Thursday, August 13, 2009

"What happened to Spring into Dance?" from Kathleen

Atlanta is a hotbed of musical innovation and a foodie's paradise. The '96 Olympics drew international crowds, the High Museum has housed art from the Louvre and the Dalai Lama is on faculty at Emory. Culturally, Atlanta is almost a contender on the national stage but not for a missing piece: support and an enthusiastic audience for contemporary dance. The Rialto Center for the Arts sought to change that with their 2008 debut of “Spring Into Dance,” a promotion offering three dance events at various local venues for $45. The Rialto’s director and long time arts advocate Leslie Gordon modeled the promotion after New York City's annual "Fall for Dance," a wildly popular event aimed at exposing audiences to a wide range of dance forms for just $10 per ticket. Gordon's reasons for following suit were simple: Atlantans deserve the opportunity to see what they have been missing. Said Gordon: “[Contemporary dance] is a niche that needs to be filled if we’re trying to be a world-class city.”

But something didn't quite click. The 2008 "Spring Into Dance" line-up included 8 performances by high quality contemporary dance companies. New York giants such as Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and David Dorfman Dance mingled with classics like Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (performed by the Atlanta Ballet). Tania Perez-Salas Compania de Danza added a glimpse into international trends and Several Dancers Core represented local talent. But for the 2008-2009 season, the Rialto website made no mention of "Spring Into Dance" and advertised just 2 dance performances (Trey McIntyre Dance Project and Rennie Harris Puremovement). The united front among arts presenters to promote contemporary dance in Atlanta was no longer, and the season's offerings - Momix, Alvin Ailey, Rennie Harris, even the Atlanta Ballet's Dracula - were comfort food to the fresh tastes of innovation served up by "Spring Into Dance."

To be fair, the Ferst Center briefly ventured into the unknown with its presentation of the avant-garde Shen Wei Dance Arts. But one has to wonder if this company, which has been critically acclaimed since 2000, would have been featured if it weren't for the recent addition of "Beijing Olympics Choreographer" to Shen Wei's resume.

Sameness and an unwillingness to expose Atlanta to the best and brightest of dance - both American and international - continues in the upcoming 2009-10 season. Again, the Rialto is offering just 2 dance performances - the Atlanta staple Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Trey McIntyre returning for a second year. And again, there is no mention of "Spring Into Dance." Is this just another disappointing manifestation of the economic crisis or a deeper indication of Atlanta's lack of interest in contemporary dance?

Contemporary dance is a difficult market. Arts presenters know they can make more money booking one famous singer than twenty just-as-talented but virtually unknown professional dancers. And would-be patrons often dismiss contemporary dance as something they “just don’t get.” This needs to change. Atlanta is a diverse and culturally curious city. We don’t question Mozart’s intentions or refuse to look at a Picasso without knowing the story surrounding its creation. Dance is the same: symbolic sometimes, often emotionally and intellectually challenging, but also, when done well, a treat for the senses like no other.

Our dancers, like our city, deserve recognition. Without the jungle of opportunities and auditions available to New York City dancers, Atlanta professionals are quiet, most of them with other careers in teaching or the arts. But there is undeniable and exciting talent here, choreographic and technical abilities that match and very often exceed those of cities with a larger footprint on the dance map.

A unique collaboration between arts presenters and dancers from across the country, 2008's “Spring Into Dance” signaled an attempt to put Atlanta on par, culturally, with cities like New York and San Francisco. At the time, the Rialto's aggressive promotion seemed like a great way to build patronage for dance, patronage that would also fill the seats of smaller, local performances featuring Atlanta professionals. But somehow the effort fell short. Case in point: as part of the "Spring Into Dance" promotion, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presented an intriguing new piece that was met with packed houses and critical acclaim in New York. In Atlanta, the Ferst Center was about half full for a one-night only performance. With such limited support, how can we expect presenters to bring fresh, innovative and experimental dance to Atlanta?

The only answer, perhaps, is to create this kind of dance ourselves and hope to generate enough local support to sustain it. Dancers are great patrons of dance, but we need to expand our fan base. The recent additions of and this blog to our community serve to reignite what often feels like a dying flame. Organization and visibility are key. Generating excitement for local Atlanta dance is not only possible given the pool of talent, it is essential to the health and vitality of the art form. Dancers, choreographers and the general public can only benefit from more exposure to current dance trends. Old stand-bys should be presented in addition to fresh talent, not instead of it. And older companies should not be afraid to bring something new to Atlanta audiences. Culture-hungry Atlantans will soon abide by Leslie Gordon's advice: "Try it. You'll like it."

-Kathleen Wessel


  1. Great assessment and perspective, Kathleen.

  2. Having been involved in the “Spring into Dance” venture, I do know that it was funded by a grant, so you ask where it went, I assume the grant did not extend into any other seasons. The funding was only for the marketing portion, I think, so it still does not explain why the number of dance performances was cut back down to 2 on the Rialto schedule (as you mentioned, more budget issues perhaps?) I actually don’t know what the final assessment of the promotion was by the Rialto. I also don’t know how much it accomplished the goal of bringing new people to see dance. It may have largely sold to those who would have bought tickets anyway at the regular rate, which of course does not create an incentive for the venues to participate again!

    Some might argue with the status of other art forms as you’ve listed (I saw a whole slew of comments on CL’s food blog ( about whether Atlanta actually IS a foodie city!) but I think one big point (that Sue Schroeder and Shelton Stanfil, ex-CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center agreed upon) was that dance is the only art form (generally speaking) not represented in the Woodruff line up. There’s theatre, visual art, classical music, but no “hut” in the “village of the arts” for dance. (See previous post about gloATL in “rapt”—and yet it took place outside, by choice, granted, but it’s an apt metaphor for the fact that there is in fact no space for dance at the Woodruff.)

    But nevermind the big arts institution of the Woodruff, as you mention, we have little awareness of the dance that is happening here, the homegrown stuff that is often supported by friends/family anyway but would have a larger audience in other cities like New York or Chicago. And because people don’t often go see local dance, they don’t add it to their must see list at the bigger venues, like the Rialto, that bring in dance from outside Atlanta. Of course, growing up in Mississippi I know what it’s like living somewhere that has no, as in ZE-RO, opportunities to see professional contemporary dance. So it all depends on what you’re comparing to. But then again, Atlanta is a city. The metro area has a population of millions, so you’d think you could find a few hundred who could be interested in watching a dance performance now and then?