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The last time Paul Gordon Emerson ran a professional dance company in D.C., it was supposed to be too savvy to fail.
CityDance Ensemble frequently earned high marks from local critics, but what really set the eight-person contemporary dance company apart was its connections: a partnership with North Bethesda’s Strathmore arts center that gave the company a permanent home and commodious rehearsal space; a perch as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Department of State; and a performance hot streak involving works by choreographers who rarely license out their creations. Credit went to Emerson, now 52, who over a dozen years working as a Capitol Hill staffer and Democratic campaign operative honed the art of distilling opportunity from connections.
“Drawing on the skills he learned not in a dance studio but in the corridors of Congress, Emerson has positioned his dance company at the forefront of the local arts scene,” went a Washington Post profile in 2010, CityDance’s 15th year.
One year later, CityDance Ensemble folded anyway—a shock because of Emerson’s reputation as a creative, well-networked manager, and a blow to D.C.’s small dance world, which boasted just two other full-time companies.
But by last summer, Emerson was planning his next act—and it was hardly the kind of recessionary retrenchment struggling arts producers often settle for in harsh economic times. He’s named his new troupe Company E—it doesn’t stand for Emerson, he insists—and while in some ways it’s an extension of CityDance’s methods and ethos, it’s much more ambitious.
“I think one of the things that gets us into trouble with art is a hesitation to think big,” says Emerson, who tends to pitch his endeavors with the excited pathos of a motivational speaker. Among the city’s arts presenters, he has a reputation for his magnetism. “You can’t sell small ideas.”
Company E makes its D.C. debut Feb. 25 at Sidney Harman Hall. The troupe is built around a complex, intriguing business model that takes advantage of D.C.’s international side to import some of the world’s most interesting choreography. Already on Company E’s website, you’ll find high-gloss video of the troupe’s associate artistic director, Jason Garcio Ignacio, dancing everywhere from Machu Picchu to Shanghai.
Here’s how Emerson hopes Company E will work: Bankrolled by foreign embassies, he’ll travel around the globe, identify the most promising emerging dancemakers, and bring them back to set pieces on Company E’s dancers. The only requirement is that the work be outstanding, Emerson says. This month’s performance will showcase the work of four high-profile Israeli choreographers, with Spain’s turn coming in the fall and Brazil and Korea somewhere down the line.
Meanwhile, well-funded groups like Shakespeare Theatre Company (which owns the Harman Center) and Washington Performing Arts Society have fallen under Emerson’s spell and have pledged administrative, marketing, and production support for two shows per year for the three to five years. Emerson’s gathered a group of 10 versatile, virtuosic dancers from all over the world and is pinning down permanent rehearsal space. Company E will operate on an annual budget of $300,000 to $500,000.
You can see the appeal to potential funders. Washington may or may not be a great arts city, but it’s certainly an international one. Foreign embassies are explicitly tasked, and funded, to promote their country’s art and culture.
More crucial, Emerson is bringing genuinely innovative choreography to D.C., artists and styles that would otherwise never be seen here. Gaga, which will be featured in the Feb. 25 show, is a relatively new movement form developed in Israel that’s based on improvisation; it’s become popular around the world, but has been virtually impossible to see onstage here.
“It seems to be a very smart idea,” says Gus Solomons Jr., a dance writer, choreographer, and professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, adding that Emerson’s model is unique in the dance world. “But the hard part for him will be supporting the company. The nations will support the choreographers, but he has to find a way to pay the dancers.”
Professional dance companies—in which the dancers are under contract for most of the year—are a fairly rare thing. Costumes, production personnel, and full-time access to studios are expensive and rarely recouped through ticket sales, which means most cities have only a handful of permanent companies. Philadelphia and Chicago have four or five each, the Bay Area has three—and all those metropolises are better known for their dance scenes and audiences than D.C.
Dance companies generally have two main options for raising money: fundraising at home or touring. D.C.’s two other full-time dance companies illustrate the virtues of both.
