Coming down to earth

After a decade of gravity-defying acrobatics, Ruth Rosenberg will shutter her Dance Ensemble

Post-Charleston experimentation: Ruth Rosenberg in the arms of Jim Riley.

Post-Charleston experimentation: Ruth Rosenberg in the arms of Jim Riley.

Ruth Rosenberg is hanging it up. After 10 years as artistic director of the Ruth Rosenberg Dance Ensemble, or RRDE for short—a self-created job that included duties ranging from choreography to teaching to fretting about costumes—she’s closing down her company and starting over.

Sustaining a modern dance company in a place like Sacramento, a city that’s had its ups and downs in terms of supporting the mainstream “classical” arts and can be pretty indifferent at times toward newer work, has been something akin to defying gravity on a daily basis.

But Rosenberg has done a remarkably good job of it, building an audience almost from scratch, networking and collaborating with local musicians from different disciplines and backgrounds, and scaring up media coverage. (Her longtime efforts earned her a spot in SN&R’s “Sacramento Top 100” list a few weeks back.)

The first step—a step she still takes often, even after 10 years—is pushing the topic of modern dance onto people’s radar screens. “That’s probably been our toughest thing, getting people to realize that modern dance can be fun and entertaining as well as thought-provoking,” she admits. “Something you’ll enjoy! Early on, we had to do a lot of education, dancing out of doors, on Capitol Mall or in art galleries. Unusual places where people don’t expect to see us.

“The dance school was part of that, developing new audiences and future dancers,” she continues. “It’s always been a constant struggle. Audience development has always been at the forefront of the company’s agenda.”

Rosenberg started the Ruth Rosenberg Dance Ensemble a decade ago, in large part because, well, she and others wanted to dance, and somebody had to put up an administrative framework to make it possible. Rosenberg was at loose ends when the old Capital City Ballet, a group with which she’d been affiliated, folded in 1990. “They had acquired a huge deficit of around $20,000"—she can’t resist a smirk as she tells the story—"which is a drop in the bucket these days. But they couldn’t get a bailout from the city or county, and didn’t want to carry the debt load. So they decided to go out of business.

“At that point, everyone turned to me and said, ‘What are you going to do, Ruth?’ I have a feeling it had something to do with my big mouth,” she adds a little sheepishly.

The carrot was before her—a grant, originally intended to support a new work by the now-defunct Capital City Ballet. “If I figured out a way to perform the dance, they’d still give me the money. It became one of those ‘Let’s put on a show!’ things.”

The Sierra 2 Center on 24th Street donated rehearsal and theater space. Other dancers, mostly from the Capital City Ballet, signed on, along with choreographers.

“Our first performance was in January 1991,” Rosenberg recalls, a faint glow of satisfaction still reflected in her voice. “It went great. We had really strong audiences, and a lot of media attention. It was my intention to do one program, and see how it went.

“But what I found out is that either you have a dance company, or you don’t do anything. No one understands when you’re just putting together a [single] show.

Schvingg! Left to right, it’s Jim Riley, Rebecca Kisinski and Karin Bloomer.

“So I had a dance company. That meant programming, incorporating—all that. We were off and running before I had a chance to think whether this was what I really wanted to do.”

Run she did. For the last 10 years, the Ruth Rosenberg Dance Ensemble put together three programs a year, using part-time dancers. “It was always challenging. We eventually figured out exactly how to work efficiently, so we could put the programs together without getting panicked at the last minute.

“The search for dancers has always been extremely complicated. There are not a lot of dancers in Sacramento [who come here] just naturally. They move here by other circumstances—not to dance. That was one of the biggest challenges—to keep finding new and interesting dancers to work with.”

In the meantime, Rosenberg was running rehearsals, getting posters and tickets printed, talking up friends and nagging editors for coverage. She also ran her dance school—up to 130 students a week, ranging from age four to as old as 70-something, passing on everything from basic skills to advanced concepts she’d learned through her own ongoing training under internationally recognized figures such as Mark Morris, Garth Fagan and David Parsons.

She was always on the lookout for ideas that could build the audience a little bit more. “Because we do modern dance, we don’t have a cash cow like the Nutcracker"—the ever-popular holiday standard that pays the bill for other less familiar works over at the Sacramento Ballet, and other more traditional dance companies around the country.

Truth be told, Rosenberg didn’t really want that sort of cash cow, in any case. “I was never very interested in developing something like that,” she says. “We focus on smaller, shorter pieces in repertory, rather than big, full-length things.”

Those shorter pieces often featured collaborations with local musicians—Japanese-style drummers from Sacramento Taiko Dan, flute or guitar by composer Gilda Taffet or electronic music by Joe Colley, to name three.

As she wraps up her Dance Ensemble, Rosenberg finds herself thinking back to her days as a young teen in Sacramento, studying at the Barbra Briggs Studio and dancing mostly for the pleasure of it, without thinking about performing. After heading off to UC Santa Cruz to study politics—they don’t call it “political science” at UC Santa Cruz—she gravitated back to dance in her early 20s, studying modern dance in San Francisco under the late Ed Mock. He urged Rosenberg to focus on “just dancing,” and to take the personal qualities of her work and make them performance-worthy.

Mock died in 1986, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic that swept through San Francisco’s arts community. Rosenberg continues to honor his memory by staging his works periodically—Mock’s Soda Fountain Rag will be part of RRDE’s final show.

Why did she decide to give it up? “Overwhelming exhaustion from the sheer effort of running a company, a school—just basically being a one-woman shop,” Rosenberg says.

It’s not just the company that’s closing. “I do think I’m ready to stop dancing,” she says. “And that’s something that’s hard for people to do. It’s almost an addictive activity.”

That decision may not be for keeps, she admits. “A really interesting project could draw me out.” Nonetheless, at 43, Rosenberg realizes that it’s getting harder to pursue the kind of work she’s done in the past. “In dance, there are a lot of ethnic things you can still do; they’re very gestural and not as hard on the body. But modern dance and ballet are not that ‘natural’ [in terms of physical demands].”

“I’m really excited about what my next move is going to be,” she says. “The unpredictability is exciting. Especially after 10 years of having every week accounted for.” She does plan to remain in Sacramento, and she’ll probably do more writing, including articles for Dance Magazine and arts coverage for Capital Public Radio, where she is an occasional commentator.

And what about the future of modern dance in Sacramento? "My company blossomed out of the end of something else, and I’m hoping that will happen again this time. So far, no one has stepped up. But nature abhors a vacuum."