Jessica Lang Dance in Lang's Thousand Yard Stare. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Op-Ed: It's Time to ​Talk About the Harsh Reality of Running a Dance Company

When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:

Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."

Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.


It reminded me of Time magazine's September 24, 2018 cover story, "I Am a Teacher in America." Peppered with personal narratives of educators across the country who are working and living in subpar conditions, the piece arrived on the crest of a wave of teacher walkouts. It is time, the article implied, to engage in broad, frank conversations about the realities of being a teacher in the United States so that we can make some necessary improvements.

I couldn't help but imagine what a similar story would look like about dancers.

Can the end of Jessica Lang Dance finally catalyze some much-needed dialogue about the harsh realities of running a small dance company?

The shuttering of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—underwritten by a single patron—shocked many in the dance world. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

It's not that we'd be surprised to hear what our peers are experiencing. I know I'm not the only company director to have funded gigs with my personal savings, spent thousands of dollars on largely unsuccessful APAP showings, received rejections for grant applications that took hours to complete, or lost money on events I produced. But watching ensembles such as Trey McIntyre Project, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and now Jessica Lang Dance announce their final bows in recent years has made it clear that we're all waging similar battles, and they're not going to be won alone.

The reason for JLD's demise isn't even mentioned in the company's official announcement. If we can't be transparent with each other and with the public about the issues we're facing, we're doomed to similar fates—which, as in the case of JLD, ultimately means depriving audiences of innovative, transformative art.

Yet talking about this makes artists vulnerable. "You can't say you're in financial hardship, because dancers will flee to other companies looking for stability," points out Lisa Swenton-Eppard, artistic director of Capitol Tap and District Tap in Washington, D.C. "Donors don't want to know their money isn't making a difference, so they're less likely to donate again; many will think you're just mismanaging and keeping the money for yourself; and it's like admitting you aren't successful if you aren't making money."

Last year I took part in the New England Choreographers' Retreat at Jacob's Pillow, where 33 choreographers convened to discuss the region's dance ecology. The opportunity to dialogue outside of our personal vacuums, and to be collaborators rather than rivals, was healthy for community-building as well as for art-making.

"There is an inherent sense of competition, perhaps stemming from the struggle to stay afloat, that keeps small companies from coming together to solve mutual problems and work towards mutual goals," says Kimberleigh Holman, artistic director of Boston's Luminarium Dance Company.

Our problem-solving not only led to a greater clarity of—and renewed optimism for—the region's dance landscape, but influenced a meeting of New England Cultural Dance Organizers, who pledged individual commitments to supporting New England dance. I hope that the report, commissioned by the New England Foundation for the Arts, becomes available to a broader audience. The more conversations we can facilitate about the realities of our work, and the more we can share with each other, the healthier our field will be.

Perhaps because I believe so firmly in the role of dance and art-making in a democratic society, I believe that we must raise our voices if we want to protect the artistic ones of valuable companies like Jessica Lang Dance. Will we sit by and watch more great troupes come to a close? Or will we begin the difficult but necessary conversations that might save them?

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What Is Your Definition of Success? 10 Dance Artists & Leaders Weigh in


Success is sharing.

Arun Kumar, courtesy Ramaswamy

"As a dancer and choreographer of a form that is not widely known, sharing it with communities all over the country feels like a major success. The fact that audiences are eager and receptive to hear and see what I feel are universal human messages, but through my point of view, is incredibly rewarding.

"I also feel success in the relationships I've maintained. I create with my mother and sister—the three of us perform together and have grown our partnership over the years. My mentor in India, Alarmél Valli, has been my teacher for over three decades. Every day that I am accepted as her student I feel humbled." —Aparna Ramaswamy, co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance Company

Success is staying passionate.

Courtesy Steffanina

"My first goal was to pay my bills using only dance. No side jobs. Once I got to that point, I felt like I'd 'made it.'

"When I was starting out, it was a big deal to me when record labels would repost a video of mine. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers. But I've realized the most important thing is maintaining your passion for what you're doing. If it starts to be about the views, you will fall out of love with dance. Keep the passion first and then figure out your marketing." —Matt Steffanina, Los Angeles–based dancer and choreographer

Success is serving others.

