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."

Along with this movement to collaborate, MICA strove to energize the individual artist. In the spirit of the co-op movement, MICA combined individual preferences and initiatives with a broader supportive framework. This added up to a form of patronage for independent choreographers. As a result, younger choreographers could experiment outside the hierarchical company structures where the personality of the artistic director tended to overshadow any individual endeavors.

In 1986 MICA became the Minnesota Dance Alliance (MDA) and its mission expanded beyond the Twin Cities to embrace all aspects of dance in the state. The organization moved into the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Says Munger, "There was a dance boom in the United States from 1974 through 1990, and service organizations like MDA served that boom well. MICA and MDA were among the earliest of these organizations, the ones that others in the country modeled themselves after. It made the Twin Cities into one of the half-dozen places outside of New York worth taking seriously."

Diane Waller, an interdisciplinary artist who moved from California to Minneapolis during the mid-1980s, recalls that period as MDA's "most vibrant, a responsive, magical era open to all possibilities." Performance series like "Studio X" and large-scale festivals like "11x20" and "SummerDance" led to the creation of Studio 6A in the Hennepin Center for the Arts, a theater created especially for concert series presented by MDA (including "Short Order" and "Extended Play") as well as artist-produced efforts that generated rental income. Despite low audience attendance at times, all this activity, observes Munger, allowed "Minnesota [to become] an Eden in the sometimes rosy perceptions of dance artists across the nation."

The budget continued to swell toward half a million dollars, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the McKnight, Jerome, and Dayton Hudson Foundations. At least 300 members paid annual dues to receive MDA services, including support in funding, technical matters, communications, fiscal management, and resources. Soon no one, inside or outside of the state, could talk about dance in Minnesota without mentioning MDA.

 

Munger says there was no "bright line" marking when things began to change for the Alliance. It was an intangible shift influenced by a convergence of events, and it became apparent to dancers at different junctures. Stephens reports having broken with the organization over an aesthetic controversy. An artist who not only works with physical movement but also "choreographs text," Stephens objected to the selection process the MDA employed as the administrator of the McKnight independent-choreographer fellowships. Artists using text in their work were told that panelists would only evaluate movement, a directive that Stephens found limiting and ultimately ostracizing. "I stopped paying attention to MDA at that point, and decided to float on my own," she says. "I wanted to do what I considered authentic stuff, on my own terms."

Stephens's experience as a movement-based artist who seemed to defy conventional dance categories represents just one of the many ways the dance community was evolving aesthetically--and how MDA didn't always stay ahead of the trends. MDA, says Munger, had to adjust philosophically and financially to this and other significant changes. For instance, choreographers such as Paula Mann, Robin Stiehm, Cassandra Shore, and Ranee Ramaswamy, all of whom once worked solo or with pick-up groups of dancers, began to form companies. Young choreographers such as the members of HIJACK and Concrete Farm came together to form their own troupes, creating their own support systems. According to Munger, the number of companies in Minnesota grew from 14 in 1989 to 40 a decade later. As a result the different needs of troupes and individual artists began to divide the attention of MDA staff.

At the same time, a number of companies and artists from New York and elsewhere, drawn to the healthy funding community and livable environment in Minnesota, expanded the local dance population. These dance migrants included Chris Aiken, Cathy Young, Danny Buraczeski, Margolis Brown, Shapiro & Smith, James Sewell Ballet, and Corning Dances and Company. While the pool of talent widened, funders shifted priorities and programs, sometimes dissolving altogether, as when Dayton Hudson Foundation shifted away from arts grants and came under Target Corporation's control. Such developments compromised the Dance Alliance's traditional role as a supporter of individual artists.

Finally, MDA suffered from the perception that it was an organization for white women doing modern dance in a locale where Asian, African, and African-American influences--among others--were on the rise. Some companies and artists of note included CAAM Chinese Dance Theater, Djola Branner, Nimely Napla, Morris Johnson's Dancers and Drummers of Langa, and Baraka de Soleil's D Underbelly. According to Patrick Scully, these perceptions of the MDA were not inaccurate--though he believes the group made a game attempt to address the concern. "You have to ask yourself who's not at the table and why," he says. "How can we reconfigure the table? It's tricky, especially when you're operating out of a position of privilege. People come to the table with different dishes, different place settings. Also there are challenges that occur when there are not enough resources. People have fearful reactions instead of imagining the possibilities."

MDA tried to keep pace with all of these changes but soon discovered it could not be all things to all people. In the mid-Nineties, MDA's staff had blossomed to more than five full-time employees, and its programs ranged from membership services to production and presentation. It partnered with other presenter and service organizations like the National Performance Network and Walker Art Center. More national and international artists were invited to lead residencies and perform in town. Anticipated grants didn't always come through and yet the organization continued to overextend itself.

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."

 

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."

MDA leaves behind a dance mecca as its legacy. Derek Phillips, a dance-education coordinator at the Perpich Center for the Arts, notes that "dance is becoming much more common in the schools. We have something called a future in dance. Did MDA have something to do with that? Most definitely." As a sign of dance's prominence in the Cities, Peterson points to Artspace's plans to renovate the Shubert Theater in downtown Minneapolis as a frequent dance venue--a project Peterson is supporting as a Shubert planning-committee member.

Lest the prognosis seem too cheery, though, it's useful to remember that the Shubert project remains only one-third funded, and dance continues to attract fewer fans than music and theater. "We're still living in a culture that doesn't place a high value on what we do," Patrick Scully says. "What will need to happen next is the same initiative that brought about MICA. Maybe independent choreographers can pull themselves together again>=...

"No one should try to go it alone," Scully concludes. "We have to dream about what we want, put out well-thought plans, and go forward."

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