Week Ending Aug. 20: Strike Up the Cabaret (Conference)

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Rise or Fall features commentary on arts and politics stories, issues and trends from the previous week or weeks.

Rise = more likely we will still be talking about this topic next week.
Fall
= less likely we will still be talking about this topic next week.

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Why Be Afraid to Dance? Well, Here’s Why.
An article 10 days ago in the New York Observer laid bare the grim situation facing the dance world: In New York, it is somewhere between moribund, receiving radiation treatment and outright collapsing. Production expenses, the cost of rehearsal spaces, the relative paucity of venues — for modern dancers, writes the sympathetic Guelda Voien, “there is virtually nowhere else” for modern dancers “to consistently practice their craft” in the U.S. Yet, at the same time, she writes, “there is perhaps no performing arts vocation less financially rewarding in Gotham than dance.” So, to put it a different way, this ghetto may be terrible, but it’s better than all the other ghettos. That’s sad stuff.

To me, these quoted statements above didn’t seem untrue, really, so much as skewed slightly in order to shove more drama into the movement of the overall story. So I decided, in the interest of self-education, to perform a quick, if admittedly cursory, check of the website of Dance/USA, generally regarded as one of the most important arts-service organizations for dance in the U.S. There, on the research tab, there are some tantalizing statistics, circa 2009:

There are now over 600 professional dance companies in America as well as over a thousand pre-professional and semi-professional groups.

The following points summarize some information about the 145 companies with expense budgets of $500,000 or more for fiscal years ending in 2008:

  1. Employed over 7,000 people in a mix of full time and part time positions. These included over 1,600 dancers.
  2. Performed for total home audiences of nearly 4.0 million people. This finding is consistent with the 2008 National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts total for dance audiences of 15.8 million because the majority of dance audiences actually attend performances by companies with budgets smaller than $500,000.
  3. Paid approximately $321.4 million in wages and benefits.
  4. Had operating expense budgets totaling $535.6 million.
  5. Earned $192.2 million, or 37% of their income, from performances.

Remember what the verbiage above says: most dance companies do not have annual budgets of more than $500,000. So is the Observer’s story really suggesting that the dance world is becoming, or has become, a mirror of the economic stratification of the U.S.? And if that is true, what is the endgame for dance?

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Or should dance lovers be grateful that a major newspaper, in an era of shrinking arts coverage, bothered to assign such a story at all?
Verdict: Fall.

Come to the Cabaret, Assuming There Still Is One
I was very taken, by which I mean impressed, with a National Public Radio story about the ninth annual International Cabaret Conference at Yale. You can listen to the story or read the transcription here. Before I write more, I should do full disclosure and state that David Finkle, a dear friend and longtime the chief drama critic of Theatermania.com, has been a consultant for the conference in the past, so on occasion I’ve been privy to information on it (nothing scandalous, sorry!). There are other professionals involved, such as conference Executive Artistic Director Erv Raible, with whom I’ve been acquainted. In terms of faculty, could things be better than Tovah Feldshuh, Faith Prince and the timeless Julie Wilson?

Still, one thing about NPR’s story jumped out at me: it’s benign, well-meaning, yet remarkable implication that cabaret as an industry is undergoing some type of boom. In terms of talent, all right, that could be the case: In what era have voices been more beautiful, more expressive, more commanding, more trained? In terms of something I find equally essential — the business of “the business” — could things be worse? Put it this way: in what esteem in the popular culture is cabaret currently held? Good gracious, do people under 30 or 40, but for the rare, cultured few, actually know what is meant by “cabaret”? Referring to the students at the conference, there is that very last line of the story: “Maybe some of them will in fact be cabaret stars of tomorrow.” What does “cabaret star” mean?

And where will they be performing? Are there more cabaret venues than there were, say, 10 years ago, or fewer? If you remove the high-end rooms from the discussion, what are the figures then?

I will go a little further here and admit candidly that I have an axe to grind. Years ago — and I do mean years ago — as a fledgling director, I became very interested in the world of New York cabaret, envisioning it as an extension of my theater work. What I discovered is that the cabaret community can be one of the most fiendishly self-involved on the planet — clubby, chummy, cliquish, insular. It is also one of the few artistic disciplines I know of in which criticism is decidedly unwelcome if it isn’t relentlessly fawning. (I’m not, strictly speaking, a cabaret critic, so I’m not referring to my own writing on the topic.)

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There is no aspect of show business that isn’t territorial and defensive. Everyone in this business desperately clings to whatever tendrils of importance or power they think they have — unless, that is, they think they can use you. But even in an industry in which the Machiavellian is the mundane, cabaret was frustrating.

