No Dancing

The climate for modern dance in St. Louis is especially chill

Dance St. Louis serves to both entertain and educate its dressed-for-a-night-at-the-Fox audience, at least in theory. But that trickle-down theory of culture -- if people fill the auditoriums for the Three Tenors, they'll get interested in real opera -- rarely, if ever, works. Gash says her company made use of Dance St. Louis' mailing list one year: "Nobody who went to Dance St. Louis came to our concerts."

"Money," Culbertson says bluntly. "That would change the landscape. And a real clear attitude that the art form is worth supporting, if for nothing else to balance our cultural offerings."

In 1987, when Culbertson was just starting out, she received a grant as a creative artist -- you could get those back then -- from MAC: $2,500.

Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre performed its dying swan last weekend.
Jennifer Silverberg
Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre performed its dying swan last weekend.

In 2002 Culbertson received a program grant for her company from MAC: $2,000.

West recalls that in 1994, the year Madco founder Ross Winter died in a car crash, the company "was getting $19,000 from MAC. That went to $15,000 to $12,000 to $10,000, then $5,000 -- finally all the way down to $4,000. It recently went back up to $7,300, but because of the budget shortfall, we have to be prepared to give 20 percent back."

MAC, because it is linked to the budget whims of the Missouri Legislature, is nearing a condition of irrelevancy with regard to arts funding.

RAC (whose revenue is primarily based on tourism dollars), on the other hand, receives high marks from the dance companies. RAC has been Madco's biggest supporter, granting the company $20,000 in the most recent fiscal year. "They care about the artists," says West. "MAC is wrapped up in government. RAC has a fabulous group of employees who care about artists." Gash says her company wouldn't have lasted sixteen years without RAC's support.

Yet, as per state mandate, even that support is organizational. And don't expect much money if you don't deliver dance to the children. Madco and Gash/Voigt began with educational components to their programs, with extensive community outreach, which are the most important buzzwords of arts funding. Nobody wants to begrudge the need for arts education, but the necessity of "community outreach" and "educational component" on grant applications reflects the priority of funders.

"When I talk to people about dance," says Culbertson, "they think, 'My kids would like that.' It's not something an adult should do. It's for their kids.

"But dance and art aren't necessarily for children. I think of dance as an art form. Energy has been thrust into the arts for education. New work is not valued. Value is in educating young people."

There are other worlds. Salt Lake City, with its dance center and thriving dance companies, is mentioned repeatedly by those in the know in dance circles -- all because corporations and foundations and the community have chosen to support the art form.

If the Mormons can do it, why can't the River City? Gash says her advice to a young dancer in St. Louis crazy, stupid or willful enough to form a company is: "Get to the right people. Meet with the people who are in the media. Get them excited about what you're doing. Meet people in the community who can support you, who write big checks and put them down on a table -- because it's going to be hard if you don't have that.

"If I was advising someone out of school, I would say, 'Look for your patron first' -- and don't do the arts funding, quite frankly."

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