Starting and sustaining a dance company is not for the faint of heart. It often takes tremendous sacrifice in terms of time, energy and money. But it's not a life sentence. Arts organizations, like everything else, come to an end, and nothing could be more important to an artist's vitality than knowing when to call it quits. Even as the founder of a company, there is a graceful way to move on.
For some directors, like Dance Exchange founder Liz Lerman, it's simply time to move forward. "I needed more freedom and the organization needed fresh vision and leadership," says Lerman, who left the company in 2011. Trey McIntyre ended his Boise, Idaho–based troupe in 2015 to have time to expand his own artistic practice to include filmmaking and photography. "I gave every waking moment to that organization, and that is just not sustainable for a lifetime," he says.
McIntyre's company had achieved its aims, like building a base in a non-dance city and bringing dance into public spaces through spontaneous events. "For a nonprofit to end when its mission is completed is a great thing," he says. Sandra Organ Solis also felt she accomplished much of what she set out to do with Sandra Organ Dance Company (later renamed Earthen Vessels) during the troupe's 16-year run. "We fulfilled our mission, which was to educate and diversify the audience for dance in Houston," says Solis, who closed her company in 2014. "I saw that other companies were in place to continue our mission."
The Logistics of Leaving
McIntyre made the announcement several months before the company shuttered, leaving time to plan a farewell tour, give the dancers an opportunity to get new jobs and let the emotional dust settle. They enjoyed a tearful goodbye show at Jacob's Pillow, one of the first places where they performed.
"You can't imagine the number of loose ends that need to be taken care of in the dismantling of an organization," says McIntyre. "And there is a lot less help to get it done. The whole process took me about two years after the company had officially ended."
Lerman's situation was even more complicated as Dance Exchange owned a building, operated a school and ran several educational programs in addition to being a performance company. Lerman began to shift her position to other artists before she left, having them guide day-to-day programming and future visioning. This helped pave the road for a smooth transition, though the process took about 10 years altogether.
Being free from board meetings, fundraising and keeping a flock of dancers engaged can allow founding artists to flourish in their new chapters. Lerman has started an academic career as an institute professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, where she teaches classes on the creative process. She recently began research for her newest work, with the working title Wicked Bodies, slated to premiere in the next few years.
Having time to do something other than make dances can be a reward in itself. McIntyre's documentary Gravity Hero is expected to appear at upcoming film festivals, and he continues to work on his photography books and his blog on the artistic process. His dance work is still performed all over the country, including a new work for San Francisco Ballet in 2018. He says, "The gift to myself as an artist to be able to make my creative work my priority is remarkable."