When Christopher Wheeldon announced he was leaving Morphoses, the company he founded three years ago, it reminded me just how hard it is to start an arts organization.
Chris had everything going for him when he began his company; he is remarkably successful and famous, deeply loved by many in the dance world, and admired by even more. He claimed headlines in the New York Times when he announced his organization and received reviews from serious critics for every performance.
Numerous presenters, including we at the Kennedy Center, lined up to present Morphoses. We had planned for Chris and his dancers to be part of our Ballet Across America series this Spring and to have a week of their own next season.
Everyone, including Chris, knew that creating a dance company was more than simply creating dances. Building an administrative infrastructure and a board, establishing a fundraising base and creating an audience would all be challenges. But no new dance company in my memory was better positioned. Through his work at New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, alone, he had numerous contacts in the funding world.
But after just three years, he has left. The company has not folded; it has over a million dollars in the bank. But the board and staff remaining must now consider what to do without its founding artistic motivation.
The toll of constant fundraising, board building and marketing, the time taken from choreographing and, finally, working without a corps of steady dancers became too much for Chris.
Why should he spend time wooing a board when he can make dances for the greatest dance companies in the world? Why should he work with an ever changing group of dancers when he can make ballets on established corps in London, New York and San Francisco?
It is hard not to sympathize.
But it is also important to use this moment to commemorate the remarkable persistence and hard work of those who did stick with their companies for decades and decades. Those whose initial work was not covered by the New York Times. Those who had to scrounge for the most meager budgets and who were not offered many performance opportunities.
I am thinking of people like Joan Myers Brown, Trisha Brown, Jeraldyn Blunden, José Limón, Elisa Monte, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, George Faison, and so many others.
These pioneers created dance organizations that have contributed to the dance community and to the national arts ecology for decades. Our dance heritage would not be the rich cultural jewel it is without their struggles.
They stood by their dancers and by their organizations in the very difficult early years. They did not have people asking to serve on boards, they did not have presenters competing to engage them, they did not even get reviewed.
They created magic with so very little.
They are true arts heroes.