Lauren Zaleta limps out of the main dance studio of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City in faded jeans and a bulky, olive-green jacket while the other girls—her fellow students—stay behind, in black leotards and white tights. Today, Zaleta’s brown hair, normally piled high in a tight bun that shows off her doll-like face and light blue eyes, is pulled back in a messy ponytail. On doctor’s orders, she’s wearing five-inch high-heeled brown wedge shoes; her right ankle, where she has sprained a tendon, must be relieved of any weight when she walks. Until it heals, she needs to balance her weight on her toes.
Zaleta’s injury has come at the worst possible time: the beginning of the audition season for placements in dance companies, which typically lasts around three months at the start of every year. This is the spring term of her second and final year as a trainee at the prestigious school, which means that unless she lands a job with a dance company within the next sixty days, the dance career of the twenty-one-year-old ballerina will have ended before it ever began.
For the last two years, Zaleta has been a student in the Joffrey School’s pre-professional track, an intensive, highly regarded program for students planning to become professional dancers. Founded more than a half-century ago as an offshoot of the legendary Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet Company, the school enjoys a reputation among dance companies as a prime producer of fresh dance talent. That helps explains why enrollment at the Joffrey has remained steady, with seventy-six current students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two now hoping for spots with modern-dance or ballet companies when they graduate. But for all its prestige, the upper school has become the Joffrey’s most worrisome wing, and for one simple reason: The dance world is crumbling, and young dancers such as Lauren Zaleta are training for a profession that grows smaller and less significant by the year. What once might have seemed a momentary setback—a sprained ankle, a torn tendon, even just a bad cold—now could cost an aspiring dancer an opportunity that may never come back again.
“A couple more months, that’s all I’ve got,” Zaleta says. The prognosis for her profession isn’t much better.
It is not startling news to report that every branch of the performing arts, from symphony orchestras to operas to theater companies, has suffered deeply at the hands of the worst economic downturn in decades. Government funding for the arts has dropped along with endowments, contributions, and ticket sales. Cutbacks are commonplace, and risk taking has diminished as cultural institutions do whatever they can to survive. Symphony orchestras travel less than ever before and more regularly fill their programs with the works of crowd pleasers such as Beethoven and Brahms to ensure attendance. Theater producers routinely cast serious dramas with television and movie stars to draw audiences. Major American opera companies—New York’s Metropolitan Opera included—have been forced to cut back significantly on major productions as endowments shrink.
But American dance culture isn’t just struggling. To some observers, its diagnosis seems to be especially grim, perhaps even terminal: Dance is a victim of inherent weaknesses made yet more dire by the profession’s financial woes. Mounting deficits, shrinking audiences, and less critical support have combined to cause an entire art form to fear its fate in ways that other performing arts do not.
Already less popular than other cultural offerings, even on a good day, dance relies far more heavily on audience support than does its competition. A dance aficionado can’t download a performance on an iPod and enjoy it in the car during a long drive. Dance demands a different kind of interaction with an audience; it takes more effort and concentration—and money—for a dance devotee to end up in a theater or concert hall with a group of dancers and watch them sweat, listen to their breathing, and marvel at the command they have over their bodies. Dance is an all-or-nothing proposition for its audience, and this may end up being a principal reason for its demise.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the worst possible time in dance history for audiences. It is, simply put, the bleakest it has been for the dance industry itself in nearly a century.
This represents a dramatic shift from just thirty years ago, when dancers still were the sorts of celebrities who landed on the covers of magazines such as Time, Life, and Newsweek. Names such as Astaire, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, and Ailey were familiar even to those who didn’t know the difference between modern dance and ballet: “a kind of semi-stoned generation that loved looking at things and dancers themselves,” as former Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt describes 1970 audiences. Hard as it may be to imagine today, thousands of people rioted in Paris in 1914 because they felt Igor Stravinsky’s score for Le Sacre du Printemps—a ballet choreographed by the celebrated Russian dancer Nijinsky—was too violent. The twentieth century saw an explosion of creativity that lasted for decades: Choreographers such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Isadora Duncan transformed the profession and made way for innovators such as Merce Cunningham, Bob Fosse, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and others whose eponymous companies and styles turned dance into a cultural sensation.