Courtesy Hibah

"It was more about self-fulfillment as a youngster, and I think as I've matured, I look to see who I can help, whether I'm inspiring someone who sees me onstage or teaching an up-and-coming dancer or sharing my knowledge with my 'Seasoned Saints'—a group of women probably about 60 and over whom I teach yoga to. Of course, I want to continue to be fulfilled artistically. Every artist feeds off of having opportunities to thrive. But now I realize that what I do—how I maintain my body, my craft, my integrity, my diligence—is in fact serving the younger dancer or serving an elder who is looking to find strength and move." —Bahiyah Hibah, Broadway performer

Success if finding balance.

Christian Savini, Courtesy Pam Tanowitz Dance

"It was my dream job once I finally got hired at Cunningham. The financial burden was eased greatly by having that security, and it also helped me improve as a dancer because I had more resources. I was able to consistently go to an Alexander teacher and swim at the Y. I could afford to go to more yoga classes.

"Now, as a freelancer, being successful is having a family, having a healthy relationship and being able to also have a career. I'm at a place where I still love performing, but I also split my time with rehearsal directing and coaching. I feel successful when I can find balance in all of those things, and also financially sustain a life in New York with a child." —Melissa Toogood, freelance modern dancer and coach

Success is feeling proud—and passing it along.

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Anderson

"To me, success has nothing to do with how the public feels. It has nothing to do with applause. It has nothing to do with how much I got paid. It has to do with being proud of the work. As a dancer, every time I got to do a new role and I made it through, it was a little success.

"Now my success has nothing to do with how I feel. I work at Houston Ballet in education and community engagement, so my success is in how students understand what I'm teaching them, and seeing them grow." —Lauren Anderson, former principal dancer with Houston Ballet

Success is dedication and openness.

Stephanie Diani, Courtesy Gibney

"If there was a moment of success, it's probably in the future because I see my career as one of evolution. Certainly, along the way there were milestones—a piece of choreography that really resonated or a space that opened that was particularly functional or unique in its aesthetics. But I think our field is about moving forward one step at a time in increments—constant improvement, iterative growth.

"I think that success is having a deeply rooted, relentless dedication to what you believe in—dedication that can weather difficulties, indecision, rejection. That, coupled with a kind of agility and openness to change at any moment, to redefine and even reinvent yourself. I think those things combined, whatever the outcome, to me defines success." —Gina Gibney, founder, CEO and artistic director of Gibney

Success is continuing to learn.

John Deane, Courtesy Capucilli

"Whether it's delving into the archetypes of a Graham role, a day of teaching or the months required for staging a work, I think that delving voraciously into colorful expression in a truthful way that touches people is what fills me. These experiences can't really be measured by words of success, at least not in my book, but they become a reservoir of knowledge. To say 'I made it!' is too definitive. If you've 'made it,' your journey is over. It should constantly be evolving. I take great pride in knowing that I am continuing to learn." —Terese Capucilli, artistic director laureate with Martha Graham Dance Company

Success is making the most of opportunities.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

"When I got promoted to principal, after 10 years of being a soloist, I really felt that I had accomplished something. And then, all of a sudden, I was thrown into premieres of some of the hardest full-length ballets, with no stage rehearsals, sometimes no company rehearsals, and I realized that actually it doesn't matter what rank you are. It matters what you do with what you've been given. For me, it was going onstage and being able to have enough confidence that I could forget about myself when I was performing, that I could actually get into the character and make the role my own no matter what." —Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre principal

Success is investing in others.

Noah Stern Weber, Courtesy Alexander

"I've found that as soon as you get to one peak, you look around and there are other peaks to climb. It's not dissatisfaction, but the creative impulse to continue.

"One of the measures of success I think about as an advocate and producer is that Chicago Human Rhythm Project has managed to invest millions in artist fees and marketing for American tap dancers who weren't being paid by mainstream dance presenters until recently. We've helped to build capacity for our field. That will last beyond me." —Lane Alexander, co-founder and director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project

Success is less important than desire.

Peter Graham, Courtesy Noche Flamenca

"Sometimes I don't even know what I'm looking for. It's like success has kind of been thrown out the window and it's more the feeling of, as if, I was thirsty and I needed to drink. During my career, or during my life, I've found different roads to try to calm that thirst, satisfy that thirst. But the thirst always exists. An artist is always searching. You can't look for success as an artist. For me, the only thing is a capacity to quench my thirst." —Soledad Barrio, star of Noche Flamenca

(Translated from Spanish by her husband and artistic director, Martín Santangelo)