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There are hundreds of small modern-dance companies in the U.S., and some of them manage to stay in business. That includes Paufve Dance, which was founded by choreographer Randee Paufve. As part of our series on how artists make a living, NPR's Laura Sydell has this profile.

LAURA SYDELL: The recently deceased modern dance giant Merce Cunningham said, you have to love dancing to stick to it. And Oakland, California-based choreographer Randee Paufve clearly does. On any given day, her alarm clock rings at 5:30 a.m., then she gets in her car and drives an hour to Marin...

Ms. RANDEE PAUFVE (Choreographer, Paufve Dance): ...to teach all morning there. Then I would generally have a little bit of time to do some prep, eat some lunch, maybe rehearse a little bit on my own, get ready for my rehearsal that evening or whatever, come back, teach a class in the East Bay.

SYDELL: Paufve teaches dance at several colleges and universities. And then when most people are heading home, Paufve and her dancers are just arriving at a rehearsal space in Oakland. Mostly they come from jobs not related to dance.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

SYDELL: Her troupe normally has 10 dancers. But today they have some absences, so there are six, who sit around in a circle to hear notes about a recent performance.

Ms. PAUFVE: So the first place where I was standing on stage every night going, uh-oh, why did I do that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYDELL: They all bring a combination of humor and hard work to the rehearsals. Today, they're experimenting with some new moves for a show based on "Romeo and Juliet," called "That Obscure Object Of Desire." Dancer Brian Runstrom(ph) wraps a ribbon around the waist of Katie Kruger(ph) and slowly lowers her to the floor. Everyone laughs when Paufve notes Runstrom looks more like Rapunzel than Romeo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAUFVE: You're letting her down with the ribbon...

SYDELL: Clearly these dancers love their work and they Paufve's style of movement. Paufve says to keep a modern dance troupe alive, you have to inspire. Rachel Johnson first saw Paufve's work nine years ago.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The dancer's name is Rebecca Johnson, not Rachel Johnson.

Ms. REBECCA JOHNSON: And as soon as I saw it, I just knew that I had to dance with her.

SYDELL: Like a lot of dancers, Johnson earns a living doing a lot of non-dance work.

Ms. JOHNSON: Five years ago, I was still kind of fighting that formula, thinking if I could just find a full-time dance gig. But you know, eventually I realized that pouring energy into projects that weren't really speaking to my heart was a waste of time.

SYDELL: It's taken Paufve, who is 48, a long time to make a life in dance. When she was 23, she spent a semester in India studying traditional dance.

Ms. PAUFVE: So I came back to the States, I was also a senior in college and freaking out about the rest of my life. And so, I picked, you know, this very practical solution of becoming a dancer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYDELL: Paufve decided to focus on modern dance because she sees it as America's traditional dance, with its roots at the turn of the 20th century when Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller created a radical movement.

Ms. PAUFVE: They were the women who, along with the suffragettes, they were taking off their corsets and going barefoot and wearing diaphanous garments and dancing to Chopin. And they were doing things that were completely unheard of in our grandmothers' day.

SYDELL: Although modern dance was born in the United States, Paufve says it often gets more support outside of the U.S. Over the last 25 years, she says cutbacks in government spending on the arts have made it even harder to keep nonprofit companies alive. She has a devoted audience, but ticket sales are never enough to pay all the bills. She keeps going through a combination of teaching and grants.

Ms. PAUFVE: Most of them, at this level, come from small, private foundations -you know, Zellerbach, Family Fund; Clorox has funded me. They have a headquarters in Oakland.

SYDELL: Paufve says she makes a middle-class living from her dance work, and that allows her to buy her own health insurance. Her reputation as a choreographer has grown in recent years. Her troupe performed in New York City and got a good review in the New York Times. A recent performance of her latest work, "That Obscure Object Of Desire," at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco did well.

(Soundbite of music)

Soundtrack here by Bjork, the theater filled with a couple hundred fans who clearly loved it.

(Soundbite of applause)

SYDELL: Over the years, Paufve says it's become important to develop individual donors who really connect to her work.

Ms. PAUFVE: I think it's taken me this long to become fearless about asking for money, and to realize that if we're going to survive, you have to ask for it.

SYDELL: But Paufve is also about to make a change. She says many of the best choreographers are making a home base at universities. So she begins a new job this fall as a tenure-track professor of dance at Sacramento State University.

Ms. PAUFVE: I'm going to be very, very busy. But I can't imagine I'm going to be busier than I have been. You know, more than anything, I want to say, I am nowhere near done. I feel like, in some ways, I'm just getting started.

SYDELL: This very determined, 48-year-old choreographer believes she will actually have more time now to keep her dance troupe going.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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