In 2011 the prestigious Paul Taylor Dance Company, which debuted in 1954 and became one of the first major touring modern-dance companies in America, will appear in half the number of shows it booked in 2008. The main company used to go to about thirty-five different American cities in a year; last year its dancers visited fewer than twenty. The company used to charge presenters between $60,000 and $90,000 per show. Today the majority of gigs earn $20,000 a week and include mostly weekend performances.
“Think of it from the theater’s perspective,” says Sarah Kaufman, Pulitzer Prize–winning dance critic of the Washington Post, who fears that the profession she critiques, at least in its current form, may one day morph into something far smaller and less significant. “Are they going to book something with a relatively small audience like a dance show or something that will guarantee a bigger audience?” The answer to her question is depressingly clear.
Fewer shows translate into fewer “dancer weeks” for performers. Paul Taylor’s dancers are paid by the number of weeks they perform, which once averaged forty-four weeks a year. In 2009 the average was down to thirty-five dancer weeks, which meant that dancers ended up freelancing for other companies to make more money on the side.
Companies lately have been forced to put most of their funds into heavy marketing in a desperate hope to drum up audiences. As for young dancers, the competition for the few jobs now available to them is so great that, by the time auditions are over, the dancers already are exhausted—before they’ve even arrived on a stage. “Dancers have to fight harder than they have ever had before [because of this], which is very daunting for a young dancer coming out,” says Joan Jeffri, director of the arts administration program and the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Teachers College at Columbia University. “And it’s not like dancers have agents like actors do to find auditions; nothing is centralized.”
To outward appearances, dance aficionados might be mollified by the fact that dance is such a young industry; more than two-thirds of all dance companies were founded in the past sixteen years, according to Dance / USA, the leading research group on dance. But, in a way, that has made matters worse. With only about sixteen companies over thirty-five years of age, it is not surprising that dance lacks much of the infrastructure, cultural memory, and broad acceptance that other performing arts enjoy.
“There’s more people fighting now for existence,” agrees Deborah Jowitt, whose own career serves as a painful metaphor for dance’s troubles. She joined the Voice in 1967, at the beginning of the nation’s dance boom, and was laid off forty years later, in 2008, as the dance downturn deepened. “Lots of companies and not a lot of money. Not a lot of paid work.”
Funding sources are drying up, too. The New York City Ballet let go eleven of its 101 dancers in July 2009 to lighten the company’s $7 million budget deficit by a factor of $1.2 million, on a budget of $62 million. The dismissals were accompanied by reduced staff salaries, a hiring freeze, and cuts to administrative spending. The company expected to reduce the deficit to $5 million this year—better, but not enough to keep the company alive indefinitely.
While the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the first African-American dance troupe that has grown into one of the nation’s most prominent modern dance companies, has not dismissed dancers, the company has reduced administrative staff and salaries. Rather than touring for six weeks, the main company toured for only three in the fall 2009 season. The troupe had to cut overseas touring completely.
That is the current, sorry state of the profession Lauren Zaleta wants to join. It is no wonder she worries that, if her ankle doesn’t heal soon, there’ll be no jobs left.
As Zaleta limps along the hallway at the Joffrey, she spies her friend Claire Sargenti doing pirouettes in an empty studio. Sargenti is a petite, twenty-one-year-old brunette with short, fine hair that falls over her brown eyes when she twirls. When she finally tires of doing pirouettes, Zaleta claps for her; and Sargenti bounces toward her to give her a bear hug before flopping down next to her. Both girls sit on the floor as Sargenti stretches her legs, tucks away stray strands of hair, and wipes the sweat off her face.
Zaleta remembers sitting on the floor when she was three years old, watching enviously as dancers practiced basic floor work and the class instructor said she was too young to start taking classes. Although she liked ballet, it was jazz that drew her in at age four. She danced throughout her traditional schooling, sometimes taking up to four classes during the school week and all day on weekends. She began taking ballet seriously in high school; that’s considered late to begin a professional career in dance, but her previous training in other forms of dance and her innate talent made her an easy choice for judges at the Joffrey auditions.
