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A Chance to Dance in America

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NBC declined to broadcast the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony performance by one of the world's most distinguished choreographers, Akram Khan. Mr. Khan created the work for himself and 50 dancers around the theme of mortality. Why did NBC think American viewers would not be interested? Mr. Khan was equally perplexed. As quoted by the BBC, Mr. Khan stated, "Is it not accessible enough? Is it not commercial enough?"

How did we go from being the country that is credited with pioneering modern dance to one in which we have to work so hard to get people to care about it? American dance companies are on the decline nationally and strangely absent internationally. Why is it that one of the best vehicles for building dance audiences is through reality television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and a new show, A Chance to Dance, that will air August 17? Why does NBC think we don't want to see dance?

The early 20th century introduced America to pioneers of modern dance including Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. The mid-20th century produced a new generation of dance artists including Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown. Then came the post-Judson Dance Theater era of artists: Elizabeth Streb, Mark Morris, Bebe Miller and Bill T. Jones, among others. These artists have reached or are approaching the culminations of their careers but the field has largely failed to develop structures to support the evolving needs of its next generation of artists. Why?

A broader historical look reveals that support for single-artist led companies has dwindled. For example, during the first year of grant making by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966, funding to American Ballet Theater was $100,000 (a significant sum in 1966). This grant was followed by individual fellowships to Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Alwin Nikolais, Anna Sokolow and Paul Taylor. Sizeable NEA awards to individual dance artists no longer exist. This, and other factors, lead me to believe that the 501(c)(3) model for single-artist companies is not sustainable in the 21st century. It is one of the reasons I advocated for merging the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company into Dance Theater Workshop in 2011 to create New York Live Arts, a new model of a producing and presenting organization.

Today, on our $7 million budget, total government support (federal, state and city) is 7 percent of our total revenue. Thirty percent of revenue is earned, 28 percent is from individuals, 26 percent from foundations, 7 percent from special events and 2 percent from corporations. It takes significant resources to raise these funds. Fortunately, New York Live Arts has the capacity to do this. Most single-artist companies do not. Our model is not the only possible new model; there are more creative solutions to be discovered.

Strained budgets at presenting institutions have curtailed presenting seasons and have created risk-averse programming. Larger national presenters continue to book established companies that sell well, but opportunities for new artists to enter the market are shrinking as presenters can no longer afford risking poor ticket sales.

The difficulty of founding and sustaining a non-profit has led today's artists to create work on a project-by-project basis, raising funds through crowdsourcing and fiscal sponsorships instead of forming companies. As a result, artists often serve as their own administrators while creating work. While crowdsourced funding and fiscal sponsorships can support the financial needs of artists, they do not address artists' needs for organizational support. This is why I do not see such structures as sustainable.

New York Live Arts, as a response to such challenges, has launched a Resident Commissioned Artist program to support promising mid-career artists. The $280,000 award is one of the most substantial choreographer awards in the United States. The artist receives full-time salary and healthcare benefits for two years and a production budget. We provide administrative infrastructure, rehearsal space and a fully produced world premiere. Future plans include touring support. The program has seed funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation NYC Cultural Innovation Fund. The inaugural Resident Commissioned Artist is Yasuko Yokoshi whose work BELL will premiere March 16-23, 2013.

Our model addresses many challenges that artists face today, but more needs to be done. We need "hybrid entrepreneurs" to help artists take advantage of other business models that can simultaneously produce social value and earned revenue. New models such as the L3C, benefit corporations and non-profits reliant mainly on earned revenue -- models that support generating risk and growth capital -- should be explored.

Cuts to arts education in schools has led and will continue to lead to declining audiences for dance in the United States. We need arts education brought back into the public schools to both help our future leaders think creatively and to build new generations of individuals who will benefit from the arts. In 2011, the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities released the study, Re-Investing in Arts Education: Winning America's Future Through Creative Schools. The report states:

"Today's workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce. Just look at the inventors of the iPhone and the developers of Google: they are innovative as well as intelligent. ... paradoxically, the nation's public schools are on a downward trend in terms of providing students meaningful access to the arts. ...The declines pose concern for the health of the nation's arts economy since arts education is the strongest predictor of almost all types of arts participation."

For such a young country, the U.S. has a rich cultural legacy having pioneered modern dance, tap dance, abstract expressionism, musical theater, jazz and hip hop among many other forms. It will take professionals working together across the sectors of education, public policy, philanthropy, finance, law and business to reinvigorate and reinvent American dance. New York Live Arts is striving to address these problems. I hope others will challenge business as usual, too, because business as usual is not working.