It’s a step backward for modern dance in D.C.

CityDance Ensemble, Washington’s biggest—or at least, seemingly best-funded—contemporary dance company is about to dissolve. Artistic director Paul Emerson has submitted his resignation, effective June 30, and none of the group’s eight professional dancers had their contracts renewed earlier this year. A press announcement will be going out on Monday.

That’s a huge fall for a company that appeared to have so much going for it: amazingly skilled dancers; gorgeous, spacious studios at Strathmore; and a contract with the State Department to perform abroad as a cultural ambassador. With performances at the Kennedy Center, Sidney Harman Hall, and Strathmore, CityDance seemed like the contemporary version of the firmly established Washington Ballet—except that the latter has been gradually growing its niche and audience for decades. CityDance burst, virtually fully formed, on the D.C. stage in 1996.

And in part, that’s the rub. “We never really built enough of an audience or donor base to meet our budget,” explains Executive Director Alexandra Nowakowski. “There has been an impression that CityDance is flush with cash, but every year we’ve struggled.”

Some of the money problems can be chalked up to the country’s tight fiscal situation: Support from the city dried up when the economy tanked, as did funding from other donors.

But it’s also the result of an issue that affects modern dance companies everywhere: The art form isn’t cheap to produce, and yet audiences tend to be very small and specialized. Artistic director Emerson began the company with a bang, and at times it seemed to be moving forward by the force of his personality alone. He achieved a lot—but maybe, as some folks have said, this city simply can’t support another large dance company.

Still, the entity known as CityDance will continue, albeit without the company. Its educational wing, which takes the form of dance classes in a conservatory setting and outreach activities in public schools, is going strong. “All of that is thriving and growing,” says Nowakowski. “We have 500 students at the school.”

She added that the company is committed to having some sort of artistic component, but isn’t sure what that might look like. “We need to step back, re-group, re-imagine,” she says. One thing it won’t be, though, is a full-fledged company.

Photo by Lois Greenfield