If cabaret, then as now, is about celebrating voices, about cultivating a performance niche, then I remain convinced that the cabaret “community” doesn’t do a good enough job asserting its importance, its place, on the cultural palette. I remember one really terrific cabaret performer who did a whole act in tribute to Kate Bush — she was amazing. Equally amazing, I thought at the time, was the reaction of the cabaret intelligensia — they seemed appalled, almost alienated, that someone might deviate from the worship of the American songbook. I’m happy, per NPR’s story, to get the sense that this attitude, at least, has been retired.

I wonder whether the students at the conference know that the appearance of harmony does not necessarily guarantee an absence of dissonant notes.
Verdict: Rise.

Once Electrifying, Now Another Rosenberg — His Career, Anyway — Is Electrocuted
The case of Donald Rosenberg, former music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is a tragic chapter in the long history of American arts criticism — as disconcerting now as it was when it first erupted back in 2008. This coverage in the Financial Times succinctly sums up what happened and this post, by my friend Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, explores what it means. Ditherers beware: there are villains and heroes in this story, and obviously Rosenberg is a hero, sacrificed by the Plain Dealer like a baby calf to the compromised journalism of our era. I feel for his editor, having made tough calls of my own in the past, but I’m still ashamed. Greater shame befalls the music director of Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-M√∂st. It was Welser-M√∂st’s thirst for revenge, his distaste for dissent, his unearned hubris that savaged and sullied the written word as he ruthlessly, recklessly besmirched the reputation of one of America’s finest critics. Welser-M√∂st is a stain on the American arts scene. Cue the dirge.
Verdict: Rise.

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This Is Your Conservative Medicine, Now Suck It Down
According to this op-ed in the Guardian dated Aug. 3, the arts in the U.K. shouldn’t be afraid of arts cuts but instead look upon this moment of governmental fiscal retrenchment as a reason to engage with corporations, who are characterized as eager to do their civic and societal duty and give, give, give out of their (newly profitable) bailed out coffers.

Written by Rena De Sisto, “global arts and culture executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch,” what is striking about her piece is its subtle admission that the global corporate establishment, led first and foremost by the worldwide banking system that managed to sunder shared global prosperity in the name of unruly, unlimited personal greed, certainly have their job cut out for them. Nobody really trusts banks these days, but by the same token, with the conservative coalition government in the U.K. getting ready to decapitate arts subsidies, what choice will administrators have but to deal with those hands that are outstretched to them?

“Cultural institutions must understand that the days of arts support based on executive whim are over,” De Sisto writes, putting the equivalent of whipped cream, or maybe mousse, on the finger she’s wagging. (Side note: if this was news to anyone, it was news to Rip van Winkle.) Fortunately, wisely, De Sisto adds that “companies have an obligation not to interfere in artistic matters.” In short, she argues, the tenuous dynamic between corporations and companies “need not be a Faustian bargain.” Just remember your place, little artists, and no one will get hurt:

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Companies have many people to answer to – shareholders among them – and must extract sound business benefits, such as access for employees, brand visibility and client outreach opportunities… Treat your funders like valued clients and, like all satisfied clients, they will become more loyal…

Such a day of recalibration and reckoning is coming to the U.S., too, just at a later date, possibly after the midterm elections. The question is whether American corporations will press for the same kind of attitude change here. And whether artistic companies will buy what they’re selling, or even have a choice in the matter. (Clemency Burton-Hill of the Independent also has something to say about the whole American funding model, too, and it isn’t exactly warm.)
Verdict: Rise.

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Nonprofit Theaters Had a Crappy 2009, But It Was Less Crappy Than 2008
Theatre Communications Group released its 2009 Theatre Facts. Check out the PDF summary here. I wish they were more proactive at TCG about speaking to people beyond their community. Then again, I guess that would entail doing something other than keeping dossiers on individuals who are specifically deemed to be a threat.
Verdict: Fall.

Karen, my dear:
Please let me introduce my friend Cas Marino. He’s an actor, writer, director, producer, marketing guru and all around Renaissance man of, um, everything.
Cas is working on a show, The Unlikely Adventure of Race McCloud, which was a hit in the 2009 Fringe and now is headed back to the boards in September.
Visit the URL for the show: http://www.racemccloud.com/ and man, dig that trippy music.
Cas is familiar with PR for Smarties and I said I’d make an introduction. So–
Karen, Cas.
Cas, Karen.
Now, y’all don’t talk about me too much. I’m very sensitive.
Leonard J.