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The Buzz, 11-14: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
Who's the Dance Capital of them All?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 Paul Ben-Itzak

Over the past 15 years, I've been able to closely observe, perhaps uniquely, the dance scene in three of its four capitals: New York, Paris, and San Francisco. (The other would be London.) With apologies to our English colleagues -- on whose scene I don't feel qualified to comment -- herewith my ruminations on which city can best lay claim to being the dance capital of the world.

I'll award points for Ballet and Modern (or Contemporary, as it's referred to in France) in each city, on a scale of 10, and at the end subtract some points for deficits in each of the cities. If you skip to the end to see the total points, you'll miss the point, which is to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each scene with a view to guiding you to the city where you'll find your own scene.

But first, a qualification: In focusing on cities with significant claims to both ballet and modern presence, including by touring companies, I'm of necessity ignoring towns whose claim lies mostly in one area or the other. Thus cities like Chicago, Tulsa, and Fort Worth, where more interesting things are happening in ballet than my three candidate cities, are out of the competition; similarly modern innovators like Berlin, Philadelphia, and Brussels.

Ballet

New York: At first and very superficial glance, New York would come out on top here because it has two major companies, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. But let's look deeper: At ABT, the vigor of the programming is diminished by a lack of imagination: Established European-based masters like John Neumeier and Mats Ek -- whose story-telling ability and originality is far superior to their American counterparts -- are rarely if ever programmed. At New York City Ballet, the programming -- the choreographic quality of what a ballet-goer will see on any given night -- is thinned out by the omni-presence of one of the worse choreographers working in ballet today, Peter Martins, and one of the most over-rated, Christopher Wheeldon. The tragedy of this is of course that when a ballet by Martins or Wheeldon is programmed, it means one less ballet by George Balanchine and/or Jerome Robbins. Thus, and inexplicably, the ballet company with the richest trove in the world is purposely diluting its presented repertoire. NYC is helped somewhat by visits from touring companies, notably at Lincoln Center and occasionally City Center, more narrowly at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but companies like Hamburg (Neumeier's) and Stuttgart (rich in the work of master story-teller John Cranko) are too rarely seen. On the plus side, the under-publicized New York Theatre Ballet, courageously maintained by Diana Byer for three decades, may be the most intriguingly programmed ballet company in the United States. With a mission to maintain the Cecchetti-Diaghilev traditions, and with the authoritative assistance of giants like Sallie Wilson, championing the repertory of Antony Tudor particularly -- not to mention its school -- NYTB has established itself as an essential international ballet company. Finally, NYC gets major minus points for letting Dance Theatre of Harlem, a national treasure, die as a performing dance company, and for letting the Joffrey go, although there were other factors at play in both cases.

Point total: 5 out of 10.

Paris: On the level of the dancing, Paris Opera Ballet can still be considered one of the world's top ten troupes. Repertoire, however, has been severely compromised by dance director Brigitte Lefevre's preference for modern; overall functioning by a provincial management team. Since most appearances by international companies are funneled through Paris Opera Ballet, the opportunities to view other ballet companies are severely limited.

Point total: 3 out of 10.

Oakland Ballet's return augurs well for Bay Area ballet fans. Above: Oakland Ballet in Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun." Photo by Edward Casati, copyright Marty Sohl Photography.

San Francisco Bay Area: By virtue of its soloists and of a corps which makes up for in spirit what it sometimes lacks in technical coordination (particularly the men), San Francisco Ballet's dancers would make it the best company in the world. Repertoire, however -- and consequently audience and artist stimulation -- is diluted by being permeated by the fair to middling work of artistic director Helgi Tomasson, not to mention his sometimes tepid stagings of the story ballets. But it's recuperated somewhat by a healthy stock of Balanchine and particularly Robbins, which SFB executes as well if not better than New York City Ballet; by frequent commissions from Mark Morris; by choice selections, including commissions, from Paul Taylor -- which the versatile company dances with mastery, and by Tomasson's careful cultivation of local talent, particularly Yuri Possokhov. Finally, one can't ignore how few company dancers have come from SFB's perpetually troubled school. Touring companies have a strong presence thanks to cross-bay presenter Cal Performances, which has brought the Joffrey Ballet, the Russian companies, Lyon Opera Ballet, and others. Alonzo King's Lines Contemporary Ballet offers a unique, if ultimately repetitive, way of seeing and dancing ballet. And Ronn Guidi has just revived the Oakland Ballet, in past years under him a champion of Russian restorations.

Point total: 6 out of 10.

