Why I Worry About Modern Dance

When Merce Cunningham passed away three weeks ago the world lost a dance legend. But I mourn not just the passing of one of the great geniuses of our time but also the state of modern dance.

Modern dance is one of the glories of American cultural history. From Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey to José Limón and on and on, the ranks of the great modern dancers and choreographers pay tribute to American creativity.

But virtually every great modern dance company was founded more than 40 years ago. Where is the current, not to mention next, generation of great modern dance companies to carry the torch?

I do not worry as much about ballet companies. While we are still searching for the next Balanchine, ballet companies can continue to produce the great works of the past -- from Giselle to Serenade.

But modern dance depends on new voices, new vocabularies, new works. Since so many modern dance companies are single choreographer companies, they do not have the ability to sustain themselves easily when their founder passes away. The organization needs an entirely new mission and that is not so easy to accommodate. (The exception that proves the rule is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Alvin never intended his company to depend solely on his works. He encouraged many other choreographers to make work for his company; this made the transition to new artistic leadership far easier.)

Merce understood this conundrum. That is why he explicitly planned for the demise of his company in favor of a structure to oversee the dissemination of his works.

But which companies will have the wherewithal -- both artistic and financial -- to do justice to his masterpieces?

I used to think of Bill T. Jones as the "young man" of modern dance. But in three short years, Bill T. will be 60 years old!

Where are the young companies that are gathering strength and are prepared to accept the mantle from the Twylas, Pauls, Merces and Marthas?

To be sure, there are wonderfully talented and prolific young modern dance choreographers producing great work. I am fortunate to know, and to present, many of them. But I fear that in our culturally dense world it will be difficult for any of them to attain the level of recognition that their forebears have enjoyed.

And I worry that the level of administrative and board support our young choreographers enjoy is not sufficient to compete with the major musical, ballet and theater institutions.

Does this matter? Does a dance company have to be big and famous to be of importance? I think the answer is no, and yes. A great work of art is a great work of art. It need not be produced in the biggest theaters in world capitals to make a difference.

But I fear that without large role model organizations representing modern dance around the nation and the world, the field will lose its luster, its ability to attract young dancers and choreographers, and its funding.

I am so lucky to have lived during the golden age of modern dance. I just hope I live long enough to see the next one.