Today Zaleta explains that cutbacks at large companies mean talented dancers who have been let go from the major companies—or who would have had a real shot at places in such companies—are now filling spots in smaller companies. This trickle-down effect is making it much more difficult for new dancers to emerge on the professional scene.
For Zaleta, thinking about dance means thinking about money. To manage the meager lifestyle of a starving artist in New York City, she completes close to forty hours of work-study at the Joffrey, which means that, for every class she teaches, she can take a class for free. This significantly reduces the $11,500 annual tuition. She also serves as a resident assistant in the school’s dormitory, working late hours so she will have to pay only $200 in rent rather than the $1000 per month charged to the other girls.
Zaleta scrimps on the tools of her trade as well. In her backpack she carries a ziplock bag that holds a small, blue vial of superglue, which she uses to keep her pointe shoes stiff. Holding the pointe shoes so that they face downward, she puts a few drops in the front and leaves the shoes to dry. This will keep the shoes sturdy and wearable for perhaps another day. Pointe shoes, which run between $60 and $100, depending on the brand, can die within one week, unlike flat shoes, which can last for months. Rather than splurge repeatedly on new, delicate shoes, ballerinas will spend $3 for glue to keep old ones in manageable condition.
“I’m used to going without dinner for weeks, used to wearing holey shoes, used to dead pointe shoes that most people would get hurt wearing,” Zaleta says. Her big toe shows through a hole in her flat shoes, which are browned and worn at the soles.
Money was an issue from the start, as Zaleta’s father supports a family of seven on a police officer’s modest income in Philadelphia. Her mother stays at home to take care of a sister with a medical condition, and two siblings are in college. When Zaleta moved to Manhattan at nineteen, her mother told her that, if she didn’t make it into a company or a prominent training school within six months, she had to return to college in Philadelphia and complete her degree in animal bioscience.
Today Zaleta’s mother is incredibly supportive of her daughter’s dancing career. In February she made the two-hour trip from Philadelphia to New York to see Zaleta perform in a free show at the World Financial Center. The show, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, was a collaboration between New York–based artists, including Joffrey dancers, and Beijing Opera performers. Zaleta, in a fuchsia leotard, was on stage for about fifteen minutes.
The key to hiring the next generation of dancers is finding the next generation of people who will pay to see them. Even without funding cutbacks, dance is in trouble because younger people have grown less interested in traditional art forms than in, say, video games. Financial issues are actually making even worse what already had evolved into a crisis. In a survey on arts attendance in 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that less than 3 percent of the population attends a ballet performance in a given year, a figure down by 30 percent from 2002. This figure showed an even more dramatic decline from 1982, when new dance companies kept springing up and funding was available—too much funding, as it turns out.
Between 1987 and 1997, the number of nonprofit dance companies nearly doubled, far outpacing population growth. In 1992 the NEA’s dance appropriations reached nearly $176 million. That same year, the agency awarded $5.6 million to nonprofit dance companies, more than 3 percent of its budget. But by 1996, the agency cut its appropriations to $99 million, a 43 percent reduction, and grants to dance companies dropped by $2.7 million, or nearly 3 percent of the agency’s budget. NEA grants to dance companies have decreased steadily ever since.
Meanwhile, the NEA reports that ballet attendance dropped by one-third between 1982 and 2008 and was down by nearly half for college-educated Americans. The percentage of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who attended a ballet performance fell by nearly 50 percent from 1982 to 2008. The median age of audiences is going steadily up, and it is clear that demand hasn’t kept up with growth.
All of this doesn’t sit well with donors, who tend to prefer supporting institutions such as museums and schools where they can see their names engraved on a wall. Such acknowledgments of support serve as exposure, which means advertising, which eventually could even mean a return on a donor’s investment. But with dance, nothing is permanent. Ticket prices barely cover the costs of a production on the best of days. Think of the dancers, their costumes, makeup, stage crew, live musicians, rehearsal time, stage time, choreography, rights to music. It’s expensive, and it’s fleeting.
“Dance is ephemeral and small, which adds to its charm, but this doesn’t translate into a stable art form,” says the Washington Post’s Kaufman. “When asking people to donate large sums of money to help create new work, they [the donors] are really kind of jumping into a void, which for some is a hurdle. Not everything worthy can pay for itself. Especially in a sour financial climate.”
