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Flash Analysis and Preview, 3-6: The Case for Curran
The Importance of NYC Presenters

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

When the Sean Curran Company takes the stage at the Duke tonight to open its 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project season, the audience will see two brand new works and one reprise from a true original who refuses to be categorized, thematically starting from scratch each time out of the choreographic chute. For his artistic success, Sean Curran has only himself, his dancers, and perhaps a couple of mentors to thank. For the success of his dance company, though, as a (relatively) viable enterprise, what spectators will see on 42nd Street is an example of how and why the New York presenting model works.

But first, a thumbnail for readers less familiar than I am with Curran's haunting work.

To start out with -- well, to start out with, Curran's oeuvre is hard to thumbnail! When I first caught the company in 1998 at Dance Theater Workshop, the nicest surprise was that a single-choreographer evening could serve up such variety. From patterned, traditional small ensemble works to his own duet with Pinochio, in which Curran kept repeating "Pinochio Real Boy" in childlike insistence, this one choreographer had much dance terrain to show us. Curran's dances might be called "task-based," but not in the usual sense. In each assignment, he sets himself (and his versatile dancers) a hurdle to overcome. For the 1999 "Symbolic Logic," he utilized Indian-English fusion artist Sheila Chandra's music not as generic mystical exoticism, but as a mathematical map of notes which he proceeded to methodically chart. Lines unfurled on large and small scales -- across the stage, and as expressed in the digits and limbs of the performers. For "Six Laments," reprised tonight through Sunday (save Friday) at the Duke, a presenter more or less dictated the choice of "Irishey" music; the dances of loss he found in it, tho, were universal, involving, for example, loss of a lover, a friend, a baby. He also ingeniously employed moveable blinds which, when closed, revealed a face, only to be dissipated when open. I'm still haunted by Donna Scro Gentile's heartbreaking mourning for a child, and Curran's looking over his shoulder at a ghost or a gaining memory, crumpling to the ground, looking over the shoulder, falling, encore, encore.

Then there are the dances which, whether in solo or highlighted in a group dance, rely on Curran's everyman charisma. He's a throwback of a regular Joe, but a regular Joe who's been through it, and will probably be through it again, most likely before the evening is over. You see it in his sad clown's visage, you feel it in his burdened shoulders, and you hear it in his meloncholy-tinged voice.

I should tell you I'm recalling all this without notes, and as I've not seen the company in two years, that says something. (About its staying power, not my memory!)

But, okay: What credit do presenters get for these memories, no doubt shared by many others who have experienced Sean Curran's company over the last eight years? Plenty.

An alumnus of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Curran first performed his own company's work (I'm excluding his gig with STOMP) in 1993, for Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

Starting in 1994, Curran's company was presented by, and performed at, a staggering number of NYC presenters: Dance Theater Workshop in 1994 and 1998; Danspace Project in 1996, 1997, and 2000; Central Park SummerStage in 2000; the Joyce's Altogether Different Festival in 1999, preceded by a Joyce Soho residency in 1998; and a Joyce-produced Joyce season last year. And I'm leaving out a host of smaller venues, including Soundance, Celebrate Brooklyn, and Gowanus Arts Exchange.

Excluding PS 122 and the Kitchen, which are not devoted exclusively to dance, in the last eight years the Sean Curran Company, just about ten years old, has been presented at all the major dance venues in NYC. I'm not leaving out the New Victory, where the company will perform for two weeks next March.

While it's not unusual for a young company to be presented at more than one NYC venue, what's remarkable and commendable about the presenter support for and nourishing of Curran is that the work is hard to classify. In other words, it's not an obvious fit, in terms of matching a particular theater's taste, or filling a spot in its season. The choreographer has resisted being ghettoized as "Irish dance," bristling when certain out-of-town presenters have insisted that he include an Irish piece in his season. Curran has a quite respectable Irish piece which is quirky enough to be enjoyed by the moderns as well, "Folk Dance for the Future," but has resisted making it his company's "Revelations." He certainly has an Irish voice, but it's not his only one; he doesn't want to be limited. In the long run, I think this is smart. Companies which bank on the ethnic card (and I mean talented companies) to help get a slot in the short term can be stunted in the long-term. Where a Chinese-flavored dance company will get slotted in at a festival one year, they'll have to make way for another Chinese troupe the next. Whereas, with Curran, at this point he is booked because he's good. He's also booked because he continues to grow; NYC theaters who have presented him somewhat justifiably take some pride of ownership in that progress, and know if they wait too long, they (and their audience) might miss an important chapter. (I'm purely hypothesizing with on that last point.)

