For Local Dance Troupes, It All Starts With the Holiday Season

Last winter, I attended a holiday dance show — one of those Christmas-themed musical pageants where the stage is overtaken by crowds from one dance class after another, mostly prepubescents determined to slog through "Jingle Bell Rock" without forgetting a ball-change or bursting into tears.

I really enjoyed this production, which included a number of adult performers selling jazz, tap, and ballet with a respectable amount of style. But pretty much everyone else looked bored. Most of the audience was there in support of their kids, who were onstage huffing their way through Yuletide tap routines. Several dads were asleep.

When I complained about this to the program's choreographer after the show, she — a retired dancer of some renown — rolled her eyes and said, "Welcome to the world of dance. If people come to see you, it's because it's December and their kid is in a Christmas pageant."

Really? I already knew that it was Christmas shows — although not necessarily pageants put on by dance schools, like the one I attended — that keep most companies afloat the rest of the year. I've seen the long list, every year, of Nutcrackers — those necessary evils that keep dance companies in toe shoes. But I thought things had changed. I thought dance was cool now, thanks to television shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. And I know for a fact that there are a number of innovative local dance troupes, both new-ish and well established, that don't fill their coffers from sales of a holiday extravaganza.

Scottsdale School of Ballet, under the direction of big-deal dance mavens Sibylle Acatos-Dadey and Donald Dadey, has gotten raves for its annual "An Evening of Ballet" spring performance at the Herberger. Jennifer Cafarella, who performs with Center Dance Ensemble and two other companies, has reportedly started a summer program for dancers who are typically out of work during the off-season. And older companies, like Movement Source Dance and Nina Marlow's Ballet and Friends, have been attracting such celebrity artists as world renowned dancer/choreographer Slawomir Wozniak, who's now artistic director of Marlow's company. And of course there's Scorpius Dance Theatre, which over the past 10 years has risen to the top of the heap of smaller local companies with its brash approach to modern movement.

So how do all these smaller companies stay afloat? "Many of them don't," Frances Smith Cohen told me. She ought to know. Cohen has been at the center of the local dance community for decades; her Center Dance Ensemble is the premier local company, and its production of The Snow Queen has become a holiday tradition. "Most dance companies run out of money after Christmas. I go to all these performances by these great new groups, and the audiences are tiny. That's partly why we do our Snow Queen."

Seventy-five percent of Center Dance's ticket sales for the season come from The Snow Queen, according to the company's press flack, Gary Bacal. This accounts for about a third of the company's annual budget. Bacal says that holiday dough doesn't necessarily translate to new audience members for the rest of the season, which tends to be more sophisticated and, therefore, intimidating to folks who come to a dance performance only if their kid is in it. But does that suggest that a holiday show designed to please parents of dance students — a show that's frankly dependent on big, splashy sets, a snow machine, and a herd of cutely costumed tykes — isn't representative of that company's best work?

"Absolutely not," according to Cohen. She swears that this production is every bit as good as the work Center Dance does the rest of the year, but what else is she going to say? I can't help wondering whether the big, splashy Christmas cash machines produced by dance companies don't actually lower the bar. If I went to a professional dance company's Nutcracker and saw 50 kids tripping over their tutus — even in the company of trained terpsichoreans — I might assume that the company is only ever going to offer similarly simple fare.

Lisa Starry, artistic director of Scorpius, appears to have found a happy medium. An estimable choreographer, Starry launched a holiday program that took off like a bat out of hell.

"I couldn't bear to do a Christmas show," Starry told me, "because that market is so saturated. And anyway, Halloween is more my kind of holiday, anyway. So I did Dracula."

And how. Scorpius' A Vampire Tale has become one of a handful of must-see shows here, a fact that's kept the company in the black and allowed them to produce other, similarly avant-garde performances. An audience member who returns to Scorpius is likely to see another edgy, contemporary dance performance that's close to the holiday show about the vampire that brought them to the company in the first place. If nothing else, Starry has proved that dance can survive without trotting out a giant waltzing nutcracker every December.

"It was a brave, smart thing to do," Cohen says. "Gary and I are always talking, trying to figure out who goes to our other shows besides the Snow Queen. I really don't know."

Neither do I. But I plan to find out. Throughout the new year, I'm going to investigate the local dance scene. I want to know which companies are doing interesting work, and how in the world they — in a town where dance, like Christmas, comes for most people but once a year — manage to fund it.

I'll keep you posted.