10/16/2013 Chicago Ann Wheeler of Tennessee and her daughter Carolyn 15, pose for a picture in the lobby of the Auditorium Theatre before seeing the Joffrey Ballet opening of "La Bayadere" on Wednesday, October 16, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:26AM
Earlier this month, as Salt Lake City’s Ballet West performed both its lavish production of “The Sleeping Beauty” and an adventurous mixed bill program at the Auditorium Theatre, the company’s artistic director, Adam Sklute, found himself mobbed in the aisles by girls of every age (and more than a few mothers).
How did Sklute, who for years was known only to Chicago’s dance insiders for his role as associate artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, suddenly become a rock star? And how was the Auditorium Theatre able to turn a strong, yet hardly “brand name” regional ballet company into a box-office success?
Send your bouquets to the CW television network and its reality show, “Breaking Pointe,” which has spent two seasons chronicling Ballet West. To be sure, this show is no high-minded documentary, but, as Sklute told me, it has resulted in the enrollment of a larger and more gifted pool of students in the company’s school, “and certainly has helped our marketing and increased our touring engagements.”
Other shows have joined this TV dance phenomenon: Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” and ABC Family network’s short-lived “Bunheads,” and even those mass appeal shows, “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Does all of this attention mean that the audience for dance is getting a whole new lease on life?
Certainly there has been a great proliferation of small companies and increased “dance awareness” in recent years. This is particularly true in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former dance student, can rattle off the names of world class choreographers. But the real proof is the response to the Chicago Dancing Festival which, since 2007, has presented free, sophisticated concerts that draw as many as 12,000 people to its Millennium Park evening, and thousands more to several indoor venues.
At least part of this audience has been turned on to dance by television and by the explosion of archival dance videos and new work to be found on YouTube, websites and Twitter.
All this made me think back to a moment in this country’s history when TV truly did trigger a dance revolution.
Merrill Brockway’s “Dance in America” series, which made its debut on PBS in 1976 (with the Joffrey Ballet as its first subject), altered the landscape. This remarkable series introduced millions of Americans to the work of such master choreographers as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Agnes deMille, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey and George Balanchine.
That exposure, in addition to major initiatives on regional dance by the National Endowment for the Arts, opened up dance to audiences far beyond the highly concentrated mecca of New York.
Philadelphia-based choreographer Roni Koresh, who has just created a piece for Giordano Dance Chicago’s Oct. 25-26 engagement at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, worries that “young people either see classical ballet or very commercial things like hip-hop dance on television, but not very much good stuff in the stylistic middle. And a tough economy certainly doesn’t help.”
A solid observation. But the more talk there is about dance, the more outreach programs that compensate for the public school wasteland, and the more access there is to free performances, the greater the chance that all that energy will translate into paid attendance.
Strolling through the lobby of the Auditorium this week as the Joffrey Ballet opened its Cecil B. DeMille-like production of “La Bayadere: The Temple Dancer” (which runs through Oct. 27), I chatted with several mothers and daughters (sadly, no boys were to be seen) about their dance habits.
Carolyn Wheeler, 15, studies dance in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and will perform the role of Clara in the Oak Ridge Civic Ballet’s “Nutcracker” this winter. “Some of my friends watch ‘Dance Moms’ and they ask me: ‘Is that real?’ and all I can say is ‘I don’t know,’” she said.
Kendall Malmstrom, 11, of Elmwood Park, has been “dancing since I was 6.” Kendall watches “Breaking Pointe” and “Dance Moms,” and will be performing in this season’s “Nutcracker” at Dominican University.
Karlin Gatton, 20, a student at Vassar College, was part of the children’s cast in the Joffrey “Nutcracker” for five years. “I think TV plays a role in interesting people in dance, but it also can be detrimental. Dance loses so much on TV because it is either glossed up or gives you only snippets of things.”
Television isn’t the only game-changer when it comes to dance awareness. Sometimes it works its magic in mysterious ways.
Think of what Steven Hoggett, that British genius of “movement direction,” has done in such shows as “Once” and “Black Watch,” or how Bill T. Jones (visiting the Dance Center of Columbia College, Oct. 24-26) animated “Spring Awakening” and “Fela,” or how ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, just announced as part of the creative team for the Gershwin-scored musical, “An American in Paris” (slated for Broadway in 2015), might set that show dancing.
Dance in America? Yes. On television, on your mobile phone and beyond.