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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
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
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
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
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