Gaining Traction (or the Slip ‘n Slide), Part 2

Warning to choreographers: hard work ahead. Yet, those who sign up to make dances are usually aware of the ongoing rigor involved on this path. For some artists, the mere question of how to gain traction draws silence, sighs, and even laughs, reflecting the challenging and individualized trajectory of choreographers. Illuminating current possibilities, a handful of voices from across the country share with Dance/USA’s eJournal what has proved relevant to making progress and gaining momentum for creating new works in today’s challenging dance climate. Drawing from experiences of dance professionals and artists operating in solo, project-based, and company structures, Part 1  mines the personal qualities, practices, and DIY ethos of choreographers, and Part 2 addresses the role of artistic self production in the mix of platforms for delivering dance.

While many communities offer anchor festivals, residencies, and commissioning programs to which choreographers may apply, among other ongoing opportunities, dance makers across the country indicate that self-producing can be beneficial for gaining traction at any time in one’s career. But, many warned, it must be well examined and timed. It is a misperception that self-producing occurs only early in a choreographic career as a step to being fully presented. In the present climate, a lot of DIY energy is circulating, particularly due to the stifled economy. This results in alternative venues and channels from which to launch new works.

The consuming process of self-producing served most artists in this conversation at one point or another. While it can burden the artist and disperse energy from the creative process, Miami-based choreographer Letty Basshart mentioned how self-producing can happen concurrently with other opportunities and function as an open door in any format and at any time within a season. “It’s wonderful to be able to focus totally on the art part of it that you get with a commission, but I’d say in Miami the mix [of self-production and other vehicles] is continuous.” Keith Hennessy considers self-producing crucial to his performance practice. “In San Francisco, self-producing is almost all that I do …. It’s how I’ve learned about making work and any reputation I have nationally and internationally is from these works I’ve made from scratch with almost no money and self-presented.”

Larry Keigwin of Keigwin & Company mentioned that he never considered self-producing since his first shows were not. However his company has now presented four seasons at The Joyce, all self-produced. Washington, D.C.-area choreographer Erika Surma also considers self-producing part of Next Reflex Dance Collective’s season each year to ensure the company is seen locally and regionally. “Being seen at these various venues has absolutely opened doors to other paid engagements,” she said. Using a thoughtful approach, self-producing offers the opportunity to gain a toehold at any point in one’s career. Acknowledging that most dance artists would prefer to be presented, artist representative Ben Pryor said, “Sometimes you self produce and you invite producers and that’s where you gain the traction. It’s harder because it’s all on you, but then hopefully you’re able to use that as a positive challenge for working creatively — where you choose to locate yourself for your work, or specifically for that project.” The hardest part is getting a presenter to see your work for the first time and generating initial interest.

Nurturing, maintaining, and sustaining relationships with everyone, from dancers and administrators, to donors and presenters, continues the forward motion. “I think it’s having lots of little champions in the pool — people being promoters of your work,” said Keigwin. Noting that projects, like relationships in the field, take time to develop, Hennessy commented, “My performance at Dance Theater Workshop that resulted in a Bessie was three years in discussion and entailed a couple of years of being seen at tiny one-night-only gigs.”

Full-length work can make a difference. Deviated Theatre got its start with a self-produced evening-length performance in the dead of summer, intentionally giving audiences a whole hour to get to know them. “We’ve done excerpts in showcases and it hasn’t felt as satisfying because you only have 10 minutes to say who you are as opposed to a full evening,” said choreographer Kimmie Dobbs Chan. Of showcases and shared evenings, Bianca Cabrera, a San Francisco-based choreographer who has also worked in Seattle and Colorado, agreed: “We’re not set up to be in relation to each other and that feels less about community. It’s like sardines in a can.” The rigor of seeing artists perform full-length works prompted Pryor to create the American Realness festival, a mechanism to help artists build traction by showing contextualized full productions, echoing the statements of several dance makers in this conversation.

In surveying the Chicago dance community, writer and dance artist Zachary Whittenburg has seen a handful of companies who self-produce home seasons but the results remain pretty static in terms of attendance, press coverage, and programs. “We are still in an environment where people presented by an ‘established’ venue have additional exposure and implied credibility. Places like The Dance Center at Columbia College and the Harris Theater are branded as being trustworthy. Therefore, self-producing can be a long road of plugging away and hard work,” he said.

As a way around the phenomenon, he sees choreographers take creative approaches to producing unconventional performances outside traditional theaters. Those who don’t need their work to be made “official” by the traditions of the proscenium stage structure have found momentum doing what is required to make non-theatrical spaces into dance venues. “I see traction happening in one of two ways,” Whittenburg said, “either working within a structured presenting program or creating your own path and building your own momentum in creative ways like these.” Smith observed similar models in Philadelphia since the challenge of trying to self present on a high, really slick level can take away from the work. “There’s a lot of DIY energy to, say, take over a church basement and put on a show. I see lots of alternative venues being used. Especially in the past few years, lots of dance and theater artists are using non-theatrical sites.” In addition, she noted that self-producing informally can be a way to successfully meet new audience members while lowering the bar for participation so people can just wander in and see dance.

A community-minded approach also leads to traction in self production and beyond, encouraging artistic collaboration and synergy with complimentary artists. During her self-produced home season in San Francisco, choreographer Hope Mohr presented the Liz Gerring Dance Company as part of her program, exposing the New York group to the Bay Area. Kyle Abraham of Abraham in Motion invited other artists to perform in a popular shared evening at Joe’s Pub in New York where he’s based. Teaming up with another choreographer helped Basshart land a collaboration with the New World Symphony Orchestra at the recently unveiled Frank Gehry Campus in Miami. She champions collaboration as a way to expand possibilities and provide impetus for larger projects.

While many factors remain beyond the artist’s control in terms of gaining traction, these personal practices, commitment, and DIY approaches help choreographers at all points in their careers create individualized maps enabling their creative work to find a place in today’s world.

Julie Potter is a dance artist, writer, arts manager, and yoga teacher based in San Francisco’s Mission District. She was a fellow in the 2010 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Dance at the American Dance Festival and received the 2010 Gary Parks Emerging Writer Scholarship from the Dance Critics Association. Julie served on Dance/NYC’s Youth Advisory Committee and was a 2008 Dance/USA Access Scholar. Her work appears in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, Theatre Bay Area Magazine, Voice of Dance, DCA News, and on her blog,


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