Dance is a storybook wedding of rigor and rapture—lean diets and dazzling leaps, sore feet and standing ovations, creeping poverty and creative payoff. But the old fairy tale leaves out some intriguing characters: devotees who raid their own bank accounts and give up their time for cherished choreographers. Meet four local figures with an expensive passion.
The Star When the sellout crowds gather starting Tuesday at the New Victory Theater, there will be little doubt about their motives. Most people come to see the White Oak Dance Project so they can lay eyes on the world’s most famous dancer. The harder question is: What’s he doing there?
Mikhail Baryshnikov could have easily set up a vanity troupe to stroke his ego and pad his retirement fund. Instead he gives us White Oak, which increasingly seems to support emerging choreographers, a role previously played by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In retailing, it’s called bait and switch: you lure customers with one product, then sell them another. Baryshnikov employs a similar, if nobler, scheme. He reels people in with his stage presence, then offers them a bill of goods they didn’t know they wanted: the parallel worlds of Lucy Guerin, perhaps, or the cerebral camp of Neil Greenberg.
Since its founding in 1990, White Oak has commissioned 36 dances, starting with works by luminaries like Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp. Increasingly, though, Baryshnikov is turning to less well-known figures, including novices like Kraig Patterson, Ruthlyn Salomons, and Vernon Scott.
“It’s solely his choice, and it’s artistically driven,” says Christina Sterner, White Oak’s general manager. “He goes with choreographers he likes, whether out of respect for work they’ve already done or because he sees great promise.” White Oak’s commissioning fees are low even for dance. To help choreographers put their best foot forward, Sterner says, some of the funds are channeled into creative time, costume design and construction, and lighting design. Given its high profile and busy touring schedule, White Oak does choreographers a favor by keeping production values up.
Baryshnikov also helps established companies, typically by lending his name and presence to their fundraising events. Sometimes he dances as a guest artist, as he did last month with Merce Cunningham at Lincoln Center. Sterner believes his appearance drove up Cunningham’s ticket sales, although Baryshnikov would likely disagree. “He’s a very modest and very subtle man,” she says. “And he would never say that.”
The Den Mother One evening in 1964, Micki Wesson sat in a downtown art gallery and found her calling. The occasion was a solo performance by recent Sarah Lawrence College graduate Meredith Monk. Wesson was moved to tears, and then to action. In 1980, after many years of raising money for Monk, she helped set up the House Foundation, which encompasses Monk’s dance troupe and vocal ensemble. Now 70, she still sits on its board.
At her own expense, she often accompanies Monk’s dancers and singers on tour. “Before they get on the bus, I buy little packets for everyone with Life Savers and Kleenex and cookies,” says Wesson, a mother of three. “I want to make people feel looked after.”
Her need to nurture goes way back. Wesson was 13 and her brother 11 when their mother died and their father left them. An aunt and uncle raised them, an act of kindness Wesson has emulated ever since.
Her husband, a retired ad man, gives her a generous sum each year to spend as she likes. She gives it all away. “The bulk of it goes to dance because that’s my first love,” she says. “I don’t care about money. I have enough clothes to last the rest of my life. I don’t need anything except to watch Merce Cunningham or see The Peony Pavilion or go to Context Studios.”
Wesson’s also a veteran board member at Dance Theater Workshop, and professes great faith in its executive director. “David White is one of the unsung heroes of the dance world. He supports the visionaries and the risk takers, and I support him.”
Along with her work for Monk, it’s a full-time job. “I will do anything and everything,” she says. “I do the benefits, I schlep the food in, I raise the money. Whatever has to be done to let the work go on is what I care about. I’m shameless. I think the work is important.”
The Guerrilla At the publishing house where he spends his days, Adam Forest is a bit player who quietly earns $25,000 a year as an editorial assistant. Only outside the office does he drop the disguise, revealing himself as a budding impresario and rainmaker.
Forest, 23, moonlights as executive director of Fractured Atlas Productions, a performing-arts venture he proudly describes as “an absurd nonprofit version of Time Warner.” So far the tiny conglomerate has produced two plays, an experimental storytelling show, and a four-week dance series for young choreographers like Kamal Sinclair, a principal dancer in Stomp.
It’s a modest operation, with no staff or space and a yearly budget of just $15,000. But this fall its 21 volunteers plan to launch an acting ensemble, a dance troupe, and an outreach program in public schools. “There has even been some talk of getting eight-year-olds out on guerrilla theater missions,” says Forest, “which would thrill me to no end.”
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence last year, he poured his life savings of $13,000 into Fractured Atlas. For the next two months he lived on eggs, onions, and potatoes. The publishing gig has improved his diet, but Forest looks forward to the day he can work exclusively for Fractured Atlas; he already spends 50 hours a week on FAP business.
So far, Fractured Atlas has lost money on every production, but the losses are getting smaller. With fundraising, the venture is breaking even. “The
strategy I’m taking is blow it all, make it back, blow it all again, make it back,” says Forest, who’s flying to Chiapas later this month to prepare for an upcoming production. “It’s working.”
The Addict When the Kirov Ballet came to the Metropolitan Opera House earlier this summer, Sidney Sugarman did what any reasonable dance lover would do; she snagged a pair of orchestra seats. Then she bought a few more. And a few more. By the time the troupe returned to Russia two weeks later, she had spent more than $800 to see a dozen performances.
“It’s a compulsion,” says Sugarman, 53, with sunny resignation. “There’s a certain driven quality with having to go as much as I go. It’s almost like a second career.”
Compulsions dominate her day job, too. As a psychiatric social worker at Hillside Hospital in Queens, she counsels patients with schizophrenia, depression, and drug addiction. The work keeps her solvent but drains her emotionally; dance has the opposite effect.
Sugarman figures she spends close to $2500 a year on tickets, often using her credit cards. “When the season isn’t as busy I try to pay it off,” she says. “But if there’s a choice between getting new clothes or eating at a restaurant or going to the ballet, I go to the ballet.”
Her partner doesn’t seem to mind, but friends often do. “Thank God it’s just seasonal,” she says. “There are about two months when I’m totally insane and preoccupied. But any passion in some way makes you kind of selfish and less involved with other people. Sometimes that troubles me.”
Mostly, though, she follows her bliss. “I’ve explored this to some extent in therapy, but I haven’t been cured. I’m not sure I would want to be.”