Stop Motion: Eugene dance world’s shrinking borders

Eugene arts and political leaders must broaden the city's dance horizons

by RACHAEL CARNES

Choreographer David Parsons’ signature piece, Caught (1982), features more than 100 leaps in six minutes by a solo dancer who is repeatedly trapped in mid-motion by the strobe lights he controls, creating an illusion of flight. Seen live, the work is unforgettable; I saw it once here, in Eugene, at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall, danced by Parsons himself.

David Parsons's "Caught." Photo: B. Doctor.

David Parsons’s “Caught.” Photo: B. Doktor.

Caught seems an apt metaphor for dance: vital, powerful yet ephemeral, almost fragile. Dance requires a nutritive base to thrive, constant support and a collaborative spirit. Any dance venture is a leap of faith.

Although Parsons’ company made four visits to Eugene from 1992-2000, it’s unclear when we might see a national or international touring company here again. Dance in Eugene is varied and diverse, yet the community is acutely missing the kinds of opportunities it used to enjoy.

In this city, I can go to the museum and see masterworks on display. I can attend a concert and hear a variety of music from around the globe, played to perfection. I can sit down at the theater and see premiers from playwrights from across the country.

And yes, I can see dance — I try to see everything local — and the talent and verve our community has to offer continually amaze me. But what I can’t see with any regularity is choreography from beyond this valley, or dance from beyond this region.

Eugene once hosted stellar out-of-town companies, artists with worldwide and historical significance: Martha Graham Dance Company, David Parsons, Bill T. Jones, Pilobolus, Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, Nrityagram, even the Bolshoi Ballet — all played the Hult, some making repeated visits to our leafy college town.

Exposure to contemporary dance increases awareness, not just for dance but for other art forms, too. Looking at dance helps people learn to see, to observe, to relate. And looking at dance builds audiences for theater, music and art, for now and for future generations.

So where did the national and international touring companies go? And will the stars align to leverage their return?

For dance to survive in all its vital, questioning, relevant guises, its roots have to dig down into fertile ground. A healthy arts community relies on leveraging funding, ensuring access and cultural equity, supporting smaller organizations, bolstering innovation, offsetting facility costs, supporting distressed organizations and funding arts service organizations.

Ballet Fantastique is the Hult Center's newest resident company.

Ballet Fantastique is the Hult Center’s newest resident company. Photo:  Greg Burns.

But none of this matters without occasional access to the broader dance world. And not just the familiar stuff, but work that sometimes tests, integrates, assimilates. Work that takes disparate threads in our society and moment, and weaves them into a whole — or leaves them unraveled, asking more questions than it answers.

Isn’t that one of the roles of art? We can either invest in creating audiences for contemporary dance or soon wonder why folks have lost their taste for it.

Shifting Priorities

Locally, the Hult Center is a crown jewel: a beautiful, spacious gem, likely capable of hosting any performance event the world has to offer. And the Hult’s resident dance companies, Eugene Ballet and Ballet Fantastique, turn handsprings to cultivate audiences, filling the Soreng and the cavernous Silva halls, season after season, year after year.

Ronald K. Brown's "One Shot: Rhapsody In Black & White" (2007). Photo: Rachel Papo

Ronald K. Brown’s “One Shot: Rhapsody In Black & White” (2007). Photo: Rachel Papo

But when it comes to the Hult’s visiting rentals and touring partnerships, with a few bright exceptions, aesthetics have lately skewed towards television celebrities, magic shows, jukebox musicals.

The last time the Hult presented a national contemporary dance company was Ronald K. Brown’s performance of 2007’s One Shot: Rhapsody in Black and White, in 2008; it’s an indelible, powerful work, inspired by the photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who documented African-American life in Pittsburgh from 1936-1975. (It seems incredible, in retrospect, that the city would take a gamble on this then-current piece.)

So I was hopeful when the Hult announced the reintroduction of its Hult Presents series for the coming season, breaking a years-long hiatus. Scanning the shows, it’s discouraging that, although Daniel the Tiger will grace our center for the performing arts this year, dance isn’t represented in the ’16-’17 lineup.

Why have touring contemporary dance companies fallen off the radar?

