The year’s biggest dance headlines | 2011 in review

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel watches Hubbard Street Dance Chicago rehearse SCARLATTI, by choreographer Twyla Tharp, at the company's West Loop studios in October.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel watches Hubbard Street Dance Chicago rehearse SCARLATTI, by choreographer Twyla Tharp, at the company's West Loop studios in October. Photograph: Courtesy of the Mayor's Press Office

[node:15052687 link=New highs and surprises;], lots of [node:15039945 link=stellar work by lighting designers;], and notable new artists all made dancegoing rewarding in 2011.

The field finally embracing Twitter en masse probably had something to do with it, but it was also a big year for dance news. From Black Swan mania that rolled over (and over, and over) from 2010, to musical chairs among ballet stars, this dance reporter’s beat was anything but boring. Here are ten top topics that kept me engaged.

Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of the Dance
I’m still not used to looking across the aisle at the Harris Theater to see Chicago’s mayor on his feet, heartily applauding Hubbard Street or [node:13086345 link=Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago;]. And there he was at [node:14829245 link=Dance/USA’s annual conference;], addressing attendees, and there he was again at the MCA Stage, speaking to key supporters at the opening of the [node:14917457 link=Chicago Dancing Festival;], and there he was again at the Pritzker Pavilion, getting a crowd of thousands pumped up for the free fest’s closing-night blowout. He proclaimed November 18, 2011 Merce Cunningham Day in Chicago. Oh, and did you know that Rahmikhail Baryshnuel is also [node:14813403 link=honorary board chair;] at the Joffrey Ballet?

Other-side grass: no longer greener
Until recently, many American concert-dance companies eyed their counterparts in Europe with a degree of envy. Comparatively generous state-level funding for the classical and fine performing arts kept venues there well-appointed and large-scale productions feasible…until [node:14762443 link=seismic shifts in the politico-financial sphere;] suddenly threw the artistic autonomy—if not very existence—of many of these European organizations into question.

Union doozy
While dance in the European Union faced new challenges, the biggest labor union for dance in the U.S. fought battles on multiple fronts. The American Guild of Musical Artists, largely unknown to the general public, found itself in high-profile contract disputes with the managers of many member companies, including the Joffrey Ballet, [node:14843345 link=which came close to canceling the start of its current season;].

Ballet bombshells
Tough contract negotiations weren’t the only reason ballet companies were in the news. Mariafrancesca Garritano of Italy’s La Scala recently went public in The Observer with her concerns about eating disorders’ prevalence in the biz. Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Ballet fought allegations of widespread cocaine use among its members. American Ballet Theatre’s David Hallberg joined Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, a surprise announcement that landed him an interview on The Colbert Report. Many were looking forward to seeing Hallberg perform more frequently with the Bolshoi’s young star, Natalia Osipova, but then she and her beau, Ivan Vasiliev, chose to leave the Bolshoi for St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theater. Its director since January 1, Nacho Duato, was himself a hot topic. Oh, and the Bolshoi? Scandal city. Recently brewed: trouble at Ballet San Jose.

Logged on—finally
While some prescient arts orgs had gotten their digital-media strategies together before the naughties ended, 2011 was the year that dance companies on the whole swan-dove into reality. From live-streamed research projects and performances to plugged-in presentations, dance took big, overdue steps toward finding new audiences through the always-on, always-connected screens everywhere around us. Their reward? Survival, and continued relevance.

Curtain out…curtain in
This time zone got swank new digs for dance when the Cowles Center opened in downtown Minneapolis with a star-studded gala weekend. Executive director Frank L. Sonntag sure sounded stoked [node:14923123 link=when I interviewed him shortly before its September grand opening;]. I wasn’t alone in my surprise when he abruptly resigned just weeks later.

Grantland expands
Considering the unabating financial shitstorm, I got many more press releases than expected about new support structures. Although the New Stages for Dance Initiative [node:126687 link=was announced back in May 2010;], its first recipients [node:14947803 link=took off in September;] (and they’ll keep coming till May). Ditto [node:118925 link=Creative Force: The Joffrey’s Choreographers of Color Award and the Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s Greenhouse program;], whose first recipients’ performances took place in March and June, respectively. And 3Arts and a three-university partnership [node:14980001 link=announced;] another new dance grant in October; they’ll start cutting checks next year for Dance Studies in/and the Humanities.

Copycatwoman caught
I’ve already said [node:14994489 link=my piece about choreographic plagiarism;], but in case you missed it: Some folks defined “inspiration” way, way too loosely in 2011. Beyoncé, Inc. was the most high-profile offender by far; the release in October of its “Countdown” video was a laughably undisguised appropriation of dance for the camera by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Thierry De Mey. To her credit, De Keersmaeker responded with class and a sense of humor: “Beyoncé is not the worst copycat,” she wrote. “She sings and dances very well, and she has a good taste!”

November’s gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles sparked heated debate about fair pay and rights in the realms of dance and performance-art. First, a letter from dance icon Yvonne Rainer to museum director Jeffrey Deitch surfaced before the grandiose fund-raiser began, then, after the fact, dancer Sara Wookey aired her grievances and explained why she turned down an offer to participate in the spectacle, conceived by Marina Abramović.

The ballerina and the bull
Dressed in rehearsal gear and barefoot, posed in attitude croisée derrière allongé, someone with decent dance training starred in one of the year’s most iconic images. Related: Arrests in May of five dancers at the Jefferson Memorial sparked spirited protest and an elegant response from Pulitzer-winning dance critic Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post.

What’d I miss? Drop your nominations in the comments below for the year’s biggest dance stories.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)