New York Live Arts Introduces Itself With Bread, Circus & Not Much Else

Well, actually it was a tasteful selection of wine and hors d’oeuvres following a “conversation” format Q&A, but figuratively speaking it’s still true. The “community introduction” of New York Live Arts, hosted by Dance/NYC last Saturday afternoon at what’s still (through June, at least) known as Dance Theater Workshop, was big on vague attempts to reassure the community invited that when DTW finishes merging with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the new institution will remain a pillar of the dance community. But with lots of rosy predictions and big, abstract ideas being thrown around in what was otherwise an introduction short on practical details, what wasn’t said was at least as important as what was. And despite the laudable effort at spin to create community support, what I heard suggests that NYLA faces a long and probably rough roll-out as it tries to figure out what it wants to be.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is how the relationship between DTW’s Carla Peterson and Bill T. Jones will play out. Structurally, Jones is the “executive artistic director” and Peterson the “artistic director” of NYLA, but Jones promises to continue, you know, being Bill T. Jones and running his internationally respected dance company. Still, he assured the audience that he plans to put his stamp on the “aesthetic” vision of NYLA, which means…what? Peterson will be the day-to-day artistic director whose choices will be meddled with when Jones has time to drop in? I’m not trying to be cynical and it is certainly possible the two will enjoy an entirely fruitful collaborative relationship, but mission drift is a big enough risk during major shifts at arts orgs, let alone when you have too many cooks in the kitchen.

And indeed, for as much as I respect Jones as an artist, what he was saying during the community introduction was not reassuring to me looking at him as a new artistic director assuming the helm of an important institution. He’s certainly a gifted public speaker who knows how to play a crowd, and I’m fairly sure that most of what he said was essentially BS’ing the audience (asking artists to introduce themselves, for instance, is a sure-fire way to kill time when you don’t have anything substantive to say, since most of them will proceed to recite half their CV’s before getting around to speechifying without ever asking a question). But on the off chance he was serious about what he was saying, it struck me as sadly another example of someone used to getting credit for having big ideas, which are, let’s face it, a dime-a-dozen in this business. Practical plans for running a sustainable institution are a bit harder to come by, and Jones had nothing to say of practical import on that front. He may be a fantastic artist, but he has a bit to learn about being an artistic director.

In terms of how Jones envisions NYLA, it seems slightly Baryshnikov Arts Center-esque, a legacy institution that will present work the artistic director thinks is important, mixing new and emerging artists with bankable presentations tied to big names. But that’s just my inference from what Jones said.

Apparently, Jones spent nearly a decade trying to find a permanent home for his company, originally targeting Harlem, which could also serve as a center for other arts events and the larger community (he referenced the 92nd St. Y as an inspiration). Now he’s inherited DTW, with a long tradition of supporting developing artists, which includes a not insubstantial amount of resources being dedicated to non-public performance ventures (the Studio Series and Fresh Tracks, for instance). We were assured in vague terms that these programs would continue, or something like them. We were also assured that the rehearsal studio resources could continue to meet existing needs while also expanding to provide a permanent home for Jones’s company, since a lot of their development won’t be taking place in New York. (Which, again, suggests that Jones will be anything but an on-the-ground administrator.)

Of the few more specific thoughts Jones has about new events to bring to NYLA, one was a public discussion between a visual artist and a choreographer whose work was mutually inspirational. He knows them both and has some insight into how that played out in the Sixties and Seventies. Which I guess means NYLA will become another place whose programming has plenty of room for big name artists in the twilights of their careers to talk about the good old days for the benefit of potential donors, who likewise are interested in the good old days.

And hey, if that brings in the money, Godspeed! But is that important, useful, relevant, practical, or a good use of limited resources to the greater community of contemporary artists born a decade or more after that era? I tend to doubt it.

Jones also talked a lot about branding, which was slightly disconcerting if you take him at his word. Jones doesn’t like the word “dance” apparently; he pointed out that it has about as negative an association in the popular mind as mime does, and was thankfully aware of how easily parodied and mocked it can be. However, saying you prefer to call it “body-based performance” is sort of meaningless, unless you really intend to bring in other, non-contemporary dance-based movement artists. DTW has of course also been diverse, with theater and movement companies sharing space with dance artists. So…what again is the point? Is it a shift in programming, or is Bill T. Jones really thinking the key to making NYLA a bankable destination is billing it as the home for something called “body-based performance”?

So yeah, that definitely elicited a head-shake from me, because marketing and branding your way to popular success is a fool’s game invented by consultants. The problems facing the arts aren’t something marketing can solve; the problems facing an institution, however, actually are. Which is why I was disappointed to see Jones express more interest in how artists marketed themselves than how his own theater would.

New York is in many ways an island, insulated from the broader socio-economic pressures affecting the arts elsewhere and in many ways years behind in adapting to new realities. Around the country one of the preferred methods for creating a sustainable presenting institution has become a matter of making the institution the destination rather than the work itself. Hence the popularity of the festival model employed by a Fusebox in Austin or a TBA in Portland. On the Boards in Seattle presents a season, not a festival, but likewise it manages a high degree of engagement and trust from audiences.

Of course, all of these have the option of being more selective that NYLA will be, if it programs anything approaching the number of shows DTW has. But the point remains–in those cases, the institution bills itself and controls marketing for the artists in order to maintain a higher degree of trust among audiences. For Jones to spend time worrying about how other artists should be presenting themselves to the larger public is admirable, I suppose, in terms of his position in the dance community, but less so coming from the public face of an institution he’s helped create and that everyone wants to see succeed.

So in short, I generally don’t think much was really being said. The heads of the organizations merging to form NYLA know that there’s plenty of skepticism among the dance community (who themselves really are worried about “what this means to me,” not necessarily bigger, loftier things) and are seeking to actively engage and earn the community’s goodwill. But as Jones himself pointed out, it will take eighteen months at least for the shape of the new organization to become apparent. What we’re left with in the short run are high hopes, big ideas, and practical challenges that need overcoming, not the least of which is money. There is a reason, after all, that DTW went after the merger. And insofar as that’s concerned, the one concrete detail that emerged was sort of telling.

In order to facilitate Jones’s company when they are in New York, NYLA is going to knock down the wall between the upstairs studios and install a moveable one so that sometimes it can be multiple spaces, sometimes a big space, and even an alternative performance venue for shows that don’t work in blackbox. But when that will happen is sort of a mystery, because they don’t have the money to do it now: they’re waiting for some grant they applied for to come through.

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