In 2007, the city of Eugene conducted a Cultural Policy Review (CPR) process, guided by out-of-town consultants from WolfBrown with input from the arts community. According to Sarah-Kate Sharkey, the city of Eugene’s resource development and communications manager, the city followed the advice set out by the CPR in shifting gears, putting its occasional presentation of national or international dance companies on hold, and reallocating those resources to other cultural services programs.

“I heard there was once a day when the Hult Center presented dancers such as Bill T. Jones and David Parsons,” remembers the UO’s Shannon Mockli, a Dance in Dialogue co-founder. “I recall seeing Ronald K. Brown when I very first moved here. It is incredibly sad to me that their investment in producing these kinds of critical choreographers has waned.” Mockli’s sentiment echoes that of many in the dance community.

“Also, Portland and White Bird Dance are nearly next door,” Mockli says. “Eugene could be an easy stop for a touring company.”

brad-garner-and-shannon-mockli-photographed-by-dmitri-vonklein

Brad Garner and Shannon Mockli. Photo: Dmitri VonKlein.

In the last decade, Sharkey suggests, the city has stressed its relationships with Eugene Ballet and Ballet Fantastique. “Our involvement in dance programming is focused on supporting our two resident dance companies and helping them to have the audiences necessary to thrive,” she says. “We are not looking to compete with them, and any dance programming we do is largely in partnership with them.”

But would the occasional touring company really threaten Ballet Fantastique and Eugene Ballet?

“I saw the Bolshoi at the Hult when I was a little girl,” Ballet Fantastique co-director Hannah Bontrager recalls. “More dance in our community only means more people are seeing it, talking about it, developing an appetite for it.”

Neither does Eugene Ballet Company (EBC) seem to see visiting companies as competition, recently welcoming Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ailey II and BodyVox under their programming banner. EBC also routinely commissions choreographers from around the country to set work on its dancers.

“Eugene Ballet’s scope of work continues to broaden due in a large part to our residency at the Hult Center,” says EBC’s executive director Josh Neckels. “Financial support, through the Hult Endowment, allows us to bring in guest artists and commission new music.”

EBC has worked tirelessly, for nearly four decades, to create and sustain Eugene’s dance presence. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their vision and fortitude. And there may still be hope for future national and international dance tours.

Eugene Ballet brought "Scheherazade" to the Hult Center in 2014. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography.

Eugene Ballet brought “Scheherazade” to the Hult Center in 2014. Jon Christopher Meyers Photography.

Says Sharkey: “The Hult hopes to add dance tours and possible outreach to its line-up beginning in the ’17-’18 season depending on touring routes, block booking and partnerships.”

The fear is that the longer audiences wait, the less patient or engaged they’ll likely be if and when something new comes down the pike.

Sharkey notes that in the meantime, the city does provide some rent and fee reductions for smaller local dance companies and studios, free informal dance events during the summer, performance opportunities through (sub)Urban Projections, as well as grants through Lane Arts Council (paid for from the county’s occupancy tax) to local dance organizations. However, we heard from several sources that the fee structures at the Hult Center, particularly its per-ticket Patron User Fee, could be cost prohibitive to local artists and organizations.

“I want to be sure you understand our role as a partner with our dance companies and as a venue that facilitates populist programming rather than having an artistic agenda of our own,” Sharkey says.

It’s F—ing Hard to Be An Artist

“I think artists here, we want to have our cake and eat it too,” Shannon Mockli says. “We want to live in the beauty and small town feel of Eugene, and we want to engage in art that reflects the cutting-edge of our respective fields, such as the kind of art you find in larger cultural centers,” Mockli says.

Larger cities foster places for classes, workshops, flexible performances and opportunities to present work without the haranguing of constantly self-producing, which not only include marketing events but the development work that is the mainstay of all arts organizations in the nation: spending countless hours on highly competitive grant applications that throw artists in competition for woefully small pots of cash.

Major cities across the U.S. have performance spaces that provide footholds for new and emerging artists to gain exposure as well as to hone and shape their craft — places with pleasant, hard-working administrators who write grants and execute many of the functions of producers, leaving artists to actually make art.

Eugene has two higher-education dance programs, at the University of Oregon and Lane Community College, but it can be a steep drop for any graduate suddenly confronted with the reality of paying for studio space, let alone pulling together a performance.

