Local Dance Communities Need to Champion Their Own Identities

Felicia Rosenfeld, Director of Programming, Pentacle

Having lived and worked now in Los Angeles for almost seven years, I have listened to many Los Angeles dance stakeholders talk about what the Los Angeles dance community needs: more companies of national touring capacity and caliber; more presenters and funders of dance—like there are in San Francisco, Chicago and New York; larger audiences; more national and international recognition of Los Angeles based dance makers, etc. Conversely I have heard dance stakeholders not based in Los Angeles talk about how there is no dance in Los Angeles; there are not enough dance presenters in Los Angeles; or that most choreographers or dancers who are “serious” just want to leave Los Angeles and move to a real dance city like New York. I say enough! I challenge local, regional and national (and even international ) dance stakeholders, including: independent artists, companies, funders, government agencies, presenters, consultants, academics and everyone in between to take a deep breath and start again from a new perspective.

Local communities, despite the “mall-ization” of America, have their own unique cultural fabric, identity, politics, creative inspirations and social economies. Dance makers and their non-performing partners/champions live and work in these communities, creating and presenting work influenced by the environments in which they immerse their lives. We are creating work, teaching, engaging community. Some long to bring their work to other communities, some do not. A still often quoted definition of success that includes many weeks a year of touring, and being able to live only off of presenting concert dance is one that has become anachronistically narrow, and if you really listen to most dance makers, not really a correct one anymore. A broadened definition of artistic and organizational success creates exciting possibilities and helps feed a richer dance culture. In Los Angeles, the lack of traditional presenters of dance frees artists and dance groups from an established path to success that exists in other cities. Dance entrepreneurs have found new avenues for presenting work: casebolt & smith presented six weekends as their home season; local festivals such as Celebrate Dance and L.A. Dance Festival string beads of shared programming; Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre presents site specific work throughout L.A. County, just one example of L.A.’s cohort of artists creating works in non-traditional venues. Los Angeles provides an unusual marrying of the commercial and non-profit dance worlds. Companies such as blue13 and String Theory easily move back and forth performing amongst corporate, concert and commercial entertainment settings. There is a rich dance palette celebrating Los Angeles’ diversity from culturally specific work, to work exploring cultural diaspora, to work rooted in the immigrant experience. Despite voices raised that Los Angeles should learn from Chicago or New York, the Los Angeles dance community continues to creatively find ways to nurture and grow its own unique voice—perhaps without even realizing it, certainly without celebrating that uniqueness. We need to work on stabilizing and growing the dance community within the context of Los Angeles and its own set of socio-cultural realities.

Los Angeles is probably representative of most other U.S. cities with vibrant yet under-appreciated or un-highlighted local dance environments. Houston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Portland all have their own dance communities that play important roles in the overall cultural fabric of those cities. Dance groups in local and regional communities live and thrive as part of those communities, rarely traveling out of state or region. These groups are the fabric of the local dance community. They contribute to the cultural economy of each city or region, and should be championed as such.

Instead of focusing on creating national touring companies, dance groups and choreographers should be guided in finding paths to success individually, in ways that support their home communities (as well as allowing those who hope to tour follow their dreams). Local and regional dance communities should be supported and celebrated for the important contributions they make to the overall culture of a village, town, city, county or region. Dance communities should not be viewed through a New York lens or a narrow definition of what constitutes a successful dance “scene.” Rather dance stakeholders should observe their colleagues and participating artists for who they are, what is unique about them, where their talents and possibilities lie in the larger context of their communities. As we travel to the 2013 Dance/USA conference, I am eager to hear from dance makers and champions from around the nation to learn more about what is happening local dance communities and to see what they might be doing to shake up the status quo.