By Meg Booth
Do you remember your first performance?
Maybe you were in the audience or on stage, either way anxious for the curtain to go up. Many of us in the performing arts have our “ah-ha” moment. We can pinpoint the memory when the arts first grabbed hold of our imagination, stirred our hearts, and inspired us to try, learn and communicate in a new way.
Working at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., I am fortunate to meet and work with scores of ambitious young interns each year who come from all across the United States looking to learn about arts management and the dynamics of running a performing arts venue. I like to ask them why they are interested in the arts. Their stories are stirring and frequently similar. They often come from small towns and lack regular access to high-caliber professional arts. My last intern actually remembers her first professional ballet performance at five years old. From that point onward, like Christmas, she looked forward to the one opportunity each year that a professional company would tour through town and she and her mother would excitedly attend the performance. Another intern, who after years of going to the corn festival each summer, shared that he was transformed when the first Broadway tour came to his town. He saved every dollar from every part-time job he had. At the end of high school he was allowed to fly to New York City and see the Great White Way.
Many of us working in larger cities take exposure to high-caliber arts for granted. We are presented with a myriad of professional performance options on a daily basis. This is not the case, however, across the country particularly in dance where touring is getting more expensive, presenting is getting riskier, and selling tickets is more and more challenging.
There was a time when dance and ballet companies would caravan all over the country performing one-offs for weeks or months on end. One of Balanchine’s first professional company iterations in the U.S. was even called American Ballet Caravan. But dance touring has changed considerably over the past few decades. Simply put, there is less of it. This unfortunately means less exposure, especially to our nation’s young people.
With the wealth of stellar companies and intelligent, creative managers in our field, can’t we all work together and figure out how to return to greater exposure of high caliber artists in our rural communities? There are models we can look to outside of the dance field. For example, the National Symphony Orchestra runs an American Residency Program. Since 1992, NSO residencies have taken place in 21 states bringing more than 2,100 educational, performance, and outreach events into smaller communities.
Can dance, too, become more nimble and cost effective, embracing technology and utilizing resources in a different way to reach audiences in our most under-served communities? Yes, the challenges are great but are they insurmountable? Have we forgotten our “ah-ha” moments?
In Mt. Healthy, Ohio, the young Roberta Sue Ficker was so hungry for additional exposure to professional ballet after seeing tours of Ballet Russes and The Royal Ballet that she spent hours in the library pouring over ballet picture books, memorizing names and poses. She grew up to become one of our preeminent ballerinas: Suzanne Farrell. Dance transformed her life and she has over the years impacted the lives of so many others, both on stage and in the studio.
Let’s not hoard our best arts for exposure in big cities alone. Let’s rededicate ourselves to keeping those “ah-ha” moments alive and thriving throughout rural America.
Meg Booth is the director of dance programming for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She is a product of the Kennedy Center’s Arts Management Fellows Program (2003), and went on to serve as a marketing manager for three years. As director of dance programming, Meg oversees the presentation of at least seven weeks of world class ballet and multiple premiere modern and contemporary dance companies each year, including Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, The Bolshoi Ballet, The Mariinsky Ballet, New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Shen Wei Dance Arts. In her tenure as director of dance programming, the Kennedy Center Dance Program produced such critically acclaimed festivals as Ballet Across America, a celebration of the breadth of artistry in ballet companies across the United States and Protégés: The International Ballet Festival a biennial showcase of the world’s most prestigious ballet academies and their distinctive styles of training. In addition, Booth serves as director of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the Kennedy Center’s own ballet company under the artistic direction of Suzanne Farrell. Approaching its 10th season, the highly lauded company performs works by Farrell’s mentors: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Maurice Bejart and through the Balanchine Preservation Initiative has reconstructed and preserved nine Balanchine ballets not seen in decades. Prior to joining the Kennedy Center, Booth worked as general manager of Twyla Tharp Dance and company manager of White Oak Dance Project under the direction of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Meg has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame. She also serves on the board of Dance/USA.
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