Bringing World Dance To Boston
Alliger didn't know it couldn't be done
AT one point in a remarkable dance about the relationship between Koko, the educated gorilla, and a kitten, performer Ann Carlson tenderly carries the kitten by the scruff of its neck in her teeth. She moves in a graceful, uncannily gorilla-like gait, expressing such tenderness for the kitten that it makes a point about the universality of mother love. The old show-business maxim that animals will always upstage you was turned on its head. Carlson's intent observation of them made her at least as compelling as the kitten, goldfish, dog, and goats she and her dancers shared the stage with this spring in ``Animals,'' her evening-long piece.Skip to next paragraph
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That she appeared in Boston at all is due to the perseverance of Jeremy Alliger, director of Dance Umbrella, an organization that has lived up to its motto ``experience the unexpected'' since he founded it in 1981.
``Animals'' had only been performed for two weeks in New York, where Carlson created it. A week before the Boston performance, Dance Umbrella still had not come up with a young kitten for her, since it was early in the year for them to be born, and Carlson doubted the work could successfully be repeated.
But a kitten made the gig. Audiences were ecstatic, pouring out their admiration for Carlson in post-performance ``Meet the Artist'' sessions. Afterwards, she felt more willing to perform it again. ``I can't turn a deaf ear to what they've said. It's very humbling,'' she commented. Thanks to Mr. Alliger, she had discovered the mobility of her work, and the Boston audience had discovered her.
Alliger is one of a new breed of arts presenters, according to Salli Ann Kriegsman, director of the dance program at the National Endowment for the Arts. ``They are now being looked to for increasing leadership and vision - working with artists, commissioning work,'' and helping artists travel with their work. This is necessary in a time of scarce arts funding, she said. ``We'll see the presenter in the next decade performing a more important role.''
After Carlson, Dance Umbrella presented the opening of the national tour of ``Africa Oy'e!'' a collection of 52 African singers, musicians, and dancers, from Guinean acrobats to Papa Wemba, an Afro-Pop star from Zaire. Dance Umbrella has also brought in new-wave Montreal dancers and Japan's Sankai Juku; staged a two-month jazz tap dancing festival where hoofers and school kids got to work together; and presented works by Boston dancers.
As far as dance is concerned, ``Boston has come back from the dead,'' says Peter White, director of New York's Dance Theater Workshop and founder of the 17-city National Performance Network, which subisidizes touring costs for about 20 percent of the artists Alliger presents.
Alliger stumbled onto dance in the '70s, when a friend handed him his job of lighting dance performances in a church basement. ``I lit my first dance concert that weekend,'' Alliger recalls. ``Sweated a lot, very nervous, but I fell in love with the field that weekend.''
He started Dance Umbrella out of frustration. Local dance companies would schedule their annual concerts the same weekend, fragmenting an audience that was small to start with. ``I said, `This is nuts,''' he recalls, ``and that's when I came up with the idea of trying to coerce the companies that were self-producing anyway into letting me schedule them.''
He began bringing in dancers from outside Boston because ``I'm isolated, and so is the Boston dance community.'' The audience grew, and Dance Umbrella did too. In 1985, the organization had to sublet a theater from the Boston Shakespeare Company, and it offered subscribers a series that included Boston dancers, the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, heralded as the next great hope for American modern dance. Dance Umbrella is now the largest dance presenter in New England, with a budget last year of over $900,000.
Alliger seems omnipresent. He hovers in the lobby at his own productions, greeting friends and abruptly dashing off to fix last-minute glitches. He turns up at unheralded local concerts. He'll mention a dance festival he's been to in Montreal or some interesting aerialists he saw in Seattle. He's on many local arts organization boards.
Dance Umbrella's general manager, Deborah Kittredge, likens him to the ``Peanuts'' character Pigpen. Instead of dust, he's surrounded with a swirl of ideas for new projects, she says. For all his contact with people, he's not expansive; when asked how he keeps up the pace, he mutters, ``Because I love what I'm doing.'' Always well-tailored, he favors dark suits and unusual eye-glasses; in repose he looks like a smartly furled umbrella - but he is rarely in repose.