When choreographer/artistic directors relate to me conversations they've had with presenters or agents, they often go something like this:

"I can't program you this year because you're too much like X company."

"We already have Y company, so that slot is filled."

"Your problem is you don't fit into any category."

Presenters have sound, if somewhat fear-based, reasons for programming by category; call it the dance inferiority complex. (Presenters would put the rationale more positively: They need to book companies that have a built-in audience to start with to guarantee a certain number of seats are filled.) Believing the audience for dance is limited, they (sometimes, though this seems to be changing in recent years, at least in New York) believe that the audience for a Black, Chinese, Pilobolus-ey, dance-theatery, gay, etc. company will be exhausted after one entry in their season.

In the case of Sean Curran, presenters have dropped such considerations because, first, he refuses to be pigeon-holed, and, second, he keeps upping the creative ante with every new work.

And the NYC presenters don't just neutrally observe this progress. They foster it. Curran's 1999 Altogether Different season at the Joyce, for example, was preceded by a space grant-residency at the Joyce Soho, in which he was one of four artists awarded rehearsal space for a period of time, the facilitating of a mentor, and an opportunity to show the work in progress. The Altogether Different festival itself is not just a performance showcase, but a package-deal in which the companies are offered workshops in marketing, PR, development, and other infrastructure elements of making a viable dance company. Curran no doubt benefited from this as well.

Not that he didn't already have a boffo infrastructure in place. If Curran owes his (non-artistic) success to one person, it's Laura Colby, the director of Elsie Management, Curran's longtime executive director, a former dancer with the company (And with the Limon company), and, until 2000, his U.S. and international booking agent. (She still takes care of the international arena, with IMG handling the U.S. territory.) I don't have any special inside knowledge about this, but based on what we've seen onstage, it's a sure bet that when X presenter (I'm speaking more, now, of presenters outside of NYC) would insist on having an Irish piece from Curran, it was Colby, reflecting the desire of her client, who steered them off the subject and convinced them to embrace the artist on his own terms, not as the presenter believed they needed to conveniently define (and proscribe) him. ( This also meant she had to sell the work the same way, no easy task when dealing with busy presenters.) And not just for one season's booking, but in a long-term presenting relationship.

For touring, it helped that Colby secured, in 1999/2000, a publicly funded, New England Foundation for the Arts coordinated National Dance Project subsidy, assisting the company in performing at seven national venues. The NDP subsidy "really made it happen," says Colby, but I think she's being too modest. Government grantmakers over the last few years have felt the need to justify funding decisions by more than artistic criteria, and I'm sure Colby had to work hard to convince the NDP that it should assist a Curran tour solely because the work was good. As an agent, Colby is an artist's dream because she truly believes in the work and because she knows the market, honing in on theaters where the work would fit. For the same reason, she's also a presenter's dream, because she's done the homework to make sure she knows their theater. If she's gotten to the point of actually pitching a client company to a presenter, the presenter can be sure that Colby sincerely believes the company is a good match for their house and audience.

If you're fortunate enough to be able to join the audience for Curran's Harkness season, and enjoy the new and old work as I anticipate you will, certainly applaud the dancers. Certainly give it up for the choreographer. And 'nuff respect for the presenter, the 92nd Street Y, the Harkness Foundation, and the Harkness Dance Project's visionary director, Joan Finkelstein, who after all made the final choice to include the company in this season. But applaud, too -- I suggest anyway -- the other NYC presenters and the agent/executive director who through their conviction in the work and nourishing and cultivation of the artist also helped get the company there.

To read our previous reviews of Sean Curran Company, please enter "Curran" in the search engine window on the Home page.

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