Public support for contemporary dance in France: toward a democratization of artistic expectations (1975 – 2010)

by Patrick Germain-Thomas, Associate Professor in Sociology and Economy at Novancia

Until the 1960s, contends Patrick Germain-Thomas, associate professor at Novancia, classical dance maintained a monopoly in terms of artistic legitimacy and public funding for dance. Indeed, the French State concentrated its financial assistance on the Paris Opera, leaving local authorities to subsidize decentralized dance troupes. However, the growing recognition of contemporary dance in the 1970s catalyzed a shift in the politics of the dance world.

The emergence of this dance genre was made possible by a new type of funding applied to the cultural sector, called a system of mixed economy in which both the State and private companies are in charge of the economy. Applied more specifically to the world of dance, this original economic system – or “subsidized market” as coined by Germain-Thomas – connects public funding to intermediate and final demands of the audience. Germain-Thomas focuses his study on the mid-market (intermediate demand), which encompasses the interactions between dance companies and distribution groups in charge of purchasing and producing performances.

Germain-Thomas suggests that his study could prove useful to the examination of cultural democratization in France. Indeed, as contemporary dance struggled to find its due recognition in the world of dance, it was of great importance that its artistic assets be diffused across the nation. The democratization of contemporary dance in French culture was revolutionary, for it broke with historic codes and conventions established by traditional art forms such as ballet. Germain-Thomas traces the three key moments in this democratization process.

To begin, the researcher attributes the legitimization of contemporary dance in France to economic, artistic and political factors. Artistically speaking, the world of dance is in need of regeneration in the 1970s. The emergence of German expressionism and modern dance in the United States brings waves of rejuvenation to France; contemporary dance embodies this long awaited for new art form. Economically speaking, municipalities can no longer fund local ballet troupes and operas, and the Ministry of Culture must respond to their demands for financial assistance. Politically speaking, France seeks to be recognized on an international scale. Therefore, diversifying French artistic production is one way to gain greater visibility abroad, argues Michel Guy secretary of State in cultural affairs in 1974. Consequentially, contemporary dance appears in a timely fashion, granting a necessary modernization and revitalization to French culture.

Jack Lang, minister of culture as of 1981, pursues Michel Guy’s efforts. With 1% of the national budget now allotted to cultural affairs, the world of dance can benefit from larger funds. In 2005, contemporary dance troupes represent approximately one third of the beneficiaries of State funding for choreographic endeavors. Both individual companies and larger National Choreographic Centers (CCN) located throughout France receive these grants, promoting the Ministry’s decentralization mission.

However, unlike the CCN, individual dance companies do not have their own rehearsal and performance spaces. As a result, independent choreographers must rely on the assistance of directors in charge of distribution and promotion for greater public visibility. This mid-market system rapidly becomes unbalanced, as the supply of performances exceeds the supply of distribution opportunities. This imbalance is perpetuated into the 1990s. Dance companies are obliged to seek a third source of funding: co-production opportunities provided by theaters or festivals already benefiting from national subsidies.

Nonetheless, an unexpected, yet beneficial, byproduct of this imbalance is a constant search for innovation within dance troupes. Indeed, as distribution groups steer dance companies toward creation rather than performance for lack of space, troupes are driven to emphasize originality in their creations. Their experimental approach could open doors to a more diverse audience intrigued by contemporary dance.

It is precisely these groundbreaking experimentations spearheaded by contemporary dance companies that attract the eye of the critic and the attention of a wider public. This observation marks the second significant moment in the cultural democratization process of contemporary dance. French contemporary dance challenges artistic conventions and is characterized by its liberated style. An infinite number of movements is developed by the art form, emancipated from preexisting codes and preconceived notions of what dance should be. That being said, this artistic endeavor does rely on rigorous expectations, namely: 1) movement must be an expression of thought; 2) movement must be organic in nature from beginning to end: its anatomical trajectory must come from within, unmarred by exterior influences; 3) imitation is prohibited, for each body creates unique movements: individual expression is at the heart of contemporary dance.

These artistic ideals distinguish contemporary dance from all other movement genres. The ultimate specificity of contemporary dance lies in its belief that all movement can become dance. To democratize contemporary dance thus comes down to initiating an audience to the tenets of the art form. Conquering new audiences and gaining their loyalty to contemporary dance are the two missions of distribution groups, which benefit from public funding. Their work appears effective in the 1990s, as the number of paid visits to contemporary dance performances doubles over the course of the decade. During the 1995-1996 season, contemporary-style shows represent 95% of attended performances.

Nevertheless, these positive results are not to be taken for granted. A large portion of the French audience remains reticent to the emergence of contemporary dance. As such, Germain-Thomas notes a loss of momentum in the democratization process of the art form, marking the third and final point of his presentation. He attributes this slowing down to three factors. The first is a dearth of research conducted on audience behaviors and preferences. This lack of information impedes on the implementation of effective arts education and mediation programs to educate the audience on original creations such as those proposed by contemporary dance companies.

Secondly, artists often encounter difficulties in implementing their creative endeavors and cultural action initiatives, which consequentially fail to receive their due recognition. Choreographers dedicate a significant portion of their work time to these cultural action missions, as well as to artist training – activities that could detract from their personal creation time and the advancement of their professional reputation.

The third factor advanced by Germain-Thomas is the lack of theoretical information and documentation pertaining to the history and aesthetic development of contemporary dance. Hence, it is difficult to establish a complete audience initiation to the art form. Despite the creation of the National center for dance in 1998, contemporary dance continues to struggle in shaping critical discourse on its genesis and development.

Germain-Thomas concludes that it is by answering to these three demands that the democratization process of contemporary dance can aspire to reach fulfillment.

[Read the full paper in french]


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