Some Thoughts After 30 Years at the NEA

By Douglas Sonntag

A man and four women pose for a photo.

Dancing Together In 1997: Former NEA dance staff join Director of Dance Doug Sonntag. From left, Andrea Snyder, Sali Ann Kreigsman, Suzanne Callahan, and LaRue Allen. Photo courtesy of Doug Sonntag

 

The Changing Dance Field

It has changed in many ways. The level of dancing has improved tremendously. It’s especially notable in the ballet companies. The depth of technique really extends from the principals all the way to the corps de ballet. That’s quite astounding. There are also changes in the system of dance and not necessarily in a good way.

When I came here 30 years ago, touring was still a viable option for most dance companies, in particular the modern companies. We had grants to dance presenters, to dance companies. There was a network of support for touring activity, which is crucial to dance. There were multiple streams of income that went towards those presentations.

But that has mostly gone away. There are many, many smaller companies now that will never be able to have touring be part of their financial picture, because it’s just too difficult. Even if they do get engagements, it’s hard to make them pay.

Also, there were a number of major festivals and that’s dwindling so that we only have American Dance Festival, Jacob's Pillow, and the Bates Dance Festival. So there are fewer opportunities for dance artists to perform.

I would say that what seems to have happened is that the dance field has stalled. There are new companies coming on the scene, but generally they replace old companies that cease operations.

The other thing I think that is noticeable now, simply because of the time I’ve been able to watch it, is the evolution of foundational companies, those led by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, José Limón, and Alvin Ailey. Thirty years ago I didn’t think of them as foundational companies. They were leading practitioners and now we’ve seen a variety of responses to the deaths of those founders.
But it doesn’t feel to me that there are a lot of people whose personalities are as big as those leading artists. There are exceptions, like Mark Morris, Doug Varone, and Joan Myers Brown at Philadanco.

A Dance Future

“What is the future of dance?” will be an interesting question, because dance is so dependent on people, on dancers, and a specific number of dancers. And that doesn’t get cheaper as time goes by. There’s no way to economize on that.

And then there’s technology. Companies who can afford the technology for live broadcasts, web broadcasts, and connecting with their audience digitally are and will do that. I see technology coming along both as archival and audience development tools. It’s just tremendously expensive to do.

Changes at the NEA

I’ll speak only of the Dance program at the NEA. As I’ve mentioned, when I started there was a thoughtful network that had been created that gave a roadmap to artists to make a career in dance. It began with choreographer fellowships that in most cases led artists to develop a repertory and performance chops.

There were grants to dance presenters that helped those young artists set up a touring schedule. There were grants to dance companies so that they could graduate into larger grants and grants with a higher profile. There were grants to dance service organizations and in the category of dance video that let a lot of artists who were interested in exploring that intersection between dance and film find their way. So, there were interwoven strands of complementary grantmaking that reinforced what a career in dance could be.

And I think that got shredded when we lost the choreographer fellowships. There are several generations now of could-have-been artists who are not.  We’re still relevant to companies that apply to us, but the dollars are small at this point.

On a positive note, other things that have changed is that earlier we didn’t support a number of constituencies, such as college students in dance. But we were able to change that with the National College Choreography Initiative and the American Masterpieces college component. But, it hasn’t been consistent. There wasn’t an emphasis on archiving and preserving dance choreography when I came in here. That began to shift over the years, first of all with the AIDS crisis.

At that time, it became apparent that there was a tremendous amount of talent we were losing—not only the artists, but we were losing everything that they had worked for. It began to dawn on people that something needed to be done or a vast cultural legacy was going to be gone.

I don't think we’ve done that very well. Most companies are still putting their emphasis on producing work, which they should, and not on preserving work. It’s still something that the country needs to address, because it’s a very precious cultural resource and it’s mostly going away.

One of the other impacts that the NEA has had over its 52-year history is to spread dance outside of New York City. That’s really a legacy that this agency can be proud of. There is now dance everywhere, very good dance. Where people didn’t have dance companies, they had Dance in America and Great Performances. The NEA didn’t create the dance boom of the 1970s and 1980s, but it fueled the boom. There was a zeitgeist interest in dance then, but without the NEA’s money, it wouldn’t have boomed. It would have ballooned maybe, but not boomed.

What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned how important the arts are to everyday life, how much they improve the experience of living, how they are in everything—in the design of a chair, in the string of notes that make you remember something or dream about something. For me, dance has been a touched-my-heart story. There’s something so sublime about a great dance performance that is a language, and when it’s well-spoken it’s incredibly eloquent.