Celebrating 30 years of dance innovation at the Annenberg Center

It may come as a surprise that the man behind Dance Celebration—one of the nation’s longest-running and highly-respected series of contemporary dance performances—has no background in professional dance.

“Well, when I was a kid I was a tap dancer. But that didn’t amount to anything. I didn’t have any talent,” says Randy Swartz, founder and artistic director.

The unique talent Swartz does have is spotting, nurturing, and presenting the finest and most diverse dance troupes in the field, and over the past 30 years, that has become his professional passion.

This academic year marks the third decade of the Dance Celebration series at Penn, presented by Dance Affiliates and the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. To mark the occasion, Dance Celebration is presenting a special season of performances that include companies that appeared during the series’ inaugural season, dance from across the globe, and a commissioned work by River North Dance Chicago.

A 1967 Penn grad, Swartz established the dance series in 1971 when he was executive director of Philadelphia’s historic Walnut Street Theatre. The Walnut was, at that time, focused on presenting not only theater but other forms of performing arts.

“Nobody was really doing contemporary dance,” Swartz says. “So, I got an appointment with the National Endowment for the Arts and sat down with them to discuss presenting dance. They handed me a book listing dance companies and that’s how it all started.”

This was a time in history, Swartz explains, when contemporary dance in America was beginning to come into its own. “Dance was beginning to be shown on PBS. The image of dancers as athletes was beginning to take shape, and at the same time a whole bunch of new companies came to the fore: Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, Pilobolus.”

Swartz saw incredible potential in many of these upstart troupes, including the now famous Dance Theatre of Harlem, which he presented in its first tour. “The idea was to advance the art form, to provide a mechanism to create a long-term relationship with dance companies, and to help them establish a reputation and an audience in the city.”

The list of companies presented by Dance Celebration has more than 200 names on it, including icons such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, Bill T. Jones, and Nacho Duato. Swartz has also brought global forms of dance to Philadelphia, as well as untraditional dance troupes that mesh mime and gymnastics with dance.

“Martha Graham used to say there were only two kinds of dance, good and bad,” Swartz says. “My basic philosophy is if it moves, it’s dance.”

In 1983, Swartz moved Dance Celebration to Penn’s Annenberg Center, knowing Penn would be the perfect place to honor one of the unique aspects of the series: its commitment to educational outreach. From the very start, Swartz has encouraged the public to learn more about dance through master classes, demonstrations, and one-on-one conversations between artistic directors and the audience. 

“Randy is one of those presenters who is really stable. If you are lucky enough to get him to promote you, you can count on him to stick with you during your career,” says choreographer and dancer David Parsons. “There are only a small number of presenters in the U.S. that keep a tip-top organization like his. He has cultivated his audience for so many years. That is something rare.”

Dance Celebration’s 2012-2013 season begins this month with a Philadelphia premiere performance by the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company of “Legend of Ten.”

Every month following, Dance Celebration will present performances by Spellbound Dance Company (November), Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (December), Pilobolus Dance Theatre (January), Motionhouse (February), Parsons Dance (March), River North Dance Chicago (April) and Dance Theatre of Harlem (May).

Spellbound will be making its North American debut, Motionhouse from England will be making its American debut, and River North Dance Chicago will be presenting a commissioned world premiere dedicated to the life and music of Eva Cassidy.

In keeping with its tradition of educational outreach, and the Annenberg Center’s INSIGHTS program, each Friday evening Dance Celebration performance will include a free post-show talk-back with the artists.

For more information and a special subscription price, visit www.annenbergcenter.org, or call the Annenberg Center box office at 215-898-3900.

Originally published on October 11, 2012