Wednesday, December 21, 2005

REV: Dance Via School

Making Artists
Practice, Practice, Practice. Go to College? Maybe.
By ERIKA KINETZ, The New York Times, December 21, 2005

Mark Morris possesses five honorary doctorates. But he did not spend a day in college, rather training for a life in dance at what he likes to call "L'École of Hard Knocks." This, for him, consisted of heading to Europe after high school to practice folk dancing in Macedonia and Spanish dancing in Madrid. He also spent a fair amount of time cooking chickens and hanging out at weddings.

No surprise, then, that he dismisses what has become almost de rigueur for modern dancers: a college-level education. "Most of it in my opinion is just a big bag of wind," said Mr. Morris, whose Mark Morris Dance Group turned 25 this year. "Most college-level dance education should be pedagogy and criticism and history and theory and whatever and not be about performing dance."

Conservatory training fares little better in Mr. Morris's view. "I mostly think it ruins people," he said, though he did concede that Juilliard may be doing something right, given the fact that five of his dancers are graduates. "The .001 percent of people who graduate and become dance professionals, hurray for them," he said. "They are very lucky. I think most often it's in spite of school."

College-level dance programs are proliferating. Dance magazine's College Guide lists more than 500 such programs, up from 131 in 1966. But stable, paying jobs in the field are hard to find. And the utility of a college degree in dancing is a matter of endless debate.

Much of the training of modern dancers still takes place in independent dance studios, not colleges, universities or conservatories. Indeed, conservatories like the Juilliard School and the dance program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts admit students only by audition, which means most people have some kind of training before they even apply. And if a number of dancers who did go to college say they were first exposed to modern dance in college, they add that they really learned to dance in childhood, from their first ballet, jazz or tap teachers.

So while college-age dancers, like college football players, face long odds of landing a spot in the pros, the picture is far murkier for the dancer than the running back: the football player at least knows that he has to go to college to have a shot at the N.F.L. "I thought you had to put all your eggs in that basket to make it happen," said Lauren Grant, who went to the Tisch School and joined the Morris company in 1998. "I know now that's not true." She credits N.Y.U. with helping her get her job with Mr. Morris, but she also says she wishes she had received a deeper academic education.

Not going to college at all gives young dancers a head start on what in many cases is a short career, and it remains the norm for professional ballet dancers. Modern dance is physically more permissive, but still mainly a young person's pursuit; those who rise through the ranks outside academia may be at a disadvantage when it comes to finding teaching jobs after they retire from the stage.

"In this climate, if you want to teach, you have to have a master's," said Maile Okamura, who joined the Morris company in 2001, after a career in ballet, and is one of just two of Mr. Morris's 17 dancers who lack a college degree. "I don't even have a bachelor's. I'm outside that system. I'm not sure how it's going to pan out."

Rima Faber, the program director of the nonprofit National Dance Education Organization, which promotes dance training, said the dance boom in colleges was partly due to the passage of the anti-sex-discrimination law Title IX in 1972 and the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974. "Physical education went co-ed," she said. "And physical education for women started focusing on dance."

In the 1980's and 90's, most of these programs migrated out of the gym and into fine-arts departments. Even so, most are not designed to train professional performers. A star or two may emerge every few years, but many more alumni become teachers or scholars, or leave the field entirely. Some administrators say their programs have flourished simply because people love to dance.

The dance department at Juilliard, which has the luxury of admitting only the best of the best, estimates that in the last few years some 60 to 70 percent of students have found work as dancers after graduating. "We are sending a steady stream of young dance artists into the field, where they are being very well received," said Lawrence Rhodes, the director of Juilliard's dance division.

Tisch does not maintain employment statistics for its graduates, but Linda Tarnay, the chairwoman of the dance department, does acknowledge the awkwardness of preprofessional training for a profession with few paid jobs.

"We have grant-writing workshops," Ms. Tarnay said. "We have tax people come and talk to them about how to keep their taxes. But how to get a paying job? I can't say we do very well at that. I don't know what we could do."

There are no national statistics available, but the national service organization Dance/USA's surveys of two major metropolitan areas - Washington in 2003 and Chicago in 2002 - found that only 21 of the 286 companies in those two cities offered salaried positions. About half did not pay dancers at all.

Nonetheless, Ms. Tarnay said that applications to the Tisch dance program have been increasing; last year 450 people auditioned for 30 slots. "I think it's a miracle that anybody comes," she said. "I'm amazed every year that people still want to do this."

An added difficulty for educators trying to cram life skills into their curriculums is that dancers today must be more physically versatile than ever. Modern techniques have proliferated, and many choreographers now work on a project basis, so most dancers perform with different choreographers over the course of their careers.

"There aren't enough hours in the day to do all the kinds of disciplines and techniques and forms of dance," Mr. Rhodes of Juilliard said. "The variety of what is expected of students has expanded hugely."

Bradon McDonald, a 1997 Juilliard graduate now in the Morris company, said he was happy that his training focused on dance, rather than, say, grant writing or public relations. "I don't think training dancers in business is going to make the dance world blossom," he said. "I think training dancers in dancing is the only option."

Dance departments at liberal arts colleges take a different approach. Brown University, for example, has no dance major and does not even offer ballet classes; dance classes are offered through its well-regarded theater, speech and dance department. "Nobody is training anybody to be a professional in anything at Brown," said Julie Strandberg, the director of the university's dance program. "We're training people to be educated, well-rounded people."

Two of Mr. Morris's dancers attended Brown, but Ms. Strandberg said that few of the students who dance seriously there stay in the field. Some become performers or scholars; others become doctors or lawyers who later serve on the boards of dance companies.

Joe Bowie, who graduated from Brown with honors in English and American literature and joined the Morris company in 1994, is an exceptional case: he started dancing in college, on a dare, and soon dropped his pre-med ambitions. "I was smitten," he said.

While a late start like Mr. Bowie's is difficult for a man, it is near-impossible for a woman. Marjorie Folkman and June Omura, both members of the Morris company, graduated with honors from the dance program at Barnard College, which has an extensive roster of technique classes and is the only school at an Ivy League university with a dance major.

Having danced since childhood, Ms. Folkman decided to go to Barnard in part, she said, because she thought attending a conservatory would have been an intellectual sacrifice. But she spent her college years second-guessing herself.

"I wanted to transfer out," she said. "I kept thinking: I should be in a conservatory, because I'm not getting the training." Today, she says, she is grateful she stayed in college.

"We graduated knowing that if you can't find work, make up your own work," Ms. Folkman said, adding that she feels equipped to tackle a postdance career, whatever it may be. "I am capable of doing other things. I had to take physics. I had to read and discuss and debate and be in the world."

All that reading and discussion may even be good for dancing. "The more widely exposed to all ideas you are, the more interesting person and therefore dancer you are," Ms. Omura said, adding that she had given up on a dance career until she rediscovered modern dance at Barnard. "That sounds fanciful, but I really believe it's true."

Barnard does not have detailed employment information about its dance alumni. Mary Cochran, the chairwoman of the college's department of dance, said that recent dance majors had gone on to medical school, independent choreography and teaching. One is a Fulbright scholar; one dances for Neta Pulvermacher; and one just joined Philadanco, whose founder, Joan Myers Brown, was the subject of the graduate's senior thesis.

Ultimately, Mr. Morris says he does not care what kind of degrees, if any, his dancers have; he cares only that they can dance. His advice to aspiring dancers? "Dance," he said. "Read. Learn music. Look around. Participate in the world."

Which, to some, may sound very much like the ideals of a college education. Presented with this conundrum, Mr. Morris paused. "You need fabulous parents," he said. "I don't know what the answer is."