Düsseldorf, Dance/USA, and the Case for American Engagement — Part 2

Editorial note: The following suggestions are from Andrew Wood’s article on increasing the presence of American dance abroad as a cultural and diplomatic policy. You may find the first part here.

Part 2

Supporting U.S. Artists International Touring, Teaching, and Exchange

  • Dollars invested in sending U.S. artists to the Tanzmesse can be stretched further. If as a matter of policy we are going to pay for dance companies to travel to places like Europe and beyond, it would be better for them to have more than one engagement. For example, Jodi Kaplan & Associates has initiated a U.S. Dance showcase at the Edinburgh Festival, which runs concurrently with the Tanzmesse. Flights from Düsseldorf to Scotland are direct and only take an hour. How difficult would it be to schedule U.S. dance artists to perform at both venues? Other European summer festivals during August could also be approached to give U.S. artists additional opportunities as part of the trip.

To implement the above it might be necessary to change the Tanzmesse timeline for selecting artists so they are better positioned to take advantage of other opportunities. Could an agent set up other engagements for them? The process for selecting U.S. companies for the Tanzmesse may need to change; I heard this is something that might be in the works. If so, it is a timely occurrence.

  • Although it is an honor for U.S. artists to perform at the Tanzmesse, it would be more fruitful if the engagement generated future earned income opportunities. Indeed, if the fashion is to encourage American artists to generate a larger portion of their budget from earned income, it is important to understand that a lot of those opportunities are going to occur somewhere else. For that to happen more consistently, greater support for subsidizing American artists to tour at home as well as abroad must be provided. The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation provides support for American companies performing at international festivals and a few other country and regionally-specific pockets of cash are available, but this is typically quite limited compared to the support afforded by even small Eastern European countries, let alone the larger and better funded nations of Western Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea. As such, American artists are at a competitive disadvantage with their international contemporaries. Showcase performances by American artists at the Tanzmesse or anywhere else would be more effective and lead to more engagements if American companies and agents could point to more significant subsidies to level the playing field with artists from other countries.
  • Perhaps the most important aspect of making a commitment to a U.S. policy of engagement is in the encouragement of international collaborations between American artists and their international peers. As referenced earlier, there is an honorable tradition of U.S. artists who have hitched their fortunes to working in the international realm. The various roles played by these individual cultural ambassadors are critical and cannot be overstated. In these times of economic necessity, it is even more important that this practice becomes a recognized priority of national policy. In addition to the invaluable cross-cultural dialogues that these projects result in, they can also leverage funds from other countries, which in turn can lengthen the shelf life of a work. If the finished product can be performed multiple times in different countries, it becomes a far more worthwhile return on the investment. Perhaps it is time for the field to look again at such programs as the Ford Foundation’s “Internationalizing New Work in the Performing Arts” initiative that was undertaken with several partners in the 1990s.
  • As artists have by necessity become adept at being international journeymen, so the industry’s infrastructure needs to evolve to support them. For example, wherever feasible domestic foundations should do their best to remove regional restrictions on U.S. artists seeking project-specific funding (for example, here in the Bay Area foundations often insist that all the leading partners of a project be California residents). Easing this restriction will give American artists more flexibility to use the money to match and leverage funds from other countries and help to secure their places as part of international projects that will be seen in this country in addition to points global.

Increasing the Participation of U.S. Presenters
This year several American participants observed that the Tanzmesse Exhibition Hall was far more congenial and less rapaciously capitalistic than the American APAP (Association for Performing Arts Presenters) conference. The Tanzmesse focuses more on artistic work and intellectual discussion as opposed to the cut and thrust of booking negotiations. But conversely, the ratio of artists and managers to presenters does not seem to be (at least to this observer) as healthy as at American booking conferences.

In keeping with this trend, the Dance/USA delegation was also a little bit light on the number of presenters who regularly program international work. So the inclusion of more American presenters is critical to this equation. If we are to acknowledge that to expand opportunities for American artists abroad is a benefit to all, then it must also hold true that we want to expose our communities to the ideas of international artists for the same reasons. As in almost any other instance, it is best if artistic trade is a two-way street.

Presenters can also be crucial components in international collaborative projects. Individual artists need institutional partners from each city or country that they operate in. The more cognizant those partners are of each other and the closer they can work together, the more effective they can be in strengthening the projects in which they jointly participate. Ultimately, the relationships created by presenters working across national boundaries can transcend individual projects and artists and engender more permanent and mutually beneficial institutional relationships that benefit the broader field.

