Terry Teachout has a very interesting article in the WSJ on the decline and fall--make that fall and collapse--of American dance. This is much more his territory than mine, so I cautiously offer some additional thoughts:
- From my hobbyist's reading in American dance history, the current state of affairs appears to be the default position. As Teachout notes, there was a massive uptick of interest during the 1950s, thanks in particular to the explosion of television variety shows that brought both Broadway and classical dancers to a mass audience. (Although he doesn't mention them, Agnes de Mille's "Art of Ballet"  and "Art of Choreography"  specials were significant contributions to this project; her Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre was intended to serve the same educational purpose.) But interest in dance appears to have fallen off again by the 1970s, since critics thought that the success of the super-soapy film The Turning Point marked a new interest in ballet. Thanks in no small part, of course, to Baryshnikov, who succeeded Nureyev on the ballet superstar throne.
- Ballet and modern dance may have vanished from the public's radar--the Alvin Ailey aside, how many modern dance companies were ever really on the public's radar?--but what about tap? Tap at its best is an improvisational form, which means that there isn't a repository of great tap dances lurking out there (aside from pieces choreographed for companies like the American Tap Dance Orchestra). Yet I'd hazard that in recent years, the most widely recognized dancers in America have been a) the late Gregory Hines and b) Savion Glover.
- Does it matter that viewers apparently no longer respond well to the dream ballets in 1950s Hollywood musicals? I haven't done a scientific survey, to be sure, but take a look at how Amazon reviewers or IMDb posters respond to the Oklahoma! dream ballet. A surprising number are unable to figure out a) why it's there, b) why de Mille used dance doubles, or c) why it couldn't just be edited out (!). All headshaking aside, though, I wonder if this means that viewers have lost touch with extended forms of dance; even a recent dance-oriented musical like Chicago chopped all the choreography up into itsy-bitsy pieces. (Does MTV rear its head here?)
- In recent years, there no longer seems to be much in the way of cross-pollination between commercial and concert dance. Obviously, there's some--choreographers Garth Fagan, Lars Lubovitch, and Twyla Tharp have done Broadway musicals; dancers like Desmond Richardson have performed likewise--but overall, there's much less mobility. George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins, not to mention a host of others (Eugene Loring, etc.), moved back and forth between Broadway and ballet. Moreover, performers seem to have enjoyed far more fluidity; not only did concert dancers work regularly in musical theatre during their (probably far too numerous) off-seasons, but Broadway dancers frequently wound up filling unexpected holes in even major concert dance companies. Today, would American Ballet Theatre allow de Mille's favorite dancer, James Mitchell, within a mile of the stage--let alone assign him principal roles?
- You know, it can cost a lot of money to go to the ballet, just as it costs a lot of money to go to the theatre. This is not a small problem.
UPDATE: slightly edited.
UPDATE II: According to John Rockwell in this morning's New York Times, "By most measures, in all of which Ailey excels, dance has rarely been healthier in this country."