Danse Macabre

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

By the end of 1995 MDA had reached a fiscal crisis point after accumulating a six-figure debt, much of which came from projects outside the MDA's member-service programs. An evaluation undertaken by the board and staff led to the departure of executive director Kim Konikow, and the entire staff--including this author--was laid off. After a period of rebuilding led by volunteers Mirus, Munger, and Louise Robinson (another past executive director), as well as many members, the organization gradually regained its footing. Funders, including the McKnight Foundation, came to the rescue and the debt load was eventually reduced. Nonetheless, financial problems continued to limit MDA. As Gary Peterson, executive director of James Sewell Ballet and an MDA board member from 1998 to 2000, explains it, "Debt has been the elephant in the living room for the entire last decade."

In 1999 the organization abandoned its membership program and its attendant services (except the newsletter), and gave up Studio 6A, MDA's performing space in the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Minneapolis's dance mainstay, the Southern Theater, assumed responsibility for the McKnight choreographer fellowships that MDA had once handled. According to Georgia Stephens--who'd rejoined the MDA and started volunteering following its 1995 crisis--"the whole capacity of the office and the staff was diminishing."


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)

As early as 1997, MDA executive director June Wilson and the organization had begun to soul-search their way through an extensive planning and assessment effort. The result of that process is the decision to dissolve the Alliance at the end of this year. "I never imagined the planning process would take this long," says Wilson. "There were so many layers to get through. The first part was focusing on where the organization was and what were the needs of the dance community. The membership services were less vital and when that got really clear we decided to change our mission in 1999.

"It was [hard] separating ourselves from what we always did; it was habit," Wilson continues. "There was a lot of anxiety from artists because we weren't there to specifically meet their needs. There are tons of expectations as to how to function. Some people are more comfortable and ready to see us move to a different place. [Younger] artists don't have the same attachment to us, so it was a non-issue to them. It's taken a longer time for older artists to really understand."

Wendy Morris, one of MICA's founders, echoes Wilson's observations, adding that "the organization has always had a very strong sense of ownership by [its members]. The shadow side is that leading the organization is one of the most challenging jobs in the universe. It's like herding cats. It makes change really difficult."

According to Wilson, by January 2002 the dance services organization formerly known as MDA will have entered a "quiet phase." There are plans underway for a different entity to emerge in the coming year--one that will have the same staff, board, location and nonprofit status, but a dramatically different mission. Wilson envisions a new organization committed to advocacy, audience outreach, and connection with artists. More specifically, this may include new programs such as a planned Metro Dance Partnership, which will introduce dance to communities around the state. In a similar bid to reach new audiences, Wilson envisions a Dance Media Café concept that might bring the rehearsal process into a coffeehouse-flavored interactive atmosphere. "We will be shaping the environment instead of reacting to it," Wilson explains.

While Wilson is upbeat about dance's future in the region, she admits that the passing of MDA is significant. "In many ways it is the end of an era," she says. "It's all about the outside factors, the shifts in funding support, the rising costs to produce. I doubt we will see anything like [MDA] again.

The organization that rises from MDA's ashes may well tackle its lobbying tasks with less day-to-day input from its constituency. Such an outcome would leave room in the community for the emergence of an artist-driven organization directed less toward public relations than toward the creative and survival needs of individual artists. In this scenario, a return by artists to the living rooms of MICA lore could happen again.

Dylan Skybrook may well be among the founders of such organizations in the coming years. "I'm not going to miss [MDA] so much for what it is but what it was," Skybrook says. A Minnesota native who moved to the West Coast and then returned in 1997, Skybrook fondly recalls the opportunities he discovered upon coming back to his hometown--performing opportunities that were lacking in the bigger city of San Francisco. Nonetheless, this particular dancer adds that the polyglot nature of MDA was not a draw for him. "I've felt less kinship with ballet and traditional dance," he says. "I'm not oriented to the body and movement itself, but rather an aesthetic, the ideas that drive the work." As a result, Skybrook would like to see a MICA model emerge for a wide range of independent artists, not just dancers.

Dating back to the early collective spirit of MICA, the local dance community has valued consensus--even when it comes to shutting down its own flagship organization. So it is that choreographers and dance administrators alike vocally support the decision to end the MDA. "MDA was a victim of its success and its weakness in changing times," says the Sewell Ballet's Gary Peterson. "It brought to the fore a lot of talent who otherwise would not have seen the light of day. It's not that the legal corporation has to die, but all of the experiences and hopes people have invested in MDA since its inception have to be let go. There is a table of food in front of us and we have to say we've eaten enough, we've drunk enough, let's go to another table."

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