Curtain Up

July 31, 2007
In the 1970s when I was performing with the Trisha Brown Company in Europe, people told me how much they envied the American spirit of experimentation. They said that European dance artists were so laden with tradition that they couldn’t budge into new territory. It took years to shed their inhibitions, and now adventurous dance artists and companies are springing up all over Europe, stimulated by visits from companies like Brown’s and nurtured by arts-loving governments.
So it wasn’t too surprising to read Gia Kourlas’ commentary entitled “How New York Lost Its Modern Dance Reign” in
The New York Times
(September 6). Kourlas claimed that Europe has outdone New York as the center of “brave” cutting edge dance. Judging from the bold, innovative companies that have visited the U.S. from France, Belgium, Germany, and England, this may be true.
But let’s remember that New York City was the seedbed for many of these companies. Pina Bausch studied in New York (at Juilliard) and danced with Paul Taylor and Paul Sanasardo before starting her own company in Wuppertal. Sasha Waltz, a new talent from Germany whose company appears at Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, danced with New York choreographer Yoshiko Chuma. And Boris Charmatz, a young upstart from France, credits Steve Paxton as an inspiration. New York has been a kind of earth mother of modern and postmodern dance, sending her children out into the world. And those children have begot children. I see it as a mark of the New York dance world’s success that, a generation or two later, no single place has “reign” over modern dance.
On a recent trip to Seattle, I saw Kourlas’ article posted on a bulletin board at the Cornish School of the Arts (which itself has fed New York in the form of Merce Cunningham and Robert Joffrey). The article lets dance majors know that they can make a life outside of New York City. But if they choose to pass through NYC to water their art-thirst, they won’t go away parched. There are still plenty of brave dance artists in New York, bubbling up from the sheer density of dance. For Kourlas to point to the “conservative nature of dance in New York” is to lump a vast variety into one flavor.
And there are brave artists all over. In the last six months I’ve seen strong experimental work in Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And there’s Japan, Russia, and Israel, to name a few  countries outside of Europe where contemporary dance scenes are erupting.
Kourlas calls it like she sees it, but not all of us see the situation as a race for who has the best or newest dance. We can acknowledge the fruitful exchange between the different dance communities. A steady stream of New York dance artists goes to Europe for teaching stints—to the benefit of both sides of the Atlantic. And this year, the Fall for Dance Festival at City Center drew on dance from Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago—not to mention Montreal, Mexico City, and Lyon. A festival like this enriches our dance community just as it enriches the visiting companies.
There’s a growing sense that we are all in this together. At the New York Dance and Performance Awards (“The Bessies”) evening in September, Jerome Bel, one of the “hot” French choreographers Kourlas mentioned, sent an acceptance speech acknowledging the cushier environment for creating dance in Europe. He announced that he would donate his prize money to a needy New York choreographer. Now that’s giving back! It is that kind of spirit that will keep our gloriously sprawling dance community vital and connected.
Wendy Perron
Editor in Chief