Yes, all the fine arts in America are in desperate trouble; attendance at opera, theater, jazz, symphony, and ballet performances has dropped dramatically in recent decades, and the median age of attendees has increased dramatically. If the fine arts are to survive as a living, creative, and significant force in American life, arts institutions need to radically recreate themselves.
But dance may not be able to do so before it loses its audience completely.
“They can’t just create programs that serve their typical subscribers and then try and market them in a way that seems relevant to twenty-five-year-olds,” says Diane Ragsdale, whose research paper, “Recreating Fine Arts Institutions,” was published in the Stanford Social Review last year. “They have to program authentically for a younger audience and if that means losing some of the wealthy, older, white patrons that were shackling the organizations, that’s okay too.” Ragsdale now serves as the assistant program officer for performing arts at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has given generous grants to dance entities—including the Paul Taylor Dance Company—in the past.
Not unlike print publications and record labels, many fine-arts organizations have failed to adjust to the radical social, cultural, and technological changes that have taken place in the United States during the past few decades. The way people express their appreciation for art, and the way they view art, has changed. “For a growing number of Americans, particularly young ones, showing up at a prescribed time, paying a hefty admission fee of up to $180, and spending an entire evening passively watching a performance in a dark and sacred venue where even the crinkling of a cough drop wrapper is enough to elicit glares from the patron next to you, feels more akin to penance than an enjoyable way to spend an evening,” says Ragsdale.
Instead, popular forms of dance performance have become more about competition and moves and less about narrative or story—like sports set to music. Television programs such as “So You Think You Can Dance” demonstrate that “successful” dancers are those who can display physical talent; these shows do not showcase dance works based on profound observations or that express something beyond the merely physical.
“That’s kind of out, having a piece be ‘about something,’” says Kaufman. “The ones who want to do something more substantial have to work in the same system of no time or money. It is a system that’s not designed right now to produce a lot of quality.”
The Paul Taylor Dance Company, still known for its original, evocative, and vibrant choreography at a time when Paul Taylor himself is over eighty years old, is now struggling to find its image as audiences seem more interested in commercial pieces. This premier modern dance company is one of the earliest touring companies in America and a brand name in the dance world. Although, after fifty years of building a strong reputation, most of the company’s success is based on its brand, this is also what, ultimately, is hurting it.
“People have loved Paul Taylor for years, but that’s exactly the weakness,” says Edson Womble, the company’s financial director for more than twenty years. “When you’re thirty years old, do you listen to the same things your parents did? The name to young people is Frank Sinatra. And as great as Sinatra is, he didn’t do as many concerts the last fifteen years of his life.”
The key is to attract a loyal following of younger audience members.
“The sad thing is that, if we don’t find an audience, then there is simply no audience for Paul Taylor anymore, and it wouldn’t be the first [company] to go that way,” says Womble. “There is a shelf life. And we’ve still got one more really challenging year ahead of us.”
To gird against failure, dance organizations are spending millions on better infrastructure when they should be redirecting their efforts to appeal to younger patrons.
“Giant buildings are not the answer,” says Gregory Mosher, a director and producer of more than two hundred stage productions who has worked with such playwrights as David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, and Tennessee Williams. He is also the recipient of every major theater award, including two Tony Awards, for his works. He served as the head of theater at New York’s Lincoln Center, where he revolutionized marketing strategies by changing traditional subscription methods to encourage younger, less well-off patrons to come to the theater. “I don’t know anyone under the age of thirty-five who cares about what the Lincoln Center just built. What would matter is if the Lincoln Center took some of the millions of dollars to subsidize seats.”
While Facebook plus podcasts plus $10 tickets isn’t necessarily the simple solution everyone is looking for, new buildings are an issue because they could be impeding the creation of exactly the type of art to which younger audiences are drawn.
“Money is still going toward buildings with the typical marble lobbies and proscenium arches on stage, but this in itself cements the artist to these physical boundaries,” says Ragsdale. “The buildings themselves become a force that is constraining the content of new work.”
Because the arts are a nearly $22-billion-a-year industry in America,
it seems worthwhile to spend a few billion more in an effort to retool
“It’s about getting a young person off an Xbox,” says Mosher.
