Dallas — On March 20, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet announced that they were closing their doors after 12 years of performances. This came as a shock to the dance community in New York, and the dance community at large, because on the surface, Cedar Lake looked like they were having the time of their lives.
They were known for being one of the top avant-garde dance companies nationally and internationally, and one of the top companies to train with, work for, and create work for. They had a wealthy benefactor—the company was founded and created by Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie—generous contracts and benefits for the dancers, and a state-of-the-art studio in Chelsea. But I guess not everything is as it seems.
It’s a commonly recognized fact that obtaining financial stability is one of the major obstacles facing any dance company, be it one that has been around for decades, or one that is just starting up. In New York, this closing comes just two years after Dance New Amsterdam, an organization that provided studio and theatre space for dance, closed, and even though Dance Theater of Harlem is back in operation now, it shut down in 2004 for financial reasons. In San Jose, California, Ballet San Jose had to raise $550,000 in just two weeks to stay afloat, and while they reached their goal, surpassed it actually, they still have another huge hurdle to face. They need to raise $3.5 million by October 2015 to restructure the company’s business model and re-brand itself.
In North Texas, we’ve seen some difficulties ourselves. In 1988, Dallas Ballet was forced to close after facing $1.8 million of debt. Metropolitan Classical Ballet, one of the most successful ballet companies in Texas, closed in 2012. The Bruce Wood Dance Company folded after 10 years, but has come back re-branded as the Bruce Wood Dance Project and with new funding. In 2008, Texas Ballet Theater faced bankruptcy if they didn’t raise $2 million for their next season—which they managed to do. A majority of the smaller companies in Dallas/Fort Worth, work on a project to project basis, rely on crowd funding campaigns and donations, and bounce around from studio to studio to use spaces for free.
So the case of Cedar Lake is not unusual, but it does mark a moment in dance history, as the closing of this company is both a blow to American contemporary ballet and experimental dance. The last few years have seen ballet companies in America moving backward in their programming and reverting to staging old classics that they know will sell seats. Cedar Lake was one of the few companies, on a large scale, on large national stages, and touring, taking risks and bringing to large audiences the more experimental and avant-garde in the contemporary and modern dance world. Were they pushing the boundaries too much for their conservative owner? Did the work cross some line that Laurie was not willing to fund any more? Why close a company that was becoming one of the most popular for young dancers? Why just give up on something that you poured millions and millions of dollars into?
This latter question raises an issue that has always been a point of discussion regarding Cedar Lake: was the company just a pet project for Laurie? In their early days, there were labor disputes, a number of departures from the group, and many critiques of the management from former company members. Then there was story in the New York Times that revealed that dancers were fined for mistakes they made on stage, the resignation of longtime Artistic Director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, and a year with no artistic leadership. Now, 16 dancers and around 10 administrative and stage staff are out of a job, and their 16,000 square foot custom-built space is empty. Their dream ride is over—gone is their full-time salary, their insurance and dental care, and gone are the jobs for arts administrators, a terrible situation considering that field is perennially without many opportunities.
Will this closure be the start of more to come? Sadly, it might be. But it does raise the question of what type of business model dance companies, and arts organizations in general, should follow? What is the best course of action? What establishment would best secure your future?
These questions have no easy answer, but maybe we can learn from the past, and create a new future for dance and the arts.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears the third or fourth Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
Previous columns are:
- February 2014: Cash Choreography
- March 2014: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April 2014: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May 2014: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June 2014: Persevering Through Movement
- July 2014: Sharing in Success
- August 2014: To the Barre
- September 2014: Method Act
- October 2014: Fear of Flying
- December 2014: The Editor Dance
- January 2015: Community Relations
- February 2015: The Fabric of Movement