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The Buzz, 6-22: Fortress Dance
Will France's New Centre National de la Danse Promote the Art or Perpetuate "Apartheid"?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

PANTIN, France -- It has 11 studios, including three that can be used for performance; a 'mediatheque' comprising 20,000 books, photographs, and videos; a space for encounters among professionals; rooms for screenings, expositions, and conferences; and a restaurant. From an American perspective, and notwithstanding its drab gray facade, the achievement of the Centre National de la Danse, which opened this past weekend on an entire block on the banks of the Ourcq Canal just outside of Paris, is staggering. In the fiscal year 2004, federal spending on dance in the US will come to about $7 million. In France, the federal investment into turning this Paris suburb's former administration building into a national dance center alone came to 15.6 million Euros, or about $20 million US. The 2004 budget for this research, pedagogic, training, resource, and performance center comes to about $10.5 million US, $8.4 million of which will come from federal funds. In other words, while the US will spend less than 2 1/2 cents in federal funds per capita on dance funding this year, France spent 33 cents per person on renovating the new centre, and will spend 14 cents per person this year on funding its activities. So what, you might ask, is the problem?

It's not for no reason that the minister of culture and communications showed up to dedicate the CND facility with an escort of three police busses and two police vans, nor that a dissident group of dance educators and artists posted flyers on neighborhood bus shelters and lamp-posts accusing the new centre, the Maison de la Danse and the Centres Choregraphiques Nationaux of becoming "places of apartheid that benefit a minority," demanding that they become, instead, "places of encounter, of sharing, and of relations between all." (A spokesman said the CND would have no comment on the apartheid charge.)

Let's return for a moment to that funding comparison. Because of the scarcity of public funds, dance and other artists in the US have had to make recourse to private funds, from foundations and individuals. Because of US tax laws, which allow these philanthropists to write off their donations -- i.e., deduct them from their taxable income -- there's an incentive for private largesse. Although there are some foundations here, they don't have the same tax incentive and the beneficiaries of their generosity are by and large major companies and theaters. I couldn't just write a check to my friend Amelie's dance company and claim it as a deduction on my taxes. Because there is no system in place for finding private support, Amelie, in turn, needs public funding. Because this is difficult to get -- only 64 companies in the Paris region received national funding this year, although this is augmented by regional resources -- and because she doesn't know the dozen or so people who control funding, Amelie will probably be left out in the cold. Up until this year, if she worked 507 hours in one year, no matter for how many companies, as long as they were legit, Amelie could get unemployment compensation for up to one year. If all ther dancers in her company got it too, she could basically rehearse while supported by unemployment. On January 1, however, the regime, as it's called, for France's Intermittent (or freelance) performing artists and technicians was tightened up: Amelie now has eight months in which to log 507 hours to be eligible for what is now just 10.5 months of unemployment. Unfortunately, Amelie didn't quite make the quota, and is now one of about 20,000 Intermittents cut out of the system. And -- not having the resources of her entrepreneurial American counterpart -- she's pissed. (Ergo, the police busses and vans, and the attempt by the CND to head off any demonstrations by granting the Intermittents their own conference room for the week-end's glitzy ceremonies.)

My concern for Amelie is not just because she's my friend, nor because as an arts journalist whose income is tied to the anemic arts funding structure in the US, I can't afford to pick up the check for appertifs all the time. My concern -- like that of M. Bruni -- is for the art as well. M. Bruni is a spokesperson for the Permanent Counsel of Schools and Companies for the Teaching of and Research into Dance. They're the ones who've charged the CND and the rest of official Dancedom here with setting up an apartheid-like system which benefits only the select few. Their concern is not just that they are not getting theirs. Rather, M. Bruni looks at the deleterious effect the official arts dictatorship is having on dance here, and finds it hard to smile. He sees publicly funded festivals, like the Rencontres Choregraphique "Internationales" de Seine-Saint Denis, whose directors work "in a manner incongruous with opening up the culture of dance and encountering this art," and which bring back the same ten companies every year, or seem to. (For my critique of the Rencontres Choregraphiques, please click here.) He sees some of the spectacles that the CND has aided -- such as the recent commercial show "Scan, More Business, More Money Management" (I didn't have to translate that, the original title was in English) which "demystify the values of the body in movement."

I see spectacles (in the English sense of the word) like culture and communications minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres telling the toney inauguration audience at the CND that "The quarrel of Ancients and Moderns is today behind us," and wonder what planet Monsieur Donnedieu de Vabres is on. Certainly not the one in which the dancers at and the audience of the Paris Opera Ballet are in an uproar because the next season will include just three, count 'em three, classical ballets. (And for you moderns out there about to clap your hands at the idea of more modern work at the Paris Opera House, trust me, with the exception of Pina Bausch and Trisha Brown, this is not the work that represents you in your best suit.)The new minister (the last one was hounded out by the Intermittents; how's that for dancer power, Bob Yesselman? ) could mean, of course, that the battle is behind us because the moderns have won, but really, there is little dance in the ancient or TRUE modern mode to be seen on local dance stages these days, including at the opening of the Centre National de la "Danse." Shortly after the doors of the CND opened Friday evening, the festivities were interrupted by the sound of blaring sirens. It wasn't the black-uniformed gendarmes lurking by the police vans and busses parked by the canal behind the building responding to an unexpected Intermittents action, but heralded the arrival of Robyn Orlin. The members of the South African company were, unfortunately, not there to alert the invited audience to a new apartheid, at least not intentionally. Bearing bullhorns and blathering in English, they made a spectacle of themselves, a spectacle which, notwithstanding the "Ruth St. Denis" and "Vaslav Nijinsky" tee-shirts they sported over white tights (do I even need to add that men and women alike wore wigs?), had little to do with dance, but everything to do with the current dance-allergic state of much of anointed dance in France, and did not portend well for the Centre National de la "Danse."

Later in the evening, Isabella Roncaglio performed a piece d'occasion by Francesca Lattuada, "Mouvements," narrated by the throaty French Tom Waits-sound-alike Arthur H, in which the 'flower' of dance buds, extends her limbs, and dies. Piece d'occasion, indeed.

Time to sound the alarm.



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