One answer could involve giving younger employees at arts institutions a say in programming. “Not actively engaging younger staff in serious questions and not giving them authority is just frustrating at this point,” says Ragsdale. “In some cases, it is time for new, fresh leadership altogether, and the transition won’t be easy.”
With arts organizations trying to focus their energies on redefining market strategies to attract younger audiences and make use of minimal funding, dancers themselves are directly affected. Tired of waiting for good news, Claire Sargenti and Lauren Zaleta took matters into their own hands. With two other Joffrey dancers, they started a ballet collaborative called New Bridges Ballet designed to put on low-budget shows in places where one wouldn’t expect to see ballet: in bars, in Washington Square Park, in a music video for a heavy-metal band.
In a journal entry in September 2008, Sargenti wrote eloquently about the night New Bridges Ballet was conceived:
We had the greatest conversation of my life. We were so excited. Every single last word was shouted, even though we sat in a small circle. We shouted about art in America. We shouted about performing arts, and dance, and ballet, specifically, and how it’s dying in America. We shouted about how, as young dying American artists, we had to do something to make a change. Or we would explode. Or defect to Europe. We shouted about saving ballet in America, or contributing to its death, bringing on a better, faster version of the inevitable—slow unnoticed death or a high speed dramatic suicide. Why can’t we perform with other non-dance artists, like how there were graffiti artists in the early productions of Billboards? Why can’t we try a few crazy things and possibly get arrested in the name of art, and really just make ballet?
On the High Line, an old elevated railroad track converted into a park in New York’s trendy meatpacking district, Sargenti and two other Joffrey dancers prepare for the debut performance of New Bridges Ballet. There are some tea candles set on the ground (park rangers have asked the girls to extinguish them), and about ten chairs have been set up in a semicircle beneath an awning. Behind the dancers the sun is setting. Tourists and local couples look out over the river; some take photos near the benches hidden among the greenery that sprouts between the old rails. Most people pause to watch the three girls as they dance around the site to live cello music provided by Sargenti’s friend Aaron Jones. Most of the onlookers wear heavy coats, and their breath is visible on this cold night in January. The three young dancers wear only leggings and light floral dresses as they perform in unison.
The show lasts for twenty-five minutes. Afterward, people wait around to get Sargenti’s business card, which describes New Bridges Ballet. This is a dream far different from the one Sargenti and Zaleta first had as dancers—the dream of the kind of life thirty-five-year-old Maria Phegan has led.
Phegan, a slim, curly-haired brunette, fixes her eyeliner beneath the glow of dressing-room halogens and stretches her long legs. Following a successful career that started at the New York City Ballet, where she trained from the age of twelve, Phegan still dances in New York, often in small productions. The curtain at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre is going up in ten minutes.
“We live for the chaos right before a show, the adrenaline rush,” she says. “Especially when you aren’t sure how many more times you’ll get to do it.”
Phegan moved to Manhattan to train at New York City Ballet’s prestigious ballet school, to study George Balanchine’s technique. Her mother found a family for her to stay with until she was old enough to live with the other ballet students in City Ballet’s dormitory. She performed with City Ballet for four years before moving to San Francisco Ballet, followed by a two-year stint in Germany with the Bavarian Dance Company, and ending up back in the States with a few years at the Houston Ballet Company. She has circled the globe as a dancer and picked up German during her travels. Since coming back to New York in July 2008, she has performed with a number of companies; most recently, she was hired as a dancer in Carmen and Aïda at the Metropolitan Opera. She has also started her first year at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.
“I just have this image in my mind of a statue in front of me at the Acropolis in Athens, when I paused to do an arabesque pose during a show, and I just thought to myself—I’ve really made it,” says Phegan, who teaches yoga and Pilates to pay the rent.
With smaller dance companies such as Sensedance, Phegan gets a chance to perform experimental work. In November 2009 she danced in the New York premiere of Impending Visit and will travel to Puerto Rico in the summer of 2010 with the same show.
Phegan’s career trajectory demonstrates the ways the choices of more experienced dancers are altering the career paths of young women such as Zaleta and Sargenti. Today everyone is in survival mode, and smaller companies suddenly are inundated with inquiries from established dancers.
