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The Buzz, 10-3: A Leap of Faith
BAM's 'Next' Sham; Dancenow's Grand Slam; Resurrecting George's Cotillion

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

The Real Next Wave

When I ran into the Joyce Theater's Martin Wechsler after the opening of Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's breakthrough "Zero Degrees" at Paris's Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt last year, the New York programming director agreed that the piece, the first I've seen in years to successfully mingle art and politics and dance and theater, was impressive. When I asked Wechsler whether it was something he might bring to the Joyce, he flinched and said the problem would be that Larbi, as he's short-handed in Europe, is not well-known in the States. And yet it's not going out on a limb to say that to European dancegoers the Belgian-based choreographer is the most important dance artist to emerge in the young millennium. That he has yet to emerge on a stage in the so-called dance capitol of the world -- at least five years after he became the next wave -- is an embarrassment to the theaters with the means and mandate to present artists like him, chiefly the Joyce and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

When did money become more important than art?

Dance insiders know the drill: Big presenters like BAM and the Joyce are scared they might lose their leotards if they program someone nobody knows and nobody comes. Instead of following the existing tastes of their audiences, presenters should be developing them. The recipe is simple: Earn a reputation as a programmer who curates interesting work. Your audience starts coming not just because they know the artist, but because they trust your taste. Why are culture vultures in New York if not to discover the cutting-edge of art? Mark Russell earned this kind of trust when he ran PS 122. Audiences would come to the theater even if they'd never heard of the artist; they 'forgave' Russell the occasional flop, knowing that he was not so much interested in presenting a proven product, but in testing it -- in helping the artist spread his wings. The audience was not just passive receivers, but part of the test, making it a truly live experiment. So developed was that audience that it became the draw for accomplished performers who had nothing to prove but who wanted to float new work for an audience whose judgment they could trust. If you were ever in that theater for the birth pangs of work by the late Spalding Gray or Karen Finley, you know what I'm talking about. Mark seemed most elated not by star-studded returns like these, but less successful efforts by unknown artists. One of the biggest post-show smiles I remember from him came after one such show when he told me the artist was not quite there yet. Russell wasn't necessarily looking to present instant hits, you see; what engaged him -- and the PS audience -- was being in on the process.

I also remember another broad smile: When Mark predicted that Sarah Michelson was the next big thing. That was in about 1999. BAM, which is finally getting around to programming her, is about seven years late in realizing she's part of the 'Next Wave,' the name for its fall festival which has long been an anachronism.

And that's my point: Regardless of the quality of the artists presented by BAM for its "Next Wave" festival, the name is a lie: They are rarely next wave. It's been more than two decades since Pina Bausch (my favorite dance artist) could accurately be described that way. (And "Nefes," the work BAM audiences will see and which I caught two years ago in Paris, is little more than a bon-bon, much of the dance vocabulary borrowed.) While David Dorfman is certainly a major and influential choreographer, and his "Underground," which riffs on the Weather Underground, promises to be intriguing, he is hardly 'next wave.'

We're not just talking about semantics. All these artists have earned our respect. But in calling a program dominated by them 'next wave,' BAM is misrepresenting its programming to its audience and misrepresenting dance. It is also failing the artists, now struggling, who are truly next wave and who -- not for lack of talent but lack of resources -- might not survive long enough for BAM to finally notice them. (Michelson barely made it, literally hobbling to the pinnacle.) Considering its relatively deep pockets, I just don't buy the financial risk argument as a defense for BAM's fearful programming strategy. (The Joyce deserves to be let off the hook a bit, as it took over a whole theater, Joyce SoHo, to better serve emerging artists.) Just take a walk across the bridge to West 19th Street. That's where Dance Theater Workshop has, since 2005, made its 185-seat theater available at reduced rates to the annual Dancenow/nyc festival. A couple of facts:

-- Of the 88 companies performing at this year's Dancenow/nyc festival at DTW and Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, artistic director Robin Staff tells me, 42 were participating for the first time.

-- The entire festival sold out.

And the audience was not just composed of 'dance insiders.' Indeed, Dancenow/nyc's two-pronged mission is "to connect new audiences to dance" and "to support the artistic dreams and endeavors of innovative dancemakers."

Erico Villanueva's "Would you like to see more?," part of the 2006 Dancenow/nyc festival. Julie Lemberger photo copyright 2006 Julie Lemberger.

Not just Dancenow/nyc, but DTW is also taking risks. "Dance Theater Workshop has embraced the festival with open arms," said Staff, "trusting our programming choices and ideas and allowing us to provide many many artists with the opportunity to bring their work to their stage for the first time. It was a huge leap of faith that both organizations took two years ago and the result has been inspiring for all involved -- presenters, artists and audiences."

A leap of faith.

When will BAM, which has more resources to tap into, take a similar leap of faith and give its audience (and the field) what it's promising -- a real next wave?

Nourishing the Next Wave

Apart from the required genius, the next wave is not self-generating; it needs to be nourished. (Danger Will Robinson, mixed metaphors ahead!) Dance organizations like DTW understand this, so that far from just waiting to harvest the finished product, they make investments in the dance eco-system at a far earlier stage.

The organization's Outer/Space program -- funded by New York City taxpayers -- is just one example of this and I'm pleased to report that DTW has just expanded the program's mission to include creative residency grants. Grants will go to 12 individual choreographers /choreographic teams who will get not only 50 hours of free rehearsal time in three spaces: the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (B.A.A.D!), Williamsburg's Cave Organization, and Topaz Arts in Queens -- but artist advisors who will offer critical perspectives at the outset and conclusion of the three-month residency period. Advisors are David Parker, Alan Danielson, Gus Solomons jr., Neil Greenberg, Nicholas Leichter, Antonio Ramos, Sam Kim, Diane Vivona, Jeanine Durning, Yoko Shioya, and Charmaine Warren. This year's residency recipients: Miguel Gutierrez, Jessica Morgan, The Roosters (Kate Garroway and Colleen Hooper), Mikuni Yanaihara. Susan Hefner, Christopher Morgan, Isabella Bruno, Mark Lonergan, Pele Bauch, Luciana Achugar, Rebecca Davis, and Selma Trevino.

The Past Waves

As the U.S. Constitution seems about to crumble before our eyes -- with, incredibly, the president and Congressional Republicans leading the charge, abetted by a few scared Democrats -- this might be a good time to recall that it wasn't always so. That there was a time when a president named George inspired our hopes instead of exploiting our fears.

But first: It was yet another George, King George III (be patient, there is a dance angle), who, in October 1765, brought representatives of the 13 colonies together for the first time at 26 Wall Street in New York to draft a response to the king's notorious Stamp Act in which they protested "taxation without representation." The same building would later, as the first capitol of the U.S. under the Constitution, host the first Congress, which elected the first president; George Washington was inaugurated in front of the building on April 30, 1789. It was in this building that the first Congress adopted the Bill of Rights; according to Wikipedia, to which I owe most of this history lesson and most of the language I'm using, even freedom of the press was born there; it was in this building that, in 1735, newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger was tried and acquitted of libel against the British royal governor.

And bringing us back to the future, it's at this same building that, on Friday, at noon and 2:30 p.m., to celebrate the re-opening of Federal Hall, the New York Baroque Dance Company and musicians of Concert Royal will perform "an Entertaining Assembly for George Washington," a 30-minute dance concert in the style of a dance assembly or ball. On the program: La Nouvelle Yorck, a quadrille; and George Washington's Favorite Cotillion. All dances have been reconstructed from period sources by Caroline Copeland and Catherine Turocy.


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