Liora Sponko, executive director of Lane Arts Council, says: “Over the past few years, I have met with various dance groups who express the need for more rehearsal spaces and affordable performing spaces in our community.”

This challenge should raise alarms, because access to space, for rehearsal and performance, is fundamental to sustaining new work as well as the artists and organizations that create it.

brad-garner

Brad Garner. Photo: Michael Brinkerhoff.

“What we have here are many groups in the emerging to mid-career phase, with strong reputations and steadily growing audience bases, struggling to present one to two events per year,” says UO professor and GARNERdances founder Brad Garner. “Many complain of getting foundational support once and never again, and almost all lose money on their productions. With these single events, many solve the financial problem by involving 30 or more performers, so that they will be assured more ticket sales to friends and families.”

“There are problems with this model,” Garner continues, pointing to issues around audience objectivity, artistic development and chronically unpaid dancers.

And no artist or arts organization in the U.S. is impervious to the relentless bottom line. Across the country, dance faces steep challenges. In recent years, major dance companies, from San Jose to Houston, New York City to Cleveland, have collapsed. Theaters and studios big and small have shut their doors. Even national treasures, like Dance Theatre of Harlem, who should be supported in perpetuity, have fallen victim to insurmountable debt, forcing the company and its seminal repertoire to disappear for nearly a decade.

In an austere America, where a down economy has crushed endowments and tightened belts for benefactors and ticket buyers alike, where the Lyndon Johnson-era agencies that used to send funding down to artists have dried to a trickle, and where the arts are barely, if ever, taught in schools, artists and presenters have been forced to economize:

“Dance tends to be the most expensive to present and most difficult to sell,” says the Hult Center’s Sharkey.

But education and outreach play a role. In Portland, for example, White Bird Dance sprinkles its season with some well-known titans, but they’ve also spent the past two decades engaging local audiences with a wide range of dance from every corner of the globe.

Cirque Alfonse's "Timber."

Cirque Alfonse’s “Timber.”

And every visiting company connects with the community somehow, offering classes and workshops in the schools, teacher-trainings and special events that are free and accessible to participants. White Bird is a small organization with a full-time staff of just five, but they’re pretty clever: This past spring at Cirque Alfonse, a wonderful Québécois modern dance/logging company (you kinda had to be there), the team had promoted the performance to Portland’s passionate Timbers fans, et voila: A huge, rowdy, enthusiastic audience for dance appears!

Another institutionalized innovation that White Bird fosters is its NEST program, or No Empty Seats Today, that allows patrons to make a tax-deductible contribution by donating tickets through White Bird to one of its 20 partnering local human service organizations. Through NEST, people who may never have had the opportunity to see a live arts performance have access to world-renowned contemporary dance companies, and as an added bonus, the house is full, night after night.

Money, money, money

To survive in 21st-century America, dance-makers must possess the acumen and fortitude to constantly grease both artistic and managerial tracks, which raises a series of questions about the future of dance in Eugene.

Could anything help to alleviate this burden? Perhaps there’s potential for more business sponsorships and corporate support? Could the Arts and Business Alliance of Eugene invest in emerging and mid-career artists in contemporary dance? Are there other community stakeholders who could serve as liaison between the dance and business world?

Could choreographers learn about how to apply for the foundational and governmental support that does exist? Or are there nice lawyers and accountants that could volunteer to help them with their paperwork?

The Hult Center's studio has a floor made for dance.

The Hult Center’s studio has a floor made for dance.

Could the city open the doors to the Hult’s beautiful studio as an affordable, incubating rehearsal and performance space for dance? It has a sprung wood floor — and was likely designed for just this purpose.

Are there other spaces in town that might trade rehearsal and performance time in-kind?

Moving forward, the best hope might be the Lane Arts Council, already a strong partner to dance and dance education. The organization offers workshops for artists and arts organizations in marketing, audience building and business development training. It also provides fiscal sponsorship to emerging arts organizations, send dance educators into local schools, allocate the city’s Community Arts Grants as well as engaging in partnerships to create informal dance performance opportunities throughout the season.

