Dancing With a Digital Presence

The Time To Create Digital Dance Content Is Now

I am evangelical. Evangelical about the need for every dance artist and company to have a digital presence and footprint. Evangelical because any artist who does not plan and implement such a presence or footprint can only expect a diminished audience in the future.

In 1995, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive technologies” to describe unanticipated technological changes that fundamentally alter the markets in which they are introduced. Such changes disrupt a then-existing market and the way consumers interact with that market, requiring companies to quickly and radically adjust their businesses. Some examples include the Ford Model T, which made the horse and buggy obsolete, or, more recently, downloadable digital media, which marked the severe decline of CDs and DVDs. Faced with such a change, a mature business must find the resources to adapt its methods to the new technology while, at the same time, maintaining its existing customer base and revenue stream.

Our younger and our future dance audiences, born into a world where digital content and communication are ubiquitous, have already incorporated these disruptive digital technologies into their lives. A soon-to-be-released study by WolfBrown finds that younger audience members have a significantly greater interest in technology-based dance engagement activities than older audience members.1 Therefore, I am unequivocal about the need for most artists and companies to find the required resources to create digital content. Unfortunately, this demands a complete rethinking because most non-profit dance company business models allocate resources to creating work for the stage and for marketing those works, with little, if any, surplus remaining to invest in creating media content.

In our metric-driven arts environment, which demands measureable results, the proposition of reallocating existing resources for media development is a challenge because there is minimal guarantee of a measureable return on that investment. Even those, such as the Metropolitan Opera, who have plunged into this new world wholeheartedly, have reportedly invested a level of resources beyond what even our largest dance companies or most prominent artists can afford. One would expect, then, that our younger, newer companies and artists, who have not yet allocated all of their resources and who are more naturally predisposed to living in the digital world, will more rapidly and completely adapt to the possibilities of the new technologies, incorporating such work into the essence of what they do.

And then, as always, the aesthetic questions of how media intersects with dance and choreography become paramount in considering presenting dance in a media format. The three-dimensional space a dance occupies differs fundamentally from the space a dance occupies in a virtual or digital medium. The rules of these spaces differ from each other, and achieving desired aesthetic results requires approaches uniquely appropriate to the performance medium. At the least, this requires modification to adapt the work to the space in which it appears. During periods when concert dance was regularly seen on television, choreographers adapted their works to capture their vision on camera in a way that was, arguably, successful in the choreographer’s mind’s eye.2 Unfortunately, that model — adapting dance works in a studio with a media team whose expertise was in the aesthetics of the virtual space of television — became economically unsustainable as the funding environment changed. Since then, the vast majority of dance (as well as theater and opera) is captured in live performances,3 and generally results in what are felt to be disappointing two-dimensional viewer experiences.

Paradoxically, the ease of creating and distributing digital content today has resulted in large amounts of available dance footage and a diverse set of viewing options of varying quality. Unfortunately, little of it seems to have the high professional standards we might wish to see representing our artform and our artists digitally. Currently, quantity seems to be trumping quality, partially due to the continuing stratospheric cost of creating high-quality digital performances. Recent data, however, seem to provide some clues about how audiences are using digital media to access dance and suggest an approach that may be helpful to those struggling with these issues.

In February, the NEA released a research report that provided deeper analysis of the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.4 One of the critical findings for our field is that “the vast majority of participation in theater and visual arts is through attendance, whereas the majority of participation in music and dance occurs via electronic media.”5  Compared to the small portion (8 percent) of the U.S. adult population who participates in the arts solely by attending performances,6 “over half reported viewing or listening to a performing arts event or a visual arts program (via recorded or broadcast media), or accessing arts performances or programming online (via Internet).”7 However, other data indicates that active or serious dancers are the only cohort to express a real interest in watching a dance performance on a digital device.8 This relatively limited interest in watching digital performances, contrasted with the large portion of the audience participating in dance digitally, argues i) for creating digital content that is ancillary to the core business of putting dances onstage, and ii) for not investing the significant resources required to make acceptable digital performances for audience viewing.

In the face of this data, it is hard to deny that companies and artists must engage with digital technology in some fashion, the greater the better, or face diminished audiences for their work in the future. It may well be, however, that the best use of resources is not in the digital capture or presentation of performances but in areas of marketing opportunities and audience engagement programs. Despite this, it is possible to imagine the balance shifting toward reallocating resources for aesthetic issues as technology and audience tastes continue to evolve.

Of course, as the argument above implies, the key to success in the age of digital media is articulating a clear strategy, the goals desired, a plan for implementation, and the benchmarks to measure that success. With such a framework in place, any dance organization or artist can properly evaluate the need for and scale of acceptable allocation of limited resources to this endeavor. However, there is no question that such resources must be spent and that participating in the digital realm is essential for communicating with audiences and capturing their imaginations and support in the future.


  1. WolfBrown. (2011). How Dance Audiences Engage: Summary Report from a National Survey of Dance Audiences, July 2011, Draft made available June 1, 2011, p. 49.
  2. There have always been artists who have attempted to incorporate media into their dance and movement work as one element of the total work they are investigating. Given the focus of this piece on the challenge for artists and companies in utilizing digital media or incorporating it into their business model, incorporating media as another element of a creative work is outside the scope of the discussion.
  3. “Live” here refers to the method of capture of the dance performance, thus including simultaneous broadcast (Live from Lincoln Center, e.g.), as well as live-captured post-production edited versions of dance performances (Dance in America, e.g.).
  4. Novak-Leonard, Jennifer and Brown, Alan. (February, 2011). Beyond attendance: A multi-modal understanding of arts participation (Research Report #53). Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts http://www.nea.gov/research/SPPA-webinar/Novak-Leonard.pdf .
  5. Novak-Leonard and Brown, p. 16.
  6. Ibid. p. 83.
  7. Ibid. p. 71.
  8. WolfBrown, p. 61. Given the greater interest in younger audiences for digital dance performances, an interesting question is whether the aesthetic disappointment is more or less important to artists dependent on the state of the digital environment in which they matured.

Ken Tabachnick is currently the dean of the School of the Arts at Purchase College, where he oversees conservatories of dance, music, theater, and visual art. Prior to that position, Tabachnick was general manager at New York City Ballet, where he oversaw operations, strategic planning and the renovation of the David H. Koch (formerly the New York State) Theatre. While at NYCB, Mr. Tabachnick negotiated forward-looking labor agreements that addressed rights issues for the company and performers in our digital age. He is trained as an intellectual property attorney and has a career as a lighting designer that spans more than 30 years. Mr. Tabachnick is a trustee of Dance/USA, where he serves as chair of the Audit Committee and is a member of the Executive, Finance, and Technology Committees. Tabachnick holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.


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