Curtain Up

December 21, 2008

They were dancing in the streets on election night. People were celebrating in Harlem, honking on the Upper West Side, howling in SoHo, and drumming in Brooklyn. And that was just New York. In cities and towns around the world, people rejoiced. An Italian newspaper’s headline trumpeted “Nuovo Mondo.”


Yes, it is a new world, and what can dancers and artists expect in this unknown terrain? Our 44th president (as of Jan. 20) knows that the arts are central to our democracy and our identity. About a year ago Barack Obama spelled out a detailed National Arts Policy. (Damian Woetzel, former star of NYCB and current director of Vail International Dance Festival, is on the committee that helped formulate it.) The platform calls for reinvesting in arts education, creating an “artists corps” to work in low-income communities, increasing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and promoting cultural exchanges in the arts. By improving the visa process, he wants to “return America to its rightful place as the world’s top destination for arts and art students.” Right on!


Many of us have felt a surge of energy in response to Obama’s energy for change. In order to get an idea of how that might play out in dance, I spoke to three leaders in our field.


“We’re ready to work,” said Brenda Way, resident visionary of ODC/San Francisco. “Obama knows that artists are part of the team, and to feel part of the team is exhilarating! We’re perfect allies at a time when he has great hopes for making a difference.”


Liz Lerman, artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Maryland, sees the potential for more collaborations in the arts. “I can see stretching across international lines and looking for more shared evenings.” Lerman worked with Obama a decade ago when they were both part of a Harvard-sponsored project that addressed community involvement. She was impressed with his ability to listen—to really listen to other people’s ideas. She also observed his understanding of the usefulness of the arts, not just in theaters and museums but in the lives of ordinary people.


Judith Jamison met Michelle Obama, and Malia and Sasha, backstage at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago when Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed there last April. (The two girls have been studying ballet with Homer Bryant at his Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center.)


“President Obama has a love of the arts,” Jamison says. “He could possibly make, with our help and his courage, a world that reflects that we are different from each other, but when we gather, we realize we are also the same. That’s what we’ve been doing every night on tour! But,” she says, “we have to help him. It’s not over; it’s just begun.”