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Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 'Grace Engine' | Photo Julieta Cervantes Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 'Grace Engine' | Photo Julieta Cervantes

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.

Post by Emeri Fetzer

Emeri is Managing Editor of DancePulp.com and a full–time freelance performer. Emeri most recently danced in Punchdrunk's 'Sleep No More' NYC and in original choreography for PITH Dance. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, with BA’s in Dance Choreography and English from Goucher College, Emeri loves to marry writing with a strong passion for movement. She is also a regular contributor for Theater Development Fund's online magazine TDF Stages.

Comments (9)

  1. dani March 22, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I am so upset hear of this company closing! It is a sad day American dance. I would have to say that I too wish I could run off to Europe and dance in a city a company that has true cultural importance and value to the quality of life of its residents. I am afraid that if these fantastic companies can fold in New York City of all places it doesn’t give the rest of the American cities much hope that it can work in other places. Dancers are always going to want to dance in a place that are respected and appreciated with benefits and life contracts and retirement pay and government money because in my opinion that is how it should be. Ballet and contemporary dance is one of the most under appreciated art forms in the states most “normal” people don’t even realize it’s a real job! No one takes us seriously unless you are lucky enough to be in one of the large ballet companies boston ballet nycb sfb… and even then it’s still only the ballet patrons and audience members that truely understand who we are and what we do. It is sad when directors have to close their doors or take the pay down or benefits away from the dancers or creat second companies to have more dancers to use but not pay. It shouldn’t be this way and I’m afraid it will never change. Americans don’t value ballet enough and it’s not important they would rather watch football. When you think of all the money thrown at athletes and compare that too the arts of any kind really it shows you what Americans feel is important to their lives. It is sad and I wish it could change I wish the government found it important enough but they never will.

    • Emeri Fetzer March 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm

      Dani,

      The sports comparison is one that is so often brought into the conversation and I, too, find it infuriating. All it takes is one breaking news report–detailing the ins and outs of every ache and pain of a starting athlete as if its Armageddon–to really make the blood boil of dancers who take the same kind of hits in their profession and yet beg for recognition. We knew when we got into it that it was this way. We could have been athletes, so there is something else that keeps us coming back for more. Clearly, that elusive “thing” in the face of financial obstacles is going nowhere–you can see by the numbers of students enrolling in fine arts every year. It’s not going to die.

      What I’m left with then, is that we have to think outside the box. If we don’t have the fiscal support from our government that we need and we don’t see it coming our way in the near future, we need to innovate.

      And the optimistic thing is, we all want that — that’s why we are sticking to it rather than running away.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Catherine Peila March 22, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    Emeri, thank you for taking the time to consider the bigger picture. There are many reasons why something closes. There is often the saying that the gap will be filled with something better. While I do not feel longevity equals deservedness (if that’s a word) to remain in existence at any cost; I also equally do not feel what is new replacing the old is the answer. Again, there is always something left out of the equation of closure and renewal. We will continue to make the same mistakes if we continue to site choice reasons for closure and success while obfuscating key information that is imperative to understanding closure. Stories told strive for success of its purpose. I, of course, am biased so it is difficult to actually address the issue of DNA’s closure. I am the former artistic and executive director of a very successful business / social good model that served tens of thousands of artists yearly. The profitable model (80% earned income/20% contributed) failed due to debt that made its financials look very sick. Now that same model, including its vision for a successful future is being replicated (with a different balance in its business / social good model). Be that what it may, without the knowledge of the back office workings of either side of a group telling, a long-term healthy business/social good model will not be created. We will continue to march to the drum of what is only told, people will replicate it and fail. The present model which seems successful is the model of gentrification, a risk averse model that steers clear of art that can and will lead to innovation and change.

    Patience and commitment to process, not only for the artists but also for cultural administrators, is the only way to success; to make true change patience is necessary. I think the Foundations boards need to spend more time looking at 10 years down the road to find success; the need for instant gratification (i.e. – 3-5 years) leads to closures, especially in this economy. Cedar Lake began looking for a more balanced model for its dance company once Ms. Laurie began understanding how much it costs to ensure art is at it highest quality and the humans that make it have quality facilities and healthy lives to complete the process with a tremendous performance or product. In searching for the answers to closure I’ve been told – always follow the money on both sides of the story; who’s making it, who’s losing it, who can get it and who can influence where it is being spent.

    I have dedicated my life to the arts and much of it to finding ways to humanize the business side of it – I haven’t given up but for now I feel we are sacrificing our artists freedom to produce not only wonderful art but also opportunity to take risks and possibly fail – to create something foul – something that helps them and the audience grow. I see success as allowing an artist to find a personal path to expression and the audience to view it and push the artist to find a path to successful expression.

    • Emeri Fetzer March 24, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      Kate,
      Your voice is of tremendous value in this conversation and I am thrilled you took the time to reply here. I am so glad to hear you speak about the truths of sustainability–and also that you point out that what the public is allowed to see and know (due in large part to protection of an image and fears surrounding revealing financial details) is typically a story with major gaping holes that leaves big question marks for people who genuinely care what happened. During the process of DNA’s lease renewal I learned so much through listening to you talk about the many factors involved: land value, lease hikes, government assistance, lower manhattan development…all integrated in keeping DNA’s mission pure. To hear the story from the inside puts as you say “heresy and speculation” to rest and sets the story straight.

      I hear you on risk taking. It is almost impossible in a market that continually demands a product. Process is something we are trained in extensively as students of an art, but its something that seems to vanish as soon as a dollar comes in.

      Thanks again.

      • Catherine Peila March 25, 2015 at 12:19 am

        Emeri, An honest public conversation is important and necessary; the field must have it. Fear is ruling – if one speaks up or questions anything that seems a bit skewed loss of funding or being ignored (punished) can result; so silence and complacency is preferred. Stress is so high in New York no one wants more stress and resources are scarce. We’re building art based on fear. It is not a healthy way to grow anything – it only leads to destructive behavior, increased instability and less creativity. As time passes, many things reveal themselves.

  3. Todd March 24, 2015 at 3:01 am

    Shoulda stuck to Lucy Jenner’s Plan. You can’t run a dance company like a corporation. “) they really screwed over the original brilliance that is Cedar Lake. Find her, and you get the true story of why things bottomed out. She had a fully sustainable business model. Then a dance company ended up in the hands of a non dancer. :-/ unfortunate.

  4. Bob Y March 26, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    I find this a rather naive article. No arts organization can run on the contributions of just one donor. During its time of success, the company should have planned for its future by building a fund-raising staff to prepare for just this circumstance. Even if they had, it would still have been difficult to raise funds when potential donors see just one other name on the funding list.. The model was flawed from the day it opened.

    • Emeri Fetzer March 30, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      Bob, Thank you for your perspective. It is clear that the company was not solely reliant on one person, but was so heavily dependent on this particular cash source that to close the company was ultimately the funder’s decision. I am quite hopeful that the community (both ticket buyers and individual donors) will respond to rebuild Cedar Lake, but this will look more like the traditional fundraising model if it occurs. I think the community’s interest in this closure in particular is heavily planted in their non-traditional past which provided uncharacteristically secure salaries and yet still did not survive.

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