Audiences for dance seem to be diminishing

March 09, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff

Baltimore's seeming indifference to ballet is puzzling, but it is hardly isolated. In the past decade, audiences for that art form have declined nationally.

Between 1993 and 2000, attendance in the United States for large ballet companies (with budgets of more than $6 million) fell by 25 percent. Audiences for mid-sized companies (with budgets that are $6 million or less) dropped 18.7 percent, according to Dance / USA.

"It is dramatically clear. By all measurements, audiences for ballet are down," said John Munger, research director for the trade group.

Baltimore is not the only mid-sized or large city in the U.S. to lack a resident ballet troupe. Providence, R.I. doesn't have one, and neither do St. Louis, Detroit or Los Angeles.

At the same time, support for other art forms has increased. For instance, attendance at operas grew by roughly 37 percent between 1982 and 1997, according to Opera America's web site.

The audience decline can't be explained by the cost of the tickets; ballet is expensive, but opera generally is more costly.

It shouldn't be that audiences feel intimidated. Even those of us who don't know the fancy French names of the steps can recognize the extraordinary artistic and athletic skill it takes to dance. Add to that the frankly erotic pleasure of seeing human beings at their peak of physical perfection, wearing very little clothing. What's highbrow about that?

Ah, some experts say, that's part of the problem. In the U.S., the glorification of the male body carries connotations of homosexuality that makes some audience members uneasy. "This country is still young and uncultured," said Barbara Weisberger, an artistic advisor for the Peabody's dance department. "We're still affected by our Puritan background and upbringing."

Because it is steeped in 400 years of European tradition, dance often is thought of as an old-fogey art form. In reality, it is the new kid on the block artistically, at least in the U.S. Unlike opera companies, which have been performing here since the 19th century, dance didn't get a toe-shoe here until the 1930s.

The vast majority of companies - 82 percent -- came into being after 1970. In this country, dance is younger than the film industry, and barely older than rock 'n' roll. "The overwhelming majority of existing companies were founded well within the lifetimes of today's senior citizens," Munger said.

And unlike popular music, dance does not lend itself easily to the great star-making medium of the age: television. Those towering leaps, so impressive in real life, are ho-hum when reduced to fit on an 18-inch screen.

"People never have choreographed from the vantage point of the televised eye," said Harriet Ross, artistic manager of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. "Instead, they filmed what was on a proscenium stage and stuck it on television. What works on stage doesn't always work on camera, and vice-versa."

Only in the past decade has there been a gradual realization that supporting the arts is good for the economy. Naturally, businesses want to invest in a safe bet, a proven deal, which in the arts world translates into already-solid dance troupes. "During the '90s, the big companies got bigger and the small companies went under," Munger said.

Yet, there is a silver lining to this picture: while the overall audience for ballet has shrunk, it has become far more broad-based with the advent of national tours. Now, major companies perform regularly in rural areas, instead of exclusively in big cities.

"Even though there is less of it, dance is more visible in this country than it ever has been before," Munger said.

Given the risks and grim financial outlook, why would anyone bother starting a new company? "Dance unites us in our humanity, because it is present across all cultures and socioeconomic groups and folk traditions," said Pamela G. Holt, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts. "We have a natural inclination to appreciate rhythm with our bodies and feet, and we all have danced at some time or another. It is perhaps our most accessible art form.

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