During the last decade, dance in Richmond has managed a strange balancing act -- simultaneously growing and sitting still.
The Richmond Ballet moved into a new home and instituted the "Studio Series" of repertory and newly commissioned works to complement its traditional story ballet offerings. But the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Fast/Forward series which had for 18 years presented envelope-pushing artists such as 33 Fainting Spells, Meredith Monk, and Compagnie Marie Chouinard shut down in 2002.
The University of Richmond's Modlin Center soldiers on, bringing us popular dance artists such as Pilobolus and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and VCU Dance regularly presents large- and small-scale companies from around the country including, in recent years, Lim¢n Dance Company, Battleworks and the Urban Bush Women.
Homegrown talent, diverse as always, continues to diversify. The Latin Ballet of Virginia flourishes in Glen Allen; Ezibu Muntu shakes Main Street with drums and dancing feet. Starr Foster Dance Project and Ground Zero Dance Company (of which this writer is executive director) keep on chugging.
Sadly, we're about to lose Dim Sum Dance to Chicago. No fair. But we've gained Amaranth Contemporary Dance, Z Mullins Dance Company, R Squared Dance Company, XF Dance and, deliciously, a small buffet of burlesque troupes such as Sweet Tease and Modern Burlesque Brigade. New companies abound, but the trick is finding support audiences, funding, and rehearsal and performance spaces needed to develop and last.
Plays Well With Others: C
Beyond the Richmond Ballet, few dance artists can make a living in Richmond from dancing or choreographing. In fact, I don't know any. (If you are a dance artist who lives by your art in Richmond I'm not counting teaching here please call me so I can document this rare phenomenon.) That most dancers in this country, especially in medium-sized cities from Portland to Pittsburgh, are waiting tables, filing or teaching 3-year-olds, does not minimize Richmond's problem.
"If the artists cannot devote sufficient time to developing and crafting their work, the art will suffer," says James Frazier, chair of the department of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Building multimillion-dollar venues downtown tackles only part of the problem space. The city could certainly spend a little more time and money on creative approaches to smaller-scale funding of local and regional artists. The Arts Council of Richmond is a start, though its admittedly low threshold of eligibility (organizations with at least a $13,500 annual budget) still excludes a substantial number of local dance artists. Using a different approach to arts investment, Philadelphia's Arts and Business Council pairs nonprofits with businesspeople who serve as consultants or board members. That cultivates growth with time.
Potential for Development: A
Friends, I have faith. There's the CenterStage Foundation, cooking up a performing arts complex downtown. And despite my involvement in this one, I would be remiss to leave out Dogtown Dance Theatre, LLC's renovation of the Bainbridge Gymnasium in Manchester, which will be run by Ground Zero Dance Company as a rehearsal/education/performance space focused on dance and community outreach. If CenterStage will serve as downtown's Broadway, it follows that VCU's Grace Street Theater equals off-Broadway, and the Bainbridge Gymnasium project will serve as off-off-Broadway.
What's more, gallery spaces continue to sprout throughout the city and are often hospitable venues for informal dance performance. Gallery5 is a prime example; Plant Zero is another. But if Z Mullins can stage a performance on a 4-foot square of plywood at Have a Nice Day Café, dance can flourish anywhere.
Meanwhile, VCU Dance continues to send freshly trained dancer/choreographers into the world at the end of each semester, and many of them are sticking around to see how they can contribute to the Richmond scene. Organizations such as OPUS, a group of young professionals whose stated mission is to support the local arts and "to broaden knowledge and interest in our local groups," are laying promising groundwork for a future base of supporters of a diverse and thriving local dance scene.
Dance expansion is happening here, slowly. I want to see artists and organizations of all types and sizes finding support and stability. I want to see more continuity, more professionalism and more respect for the entire dance scene from inside and out. I want boundary-breaking work on stages across the city from artists who have the time and space to create. I want audiences open and unafraid and growing. Let's go.
Lea Marshall is the executive director of Ground Zero Dance Company and a producer/assistant professor at VCU Dance. She writes about dance for local, national and international publications.