By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Members of the dance community blame one another and the city's well-heeled arts patrons for lack of support for dance, and they blame the lack of public funding. They all agree that Dallas is a great city to learn to dance, but the talented dancers who grow up here and train here have to go somewhere else to make a living. How shameful it is, they say, that a city the size of Dallas can't even support its own professional classical-ballet company without help from Fort Worth. How depressing it is, they believe, when a respected, innovative modern dance group has to fold after 20 years simply because the audiences aren't there to cover even its modest expenses. How strange it is that innovative, edgy contemporary dance must be brought to town by presenting organizations, rather than created here by the young dancers the city trains and nurtures.
"What's interesting about Dallas-Fort Worth that most people don't know is that it's the fourth largest dance market in the country -- in terms of the number of studios and the number of people involved in taking classes," says Linda James, an arts magnet high school dance-faculty member and vice president of the Dallas Dance Council. "We do a terrific job of training people, and they're leaving. There are really only two professional dance companies here, Dallas Black Dance Theater and the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, and that doesn't reflect the size of the market."
What it may accurately reflect, James says, is the lack of public funding. "Funding for dance in the state of Texas is the lowest on the totem pole," she says. When the funding for the Texas Commission on the Arts dropped sharply 10 years ago, one TCA commissioner, Mitch Jericho of Dallas, helped create a private foundation to raise money to support the arts beyond what the Legislature could do. Jericho and a group of former TCA commissioners established the Texas Cultural Trust, a public-private partnership, to raise a $100 million endowment for the arts in Texas and take away the Texas Legislature's heavy-handed cutting of arts funding. George Pond, who directs the Austin-based trust, says the group has raised $12 million since its inception in 1993. "If we could get a couple of these Dallas high-tech entrepreneurs to donate, they wouldn't even miss it," Pond says. "In their minds, $100 million wouldn't be anything. Dallas is crawling with all these very wealthy entrepreneurs. If we can excite them about how important the arts are to their business, we'd raise enough money."
James says the trust has been a godsend, but dance still suffers: "We always feel like dance is the mother of the arts, but in terms of funding, we're more like the stepsister."
On one return-trip to Dallas, Misty Owens participated in the Dallas Dance Council's "Dance for the Planet" festival, and says she was encouraged by what the 4-year-old, mid-April event has become on the Dallas dance scene. "I know everyone on the dance council, and I know what they're trying to achieve," she says. "But from everything I've seen and heard, Dallas still has a long way to go to be a city where dance is supported, accepted, and encouraged."
If Owens comes back for good, she'll have a leg up on other local dancers. For one thing, she'll have New York City experience on her résumé, and the East Coast-anointed command a degree of respect that the local talent doesn't. For another thing, she's heir apparent to her mother's thriving commercial dance studio. Still, she says, she'd be teaching students only to lose them to New York, Seattle, Toronto, or San Francisco; or, worse yet, Fort Worth. "Dallas has got to re-evaluate if they want the artists to stay here," Owens says. "People in Dallas are always saying they're cosmopolitan, but where are the artists? There's tattooing and there's Deep Ellum, but hey," she says. "I'm not sure what the solution is. But if I decide to come back, perhaps I can be part of it."
Nobody knows the trouble Dallas dance has seen as intimately as Lori Darley. Her own life and career parallel both the best and the worst of it. She is a homegrown talent, having graduated 20 years ago from the respected dance program at Southern Methodist University. With nine of her fellow alumni she decided to stay in Dallas and start a contemporary dance company. "Let's build a barn and put on a show," she jokes now about the we-can-do-anything attitude the group of 22-year-olds had back then. They called their new company Dancers Unlimited, and the troupe specialized in dance theater.
"While we did dance for dance's sake, oftentimes our pieces would be more theatrically based," she says. "Shopper's Guide to the Center of the Universe had singers and actors; it was more multimedia. We've done pieces that were pure dance, like Company Man about life in corporate America, and Wild Kingdom, with dances of a suburban Congo, where we looked at people as animals."
She speaks in the past tense. Shortly after Darley and company announced a preview performance of the company's 20th-anniversary season in December and introduced Dancers Unlimited's first crack at offering season tickets, she realized the tickets were barely moving. "Here we had this incredible brochure, our membership was growing, we had a couple of grant proposals out, and things were looking really good, and the bottom fell out," she says. She and her husband had made a $25,000 loan to the company to keep the dancers paid while launching the anniversary season and waiting for news on the grants. "At the end of the December show, we realized the company was in a $30,000 deficit," she says. "I told the board I could not foresee trying to back ourselves out of another huge debt. I just couldn't see anything other than more struggle ahead."