Opportunity meets struggle in New Jersey’s dance scene.


Hanan Misko and Xiao-Xuan Yang Dancigers of Nimbus Dance Works. Photo by PeiJu Chien-Pott, Courtesy Nimbus.


Most consider New York City the nation’s dance capital. But just across the Hudson River lies a great wealth of dance that is often forgotten. “I think the reputation of New Jersey’s dance scene and its caliber of dance has grown. It’s stronger than it has been in the past,” says Lisa Grimes, executive director of Dance New Jersey, the state’s consortium of dance organizations, which boasts a membership of 30 companies and 200 individual artists, including Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Nimbus Dance Works and Roxey Ballet Company.


But there are challenges unique to dance in New Jersey. Unlike most states, it doesn’t have a dance epicenter—a major city or university—to serve as a primary home for its dance scene. And because of New Jersey’s proximity to NYC and Philadelphia, audiences and donors tend to be attracted to those cities’ larger and more well-known theaters. “There isn’t a real regional scene in that sense,” says Douglas Martin, artistic director of Princeton-based American Repertory Ballet. “Most of the companies out here don’t have a home theater like a traditional regional company. We have to do more publicity to get people to realize that performances are happening.” Regional venues like New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the McCarter Theatre in Princeton and the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University mostly present inter­nationally recognized companies and very few local artists.


Still, there are benefits for choreographers who choose to live in New Jersey, like access to talented dancers in neighboring cities. Strong university dance programs, including Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and Montclair State University, give artists a place to teach and set work. (Even so, rental space is limited, forcing a lot of choreographers to commute to Manhattan for company rehearsals.) There’s also major support in funding regional dance. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts, for instance, offer grants and fellowships only open to New Jersey artists. Dodge awarded $450,000 to 16 dance-specific organizations in 2014; the State Council has given $460,000 to 12 for 2015.


“I see pluses and minuses to working in New Jersey,” says Randy James, artistic director of all-male troupe 10 Hairy Legs. “There is still this thing of ‘Oh, you’re from around here?’ It’s the thinking that homegrown isn’t very good. But we’re starting to see that change.”

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Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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