Marcie Sillman’s recent Crosscut article “Seattle was once a hub for contemporary dance. What happened?” has caused quite a stir in the community. And it has caused me to do some reflecting on how the dance scene has shifted since my Seattle arrival in 2010. This is less of a refutation of Marcie Sillman’s article, and more of a “yes and” response. Certainly the combo pack of decreased funding, a pandemic, and rising costs of living pose a huge barrier to a flourishing dance scene. But it also felt like such a vast oversimplification of what is actually happening that it doesn’t really add much to identifying what we need to do to nurture a healthy contemporary dance scene.
I feel like I have to say something here that everyone inside the dance community knows, but is almost never said publicly. There’s been a long history of toxic, misogynistic, racist and/or incompetent leadership at almost every established dance institution in Seattle. Some of these leaders are still in positions of power, and some are not. And I hate to say it, but even some of our most locally revered choreographers are known for creating abusive rehearsal environments and mismanaged companies.
This is not new. This is not unique to Seattle. This is not unique to dance. But I don’t think you can talk about the shifting landscape of dance in Seattle without acknowledging the fallout from poor leadership that has sown distrust with dancers, makers, audience, and funders. Is it no wonder that many dancers have left the field, or left Seattle in recent years?
David Rue alludes to this fact in the article, but I think it needs to be said more explicitly that the “hub” environment I moved to in 2010 was mostly a hub for white people doing white people dancing. Yes there were clearer institutional pathways to climbing the choreographic career ladder. But they were pretty exclusionary opportunities. There were also artists of color making work in the city, but less in the institutionally supported way I think Marcie Sillman is talking about. What I see over the last decade is a huge push from Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color to have their work be acknowledged and supported by historically white-led institutions. If we were ever going to be an actual hub and be relevant on a national and international stage, this is a transition that needed to happen.
What do I see now? I see some new and existing dance administrators working to change and adapt some pretty broken systems. I see choreographers insisting on healthy rehearsal environments. I see new dance spaces opening. I see a lot of dance leaders working with and without institutional support to make opportunities. I see a lot of pop up companies who are creating paid opportunities for dancers that didn’t exist ten years ago when everyone was on the festival circuit but no one was getting paid much if at all. I see dance leaving the proscenium and existing in a more fluid way with the community, venues, and other art forms. I see the dance community collectively trying to make a way forward.
I also want to say that of the major art forms, dance is the least well funded and most misunderstood among the general populous. It suffers from infantilization, often stereotyped as a feminine art form devoid of the intellectual status afforded visual art, theater, or film. Like all things, dance exists inside the world at large, a significant portion of which seems to hate women and gay people, intellectualism and freedom of expression. Dance mostly doesn’t serve capitalism and its abstract nature challenges conventional thinking. Again, this is not new, but contextualizes the fact that dance has always been a field that has had to fight for institutional support and so there are fewer safety nets when the world goes to shit. Rising costs of living, broken health care systems, broken child care systems, and the other side effects of capitalism are going to change how dance exists in the world.
Yes the influx of tech workers in Seattle is also a factor. And I do think on an individual level many many tech workers enjoy weird art and are awesome non-monolithic humans. But on a tech culture level, I think there is a huge bridge to cross there. I once spoke to a group of tech workers who said they were always looking for things to do, but had no idea how to know what was happening and had no concept of contemporary performance. I think about this relates to journalism around dance, and how diminishing arts coverage across the board has contributed to this divide and perhaps Seattle going from a “dance town” to Seattle being perceived as a place where contemporary dance is niche. Marcie Sillman has done a lot to fight for coverage of dance in major publications, and though I am frustrated that dance journalism in major publications must always play to the lowest level of dance literacy, I am also grateful when it exists at all.
I also want to reiterate what was said in the article about scarcity mentality. When I was a grant writer that over and over again people would tell me “all the same people always get the grants.” I can assure you that is not true. The grant system is broken, and it’s mostly a crap shoot and a numbers game. One thing I think we can all do to move past the “scarcity mentality” is to be supportive of each other. I do not mean we can not make thoughtful critique—I am a critic after all—but part of a flourishing dance scene is that there is a diversity of work happening, which means that there should be work happening that is not your cup of tea. Be glad for dance, even dance you don’t particularly like! It can be easy to feel resentful when it feels like we are fighting for the same resources. But other dance makers are not your enemy. Save your resentment for the powers of oppression. I, for one, am glad that some parts of that old Seattle dance hub have crumbled away.