Teri Orr: A death in the family
The call came late Sunday night. I recognized the New York number. Margret and I have known each other for more than a dozen years. We have shared meals, political right-mindedness and a love of performing arts. She is a wicked smart agent who introduced me to the best acts we ever brought to the Eccles stage. After a dear friend of mine died, Margret arranged for me to come to New York to process that seminal death. She took me to see my first American Ballet Theater performance at the Lincoln Center — “Swan Lake.”
When I saw her name come up — I didn’t hesitate to answer the call.
“Hi,” she said slowly… “I have some bad news about Jessica.” I knew she meant Jessica Lang — the award-winning choreographer and former dancer with Twyla Tharp and director of her own dance company for the past seven seasons. In fact, on that fabulous trip to New York a few years ago I attended the fifth year anniversary performance of the company.
We had presented her company multiple times in Park City. We did workshops with her — like the ones she had done for Reebok. Our participants included the school superintendent, a singer/songwriter, an award-winning photographer, a city council person, a nonprofit director, a hedge fund guy. “When to lead and when to follow,” was about more than dance steps.
Jessica’s company presented at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, BAM’s Next Wave, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The Joyce Theater, Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, Bolshoi’s Inversion Festival, Palacio de Bellas Artes, and dozens more stages.
When Jessica first came to Eccles, her company performed student outreach — not just in Park City High School but also at South Summit. Jessica led that class herself — in the gym.
She later created a piece on veterans — breathtakingly, achingly, beautiful. The costumes included scraps from uniforms vets had shared with her. She listened to stories for months and tried to capture in dance — their memories — of rage and joy and peace and pieces of hearts broken.
Rob Slettom of Identity Properties had put up the entire troupe for a week while the dancers created new work. Jessica and I talked one night about our shared dream of building a place where creative people could create — in Park City — in a facility that had light and open spaces and support. We spoke a shared language.
I waited for Margret to speak.
“Jessica,” she said slowly… “has decided to close down her company.” It was a death I did not see coming…
I confess I was happy — at first — to learn Jessica was still among the living and it was only her company that was dying … but then it hit me. If someone so smart and talented, who gave joy to thousands of people — each month — had to fold her company, what was the future of dance?
She has created works for no less than Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Japan, and Joffrey. She is the recipient of the 2014 Bessie and 2017 Arison awards.
Margret jumped into my thought process and said she was worried about the future of the performing arts in a way she had never been before — she has spent most her life managing performers and companies. She said all the large venue nonprofit presenters she knows are struggling.
Broadway, she said, is doing well — folks are giving tons of money to fund new productions. But they are making back their investments. It isn’t a donation — it is a for-profit investment. And investors want — a return.
The nonprofit art world depends upon donors. People who give to see the arts continue to tell stories — through dance, theater and music. Risky stories. Untried music. Edgy dances. Donors want a return also but it is different — they want to see the arts continue to exist in their communities to lift them up. Most Americans live far away from hubs of entertainment — New York — Chicago — San Francisco. The arts need to come to them. Producing art in small communities is the way stories are shared. It is where joy is needed most. It is where most young people have a chance to see a live performer — beyond a guy in a bar with a guitar.
Margret said every large venue nonprofit presenter should get together and run a national marketing campaign. Didn’t audiences understand how fragile the arts are? That all the high-quality video in the world doesn’t equate with seeing the performer’s sweat fly offstage … or having that encore when begged by the audience with thunderous applause. The shared experience of live entertainment shapes our understanding of the human condition. For a few hours we are suspended in time and place — transported to wherever that artist takes us — inside a courtroom in rural Mississippi, a camp in Uganda, a snow-covered cabin in the woods. We hear freedom songs, love songs and songs that make us laugh. We feel the lift of the dancer as they are elevated to spin and fly — if only for a moment. And we hear the words of contemporary legends — in politics or redemption — or abuse, giants in science and medicine. Literary arts — visual arts — performing arts — are the way we learn what it means to be fully human.
Jessica will still do commissioned works for other companies — she did one for our own Ballet West — she will continue her personal career. But her company — those dancers who performed only her works around the world — those dance shoes are being hung up. For those of us in the middle of a desert — thousands of miles away from the centers of culture — we feel the death like a star we can no longer see in a dark sky. Something beautiful died this week and we are mourning — this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.