations Serieuses” in 2005 (the ballet, under the artistic directorship of Alun Jones, presented the piece in 1987); and Ben Stevenson’s achingly moving masterpiece (yes, I cried) “Four Last Songs” in 2006. And for this season, somehow, our silver-tongued director has managed to persuade Twyla Tharp (not currently in the ballet’s repertory!) to license her ballroom romp “Nine Sinatra Songs” to the Louisville Ballet. The company will perform the piece in November.

Homegrown talent
But Balanchine and Tharp aren’t the only choreographers whose inspiring dance works are to be seen in Louisville this season. We have talent in our community. While most choreographers live the life of a gypsy, bouncing from company to company dependent on commissions, Louisville is fortunate to have a principle choreographer at the Louisville Ballet — the brilliant, Julliard-trained Adam Hougland. He has had the luxury of developing his spiced vocabulary over the last few seasons. As the dancers become more and more comfortable with his high-voltage maneuvers, the level of artistry is allowed to exceed expectations.

The ballet wasn’t able to supply me with quantitative evidence that Louisville has a Hougland fan-club, but the previously significant divide in ticket sales between full-length, story ballets and triple bills — an evening of three, individual works where the company has presented Hougland’s work — are neck and neck. This says a lot about our community willingness to embrace new dance-forms with a little bit of cultivation.

Last month, patrons came out in droves to see dancer David Ingram, who is on contract with the Louisville Ballet, present an evening of his choreography in a troupe named Empujón at the 21C Museum Hotel. The performance generated a standing-room-only audience, with nearly people 300 by most accounts, spilling over onto the stairs and in the hallways leading to 21C’s lower gallery where the troupe performed.

Ingram praises Simpson’s ability to foster a healthy, creative environment, conducive to the development of a dancer as a person. In Ingram’s case, this nurturing atmosphere has evolved into a new choreographic voice in Louisville. While Ingram will be busy with the ballet during the standard arts season, audiences may see more of his work later on in the year. “I would absolutely love the opportunity to have a summer season of Empujón in 2007,” he says.

And there’s more locally produced dance on the horizon. While Art! Art! Barking Dog Dance Company ceased operating recently (because of life changes, not because of lack of local enthusiasm), many of its former members have morphed into Moving Collective, which hopes to present up to three modern dance concerts this year.

Destination Louisville

Photo by Vita Limanovica: The Louisville Ballet performed George Balanchine's “Theme & Variations” in November 2004.

Photo by Vita Limanovica: The Louisville Ballet performed George Balanchine’s “Theme & Variations” in November 2004.

Moreover, Louisville also has the Kentucky Center, which has an ambitious goal of bringing the community the best dance available from outside our community. To date, the Center has a great track record of bringing in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, José Limón Dance Company, The Parsons Dance Company, The Paul Taylor Dance Company , Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Elizabeth Streb’s company STREB and Twyla Tharp Dance, just to name a few.

Sadly, however, fulfilling this commitment proved difficult when Philip Morris ceased its sponsorship — a six-figure, stand-alone underwriting arrangement — of the New Directions in Dance series in 2004. To fill the void, the Center began to cleverly tuck dance programming under the umbrella of other series, such as the World Rhythms and Midnight Ramble series.

Louisville arts programmers seem to be doing their best to bring dance to local audiences, given the scarcity of money to do so and the limitations on marketing to audiences. On the horizon this season at the Center is the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. For dance in the coming years, the Center has high ambitions. It is exploring bringing in the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the Doug Elkins Dance Company and the Stephen Petronio Company.

What isn’t happening is a successful welcoming back of companies, mainly because of a fear that our society will only be titillated by newness (as discussed, that is definitely a matter for corporate sponsors). The catch is, with transient companies, audiences aren’t able to have ownership and track an important company’s evolution over time. (Last month, New York Times dance critic John Rockwell wrote about the greater fulfillment a spectator can gain from a performance when he or she knows the history of the dancers, whether it’s their struggles coming back from injuries or their successes as they rise to the challenges of more rigorous roles.)
Given these challenges, programmers can finesse ways to put dance in Louisville in the spotlight, locally and nationally. For example, Paul Taylor presented a world premiere of “Banquet of Vultures” in Louisville last fall.

Now, no matter where his company performs the piece, its production credit will read “Louisville, Kentucky.”
Programmers can also look for more ways to incorporate dance into special performance series. Several arts organizations could work together to develop an Icon series that might, say, invite Paul Taylor, who set the standard for so many contemporary companies, to return to solidify new ideas in dance. Imagine the explosive synergy if the Louisville Ballet, which just performed Taylor’s outstanding “Company B” some six months before, could become part of this equation.

Arts organizations also can explore ways of exposing the public more fully to the intensity that goes into a performance. A friend, who discovered dance as an adult, told me her pre-teen son became intrigued by the art form only after he saw a ballet warm up and exclaimed, “It’s harder than football!” For decades, that intensity has been hidden from the public. Think of all the patrons who would emerge if dance had its own version of the locker-room interview.

It all comes down to supply and demand: a passionate audience validates programming. A “yes” from the public is key to the green light for more adventurous, creative engagements and a thumbs-up for financial support. To break the confines of strictly being a presenting organization, the Center could position itself to commission new works, which would put Louisville on the national map.
With a steady diet of eclectic, invigorating programming in town, along with an enthusiastic audience, one hopes expansion projects would be brewing. I see sparks.

Stepping into the future
Meanwhile, the future of dance as an art form in Louisville also is in the hands — and feet and minds — of today’s children. While both the Louisville Ballet and the Kentucky Center have helped nurture appreciation through superb programs that make tickets very affordable or free to students of all economic levels, Kentucky is one of the few states that values dance and creative movement in public schools. It does this thanks to the Kentucky Education Reform Act passed in 1990, which tracks progress through mandatory testing. Everyone in education I spoke with agrees that rating a child’s knowledge of dance through multiple-choice tests is not ideal, but they were far more satisfied that KERA includes dance and requires that it have a permanent place in the curriculum. It will be fascinating to see if this first batch of students to complete the 12-year dance cycle go on to spend their expendable cash on Sugarplum Fairies and Blackberries.

Scott Rogers is editor of PITCH, the new quarterly, Kentucky arts and culture magazine (www.pitchmagazine.org). Rogers was on the board of the Louisville Ballet briefly during the 2001-02 season and danced with the Boston Ballet for 10 years. Contact him at [email protected]