And on the horizon, there’s this exciting possibility: “Lane Arts Council is working with several dance organizations to create the Innovation Hub in the old Lane Community College Downtown Campus,” Sponko of the Lane Arts Council says. “This Hub will include an open space in which various dance groups could rehearse and perform to an intimate audience.”

The space is just in its visioning infancy, so it’s hard to say how it will actually be utilized and whether dance will be a priority. Still, it’s exciting to imagine, even if the timeline, from idea to open doors, might be glacial to artists hungry for a new home.

The Eugene city council voted to turn the old Lane Community College building into an innovation hub.

The Eugene city council voted to turn the old Lane Community College building into an innovation hub.

Could a cash infusion speed things along? Could we potentially create new public funding streams to support artists and the infrastructure necessary to support them?

In 2012, Portland voters passed a $35 per person income tax for city residents, the Arts Education and Access Fund. In 2014 the fund garnered $8 million for the arts and education, much of which was funneled to the Regional Arts and Culture Council and its partner, the Right Brain Initiative. (The city of Portland essentially gave over the majority of its arts management to these nonprofits that were already doing a bang-up job of it.)

For more than 10 years, a Cleveland cigarette tax has raised more than $15 million in arts funding for the region each year. And in 2008, Minnesota arts advocates banded together with sportsmen and environmental activists to run a campaign that resulted in the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which amended the state constitution to provide a dedicated sales tax to protect clean water, wildlife habitats, arts and culture, and parks and trails. In 2012, the tax generated $52.6 million for the arts.

Maybe it’s not just about capital, but cooperation. Could the Eugene dance community come together to sponsor a tour or to host a dance series similar to the Oregon Bach Festival? Granted, that organization has a long and illustrious history, but what about a community-wide effort on a smaller scale? Oregon Contemporary Theatre has its NW10 curated playwriting series. What about something like that, but for dance?

Eugene’s challenge isn’t isolated, but its solution could be unique: How about a 1 percent charge on every ticket to a local sporting event that goes towards dance? (Because I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason sports are so fun to watch is that they are dance-like. There, I said it.)

The Next Generation

Dance is fragile. And for most, dance-making is a volunteer gig.

Although small statewide pockets of cash ($1,000-5,000) are available to successful grant applicants, these limited funds are almost uniformly project-based, and most require 501(c) (3) nonprofit status to apply. Although some grantors are loosening restrictions, on a statewide level, many funders won’t look at requests from organizations with an operating budget of less than $100,000.

Eugene's Hult Center for the Arts.

Eugene’s Hult Center for the Arts.

Locally, designated funds that are not open for application provide some ongoing support to specific programs, including EBC and maintaining and improving the Hult Center itself. The largest local competitive grant, the Hult endowment, according to its guidelines provided by the Oregon Community Foundation, funds organizations “that represent traditional art forms,” with a minimum expense budget of $200,000 per year. (To an emerging choreographer who is sweating to come up with $15-$25 per hour for studio time, that figure likely sounds like a Mars landing.)

But a healthy arts community needs both small and large organizations. It’s not a competition for audience dollars; it’s about introducing audiences to a wider way of seeing. That’s why an infusion of meaningful new work from around the country and around the world is so important. It initiates. It inspires. And who knows how to quantify the potential ramifications of that?

In my 20-plus years writing about dance, I’ve had the opportunity to interview many arts-makers, some really big names in the world of theater and dance. And a favorite question to ask is: “What was your earliest inspiration?”

Invariably, superstars in their fields can remember the moment, as a child, when something amazing came through town and they had the chance to see it.

As we embark on the performance year, I’ll enjoy the many and varied offerings the Eugene dance scene has to offer. I’ll donate to my favorite dance organizations and do my best to advocate for dance of all kinds. I’ll look forward to my trips to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and NYC to see national and international dance.

And I’ll cherish my memory of seeing dancer David Parsons, seemingly frozen in mid-air, on the Hult Center’s Silva stage.

This story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.

Rachael Carnes has written for The Stranger in Seattle, as well as Eugene Weekly, since the mid-nineties. She covers dance, theater, performance art, as well as human interest stories, and also founded Eugene nonprofit organization Sparkplug Dance, where she teaches movement to kids who juggle any number of risk factors.

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