By Mary Hierholzer
After President Donald Trump proposed to cut the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget, Boston Ballet Principal Dancer John Lam is rallying support for the NEA with a video, “Dance Is.” Released today, the video expresses Mr. Lam’s reaction to the threat by featuring 21 dancers of Boston Ballet defining the value of dance through voice and movement.
“I wanted something that’s impactful,” Mr. Lam said in an interview with The Boston Dance Journal, “something that redefines why we all are affected by art, and why we’re affected by dance. Every day we go through life, there is art and dance everywhere we go, and it’s just a matter of taking the time to realize that and to be inspired by something that’s so simple.”
Trump’s proposed budget cuts for 2018 would eliminate spending for the National Endowment for the Arts in addition to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Together, according to the Washington Post, these agencies’ budget requests for 2017 add up to $971 million—about 0.2 percent of the federal budget.
“It’s a big detriment to the art world,” Mr. Lam says, “It’s one of those things that we can’t put a blind eye to.”
Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, approached Mr. Lam about creating a project reacting to this issue, and gave him the green light. “With this film, I hope that people are re-inspired by dance and art in their own lives… that all comes down to the National Endowment for the Arts,” he says. “It’s really important we have this funding because without money, art can’t survive, and that’s just the truth. This is essentially being taken away.”
Creating this short dance film, Mr. Lam considered how to best capture a heartfelt and personal message in a series of frames—a much different medium than choreography intended for stage. It was his first time choreographing as a professional dancer for a professional company. Videographer Ernesto Galan filmed the video, but with only two weeks to produce it (and only two hours allotted to set the choreography with the dancers), Mr. Lam meticulously created notes and storyboards, filmed the dancers and reviewed the footage from home to determine what does and doesn’t work onscreen.
Despite the stress, he described it as a “beautiful, organic” experience, especially assuming a new role with his fellow dancers. “They’re not just my colleagues,” he said, “they’re also my friends.” Thirteen years with Boston Ballet makes Mr. Lam one of the most senior dancers in the company, and he’s seen it all. “To see all these beautiful dancers become who they are as artists really speaks truth to what our art form is all about.” This allowed Mr. Lam to capitalize on the dancers’ strengths, specifically assigning keywords to each dancer. “We have something beautiful to say as artists,” he says. “I played with having strong artists who embody such beautiful things in themselves to embark on a simple choreographic frame of what I was doing for them.”
The film production required and naturally resulted in a sense of mutual respect with the dancers selected to participate. Because he is still a professional dancer with Boston Ballet, Mr. Lam felt he benefitted from perspectives from both sides of the picture—dancer and choreographer. He describes it as a special moment: “I can still be the dancer and still be the choreographer, and find different lenses to create something that’s very beautiful.”
Undertaking this project was a range of emotions, Mr. Lam says—from inspiring and special, to challenging and humbling. “I’m starting to realize as an artist and as a new choreographer, I have a choice in how I want to voice things,” he said.
In this case, Mr. Lam’s voice is dedicated to the National Endowment for the Arts, “keeping the true resilience of why arts always survive—because it’s art, it’s in our lives, it’s in our everyday way of going about things, so it can’t die.”