When Dance Companies Dissolve

As Ralph Lemon's troupe bows out next week, choreographers rethink the art form's future

The choreographer Ralph Lemon thinks of his latest dance as an exploration of pure movement. But while his company works wonders with kinetic energy, it's hard to see the piece as anything but metaphor.

Called ''Killing Tulips,'' it features six dancers who pulse and pivot like an organism spiraling from birth to death. The Ralph Lemon Company will perform the 40-minute dance next week at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan.

Then it will perform no more.

Mr. Lemon has decided to disband the eight-member troupe, which he founded in 1985, after the final curtain call on Oct. 8.

''It's the economy,'' Lemon said in a recent interview, sounding a refrain from the 1992 elections. ''Running a dance company has become too unwieldy.''

The demise of Lemon's troupe is no isolated incident. Across America dance companies are scrambling to survive. Some are still reeling from the recession that hit in 1991. Others are casualties of the culture wars now being waged in Washington and several state capitals.

For reasons as different as the ways they move, Bella Lewitzky and Lar Lubovitch are pulling their troupes from the touring circuit. Younger companies are falling without fanfare. The toll raises questions about the viability of dance companies and the future of American dance.

''It's a time of total unpredictability,'' says choreographer Trisha Brown, who has pushed the edges of dance for decades. ''I don't know how a young choreographer can make it today.''

It wasn't always so hard.

Just as Leonardo had the Medicis, Lemon had the National Endowment for the Arts. The agency has given him eight fellowships totaling $104,400 since 1986. In that time he has made 25 dances, including one for the Boston Ballet and two for the Lyon Opera Ballet in France.

But earlier this year the NEA said it would stop giving grants to individual choreographers and dancers. Further cuts are likely.

Peers say that Lemon, who is in his early 40s, could get by making dances for other people's companies. His proteges won't be so lucky.

Without the NEA's endorsement, emerging artists will face a tougher time getting funds from corporations, foundations, and individuals.

Money, of course, can't buy artistic innovation. Indeed, some of the nation's most original and culturally significant dance pre-dates the endowment and the influx of private giving it helped spawn.

A prime example is the Judson Dance Theatre. Working out of a Greenwich Village church in the early 1960s, this loose band of choreographers, composers, and painters virtually invented postmodern dance.

Yet Ms. Brown, one of its founders, would be the last to deny the link between cash and creativity. On coming to New York in 1960, she rented an apartment for $15 a month (less than $100 in current dollars). Unless they work in Albania, young artists don't have that cheap housing option today.

''Failure to support emerging artists is going to bring about a different kind of choreography,'' Brown says. ''Less of it.''

Some foresee an exodus to Europe, where national arts councils extend their largesse to American artists. Those who stay at home expect lean years ahead. But even Lemon agrees that disbanding is not the only logical step.

''I could have continued to make dances for the stage,'' he says. ''But I think I can stretch the art form more by letting go of the company model.''

Many choreographers and company managers hope to survive by tapping new revenues, audiences, and ideas.

The American Ballet Theatre was $6 million in arrears four years ago. Fiscal restraint, evident in a tough decision to dismiss a quarter of its dancers, has enabled ABT to pay off all but $1.2 million of its debt.

Bill T. Jones has sought new ways to make money. Apart from staging his controversial dance ''Still/Here,'' Jones is marketing a book, a film, and other products related to his work.

Some of the most inventive responses come, ironically, from the choreographers who seem to be faring worst. Lemon, for one, regards his decision to disband as an aesthetic choice. Perhaps he's playing the spin doctor, but the fact remains that he is jettisoning the industry standard in search of an alternative.

''Modern dance needs a radical shift right now,'' he postulated at a SoHo cafe. ''We've fallen into a habit in the way we create and present dance, and it isn't working anymore.''

Lemon seems an unlikely iconoclast. His eyes radiate warmth, and his manner is uncommonly pleasant. Yet he has consistently broken new ground since he came to New York from Minnesota 16 years ago.

His plans include publishing a book of photographs, shooting a documentary about Haitians in Miami, filming a duet with choreographer Bebe Miller, and experimenting in technology labs and dance studios.

Mr. Lubovitch has also grown frustrated with certain dance traditions. While touring proved lucrative, the choreographer believes it set him back creatively. This summer he grounded his company for at least 18 months so he can focus on making new dances.

But money plays a role. By staying home, the company will forego half its income and half its expenses, each of which ran $1.2 million last year. Success hinges on how long contributors will support a company that is not performing.

''Nothing has really changed,'' says Charles Reinhart, co-director of the American Dance Festival. ''Martha Graham lived this way forever. She had a corps of dancers, and between seasons she would let them out to graze. When she issued the call, they came flocking back.''

Art reflects society, and the influence of big business has not left the dance world untouched. Talk of mergers and acquisitions surrounds the Joffrey Ballet, which recently announced plans to set up shop in Chicago. And, just as the company worker has given way to the independent contractor, more dancers may turn to freelance work.

Some of Lemon's dancers plan on just that. Others will choreograph or teach. One is leaving dance for business school.

''Modern dance was a rebellion against a particular form,'' Lemon says. ''Merce [Cunningham] and Trisha said, 'This is what we have done. Let's try something else.' I'm taking that as my cue.''

* The Ralph Lemon Company performs Oct. 3 through 8 at New York's Joyce Theater.

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