Concert and Commercial Dance: A View From Under the High Horse

Recently, I was talking to some friends about the difficulty of finding funding for dance companies. One of them, who is currently a company manager and studying non-profit management (you can check out her blog here), was saying that she wished the commercial dance industry (dance in film, TV, music videos, etc.), which does make serious money, would give back to the concert dance world.

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That’s a really good point. Why aren’t dance TV shows, which are raking in the big bucks, on the list of donors for dance companies which are just trying to stay afloat? After all, if these shows claim to do the dance world a service by exposing the public to small, easily-palatable slice of it, why don’t they feel compelled to support the majority of less-exposed artists who have long been developing the techniques and choreographic ideas that they like to sample from?

But it’s not just a one-sided issue: the non-profit dance sector could benefit from a closer relationship with its for-profit counterpart, but not until concert dance people (I include myself here) get off our high horses and drop some of our snobbism toward commercial dance.

“But I like my high horse,” you protest. “It’s my favorite kind of horse! And what if I care about the integrity of the art form?” I feel you, but as fun as it is to claim the status of a “true artist” and look down upon the flash and trash of the world’s lowly entertainers, maybe we need to consider the possibility that commercial dance has something to offer us—and not just money.

After all, why are we still trying to maintain a line between “high art” and “low art”—as if that distinction wasn’t largely arbitrary, historically shifting, and rooted just as much in classism and elitism as in merit? Before we claim that what we do has nothing to do with “entertainment,” let’s not forget the first ballets were made to spice up parties or that Martha Graham started out as a vaudeville dancer.

We have to admit that, as much as we might like to dismiss commercial art and entertainment as silly or insignificant, it is inevitably influential in shaping culture and determining how most people experience the world. (Personally, even as someone who has an intellectual and artistic appreciation of music across genres, nothing is so deeply and emotionally tied to my conception of time and change throughout my life as stupid pop songs.)

And if we insist that dance has inherent humanistic value, we have to consider which humans we’re making dance for. If it’s mostly small urban, educated populations with either a lot of money or dance training themselves, that’s arguably the people who need it the least. As much as we don’t want to determine our worth as artists based on ratings or box office sales like those *Hollywood people,* maybe we should consider that building the sheer size and scope of an audience is not totally without artistic value.

And what about sometimes paying attention to the wants and needs of these people watching? Sure, commercial media may go overboard with their target demographic research and focus groups, engineering content into a mere reflection of the viewer’s own interests. But must we go so far in the other direction, turning dance into a one-way expulsion of personal expression with no regard to who is receiving it? If these two sides combined forces, could we make some dance which functions as a two-way conversation between artist and viewer?

And hey, we might even end up with some people making art and money.

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