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U.S. Dancemakers: A Declaration of Interdependence



U.S. Dance Makers:

A Declaration of Interdependence


Sarah Marie Wilbur

Doctor of Philosophy in Culture and Performance Studies

University of California, Los Angeles, 2016

Professor Susan Leigh Foster, Committee Chair

Who makes a dance?

While no method of studying cultural production can possibly include all the people, practices, and procedures that “make” artistic works possible, dance scholars have yet to centralize dance’s infrastructural politics as a topic of research in its own right. My dissertation project looks at dance “making” -- the resourcing, staging, and legitimization of dance performance -- as the product of multiple agents and agencies. To flesh out how dance is practically produced through a dynamic network of intermediaries, I combine archival accounts of federal arts policy production at the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with ethnographic research and interviews with lifelong dance “makers,” a large group that includes NEA senior leadership, administrators, citizen advisors, and NEA funded dance presenters, managers, booking agents, artists, and organizers. This emphasis on dance’s many authorial agents protests modernist understandings of the choreographer-as-autonomous producer of dance “texts” through a situated review of how people collectively fashion authorizing rhetorics, programs, and procedures at the NEA and in local, NEA supported dance contexts. I trade close interpretive analysis of dance texts for a processual account of infrastructural “norms” and local translations across the agency’s fifty-year lifespan. By studying dance policy and production enactments together in their cultural situatedness, we can start to notice how institutions function as living infrastructures, shaped by people with differential investments in dance practice and performance. Such an embodied epistemology of infrastructure offers a new topic and frontier of research, driven squarely from the domain of dance studies, with implications across dance, arts, humanities and policy discourse.

My project is organized across the NEA’s fifty year history of arts resourcing, regulation, and research by way of three infrastructural movements that I define here in italics. Chapter One addresses how early policy “makers” proceeded to negotiate an influx of economic resourcing through an agency-wide strategy of expansion by partition during the NEA’s first fifteen years of policy production (1965-1980). Chapter Two analyzes the agency’s most massive period of regulation and defunding, known in conventional histories as the so-called “Arts Wars” (1980-1996) to detail infrastructural pressures and regulations that instituted a support system rooted in redistribution and artist estrangement. Chapter Three details efforts to champion art and artists as tools for achieving non-arts policy goals from the turn of the 21st century to the present as a hyper-instrumental turn strongly influenced by governmental rationalism and capital development as political endgames of US federal government writ large. In each chapter I also weigh how NEA funded dance grantees negotiate these changes, in practice. What results is a theory of infrastructure as a living social exercise animated by people with differential investments in the production and distribution of dance.

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