The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) has not consistently supported dance programs, often doing so in conjunction with funding other artistic disciplines. While its early support helped such organizations as New York City Center and the San Francisco Ballet, its later efforts focused primarily on contemporary choreographers and their companies. In keeping with its ambitions to foster intercultural understanding, the Foundation underwrote tours and festival participation for dance companies until the formal arts program came to an end in the late 1990s.
The first grants providing significant help for dance came in the early 1950s at the same time that the Foundation was expanding its music initiatives. In 1953 a $200,000 appropriation to the City Center of Music and Dance in New York, then only a decade old and home to both the New York City Opera and the New York City Ballet (NYCB), helped both resident companies and a short-lived theater company. The companies had attained an impressive level of artistic success, and NYCB had already toured nationally and internationally. With ticket prices held to a minimum, City Center was drawing more than 500,000 persons annually to its performances. The companies’ emphasis on new works appealed to RF staff members, and City Center’s grant was intended to create new scores, choreography, costumes and sets for both opera and ballet.
Modern dance flourished in mid-century America. RF hoped to preserve the accomplishments of this ephemeral art form. In 1955 a grant to Connecticut College’s Summer School and Festival of the Dance helped the college to film, publish, archive and disseminate choreographic works to other organizations. The college and the Dance Notation Bureau also received funding to develop Labanotation, a graphical system for noting movement that had been developed by Rudolf Laban in the 1920s and was later adapted to capture dance by RF grantee Ann Hutchinson Guest. The textbooks she wrote have proved central to the study of dance.
Companies and Choreographers
The RF ceded center stage in dance to the Ford Foundation’s much larger arts program, which expanded rapidly in the late 1950s and 1960s. While RF had supported new choreographic works at the San Francisco Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, it was Ford that transformed major regional ballet companies into nationally prominent organizations. Rockefeller concentrated its more limited resources on supporting contemporary dance companies, including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Robert Joffrey, and, at the Bellagio Center, Bill T. Jones, among others. In the 1980s, the RF, partnering with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Exxon Corporation, implemented the National Choreography Project, placing contemporary choreographers in residencies with classic dance companies to increase repertory and experimentation. The Foundation frequently funded national and international tours, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, to encourage international cultural understanding between the United States and developing countries. Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund was among these programs funded by RF.
Although the RF’s formal arts and humanities programs came to an end in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Foundation continues to provide funding for artistic life in RF’s home city. The NYC Cultural Innovation Fund supports artists and institutions working to enhance the creative sector in New York, echoing the assistance first rendered sixty years ago to City Center.