Contemporary art form hangs in the balance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 May, 2006, 12:00am

THE FUTURE OF contemporary dance is at risk and the key to its salvation is education, according to acclaimed American dancer and choreographer Rob Kitsos.

An assistant professor at Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts, in Vancouver, Canada, Kitsos will be in Hong Kong to present his paper Dance at risk: Where is the theory? during the Hong Kong Dance Festival's International Dance Education Conference, from June 14 to 17.

The 38-year-old artist will also perform with two other Vancouver-based dancers in his original piece, Thought For Food, on June 16 at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts as part of indepenDance, a programme featuring 15 of the world's brightest choreographers.

He will also teach three contemporary dance classes in the master class series.

Kitsos, who made a name for himself on American stages in the early '90s and has performed across North America, Asia and Europe, said: 'Dance is at risk because it is a marginal art form in terms of funding, in particular contemporary dance.'

Government funding tended to support only a minority of artists and groups, which often fell into the category of larger, more established institutions, while emerging dancers and choreographers barely scraped by, he said.

Still, scores of accomplished and innovative dancers and companies continue to flourish in this less than ideal context. Canadian leaders in contemporary dance named by Kitsos include Crystal Pite, whose work will also be showcased at the dance festival; Vancouver contemporary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo; and Montreal choreographers Edouard Lock, Paul-Andre Fortier and Margie Gillis.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, the Doug Varone Dance Company and the David Dorfman Dance are just a few of the many talented troupes that dot the United States.

Kitsos said funding woes were ubiquitous in the dance world, however, and were probably at their worst in the US, where popular culture and the increasing sophistication of home entertainment systems continued to devalue live art forms such as dance. In North America, government funding for dance has faced severe cuts in the past decade.

Hong Kong was no more immune to this than North America, said Kitsos, who got to know the local dance scene during his two-year tenure as a senior lecturer at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

'The City Contemporary Dance Company and the Hong Kong Ballet, for example, receive great funding, but other than that it's difficult to get grants. In Asian culture there's a sense of tradition about preserving institutions.'

But his take on the future of contemporary dance is not all doom and gloom. His panacea to the problem of the marginalisation of dance is simple: 'It all comes down to education. The lack of theory and language is part of the reason for the marginalisation of dance. For dancers to grow, more people need to understand it.'

According to Kitsos, education must take place on two fronts. First, dancers must gain the tools to discuss and write about dance, which will help expand the library on dance theory and lend value to the discipline. He is teaching a class in dance aesthetics that combines philosophy and dance, building students' language proficiency and confidence in the subject.

Second, Kitsos believes that educating the broader public will help secure the importance of dance in cultural life. 'We need to bring dance into schools and make it a part of the culture so that the public learns about the art form and how it identifies and expresses culture,' he said.

Kitsos praised the dance festival for providing an avenue for these educational pushes. His choreography, Thought For Food, incorporates video projections, just as multimedia is becoming a major trend in North American contemporary dance.

He said that dancers in Canada and the US were also becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, focusing 'less on being virtuosic in one technique and more on interdisciplinary work and mixing media'.