10 Things the Dance Community Should Be Talking About in 2011

By Marc Kirschner

It’s 2011 and APAP – the Association for Arts Presenters booking conference – is here, which means we get to enjoy 2011 for a few days before we spend a week talking about 2012 and 2013 and, in keeping with the theme of the conference, 2021. So let’s look back, look forward and seize the decade.

#1 Globalization (2010: #1)

Last year, the number one topic on our list was globalization. International companies followed through and are starting to make a real push onto U.S. soil. The Bolshoi and Royal Opera House cinemacast their Nutcrackers in New York, and the Paris Opera Ballet has also been visiting the silver screen. TenduTV is preparing to announce its first iTunes titles – from England, the Netherlands, Canada, and 90% of our anticipated releases in 2011 are from international artists.

The reality is that U.S. companies have fallen behind their European counterparts – not in some subjective way such as repertory or artistic quality, but with the critical organizational iterative experience, marketing and advanced media-focused fundraising capabilities that are going to determine success over the next 10 years. New York companies are further behind their domestic counterparts in other cities, such as Chicago, San Francisco and Boise.

One of the biggest accomplishments of 2010, however, is that this trend isn’t being ignored at home. The conversations on the topic of the importance of distributing filmed performance has literally turned 180 degrees in the years since I started talking to executive and artistic staffs across the country. AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) isn’t an obstacle either – the advanced media agreements that they’ve executed so far are progressive and collaborative, and even companies with non-unionized dancers can learn from the language now in place. The next step is for presenters to modernize the contract language that exists in agreements with other stakeholders in field, such as orchestras and stagehands. Buyout fees need to be renegotiated down to reasonable levels in order that U.S.-based performances can be filmed on a competitive budget to international performances. Some theaters have been able to successfully push these conversations forward, others haven’t.

Then, companies need to commit – not just to a single project, but also to a change in their overall DNA. Which brings us to item #2…

#2 Alternative Performance Models (2010: #6)

The time of the dance organization that only produces live art and presents that art to live audiences is coming to an end. Cinemacasts and commercial releases of “live performance relays” are one approach, while creating (or adapting) works solely for filmed consumption present a new creative alternative. The Dutch National Ballet recently a premiered four new dance shorts at Cinedans/IMZ Dancescreen. The OpenEnded group created stereoscopic 3D experiences featuring Bill T Jones and Wayne McGregor. The Trey McIntyre Project delivers to audiences via any distribution channel and medium possible. With funding pools shrinking, and the overhead per dollar increasing, it’s going to be harder and harder for smaller companies to justify spending thousands of man-hours and tens of thousands of dollars on a single project that may only reach a few hundred people.

Scalability is key.

#3 The Economy (2010: NA)

Yes, the economy is nothing new. Heck, we’ve been talking about it for years. Here’s the difference – we expected it to be better by now. It isn’t, and there are some serious shoes that may still drop.

At the Dance/USA Winter Forum in 2009 there was a conversation entitled something along the lines of “How do you cut when you’ve already cut everything you can?” and two years later, things have only gotten worse. The fact that we haven’t seen a major company implode is nothing short of miraculous.

Also of ever increasing concern with the economy – dancer health, especially with some insurance companies attempting to raise rates as much as 60%. While arts outreach into schools is a commendable and noble thing, the fact remains that the injury rate of dancers (too often without health insurance) performing in highly substandard conditions (e.g., dancers having to sweep rusty nails off of the stage prior to performing) is positively immoral. What makes matters worse is that in some cases these school performances are a requirement for critical (and dwindling) state funding, putting dancers in a very difficult and clearly compromised position. Unfortunately, I have heard stories (a very, very small number) of choreographers whom have also attempted to sway their injured dancers from making workers comp claims, fearing an increase in rates.

This is a problem.

#4 Contracts with Collaborators (2010: #3 and #4)

Without the proper agreements in place, dance organizations are going to be extremely limited in their ability to innovate and reach audiences in the future. I’ve already witnessed how a lack of contractual provenance has crippled historically important works from being accessed by new audiences, but there’s absolutely no reason why today’s great works should suffer the same fate.

