Public funds for dance depend on which way political winds are blowing. During the Cold War, Republican and Democratic administrations found it expedient to fund dance—both for international touring and domestic consumption—to demonstrate our artistic ascendancy and racial diversity. The National Endowment for the Arts was chartered during the Vietnam conflict. Through the ’70s, dance boomed, audiences grew, companies multiplied—and a substantial portion of earned income came from international touring. Then, as taxpayer revolts and conservative ideology took hold, budgets were reduced and subsidies eliminated. Though the NEA now costs each American taxpayer a mere 64 cents annually, its very existence is threatened.
The world of 1999 presents a chilly climate for international dance funding. David Eden, a native of Latvia who moved here from Israel in 1985, has been importing performers from Russia and developing projects there ever since perestroika allowed relatively free exchange; he coproduced, with World Music Institute, the recent sold-out “Gypsy Caravan” tour.
Before the late ’80s, Eden recalls, all Russian cultural exchange was regulated by Goskoncert, an official Soviet body. The loosening of the situation since perestroika “changed my life,” he says, enabling “travel to the Byzantine splendor of old Russia.” But no sooner had channels of communication opened up than money began to get very scarce.
Eden raises funds from New York’s Trust for Mutual Understanding and has worked collaboratively with the American Dance Festival, which, with support from the United States Information Agency, presented minifestivals in Moscow in 1992 and 1997. (ADF has also brokered exchanges with Japan, China, France, India, South Korea, and a dozen other countries in the past 15 years; this summer it begins training international arts managers.)
“Now it’s much more difficult,” he says. “Government funding on the U.S. side has been nearly decimated, and money from Russia is less; costs have rocketed. A class of [Soviet] oligarchs had developed a system for bringing culture, but since August 1988 it has nearly collapsed. Russia is not regarded as a priority by the U.S., so the money’s not there.” In February of 1998 Eden brought Vaganova and Kirov dancers in conjunction with the Brooklyn Academy of Music—”95 people; an expensive project”—but the Russian government reneged on their offers of assistance. Next year he plans to bring the Bolshoi on a five- or six-week tour—”the Met is trying to decide whether to do it. The Bolshoi wants to come full-strength, so they’re giving us a good rate.”
The Kirov, the jewel in the Russian ballet crown, arrives at the Met on June 28 for a two-week run. As to the numerous, lesser-known Russian ballet ensembles who’ve visited our shores, “these groups exist purely to tour. The per diem alone—maybe $50 a day—adds up to more than what most of the corps dancers make in a month in Moscow—about $300—so the presenter can pay them low fees. The artists come on small salaries, the corps sometimes just for the per diem. The Russians are paying a little more attention to quality now—they had been advertising ‘Stars of This,’ and ‘Stars of That’—and the dancers were not stars of anything! The Russian repertory is not terribly encouraging, but they still produce some lovely dancers. You have to go in person to select good work.”
Eden sees his task becoming increasingly difficult. He faces visa problems: “Americans are making it more difficult for Russians to enter the country, and the Russians are retaliating. The process at the American consulate is humiliating.”
In the U.S., he says, there’s a lessening of interest in imports from Russia. “There are many seedy entrepreneurs on both sides. I do a budget aimed at presenters. I don’t count on Russian support.”
In Africa, says Robert Browning of World Music Institute, the arts get “no government help.” He brings dance and music groups from around the world, but in Asia, where strong economies had provided funding for arts exchange, recent reverses have slowed the process. And, according to Browning, though “the Ford Foundation pumps money into the arts in Indonesia, it doesn’t support touring to the United States.” Money is not the only hurdle; obtaining visas for touring artists hampers exchange in all directions. “Iran’s a problem because the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy there, and there’s a 30-day waiting period.” Artists from Iran who want to come here must first go to Abu Dhabi, where there’s an American embassy.
“Gypsy Caravan,” which Browning coproduced with Eden, brought musicians and dancers speaking nine languages from countries including Russia, India, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Spain. It almost foundered on visa issues. “We put in for visas 45 days ahead,” he reports. “A snowstorm in Vermont closed the INS visa offices [in Burlington] for a few days, and then their computers crashed, which set them back three weeks. We spent an extra $5000 on lawyers. They wouldn’t let the artists into the American embassy in Moscow….We got the visas 24 hours before they were due to leave. The Indians got their visas in Belgium, which is where their Algerian agent is based.”
Meanwhile, says Browning, since the mid ’70s “the audience for world music and dance has grown and grown and grown. When we present work from a particular culture, we get as many people from that culture as we possibly can; they build the interest in the rest of the audience.” More than 1000 people have joined WMI, headquartered on West 27th Street and with a distinguished collection of world music for sale there. “People come to buy a ticket, and $300 worth of CDs later they leave.”
British swing dance scholar Terry Monaghan founded a troupe called the Jiving Lindy Hoppers in London in 1984; they’ll visit the United States next year, with Columbia Artists Management handling the tour on a commercial basis.
“The Arts Council of England looks at dance as ballet, modern, and ‘everything else.’ We’re regarded as one of the leading companies in the ‘everything else’ category, but we don’t get funded. You get a choice: do you want to become a token ‘artistically correct’ company, or are you just going to follow your own inclinations, be open-ended and flexible, and pick up work that will keep the company going independently? We’ve chosen the latter course.
“Lindy hop was not a promising subject when we started. We contacted 60 agents and got one offer, for an audition we had to pay for. So we created relationships with bands that wanted to have a dance dimension—World War II commemorative shows, jazz festivals looking for cultural diversity.” They got TV and press coverage that led to other work. “This was in the Thatcher era; everyone was told there was no more government money and we had to get out and do it for ourselves. Though there was money for Mrs. Thatcher’s friends.”