Things I Learned About Artistry at the 2012 Dance Forum in NYC

By Christine Jowers

Artistry doesn’t come out of thin air; it evolves by being nurtured, sweated over, re-worked, perhaps a little bloodied, and revived. Believe it or not, sometimes art needs to fail. Jennifer S.B Calienes, director of Tallahassee’s Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, one of our nations top-tier dance residency programs, says of necessary artistic failures, “Some of the best work dies in Tallahassee, but it is critical that (dance makers) have that time and space to think, develop, edit, and hone.” Even when elements seem to easily come together, it is usually a result of great efforts that have taken place prior. These efforts are called the artistic process.

How strangely wonderful to hear of the deep commitment to artistic process at the kick-off the 2012 “Dance Forum: Residencies in Dance,” organized by Dance/USA and hosted as a pre-conference event by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). Strange because for most dancers who present their 15 minutes of work at the New York festival hoping to court presenters and get jobs, APAP can be one of the most hellacious, anti-creative, artistically unfriendly experiences ever. The sheer volume of artists presenting in showcases on one evening makes it impossible to present high-quality artistic experiences worthy of what dance makers aspire to in their “home” productions. Light plots get simplified or cut, costumes reduced, full-length pieces excerpted, and technical requirements cancelled. Some choreography lends itself to this snappy kind of minimal production, other pieces fall flat. Imagine participating in a beauty contest where you are not allowed to wear any makeup or an outfit that fits.

Over the past three years, I have visited New York City rehearsals and interviewed dancers and dance makers as part of The Dance Enthusiast project. The one challenge that I hear about and observe most frequently is that choreographers feel forced to make great art work fast, in less-than-ideal work environments. In other words, they don’t have enough time for process. They need to crank out a première and make the best of their performance opportunity. While this effort is admirable, is this any way to support and advance an art form?

It appears we need a re-think—a shift away from focusing on making dance by any means necessary toward a deeper commitment to supporting and exploring the practical work and creative questions that go into making successful dance happen. This is called being artist centric, or “getting real.” The reality is that there can be no great art without addressing the needs of individual dance artists, among these: dedicated studio space; ample time for research, reflection, and rehearsal; access to collaborative partners; feedback; documentation; opportunities to share work with communities during different stages of development; production resources; and financial support for artists’ living needs.

The first part of the Dance Forum was dedicated to “Mind The Gap,” a report created by the Alliance of Artists Communities that underscores the need and the potential for artistic residencies to play a greater role in nurturing dance making by American choreographers. This excellent, must-read study is a terrific starting point for exploring the kinds of residencies that exist; locations of offerings; what one can expect, or not, from a residency; whether a residency pays a stipend or not; and how best to plan a residency to support one’s artistic process. It is helpful for dance makers and active residency organizations, as well as groups or individuals interested in setting up their own programs to serve the unique needs of the dance field.

Caitlin Stokosch, executive director of the Alliance of Artists Communities, reminded forum participants that the study is a living document, meaning new data is being added continually. She advised those who are interested to check the alliance’s website for updates.

The gaps in “Mind the Gap” refer to holes that need to be filled in terms of service and knowledge so that residencies can become more effective. For example, 75 percent of dance makers are aware that artist residencies exist, yet most know of only two or three programs while about 500 artist residency opportunities exist in North America. Some residency programs don’t distinguish between work-in-progress and a finished piece and ignore the needs dance makers may have at different points in the creative process. While that blind spot in supporting the choreographic process must be changed, the largest gap, you guessed it, is money. “We cannot overstate the financial challenges faced by dance makers,” the report states right at the beginning. There is nothing romantic about poverty or scrounging for basic tools and opportunities. Suffering does not make better art.

Residency programs are being encouraged to seek funding that fully supports artists so dance makers don’t end up paying to attend or subsidizing their own living expenses while away from home. Residency programs are also being encouraged to join forces and share resources with the hopes of, as Sarah Coffey of the Vermont Performance Lab says, “collectively developing inventive models for supporting artists and our various communities.” One example of a new model is the partnership among The Vermont Performance Lab, Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, The Chocolate Factory in New York, and Live Arts Brewery-Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in Pennsylvania, which are teaming up to form a dance maker supportive collective they call The Hatchery.

Funders, dancers, dance lovers, activists, take note: For art to flourish, artists must be able to spend creative time at work, experimenting, researching, collaborating, documenting, and fine tuning their choreography.

As Emily Johnson, the talented Alaskan choreographer who charmed New York Live Arts audiences with her The Thank You Bar last fall, emphatically told the Dance/USA and APAP crowd, “We all know very clearly that dedicated research and creative time is not optional. The world broader than us sometimes doesn’t know that and … I think we can get a little swayed…. You do need the multiple resources and engagement with a [residency partner], and the money, of course. Residency time and creation time are not optional. Internally if that thought is always in our mind, then it becomes more widely known externally. That puts process in equality with product. Our residencies are as important as an opening night.” Johnson’s newest work niicugni (listen) will be the product of 11 residencies when she is done.

The forum concluded with Dance/USA’s Agents Council introducing its efforts to salute artistry, support process, and get dancers jobs with a new initiative entitled “Focus Dance,” produced by the Gotham Arts Exchange. After rhapsodizing over Emily Johnson’s impassioned call to remember ourselves and our creative importance, the pronounced shift in tone swiftly brought us back to the business of producing and presenting dance. And APAP is about the presentation and the show after all. We dance to perform and dance artists simply need to get gigs to support themselves and their companies. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to sell work to presenters in the United States and foreign markets based on dancers showing a tiny snippet of what they do in less-than-ideal production circumstances. Potential presenters need to be welcomed into the worlds of our American dance artists rather than being bombarded by quantities of speedy presentations.

“Focus Dance” re-thinks the APAP model of fever-pitch presentations and provides select dance companies with full-fledged productions, so that they can be seen at their very best. Every year a new curator will select the group (this year it is Martin Wechsler, director of programming at the Joyce Theater; next year it will be Jodee Nimerichter, director of the American Dance Festival). Hopefully the changing of curators will mean that a variety of artistic talent from across the American dance scene will reap the benefits. “Focus Dance” is a positive step toward making APAP more artist-friendly. I wonder, can we do more?

Christine Jowers founded The Dance Enthusiast in 2007 with web designer Will Arnold. The Dance Enthusiast is a web-based dance journalism and communications project of the non-profit Moving Arts Projects, originally founded to create performances celebrating the powerful stories of dance history and individual dance artists. Jowers writes, edits, acts as videographer, and interviews artists. Prior to creating her own company, Jowers performed with Maryland Dance Theater, The Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and The Doris Humphrey Repertory Company in New York. She currently teaches teens dance appreciation and dance writing as part of the Arts Connection/High 5 Ticket to the Arts program at New York Live Arts.

The Dance Forum is an annual half-day, free event organized by Dance/USA and hosted by APAP each January. The 2012 Dance Forum was created in collaboration with the Alliance of Artists Communities; National Dance Projects at the New England Foundation for the Arts; and the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.


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