A little over a week ago, D.C. area dancer and writer Amanda Abrams posted a rather hard-hitting critique of our local dance scene entitled “Work-in-Progress: What’s Wrong with D.C.’s Modern Dance Scene?” As a modern dancer and choreographer working in the D.C. metro area, I have to say that I honestly didn’t have much argument with the points she made. She praises some particular organizations and censures others, and compares the dance scene here to that of other cities, but the crux of her critique is this:
There are plenty of opportunities to make and see dance in D.C. But most local dancers are stuck depicting underdeveloped ideas in a movement style that was popularized several decades ago, one that’s muscle-bound and linear and draws heavily from the ballet vocabulary. Sure, it can be attractive—but what about original and smart? Modern dance has moved on, and choreographers elsewhere are developing new ways to present abstract concepts through the body. But you’d hardly know it by watching many Washington-area dance companies.
Having lived here for over four years, I’ve attended my fair share of dance shows, and I definitely get her point. Earlier in my career, I spent a few years living and dancing in New York City, and I have no illusions that the D.C. dance scene is as dynamic or as daring as what I experienced there. And yet, here’s the thing: Reading Abrams’ article didn’t make me feel justified, it made me feel defensive, a little protective of our local dance scene.
Sure, I’ve seen a lot of half-baked dances since I’ve lived here, but, honestly, I’ve seen a lot of equally crappy work in New York City, Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee and Chicago. I’m not saying that failure elsewhere should make us complacent. I want to see a day when the D.C. area is known for making amazing contemporary work and supporting a strong, articulate community of modern dancers and choreographers. I want to see that happen so much that I decided to stay here, start a company here and build community with other artists here. I see the problems, but I also see the promise.
There are a lot of opportunities here for young dancers to get fantastic training and performance opportunities at places like Maryland Youth Ballet, Dance Place and Joy of Motion just to name a few. And, there are active modern dance programs at many colleges and universities in the area. Where I grew up, just outside Lexington, Kentucky, there was nothing like these kinds of opportunities. To major in dance, I had to leave the entire state. So, we’ve got a lot going for us.
The way I see it what’s right with the D.C. dance scene is also what’s wrong with us. There are lots of opportunities to get started as a modern dancer, but very few opportunities to grow as an independent artist once you are one. Engaging in the creative process takes a real sacrifice of time and energy without any guarantee of “success.” Part of the magic of the NYC dance scene is the sheer number of choreographers making all kinds of work–good, bad, ugly, strange, shocking, mundane. This commitment to just making work and taking risks, not just putting on a show, is sort of in the air. When I was dancing in NYC, I spent a lot time just talking with other artists.
And, I think that’s key to moving forward. Those of us who are here need to be listening to each other, supporting each other, forging collaborations, making more opportunities for each other. The NYC dance scene thrives because the artists within it are its engine, and so everyone one of us making dances in the D.C. area are both part of our problem and our only solution.
While I can’t say I disagree Abrams’ assessment, I do want to say that that I am more excited about the possibilities here than discouraged by the limitations. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. To Peter DiMuro, I say, “Love the Greenhouse idea…more info please.” To Dance Exchange, I say, “Thursday nights sound great. How do we get involved?” And to any “homeless” modern dancers out there looking for a place to grow through the creative process, I say, “You’re invited to alight. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to be part of the solution.”