Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet: What Just Happened?
There was no visible smoke signal leading up to Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet‘s closing. When I saw the announcement on my Facebook feed last night, I grabbed my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fools—a little misguided prank from the companies new summer intern – two glasses of rosé to celebrate the first day of spring gone awry. But this announcement, preceded only by a February status heralding their debut in Australia and New Zealand, was no joke. It’s a truly sad day in the world of dance and I’m left with a swirling head sloshing with questions. How could Cedar Lake — a company and brand as well known in the dance world as Folgers is to coffee – with a gorgeous Chelsea studio to call home, a facility that rivals any other in the country, an undeniable collection of technically talented dancers, fully employed with health benefits (and dental!) and a revolving door of today’s most cutting-edge choreographers; how could they have bottomed out on us so quickly?
I can’t even begin to assume to know the cause, but my questions and curiosities are more than healthy. Looking into it, the company itself was fairly young. Conceived and funded by a wealthy Walmart heiress in 2003, they’ve always, seemingly, had the funds to allow them to fly. In 2007, their financial security was showcased with the opening of their crowning West 26th street studio, a reported 11 million dollar investment. Cedar Lake’s founder/funder was able to secure a small group of very promising artistic directors who, for the last decade, have pushed the boundaries of classical ballet through inclusion of daring athleticism and popular forms. It was also their “Angel-Heiress” who spoke on behalf of Cedar Lake to The New York Observer, delivering the sad news and formally announcing their closing. Their business plan – a singular recurring investor acting as the companies primary source of funding – is dissimilar to the non-profit model the American dance community has come accustom to abiding by and struggling against: a model of aggressive scouting of numerous dance enthusiasts with cash to spare, sparsely supplemented by ticket sales.
But even with no conclusive sign that Cedar Lake’s issue is one of funding, the dance community is positioned to jump on the “arts is dying” bandwagon immediately. Online reactions cried out the story of a modern city’s cultural loss and regret. Why do we chalk this up to just another financial failure? Perhaps because as a dance venture, we are used to being on a respirator, scraping by season to season. It is no secret that dance companies struggle with funding every day, and the wider-known institutions are no exception. Dance Theater of Harlem closed in 2004 and openly announced its sizable debt. 4 months later they came back solely due to rapid fundraising, a large portion of it driven by Michael Bloomberg. This was the donating community saying, we want to save this company: Action driven by disappearance, not by sustenance. Is it even a whispered secret that most art, and especially dance, cannot be financially self sustained by their own successes and adoring audiences alone? Is the future fate of American Dance the celebration of its mere existence? Are we already into the twilight years, slurping the ends of our Jello cups behind TV trays, making the best of what’s become an assisted living arrangement?
No one forgets the recent Dance New Amsterdam closure, which was quickly turned around by Gibney Dance’s expansion, allowing the Lower Manhattan dance hub to thrive. The class-taking community was devastated and yet did not have the ability to put their money where there mouths were. I was intrigued to see Kate Peila, former Executive Director of DNA comment on the New York Observer article: “It’s very interesting that there is very little research going on about finding the facts behind closures. Much is here-say and assumptions. It is time closures and re-openings are researched, because it would help the field.”
I agree, because not one of these cases is the same.
It feels like an endlessly floating cycle, like Jack and Rose clinging to a frozen hunk of wreckage, croaking for a lifeboat – then sink and repeat. “Don’t let go,” she says. But, sometimes, maybe you have to?
So regardless of cause, what does Cedar Lake’s news mean for the New York dance scene? What obviously set the company apart was its commitment to the new. Consistently seeking (and taking chances on) rising popular choreographers, Cedar Lake excited a younger generation of dancers aspiring to combine classically based technique with many other influences—and in that way it was reflective of a changing market. The comments and shares on last night’s Facebook post are proof that Cedar Lake was not only a favorite, but a concrete goal of many:
Khy Chestnut (March 20, 2015): “I’m crying! Cedar Lake has been an inspiration for me and I’ve dreamed of dancing for the company for years”
Madyun Wilson (March 20, 2015): “This company is the reason I started dancing off of YouTube! Thank you so much for inspiring me throughout my pre-professional career! This will remain my dream to join this company!”
Marina Daiman (March 20, 2015): Oh no!!! This is just tragic for dance, for its development and history, for dancers and dance lovers everywhere the world over!” …. “For perhaps 10 years, ever since I discovered Cedar Lake, I made it a point to not miss a single performance. I always watch you create miracles of beauty and power with bated breath. I’ve gone to see many performances twice. So, so sad… “
Guillan Duran (March 20, 2015): “I can’t say that I like this.. But completely understand the challenges that dance organizations face these days…”
Kaelyn Gray (March 20, 2015): “We need to fix America’s view/financial backing of today’s Brilliant Dance Companies. We need ARTS in our schools and we need companies like Cedar for our dancers to STRIVE FOR!!!! Such a loss and hopefully a wake-up call to those who have authority to help our Arts Foundations!!!”
Caroline Lusken (March 20, 2015): “I cannot believe what I am reading… this is heartbreaking. Another fantastic company is closing. Thank you for all those years of giving a tremendous amount of inspiration to so many dancers and non dancers… This is so sad… and the saddest thing is that this world is slowly turning into an artless place. What are we leaving our Grandchildren??? Orchestras and ballet companies are closing, sculptures and buildings are slowly being destroyed by politics, religious fanatics or just “plain” vandalism. This is insane…”
Comments retrieved from Cedar Lake’s Facebook.
I recall from my own experience the jam-packed nature of every audition and workshop from the company. They would have had decades of upcoming students lining their 26th street sidewalk.
So while the big name classical ballet companies will continue to thrive (when was the last time you were worried about the future of NYCB or ABT?) we wonder who will fill this particular gap here, and not force us to look across the pond. If you ask dancers what companies are like Cedar Lake, most responses will be names from Europe, which may explain why this was also the origin of a majority of the company’s choreographers and directors— Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Alexander Ekman, Hofesh Schecter, Jo Strømgren, Regina Van Berkel, Angelin Preljocaj, just to name a few. From Europe, where dance is publicly subsidized and funded and is financially stable. Lately, it seems I hear so many of my dancing colleagues dreaming of running off to Europe – Jack and Rose, coming to America, big sunken ships – I get it. But, why not stay in the city you work and train in? When it comes to ballet in America, audiences prove they value classic time and time again, despite the flashy tech-forward climate of virtually everything else in our lives. I fear that classical dancers who are looking for a more current and global perspective just lost one of their truly viable options in the states. Are we all starving or floating in New York and we need public subsidy like our foreign counterparts? Or is it a question of changing tastes? Does our New York American audience no longer have an appetite for dance?
You tell me what you think.