No Dancing

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

Leave it to a dancer to recognize what a beleaguered quarterback needs.

"Kurt Warner needs some dance training," says Angela Culbertson, a few days before an X-ray confirms that God's own quarterback has a hairline fracture in his right hand. The founder and director of Atrek Dance Company continues her analysis: "Something's stopping him from taking the risks he needs to take. He's not moving well in the pocket at all."

Culbertson raises her arm gracefully from her side, extending her fingers and scooping the air as if ladling gold dust. She explains how an injury to the pinkie finger affects the movement of the arm right up to the rotator cuff. A lot of dance movement plays out in the mechanics of the hand, Culbertson explains.

The Rams, and everybody else, could learn a lot from dancers. Dance is all about the body, the body being the instrument through which dance is made. We upright-walking bipeds are pretty much about the body, too, although we neglect it or deny it. Dance centers on the body, and thus, through acts of grace, transcends the body.

You'd think an activity so damn marvelous would be appreciated, but in St. Louis, dance is the neglected stepsister of the arts, the char girl who keeps doing with less and less with no invitation to the ball in her future.

Culbertson founded Atrek in 1992, and since then there has not been a new, ambitious, rambunctious contemporary dance company formed in the city. Suzanne Grace and Burning Feet left town. Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre performed its dying swan last weekend.

The MidAmerica Dance Company, the grandmother of them all, remains stable -- remarkable, considering that it is one of the few companies anywhere to outlive its founders -- but, cautions artistic director Stacy West, don't say Madco's doing great, because the funding spigot might get cut off. "We're getting by, stable, but don't stop funding us or we're gone," says the clear-eyed dancer with a business and marketing degree.

Madco, 26 years old and still dancing, has finagled a rewarding relationship with Lindenwood University, receiving rehearsal space and internships. But everyone else is involved in the perpetual search for a decent floor on which to try new moves, a venue from which to perform them.

Could there be more thriving, innovative dance companies working in St. Louis? "I would like to think so," West says. "I encounter so many who want to start a new company. I say, 'That's really great.' But inside I say, 'You have no idea.'"

Culbertson would have never started a company, she says, except that it was the only way to get funded in Missouri's alphabet soup of arts agencies: RAC, the Regional Arts Commission; MAC, the Missouri Arts Council; A&E, the Arts & Education Council.

Artists don't get grant money in Missouri. Arts organizations do. So if you're an artist and you want to go the art-funding route, you need to incorporate under nonprofit status, get a board, get staff, get grant applications, write grants, schmooze potential benefactors, find rehearsal space, find a venue -- and before long, you discover, the vast majority of your time is spent tending to your organization, not making art.

Susan Gash and Beckah Voigt have danced this tarantella of futility for sixteen years, and they've had it. "When you look at only 20 percent of your time going into your art," says Gash, "and you're not being compensated on top of that financially, you start to make other choices."

Gash/Voigt has decided to become a perform-for-hire touring company. "We want to go and perform and be appreciated," Gash says.

Gash reflects on the state of dance in St. Louis. "I don't think this part of the Midwest necessarily has an appreciation or an awareness of contemporary art, and specifically contemporary dance. I don't think the appreciation or the value is there. We've been here sixteen years, and we're lucky if we have 200 people in an opening-night performance. We have had a handful of loyal and dedicated supporters of ours in terms of individual contributions and board members. They have really kept us afloat, but it has been a total struggle the whole time.

"It's been sixteen years. The time is right. We are just going to go where we can be supported for hire, whether that's local or going on tour. We're stepping out of the whole art scene. We're not going to be writing grants next year. It's kind of a relief."

For the general public, as well as for corporate underwriters, dance in St. Louis means Dance St. Louis, the presenting organization that brings Riverdance and Stomp and Pilobolus and Paul Taylor and a wide range of national and international touring companies to the Fox Theatre. But Dance St. Louis isn't a dance company, and Madco's West bristles when she's reminded how the presenting organization has been named Best Dance Company in the RFTreaders' poll in previous years.

"In the corporate community, they need to get the most for their dollar, so they give to the Fox, the Muny Opera. If you're doing one weekend of concerts with 500 people in attendance...." West trails off into the obvious.

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.

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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