. . . One of the things we were all concerned with--David Tudor, John ( Cage ) and myself--was that the musical part ( of "Nocturnes" and other ballets ) remain live. In other words, we did not want to have recorded music.
-- Merce Cunningham,
in "The Dancer and the Dance"
The curtain rises, the audience hushes. Several dancers appear and--to the accompaniment of music coming from somewhere--begin dancing. It's impossible to see into the pit, but it sure doesn't seem like that music is coming from there. Is it possible that the performance might be different--less live , somehow--since there are no live musicians?
This situation--increasingly common in recent years--has spurred one of the contemporary dance world's pressing debates: Must it be live, or can it be Memorex? Is the interaction of musicians, conductor and dancer(s) so important that dance cannot thrive on recorded music?
In these days of shrinking budgets, fragmented audiences and spiraling performance scales for unionized musicians, the presence of a live orchestra (or even a string quartet) at a dance performance can make or break the company's often meager financial resources.
Reasonably faithful sound reproduction or not, the fact remains that the unanimity of preference for live accompaniment points out the lamentable gap between what dance companies would like to do--and what they are financially capable of doing.
"I think most companies would definitely prefer live music--hell, they'd like to have celestial choruses if it could be made to happen--but most times limited finances are the deciding factor," said William Hammond, executive director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
Still, those companies that can afford live music, opt to do so--in increasing frequency, according to Los Angeles-area orchestral contractors whose job it is to hire pit orchestras to accompany itinerant dance companies. (Some companies, such as the New York City Ballet, have an orchestra under contract which may separately decide to accompany the dancers on tour, but in these hard times such contracts are becoming rarer.)
"I don't notice the demand (for 'pick-up' orchestras) as having fallen off at all recently," said Mickey Nadel, one such independent contractor whose clients include American Ballet Theatre and other major touring companies. "If anything, there seems to be more movement in that area lately than I can remember. Since this city (Los Angeles) has become so dance-conscious now, the large companies and 'star packages' that play here assume they must have an orchestra to be taken seriously."
But those with a longer perspective remember better days--when major international ballet companies (for which orchestras are mandatory, unlike smaller modern dance companies) from Sweden, Britain, Denmark and Italy toured the West Coast.
"Fewer companies are coming in now than used to be the case; there's just a lot less dance money out there than there used to be," said Atilio DePalma, another L.A. contractor who's been in the business for 22 years. "While it's true that the companies that do hire an orchestra do so for more performances, the number of companies coming in is way down. No producer wants to spend for it if they feel the audiences don't really care one way or the other."
Pebbles Wadsworth, who is responsible for UCLA's dance programming, says the audiences at Royce Hall do care about the live music issue--"You wouldn't believe the amount of letters we get about that"--but they may not be aware that the additional funding required is as much the balletomanes' responsibility as anyone else's.
"We need to tell the community that if they want live music, they must help make it financially feasible," said Wadsworth. "The university is trying to commission more pieces that use smaller ensembles (among them the Kronos Quartet, the Dave Brubeck jazz band and possibly the Emerson Quartet), and we hope we'll be able to slowly bring live music back."
The overwhelming majority of Royce Hall dance concerts use taped music, a circumstance that Wadsworth said is "strictly a financial issue." She said UCLA is organizing a National Endowment for the Arts matching-grant program to help re-establish live accompaniment to dance programs there. Right now, the funds available to UCLA aren't enough to provide touring companies with live accompaniment.