Until 2011, when founder Liz Lerman left, the Dance Exchange was a national group that happened to be located here. Most of its revenues came from tours and residencies around the U.S., which meant the modern company rarely performed in D.C. and couldn’t count on local funders as a major chunk of its income. Now the group is refocusing on Washington, which means a smaller budget and fewer full-time dancers.
The Washington Ballet goes the opposite route. The company is emphatically local, running outreach programs for kids around the city and performing multiple times a year; artistic director Septime Webre guesses the company stages 60 to 75 performances annually. “We survive off of ticket sales here in Washington, D.C., and fundraising in the community,” he said. The former contributes almost $2 million to the company’s $9 million budget, and the latter accounts for another $3 million. (The rest is institutional.)
Emerson, who began dancing in his mid-20s, helped found CityDance in 1996 with his ex-girlfriend, Tara Pierson Dunning, and when she left, he took over as artistic director.
So why did CityDance Ensemble fail? To hear Emerson tell it, the problem wasn’t that D.C. doesn’t have the audience to support another dance company. He says the quality simply wasn’t high enough to keep people coming back. “You’ve got to build loyalty, and loyalty is only built by being knocked out,” he says. “And I think this is an extraordinarily sophisticated town.”
The scribes apparently appreciated CityDance’s work more than its artistic director did. “I don’t think the repertory was what killed CityDance Ensemble,” says D.C. dance critic George Jackson, who reviewed the troupe for Dance magazine and other publications, usually positively.
Either way, a dedicated local audience never emerged. Nor did a network of donors robust enough to support the art. “There has been an impression that CityDance is flush with cash,” Executive Director Alexandra Nowakowski said last year, “but every year we’ve struggled.”
In part, the company was hamstrung by its international touring. “It’s hard to build a donor base if you’re not around,” Nowakowski says. But CityDance’s costs were also high, reflecting Emerson’s lofty goals for the company as well as the extra price of largely using repertory material instead of choreographing it all yourself, as the Dance Exchange does. Swollen with big-ticket items like the Paul Taylor pieces that the ensemble performed in 2010, as well as aims to pay dancers better-than-average salaries, its yearly needs may have simply been too big.
Christopher Morgan, CityDance ensemble’s former resident choreographer who continues to work at the school and now runs a company of his own, pointed out that perhaps Emerson’s most noticeable trait—his enthusiasm for big ideas—worked against him. “I think one of Paul’s greatest strengths is his ambitious personality; he really goes after things. But that was actually in some ways difficult to keep up with.”
An essentially inverted version of CityDance’s late-period internationalism drives Company E—instead of sending American dance abroad, it’ll bring great foreign work here. Emerson hopes that will allow the troupe to borrow from both the Washington Ballet and Dance Exchange ways.
Given dance’s typically small core of supporters, filling Sidney Harman Hall’s 800 seats isn’t easy. But Company E’s inaugural program, Next: Israel, will get a boost from the Israeli embassy’s newsletter, which reaches some 6,000 folks in the region. A similar campaign should help Company E’s Spanish program in a few months—great for those performances, but a company that sheds constituencies from program to program risks its sustainability. Still, Emerson says he’s determined to make Company E a genuine product of this city, supported by Washington residents. “We will build new donors,” he swears.
At the same time, the company will support itself by touring—to other U.S. cities with foreign consulates, and abroad on the State Department’s dime. And Emerson is betting that, if it’s impressive enough, D.C.’s sophisticated arts lovers and donors will support the company even if it’s not a full-fledged home team.
He points out, by way of example, that crowds came out en masse to see Imperfect Dancers, a relatively unknown Italian company he presented at the Lansburgh Theatre in December, and rose after both performances to deliver standing ovations. That’s what the success of a new dance company comes down to, especially at a time when institutional support is shrinking: Company E cannot afford to suck. “Imperfect showed me that it’s not that Washington is not a dance town,” says Emerson. “It’s that Washington wants to be challenged. Now my job is to make sure I don’t ever bring anything that doesn’t live up to that standard.”