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Dissecting Salt Lake’s peculiar success on the dance floor



It’s quite simple in so many ways, really. This little town is a dancer’s town. It can be difficult to understand why this particular settlement, in the middle of the vast mountain West, has somehow grown into quite a fount for dancers. But, by simply taking a quick look around, it’s indisputable that it is just that—a dancer’s town.

For Stephen Brown, founder and director of SBDance—one of the most successful alternatives to the big three companies in this fair city—the proposed question of why that’s so, seems to be a fairly definable one: the education, the professionalization and the financial backing. Having ventured back here after several years exploring dance scenes in places as varied as Houston and New York, Brown shares his somewhat unique take on Salt Lake City.

As far as education is concerned, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University churn out hundreds of undergraduate students in ballet and modern dance, while simultaneously maintaining prominent graduate programs in both, notes Brown. Then there’s RDT [Repertory Dance Theatre], Ririe-Woodbury and Ballet West. On top of those professional companies, there’s CDT [Children’s Dance Theatre] that gets them when they’re young.

Between the schools and the professional arena, a dance community foundation is quite easily delineated—a lot of highly trained talent floating in a relatively small swimming pool. “In a lot of ways, you have more good dancers here in Salt Lake than certainly places like Denver, Baltimore or Austin—it’s even comparable to places like San Francisco or Seattle,” says Brown.

On par with more cosmopolitan cities? One Salt Lake dream finally reaches realization.

The next piece of the puzzle resides in the willingness to publicly fund such explorations into the arts—mainly the Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) program. Salt Lake County voters approved a ballot initiative in 1996 that allowed the county to collect one additional penny in sales tax on every $10 spent. These funds are allotted for recreation facilities as well as botanical, zoological and cultural organizations approved by the fund’s administration, an advisory board and the Salt Lake County Council. Although it seems as though collected monies would amount to minimal coffers, in 2001 ZAP raised over $15.5 million.

The most obviously beneficial aspect of ZAP is the creation of a stabilized financial structure for the major dance companies that call Utah home, companies that clearly wouldn’t survive without it. As Brown notes, ZAP also gives a much-needed boost to smaller groups. “All of a sudden, a group will have a fairly dependable few thousand dollars and that’s a really nice way to get a good start.”

But a talent pool and the possibility of regular funding aren’t all this area has to offer. “The icing on the cake is the Rose Wagner facility,” adds Brown. “There’s awesome rehearsal space, awesome performance space and an administration and crew that is extremely helpful.

“There just aren’t a lot of places like that in the country. So, Salt Lake’s pretty damn cool between those things: The availability of professional dancers, ZAP money and The Rose Wagner facility. For my level of what I’m doing, especially making new stuff, it’s great.”

But there are drawbacks. In many ways, it’s the same aspects that make this place a great dancer’s town that also seems to hold certain glass ceilings in pivotal places. For Brown, it’s a severe case of institutionalization and all its inherent baggage. Most artists hang out in appropriate artistic limbo. Here in Salt Lake, it’s hard to do that and be successful.

“You’re an artist making art either alone or with other people. You’re not necessarily an organization and organizations aren’t really the best things to produce art. But here, you really have to play a part of the institution. … It’s like, OK, we did three good projects, now let’s make it a museum. You don’t ever hear of anybody throwing in the towel, saying, ‘You know what, I had a good run, that’s it.’”

Institutionalizing things can also have other effects on the community of artists—like making individuals and groups into proper organizations with a clear defined outlook and a documented financial scheme—all issues that can further blur that fuzzy line between art and entertainment. Does art always have to be entertaining? At the institutionalized level, these dance companies must be concerned with the entertainment aspects of any performance. If it should offend, the audience might not come back next year, ultimately bearing on the availability of public financial support. That kind of influence on a company’s bottom line can’t help but to invade the atmosphere in which the art gets produced.

“Yeah, it is a conservative town. It’s hard to progress past a certain level. And it’s kind of ripe with mediocrity,” says Brown. “There’s not a lot of call for excellence and on top of that, there’s basically no critical voice—not one coming from the media, anyway. So, it’s hard because you won’t really be recognized for anything here except longevity.”

Longevity, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but unfortunately, it commonly results in a kind of stagnation—a static nature that wakes artists screaming with nightmares. “I’m personally debating whether or not this is the right place for me anymore because I’ve reached a certain level and I would either like to be broken down and tossed out or … you just get to a point where you’re in a steady state of existence and I hate that,” says Brown.

“But with all that said, I chose to come here because it offers a lot and it’s been a great place for me.”

Fodder for complaints ultimately goes back to the fact that such a burgeoning scene does indeed exist. Salt Lake being a dancer’s town in the first place, even if based upon unmovable institutions that seemingly quash any change, points to assets this little town has that other little towns would love to have.