My first dance contract out of college was for a small modern dance company in Montana. The company had commissioned 4 New York based choreographers over the course of 4 years and this would be the full premier of what was called the Montana Suite. Being a born and bred California boy I was equally excited and terrified for this opportunity. Excited to have the chance to work with artists from New York! Having graduated from a conservatory-style BFA program, New York concert dance was the be-all-end-all for a successful dance career, in my mind. Terrified because I would be leaving sunny Los Angeles to spend 2 months in Montana during the dead of winter. So, with a suitcase full of long-johns, snow boots, and puffy coats, along with my years of Modern Dance training, I was more than prepared for the January rehearsal process. What I couldn’t have prepared for was to have my entire sense of dancer-self put into question by the end of the contract.
“Oh, so you’re a commercial dancer.”
This comment — practically an accusation — was made by one of the choreographers during a lunch break upon learning I lived in LA. It was true that back home I was represented by an agent who sent me out on auditions for TV, popular music artists, and musical theater, but I was also there, performing on contract with a concert dance company. Fueled by the injury of feeling wrongfully identified, I felt the pressure to prove myself as a concert dancer. Thankfully, this drive lead me to my most formative position with Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company (LACDC) - a company that, from its inception, embraced the commercial aspects of the city we represented while maintaining a mission to present concert dance works to the community.
With this company as my model, I almost forgot about the deeply drawn line in the sand until I attended the 2018 Dance USA Conference here in Los Angeles, which included a talk entitled “Bridging the Gap Between Concert and Commercial Dance.” With a title that inherently suggests polarization it’s no wonder this panel became one of the most contentious of the entire conference. Value judgements lead to finger pointing lead to a room of defensive dance-makers operating more on passion than on objective criticism. Issues surrounding the use of social media in dance, the inherent differences between non-profit and for-profit models of dance-making, and the responsibility of audience engagement versus audience education seemed to leave little to agree on. It somehow felt significantly more divisive than the talks on hot-button issues such as race and sexual harassment. So much so, the topic was revisited during the closing ceremony, still leaving many firmly standing in their own corners.
Even for myself, an artist who had been actively supporting the intersection of these approaches to dance-making, I felt the need to choose a side. You see, when we’re forced to see labels or classifications as two ends of a spectrum our ego has to go into self-preservation mode. We have to negate the “other” to justify our daily choices. We have to believe, even when our career is slow or presenting challenges, “well, at least I’m not one of them.”
Now, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I am definitely not the first (and will likely not be the last) to write about this subject. In her 2013 MFA thesis, Mapping: The Relationship Between Concert and Commercial Dance for State University New York, Brockport, Nicole Kaplan proposed a non-hierarchical distinction of the spectrum in which the difference between concert and commercial dance is based purely on context, rather than value. Publications such as DanceNetworkTV, Dance Informa, and Dance Spirit have also posted articles outlining differences in the forms without placing one higher than the other. This type of impartial view allows the two worlds to more harmoniously coincide, and, a mere two years since that heated DanceUSA debate, is starting to penetrate the dance ecosystem.
For one thing, more and more college programs are embracing commercial styles of dance. Likewise, commercial projects are welcoming more dance artists from concert dance backgrounds. The Los Angeles festival circuit has also made strides, with many events providing platforms for artists from both ends of the spectrum to perform on the same program. While all of this is great steps toward “bridging the gap”, as Nicole Kaplan brings up in her thesis, the context for concert dance is still quite different than the context for commercial dance. These distinctions have helpful in clarifying the mission behind each project, but are they helpful in clarifying the type of dancer we are? Could losing these labels end the polarization once and for all? Perhaps it’s not about deleting the terms commercial and concert entirely, but instead examining how and for what these words are used. When it comes to the practitioners - the individual artists working on these projects - perhaps it’s best not name “concert” or “commercial” as personal identifiers.
A dancer’s identity is intrinsically linked to their craft - this is evidenced in the still heavily referenced quote by Martha Graham, “a dancer dies twice” and explored again recently in the New York Time’s article “A Ballerina’s Nightmare: Am I More Than Just a Dancer?” profiling injured ballet star Tiler Peck. Identity is the answer to the question “who am I?” or our general sense of self, as defined by pioneering identity researcher and psychologist Erik Erikson. From his research, all of us go through a phase of “role-confusion,” in which the roles we take on become linked with our identity. The solution to this, especially for the Hollywood creative industry, has been the rise of the multi-hyphenate - a career title that ever expands, rather than integrates. But with increased conversation on concepts such as intersectionality and gender-fluidity, our societal understanding of the nuance of identity suggests it’s not as simple as tacking on additional labels. Erikson’s research goes on to suggest that the development of our “ego-identity” provides a more cohesive and continuous sense of self that remains constant even as roles change. As the way we train dancers broadens and the types of jobs we seek expands, is there an opportunity to embrace an ego-identity to encompass the entirety of our dancer-self? Could a population of career-fluid dancers put an end to future polarization? What if what truly identified us was our practice and physical history, rather than our resume?
Maybe it’s time to attribute the words “concert” and “commercial” to the projects being made, but not to the people who are making them.