#5: Real HD, Real 3D (2010: #2)

The good news is that transition to HD is no longer questioned (I also haven’t seen the word VHS this year, so hooray). In fact, the conversation has already begun to shift to 3D, and will shift further after the release of not only the upcoming Pina Bausch film, but also as word spreads about other industry initiatives, such as 3LD’s Rockefeller Cultural Innovation Fund-supported 3LD/3D+.

Also –3D televisions that use passive 3D glasses instead of big clunky expensive active shutter glasses = win.

Also – The Kinect is a few hacks away from obliterating notation as a useful tool. I will personally deliver a box of cupcakes to the funder who throws $100,000 at a bunch of programmers to create a dance notation application for the Kinect. Make it $200,000, and I’ll deliver the cupcakes wearing a tutu.

#6: Crowdfunding (2010: NA)

In November 2009, wearing my Dance/NYC advisory committee hat, I sat down with one of the founders of Kickstarter to discuss how dance companies could make use of their platform. When they presented as part of the 2010 Dance/NYC Winter Forum, there had been exactly three successful dance-related Kickstarter projects, one of which was from one of TenduTV’s interns (Go Lily!), although I think Jeramy Zimmerman wins the “ahead of the curve” prize for the first successful dance “Kickstart.”

Today, not only do we seemingly get solicited daily to donate to another Kickstarter project, but we also get daily solicitations to join a new crowdfunding platform (o.k., maybe not daily, but monthly) and donor burnout is going to have to be carefully considered, especially as these funding pitches become more competitive. United States Artists also gets special mention, as they look to establish themselves as a crowd funding source for a more selective list of established companies seeking higher levels of funding. I’m skipping IndieGoGo because they still have dance lumped in with performing arts, and have yet to give it it’s own category.

Conversely, if there’s one organization that gets a gold star for crowdfunding, it’s New York Live Arts (formerly Dance Theater Workshop). If you look at the successful dance-based Kickstarter projects, many have something in common: they are all for artists performing at NYLA. I’m not sure if there’s a positive variation of the phrase “canary in the coal mine,” but when evaluating the potential success of the Bill T. Jones/DTW merger, this is an encouraging sign. It could also be mere coincidence, but I felt it personally important to start getting used to using the New York Live Arts name.

#7 The New Dance Press Corps

Yes, we think people are going to talk more about the dance blogosphere in 2011. What is this, 2006? Nope, it’s 2011, and we see two reasons that may establish blogs as a real journalistic force going forward. First, there’s a new generation of dance blogs that are actually starting to generate real traffic. Whereas a few years ago, the number of blogs that were read by people outside the field could be counted on a single hand (the Winger and SLSG), today there are blogs that have grown their readership to significant levels in just the past few months. Plus, the bloggers are getting smarter – they’re teaming up, sharing the load and paying attention to design and user experience. The chance that these blogs will develop into something greater is increasing by the day.

Second, if there’s an echoing ripple from The New York Times’s Sugar Plumgate, it’s that bloggers realized that writing about real issues impacting the art generates more reader interest and discussion than what are often mixed-quality reviews of obscure performances.

2011 will see more dance industry talk about the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Wozny, The Ballet Bag, DancePulp, Tights and Tiaras, Dance Advantage, the Arts Desk, and Sky/Nova. New opportunities will also arise for dance critics, as the filmed performances will offer them the chance to appeal to new readers who will rely on their insight to make purchasing decisions over a longer period of time.

That being said, barring a cataclysmic organizational shift, it may also see the accepted end of the relevancy of the Dance Critics Association, which seemingly has told every innovation since 1998 to get off its lawn.

Here’s the problem: the Dance Critics Association is the major organization supporting dance critics in an environment where the number of full-time critics on newspaper staffs can be counted on a single hand. During the Dance/NYC town hall on dance writing in April, it became clear that there were a lot of critics who needed basic web and digital skills training: for example how to embed a YouTube video, how to publish and syndicate a blog, and what kind of analytics package to use. The DCA leadership has actively ignored this need, choosing instead to focus on workshops to refine writing skills for critiques, that, if published, will be buried in the digital void.

Dance critics are a vital part of the dance community, and when the DCA fails them, it fails all of us.