Eidolon Ballet, founded a decade ago by dancer Melanie Cortier to provide performers with a space to rehearse and perform new works during off-seasons, used to be a tiny ballet company. There were only eight dancers at a time, and they were paid less than the average dancer.
The company was designed to give dancers the opportunity to learn other roles related to performing, including costume and lighting design. But between May and November 2008, Eidolon started to receive up to ten email requests per day for auditions from dancers not only in New York but all over the world, from Turkey to Japan. In November 2009 Cortier held an open audition for one spot, and seventy people showed up. Double that number emailed to ask whether they could audition.
There are even deeper long-term consequences from this disruption—consequences that will cause fallout not only for culture but also for society at large. It’s not that dance companies are in a destructive situation in which they pile up debt they can’t get out of; it’s the combination of financial and cultural issues that is wreaking so much havoc on the industry.
“The arts can’t die, that isn’t the danger, it’s that your favorite venue could die,” explains Randall Bourscheidt, the president of the Alliance for the Arts, a thirty-two-year-old organization that serves New York City’s cultural community through research and advocacy.
The shrinking cultural environment also hurts those who have never seen a dance performance in their lives. According to a report from Bourscheidt’s Alliance that is meant to encourage policy makers to help the arts industry play a role in rebuilding New York City’s economy, nonprofit cultural organizations in the city had an economic impact of $5.8 billion in 2005 and generated more than 40,000 jobs and $2.2 billion in wages. The long-term strain will also be felt in the education sector. As with journalism schools, the training programs that take young dancers from school assemblies to concert halls are the last to react. Dance jobs may be declining, but dance schools still report more applicants—that is, more dancers—at their doorsteps. Everyone in the world of dance has to train at some point to become a performer or choreographer, or to play an adjunct role. But this may be about to change in ways that permanently alter the future of the profession. Fewer dancers now means fewer teachers and older employed dancers later.
“If schools falter and are able to train fewer people, that will have an effect on the art form as well,” says Bourscheidt. “There is a temporary imbalance. Schools tend to lag behind changes in the art form; right now, they are pumping out dancers and artists who then can’t easily make a living.”
Slowly but surely, a career path is fading away.
With the clock ticking, Lauren Zaleta and Claire Sargenti are learning new trades just in case things don’t pan out as they once dreamed during that first ballet class, that first performance of the Nutcracker, that day the acceptance letter came from the Joffrey School.
Sargenti enrolled at New York University in the spring of 2010, hoping to study creative writing or another craft to rely on when she “is in a wheelchair from injuries or too old to dance.” Zaleta is looking into a degree in dance education. They have nearly reached the end of the line: three years at the Joffrey for Sargenti and two for Zaleta. Very soon, despite their best efforts to land a position in a professional company, their careers as dancers may be over.
In the meantime, Sargenti, Zaleta, and two other Joffrey students are doing experimental work with New Bridges Ballet for added training and exposure, and have been very well received. Together, the girls are learning how to fund raise, design costumes, advertise, choreograph new works—and make mistakes—completely on their own. Basically, they are learning how to run a dance company from the ground up.
After enduring two weeks of pain in her ankle, Zaleta went back on stage as soon as her doctor gave her the green light. She has auditioned for about ten companies this season, including the Illinois-based USA Ballet and the Delaware Ballet Company, and has sent out audition videotapes to countless others, among them Maine’s Portland Ballet. While she waits to hear back from USA Ballet and a few other companies that didn’t give her a straight yes or no, she is considering accepting the offer of a teaching position at the Joffrey. This role, in which she would be in charge of the young pre-ballet students, will enable her to get a certificate in both dance and dance education that can be converted into a bachelor’s degree once it is submitted to a college for review. “I’ll have a degree in dance and dance education on my résumé, which will be impressive,” says Zaleta. “I’ll definitely still audition for companies because that’s what I want to do above all else: dance professionally.”
To dance professionally—that is still Zaleta’s dream. For the next several months, she will rest, rehearse, and let her ankle heal properly. By winter she expects a full recovery, and she plans to audition aggressively again next January, when audition season rolls around. She knows that this time it will be her last chance.
Sara Hamdan, a former dancer, has written for Financial Times and The National, and is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.