Increasing the Participation of U.S. Agents
It is also important that American agents participate in this international dialogue. It allows them to have a more informed opinion about the global state of the industry in which they work. It also helps empower them to become the catalysts for U.S. artists increasing their engagements abroad and for international artists to gain access to the American market. Crucially, they bring another American perspective to the international table.

For this type of activity to increase, for both agents and presenters, the prerequisite to travel to see international dance work cannot just be that it is on the dime of the host country. Investing in research opportunities for and the education of American presenters and agents is just as important as providing larger subsidies to make American artists more competitive on the international circuit. It is in our interest to be aware of the international dimensions and practices of the industry in which we operate. At the moment small grants, administered by Arts Presenters, Meet the Composer and the Theatre Communications Group are available for the purpose of seeing work. But this funding is highly competitive, very limited, and constrained to one research trip per year. This needs to be a higher priority as should the commitment of one’s own organizational funds. Contributing toward financing research trips by agents and presenters should be the norm, not the exception.

Is There a Place for U.S. Leadership at the Tanzmesse (and Other Venues)?
Yes, a case for American leadership on a variety of fronts can be made that benefits our colleagues in other countries. For all the disparaging of the meat-market approach at the APAP conference, American booking conferences have far more to offer in terms of workshop presentations, plenary sessions, and opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. Is this something we could help facilitate at the Tanzmesse? The organizers there have done this sort of thing in the past, but claimed a lack of interest from participants. Yet at this year’s Tanzmesse, the second annual independently convened and almost impromptu Franco-American meeting was packed. There is apparent demand for facilitated communications beyond the many cocktail hours available. Perhaps different types of learning and awareness exercises are needed and, perhaps, the Americans can help figure out what they should be. As a case in point, U.S. representatives attended a meeting at the Tanzmesse where independent studio-based artists were taking the first steps toward developing a European network of artist-led rehearsal and performance spaces to provide reciprocal opportunities to develop and show their works. We were able to introduce them to the U.S.-based Alliance of Artists Communities, a well-established network that can hopefully help the Europeans get their association off to a solid start without having to reinvent the wheel.

Also, as many of our international colleagues are becoming wary of the specter of their own national funds being eroded, maybe now is a good time to share American best practices of thrift and inventiveness in terms of developing alternative funding sources and stretching budgets (even as we fight to increase government funding here).

Summing Up
This narrative is not just a litany of demands for more money although, undoubtedly, increasing funding so that the Americans have at least a fighting chance of matching the support dedicated by other countries is one of the keys to ensuring a greater U.S. presence in the international dance world. It is also about stretching existing assets and using them in a smarter and more cost-effective fashion, collaborating to leverage new resources, and cooperating to share the knowledge, burdens, and costs that come with doing business.

This undertaking is not something that an organization like Dance/USA can accomplish on its own, nor should it have to. In Dance America, An International Strategy to Export American Dance (Dance/USA, 2010), authored by Carolelinda Dickey and Andrea Snyder, it posits that a number of U.S. program providers must come together and work collectively to implement a policy that sees the American non-profit arts industry coming to terms with a leadership role in a global economy. We can turn competition into cooperation and in fulfilling our missions increase international awareness of artistic voices and ideas through dance from the United States.

We have a vital role to play as a counterpoint to some of the negative impacts of globalization. Artist-to-artist exchanges and people-to-people contacts are vastly superior to inter-governmental brinkmanship, 24-hour news cycles, global hedge funds, or corporate takeovers.  We can turn competition into cooperation and in fulfilling our missions increase international awareness of artistic voices and ideas through dance from the United States. At the same time, we can expose ourselves and our audiences to the work of artists that represent the myriad of cultures and traditions from around the world and work with them in a spirit of sharing.

A native of England, Andrew Wood has lived and worked in the United States in the performing arts industry for 20 years. He is the founder of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), which works with multiple Bay Area non-profit organizations and artists to produce an annual series of events that comprise the Festival. SFIAF both commissions and produces new work by local artists engaged in international projects and presents the existing repertoire of ensembles from around the world with many of them making their U.S. or California debuts at SFIAF. Each festival takes three years to plan and implement. Since conceiving the idea of SFIAF in January 2001, Wood has had the good fortune to work with many world-class international artists and their equally brilliant local counterparts to present their projects on the festival’s stages. Prior to creating SFIAF, Wood was the director of ODC Theater. In just three years, he transformed the venue from being primarily a rental facility with an annual income of $150,000 into a multi-disciplinary presenting organization with a budget of nearly half a million dollars. Wood’s other experience working for presenting organizations has included Life on the Water and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. He has also been an artist manager and has arranged touring engagements for numerous ensembles, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe.


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