#8 Funder-driven Innovation (2010: NA)

The combination of government funding cuts, the ever increasing number of undergraduate programs sending new dancers into the field, and service organizations hoping to reap the financial rewards of fiscal sponsorship programs, means that just about every dance organization, even those with no paid employees, can raise tax-exempt funds and apply for grants. This leads to two possible outcomes:

First, that shrinking pies will get sliced up into smaller and smaller pieces.

Second, that shrinking pies will get sliced up into fewer, larger pieces.

In the first scenario, everyone loses. In the second, some win. The Arts Council of England has already determined that they’re going to take the latter approach, and we’re hoping to see local funders take the same tack. I’ve also participated in a number of funder conversations where increased requirements, specifically involving technical standards for video deliverables, have been a key part of the conversation. Are you pitching low-cost video projects that speak of HD, but really involve HDV or back of the house archival shots? Expect to meet funder resistance. Are you pitching higher budget video projects that include rights clearances, post-production, technical evaluation and a commercial distribution plan? Expect to have real conversations about big checks.

#9 Endings and Beginnings (2010: NA)

Two eras come to an end this year – the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will shut its door at year-end and Judith Jameson will depart as Artistic Director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As it stands, these two organizations face two very different futures. Based on the information in the public sphere, it’s hard to imagine, that five years from now, Cunningham’s works at their current high level of expression will be anything more than museum pieces. Conversely, while Ailey is already a tremendously successful and exciting company, under the artistic leadership of Robert Battle we can expect the company to take the next big leap and reach new heights.

There are transitions on the service organization side as well, and I’d like to personally thank outgoing Dance/USA Executive Director Andrea Snyder for her service to the field for the last 11 extraordinarily tough years, and welcome incoming Executive Director Amy Fitterer, who is an exciting choice to lead the field in this new phase for the art. Which leads us to …

#10 Optimism (2010: NA)

2011 represents the year that many dance companies will look back upon and say, “If we didn’t take the steps that we did then, we would not be a successful artistic organization now.” Now is not the time to do more with less. Now is the time to do different and to begin to develop the skills that will make your organization strong in the future. Without great pressure, there would be no diamonds.

A few things that people aren’t going to be talking about:

“That new social network made exclusively for the dance community”

Let’s be clear – there is a need for a community-based site that serves the community as a whole, and nothing would make us happier than to see someone actually succeed in this area. A lot of dance entrepreneurs have attempted to fill this need and unfortunately, on a scale of 1-10, most efforts have rated a zero, and none higher than a 3. Bad design, slow performance and lack of focus seem to be the most common stumbling blocks.

“Audience Engagement”

Oft-discussed notions of “audience engagement” are to the future of dance as Friendster is to the future of social media. In short, it’s a conversation that was far ahead of its time when it started, was timely for about a week, and now has been surpassed by far more evolved and sophisticated conversations that were originally unanticipated. To over analogy this paragraph to death: the big conversations taking place are far too insular and reactionary, and too many resources and attention are being spent on developing new saddles in the hope of a faster horse, when everyone else is already driving a car.

As I wrote in my response to the NEA’s Audience 2.0 Survey, originally published on Dance/USA’s From the Green Room in July:

“Instead of funding a few massive multiyear programs where, by the time targets are defined, funds are awarded, data is analyzed and  findings are shared, all of the basic assumptions have changed, let’s  put future funding resources into smaller, faster, more nimble projects.”
Fail. Fail again. Succeed. Build on that success. Move forward.
We can’t wait for long-range studies to tell us that three years ago  data showed engagement via electronic media encouraged arts  participation. We can’t wait for studies to tell us, three years from  now, what is happening today.”

The future of dance does not lie in audience engagement. It lies in providing access to our art. Opera has already begun to reap the benefits of wider reaching access and given dance a clear path to follow .

It’s time to take our first steps.

Disclosure: TenduTV and author Marc Kirschner have direct and indirect business relationships and potential financial interests in products and programs discussed. The opinions expressed in this article don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the board or staff of Dance/USA and its subsidiaries.

Marc Kirschner is the founder and general manager of TenduTV. TenduTV aggregates and distributes dance-related programming through its network of more than 70 digital platforms capable of reaching over half a billion devices in ten countries. He currently serves on the advisory committees of Dance/NYC and the Dance Films Association.


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