American Masterpieces: Dance Preserving Classics of an Ephemeral Art


The Paul Taylor Dance Company

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Taylor's Esplanade, which was reconstructed by Ruth Andrian and was performed by Florida State University as part of the American Masterpieces: Dance -- College Component. Photo by Lois Greenfield.

Since awarding its first dance grant to American Ballet Theatre in 1966, the NEA has been instrumental in proliferating dance in the United States. American Masterpieces continues the tradition by providing grant support for reconstructions of masterworks of the American dance repertoire -- many of them originally choreographed with NEA support -- by professional companies and student dancers at the nation's colleges and universities. The program also provides grants for companies to tour these works, providing employment for dance artists and offering Americans opportunities to experience the nation's dance legacy.

The NEA's dance reconstruction program is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) on behalf of the NEA. NEFA Executive Director Rebecca Blunk explained how the program works: "We have reconstruction grants for projects that get built back from being out of existence in live form and are then announced to the performing arts presenting field as available for touring. When presenters engage the reconstructed projects, there are touring grants available to the presenters who book them." Since the program's inauguration, 14 companies have received grants to support reconstructions of masterworks, including Paul Taylor Dance Company (New York, New York), Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (Salt Lake City, Utah), and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (Dayton, Ohio). The first round of projects also included support for indigenous American dance forms, such as the hula drama Kahekili presented by ancient hula master Hokulani Holt (Maui, Hawaii). Two additional companies have received grants for touring support only.

Blunk said that the NEA's support of these projects is crucial to their realization. "Although it sometimes ends up being a modest portion of the overall budget, [the American Masterpieces] grant is a sort of anchor or spark resource that then draws other resources to be aggregated, so there's that leveraging effect." Blunk added that the NEA's imprimatur also gives a sense of community to the participating organizations. "The NEA is really behind this, it's part of a whole campaign, in effect, that is helping the American public to be in touch with their artistic legacy. So therefore [companies think], let's do it because we're doing it together."

Because of the touring component, American Masterpieces: Dance also benefits organizations that present arts performances. "We're excited about how many new and different presenters are participating in the American Masterpieces program. It's a different group of presenters in some cases...we're happy to have them in our stable of presenters and communities that we directly work with," Blunk said.

Another critical piece of American Masterpieces: Dance is the college component, administered by Dance USA, which supports the reconstruction of master works by college dance programs. According to program manager Suzanne Callahan, the project serves a vital role in preserving the art form's rich history: There is limited notation of dance works, and professional companies often don't have the artistic or financial resources to support reconstructions. "Dance is passed on body to body. In the last 30 years or so, we've been able to work off video, which helps, but it's not the same. Imagine a musician trying to learn a piece of music from an audiotape."

Three dancers in top hats and tails, two men on the outside and a woman in the center, in the middle of a tap dance move

Tapestry Dance Company's Matt Shields, Brenna Kuhn, and Jason Janas perform a piece by the Miller Brothers and Lois as part of The Souls of Our Feet. Photo by Farid Zarrinabadi.

In the first year of these college grants, 28 institutions have received $10,000 each to reconstruct masterworks, including Donald McKayle's Games (University of Iowa, Iowa City), Isadora Duncan's Schubert's Ninth Symphony (Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania), and Bebe Miller's Blessed (University of Hawaii at Manoa).

The college projects have three phases: the work is reconstructed using student dancers, the students perform the completed work, and students participate in active outreach outside of the dance department. Callahan explains that this outreach takes many forms, from presenting a performance to local community residents to involving other campus departments in the creation and presentation of the work to presenting performances and lecture-demonstrations in local schools.

In the long term, the college component benefits individual students and the college community. "For colleges, the prestige of having NEA support and bringing national support onto campus gets the eyes and interest of the university administration. All of a sudden dance is not just this little hidden art form, it's the thing that's bringing national visibility."

The effect on students, who gain the chance to work with nationally recognized dance artists during the projects, is even more profound. "I think the thing that the students probably get that's most useful out of this [is knowing] if you put your mind to something, and you work together as a group, you can accomplish something that a month ago you never dreamed was possible. And that translates, I believe, to just about any area -- a corporate boardroom, a non-profit organization, a sport, or a classroom," said Callahan.