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Janet Schroeder, Dance Historian

Significance of dance presenters in the development of modern dance 

Janet Schroeder

Writing on the development of modern dance in the US, dance historians make the case that individuals as well as cultural institutions contributed significantly. From Isadora Duncan to Pearl Primus, Paul Taylor to Alvin Ailey to Trisha Brown, Camille A. Brown to Pam Tanowitz, individual artists have been making their unique mark on the form for more than a century. As artists, they respond to their historical, cultural, and social contexts; draw on contemporary aesthetics in the field; and highlight their personal identities and stories. However, the contributions of organizations to the field of modern dance might be less obvious.  

Dance presenters like DANCECleveland do much more than simply bring dance companies to town to put on a show. In its 67-year history, DANCECleveland has introduced the artistic voices of choreographers and performers to Northeast Ohio and presented educational programming to create a culture of dance in the community. Part of a larger legacy of dance presenters, DANCECleveland contributes to the continued development of this evocative art form.  

In the early 1900s, organizations in New York City like the Neighborhood Playhouse, an affiliate of the Henry Street Settlement School, and the 92nd Street Y provided structural support to dancers in the form of rehearsal space, rosters of students for classes, and community members who were eager to engage as witnesses and participants. Leaders in such organizations were committed to expanding perceptions of what modern dance could be, so they gathered artists and encouraged experimentation with many styles of dancing. On the west coast, the Denishawn Company and School, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, similarly created innovative training and performance practices. To develop their unique perspective on modern dance, they blended ballet with dances from cultural groups around the world. While early histories of modern dance focus on the east and west coasts, regional organizations like DANCECleveland have also been vital to this history and to the ecosystem that keeps dance growing.  

Originally established as the Cleveland Modern Dance Association (CMDA) in 1956, the ten women who created the organization set out to advance the understanding and appreciation of modern dance in Northeast Ohio. In its first two decades, the modern dance presented by CMDA was narrowly defined and largely driven by the aesthetics of dancers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Wideman, and Hanya Holm through their protégés José Limón, Louis Falco, Daniel Nagrin, and Murray Louis, among others. Touring artists benefited from this presenting structure because their invitations to Cleveland included opportunities to perform and to teach classes, through which they could explore their own aesthetics in the field of modern dance.  

In the 21st century, dance presenters continue to play an important role in the dance ecosystem. DANCECleveland and other dance presenters like White Bird in Portland, Oregon and Jacob’s Pillow Dance in Becket, Massachusetts contribute to the development of concert dance at various stages of the creative process. In some cases, organizations fund the entire creative development process by providing rehearsal space in the studio and on stage; technical support; sound, set, and costume design; and stipends for the artistic staff. In other instances, presenters contribute to particular elements of the process. Regardless of the scope of the support, when organizations like DANCECleveland shoulder some of the financial risk, artists can undertake bolder projects and dig deeper into their creative wells. Contracts with presenting organizations enable companies to anticipate their presenting fees and plan their next moves accordingly.  

Perhaps as important as the benefits to artists, regional dance presenters also impact the culture of their communities. To that end, the roster of dance companies, choreographers, and performers who have passed through Cleveland have exposed audiences in Northeast Ohio to the possibilities of concert dance. Christy Bolingbroke, Executive and Artistic Director of the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron, researches the role of presenters who serve as a bridge between artists and their communities. She states, “with each choice a presenter makes, whether to bring an artist back to their community or introduce someone new, [they are] impacting the community’s working knowledge of dance and shaping a sort of living archive of the dance landscape.” DANCECleveland’s archive includes well-known and emerging artists with aesthetic lineages in modern, contemporary, ballet, ballroom, jazz, and tap dance. Each new artist pushes the community’s understandings and expectations of what dance is.  

Further, educational programming is as vital to DANCECleveland’s mission to foster an understanding and appreciation of dance in Northeast Ohio as the professional performances are. Audiences engage in historical, cultural, aesthetic education through lecture-performances and pre- and post-performance conversations. The community is invited to participate in physical dancing through masterclasses and extended residencies. And throughout the last 67 years, DANCECleveland has continually partnered with organizations in the community to continue its pursuit of sharing modern dance widely. Such efforts support Northeast Ohio, the field of modern dance, and individual artists. Future programming will build on this rich history. 

Notably, DANCECleveland maintained its commitment to the community and to the field even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by doing what presenters do best: listening and adapting. Now, as the organization looks to the future, they continue to respond to shifts in the ecosystem of dance by fostering meaningful connections with the community through unique programming that pairs nationally known artists with local dancers and organizations. From facilitating a collaboration between breakdancer Raphael Xavier and local hip hop dancers in 2021 to this season’s engagement between a local dance studio and SALT Contemporary Dance, DANCECleveland continues its long-held practice of providing free opportunities for audiences in Northeast Ohio to engage with national companies. 

As the organization looks to the future through a new strategic plan, DANCECleveland will continue to respond to the ebbs and flows of dance trends, social issues, and community engagement. And audiences of northeast Ohio will continue to experience live dance for many seasons to come.  

© 2023 Janet Schroeder 

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