Modern

New York: The breakdown here occurs the farther up the food chain one travels. The Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Joyce Theater, by virtue of their resources the major dance presenters in town, are singularly lacking in vision under their current directors, BAM from provincial and small-minded leadership as well. BAM presents as "Next Wave" artists to whom that term hasn't applied for 20 years, while ignoring the current generation of exciting artists in Europe. The Joyce presents -- or rents to -- many of the same veteran companies year after year. Some of these companies merit return visits, certainly, but Elisa Monte and Stephen Petronio have had nothing new to say for ten years, the Parsons gimmick has outlived its usefulness, Doug Varone is Modern's version of Wheeldon, and meantime -- most critically -- the generation of truly innovative choreographers who emerged 10-20 years ago was left to languish. Doug Elkins, Mark Dendy, Sean Curran -- these are the best-known, but there were others -- should have been nurtured, should have been presented and commissioned every year by the Joyce. Yes I know, they are all still working, but without regular dance companies with which to develop their art they're like sculptors without tools, Balanchine without Farrell. Danspace Project has done its best to maintain standards, consistently presenting a mix of respected local, national, and international veterans, developing sophomores, and (truly) emerging artists, but it alone is not enough, especially with the decreased importance of and expertise in dance programming in recent years at the Kitchen and PS 122. (It should be added that the 92nd Street Y seems to have emerged from years of programming the personal favorites of its former dance director, and is now, delightfully, presenting younger companies and even some I've never heard of, a good thing.) Dance Theater Workshop's programming has gotten more inclusive and expansive since the departure of David White, but it continues to preach to the converted. On the plus side, an increasing number of dancer-presenters working on the underground level have saved New York from modern dance purgatory: Robin Staff and her Dancenow/nyc team, David Parker and WET, Terry Dean Bartlett and Katie Workum with Danceoff! are just a few of them; more than a nod should be given to the unfortunately departed and much missed dancer-driven WAX. Thanks to these heroes -- dancers taking the future of the scene into their own hands -- plus the deepest dancer talent pool in the world --- New York emerges with

Point total: 6.

Paris: When Gerard Violette steps down as director of the Theatre de la Ville at the end of this season after nearly a quarter century, it will be the end of an era in not just French but European dance. Unlike the Joyce, the Theatre de la Ville does not take a curatorial cop-out by renting out its space. All dance, theater, music, and cirque artists programmed at the presenter's two venues, one on the Seine -- in the theater established by Sarah Bernhardt -- and the other in Montmartre, are presented by the theater. Most of the dance is commissioned or co-commissioned. With the exception of the inbred French prejudice against any American dance post Bill T. Jones, the line-up is international. (A good thing, because much of the recent, post- Maguy Marin and Angelin Preljocaj French dance, at least the major artists endorsed by the state, is mediocre.) Anne Teresa De Keermaeker and Pina Bausch, no less important even if recent work is less intriguing, are programmed every year; indeed, outside her base in Wuppertal, Bausch's troupe is seen more often in Paris than anywhere else in the world, and always with its latest creation. Belgian artists feature prominently -- generally speaking, a good thing. Unlike his BAM colleagues, Violette didn't wait for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui -- the most original and versatile choreographer to emerge from Europe in the last decade -- to be already celebrated before programming him; he helped make him celebrated. Non-Western dance gets more than token attention, particularly Indian dance forms, where Violette's passion and taste are evident. My worry -- and it's a strong one -- is that, given the current generation's predilection for non-dancey dance, the level of the dance programming at the Theatre de la Ville post-Violette is less than secure. (Violette's successor has yet to be announced.)

Other theaters in Paris -- notably the grandiose Chaillot Palace, across from the Eiffel Tower, and the Theatre de la Bastille -- augment dance's prominence in the city. Paris also gets extra credit for the dance-cognizance of the general public; here dance is not the provence of a rarefied and/or obscure elite but part of the general cultural and even political discourse. New York and the U.S. in general can only dream. The publicly funded Centre National de la Danse initially appeared to be somewhat exclusive when it opened its new facilities in Pantin for dance classes, performances, and conferences -- at the opening, rebels plastered the Pantin bus shelters with posters accusing the CND of dance apartheid -- but the programming just got more interesting this year, with the year-long retrospective Dance & Resistance, focusing on the old New Dance Group.

Paris's minus points come from the almost total lack of any kind of infrastructure for truly emerging artists. The down-side of public funding is that if you don't have it, you're sunk. And as public funding -- who gets it and who doesn't -- is hyper-politicized here, quality often suffers. Why, for instance, are we destined to be interminably punished with the horribly non-dancey work of South African 'choreographer' Robin Orlyn, a darling of the CND? French dance also suffers from de-centralization; if the regional choreographic centers ensure the national proliferation of dance at a certain standard and thus a high level of dance literacy among the general public beyond the major cities, they mitigate against any kind of dancer-force emerging in any one city, including Paris. And, again, the choreographers who direct these centers can stay as long as they want, thus their support and influence often outlasts their creative utility.

Total points: 7 out of 10.

(PS: To get a taste of the Theatre de la Ville's programming -- in French or, new, in English -- click here.)

San Francisco: On the level of major presenters, San Francisco trumps New York, almost solely by the high-caliber of international programming from Cal Performances, which beats BAM and Lincoln Center hands down. On the level of local talent, however, my hometown plummets. I don't know if it's because elephants ODC/San Francisco and Margaret Jenkins make the scene top-heavy, but, and notwithstanding some interesting artists who have emerged in recent years, San Francisco has never been a major player in modern dance, excepting the occasional interesting work from ODC's KT Nelson.

Total points: 5 out of 10.

Minus Points

New York: For the amazing and potentially suicidal failure of New York modern dance presenters -- with the exception of Dancenow/nyc -- to reach out to the general public, New York gets 2 minus points.

Paris: For its inexplicable prejudice against recent American dance, Paris gets 1 minus point.

San Francisco: For an unending provincialism -- the director of one major presenter actually publicly gloated over a New York Times article questioning whether NY was the capital of modern dance -- San Francisco gets 2 minus points.

And the winner is....

New York 9

Paris: 9

San Francisco: 9

It's a tie.

Agree? Disagree? Think the capital of dance is in your own backyard? Drop me an e-mail.


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