Danse Macabre

After 22 Years of Supporting Artists, the Minnesota Dance Alliance Marches Into the Grave

When the November issue of the Minnesota Dance Alliance (MDA) newsletter arrived in mailboxes it announced dramatic, if not altogether surprising, news. The 22-year-old MDA, as executive director June Wilson explained in her column, was suspending operations, and would reopen in 2002 as an organization yet to be named, with a brand-new mission. After years of success--and years of crisis management--MDA was simply not relevant anymore. Wilson quoted former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale to make her point:

"The main thing is to be sure that the main thing really is the main thing." After much deliberation, and sometimes painful self-reflection, MDA's staff and board came to the conclusion that among all those tasks, the organization, which originally provided a clearinghouse of services for the dance community, wasn't doing its main thing: shaping the present and future of Minnesota dance. And so they decided it was time to move on and try something different.

When legwarmers were the rage: A performance photo from 1985 featuring MICA founding member Mary Easter (center) and John Munger (left)
Phil Prowse
When legwarmers were the rage: A performance photo from 1985 featuring MICA founding member Mary Easter (center) and John Munger (left)

Raising money for a membership organization in the midst of the worst recession in a decade is no easy job. But MDA's story really extends beyond the rigors of the bottom line. It encompasses cultural trends, shifting funder demands, lofty personal and communal aspirations, competition between the needs of individual artists and companies, philosophical conflict, and the inevitable bad business decision or two. (Disclosure: I was a program director at the Minnesota Dance Alliance from 1994 to 1995.) At the core of MDA's closing was a debate about what the MDA should be doing--and not doing. According to performer Patrick Scully, a one-time MDA board member and founder of Patrick's Cabaret, "It was trying to be a presenter and a service organization at the same time, which is extremely difficult. The democratic approach from the service side differs from the selective processes most institutions engage in. If someone feels resentment for not being selected to be presented, that resentment leaks over, and then the service side is alienated."

Like any influential creative movement, MDA had struggled to address changes in the local performance and arts-funding scene. Wilson's announcement essentially was a confession that the MDA--saddled with a decidedly rigid framework and burdened by debt, opposing priorities, and decades-old preconceptions--could no longer keep up and evolve. But the questions about MDA's utility and mission won't disappear with the group. MDA, whose membership counted nearly every dancer and choreographer in the state, was the only centralized voice for dance in Minnesota (though, some members note, it was never entirely successful as an organization with statewide influence, at least in terms of audience outreach). And dance still requires an advocate, one that can demand attention from audiences, media, and funders alike. Before this can happen, however, the dance community must figure out what happened to the organization that used to fill this role--or at least tried to do so.

 

Many a nonprofit organization has evolved from idealistic vision to viable plan within the humble confines of someone's living room. In the case of MDA's precursor, the Minnesota Independent Choreographers Association (MICA), the living room in question belonged to Marilee Halley, and it was filled with modern dancers and choreographers, all women determined to find a way to pool their resources in order to survive within the idea-rich but cash-poor dance community. What can we do collectively that we can't do as individuals? they asked one another. As it turns out, quite a lot.

The year was 1979 and the "founding mothers" of MICA--Judith Brin Ingber, Maria Cheng, Leigh Dillard, Mary Easter, Halley, Becky Heist, Judith Mirus, Wendy Morris, Linda Shapiro, and Beth Sonen--were a prescient and pragmatic lot. According to Morris, the group's initial intent was to create a calendar of dance events, a "communication vehicle." But once everyone came together, a sense of common need emerged. Georgia Stephens, a dance-company director and cofounder of the now-defunct performance and rehearsal venue SpaceSpace, joined the group in 1980 after moving to Minneapolis. She recalls gatherings that were like support groups, where everyone had an opportunity to talk and gripe. They discussed whom to include in the new organization and determined that there should be no discrimination in terms of aesthetics. One meeting led to another and quickly, says Morris, "a form emerged."

Mirus was installed as the first director of MICA. Morris, who could type 98 words per minute, tapped out the first newsletter, which Shapiro edited. A range of membership services developed, including access to mailing lists, bulk-mailing permits, office equipment, rehearsal space, and performance and funding assistance. Soon MICA's office in the Wyman Building in downtown Minneapolis became the hub of activity for independent choreographers--artists who were "free agents," working outside the traditional confines of a dance company or a school. The budget grew from less than $25,000 to $200,000, thanks to grants from the MacArthur Foundation and others, and in short order the membership exceeded 100.

MICA's formation changed the landscape of what had been a notably parochial Twin Cities dance community in the 1960s and 1970s. John Munger, a dancer and choreographer who also serves as director of research and information for the nonprofit service organization Dance/USA, says that prior to MICA there was nowhere for dancers of different forms to cross paths. The institutional entities in place at the time, including the Nancy Hauser Guild of Performing Arts, Zoe Sealy's Minnesota Jazzdance Company, Loyce Houlton's Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT), Ethnic Dance Theater, and Ozone (now Zenon Dance Company and School) tended not to communicate with one another. According to Munger, "The MDT people didn't go anywhere but MDT. If you were at Hauser and went to Ozone you were viewed as heretical. MICA was different. It was for independent choreographers who didn't want to make big-budget work, have a staff, or a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit classification]. MICA was made by people who had a great need to help each other out. They either had to hang together or hang separately."

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