2013: Reimagining the Post-Apocalypse Dance Company


By Marc Kirschner

In 2012, technology began to transform the art of dance. This transformation was led not by social media or crowd-funding, which began to have a substantial impact on how dance companies operate their traditional business of presenting live performance, but by consumption of dance outside of the traditional stage and away from the theater – on tablets, in cinemas, and at a time and place completely separate from the actual performance. As a result, the foundations have been laid for restructuring how the art of dance will be produced, consumed, and supported in the future.

These are exciting times, and they are becoming more exciting.

These are, however, also treacherous times. Over the next 12 to 24 months, dance companies and their supporting institutions will have to make strategic and risky decisions about how they plan to distribute their art to audiences. These decisions will play a significant role in determining their future: whether it is bright or even exists at all.

What we do know is that every dance company in the United States, no matter how large or well established, has a structural weakness. These structural weaknesses can be the result of a variety of factors, both internal and external to the organization: from restrictive labor agreements (particularly from non-dance stakeholders, such as stagehands), a weak home market, internal management structures, a lack of proprietary/signature creation, an over-reliance on a single source of revenue (Nutcracker), or other circumstances too numerous to list.

Of course, these weaknesses are not news. They’ve been discussed to death over the years at conferences, town halls, and other industry gatherings. But what’s different in 2013 is that now they not only matter, but are critical.

For the past few years, we’ve listed “globalization” as the top topic the dance field should be discussing in our annual “10 Things” list. For this year’s list, coming during APAP, we plan to leave it off, not because it is no longer relevant, but instead because we believe globalization is now the status quo. The real question is when the forces of globalization that are tearing down walls for companies around the world will begin to systemically build walls for dance makers in America. The real question is when the forces of globalization that are tearing down walls for companies around the world will begin to systemically build walls for dance makers in America. The answer: It’s already happening. We surmised a little over a year ago that the Bolshoi would soon be the most attended dance company in America, and if it doesn’t stake that claim soon, via the use of simulcasting ballets into traditional and movie theaters, next in line to the throne the Royal Ballet awaits.

In an attempt to define a single characteristic that will indicate whether or not a company will stand out from or keep pace with its peer group, one question arises above all the rest: Does the dance company create and distribute work beyond the live stage? Specifically, does it create and distribute live and filmed art, as well as make accessible cross-platform experiences that emphasize both linear and non-linear story telling? Does it leverage the ability of other organizations to accomplish these tasks when it cannot?

Unfortunately, for most companies in the United States, the answer is no. This means that American companies, relative to their peers overseas who are engaging in these activities, are likely to face a tougher and more uncertain future.

This is simple logic. To paraphrase Ray Fisman, director of the Social Enterprise Program at Columbia Business School, economics is ultimately about generating surplus happiness. For most people, creating surplus happiness via a live dance performance at a price point of $300, $400, or more for a family of four is beyond reach. It is less difficult to create surplus happiness at a price point of $100 for that same family of four to attend a cinema screening. It is even far less difficult to create surplus happiness via a $4.99 rental, which can be viewed on the 50" flatscreen that was paid for, in large part, by the savings from not buying the live ticket.

While artistic and executive directors nod their heads in complete agreement, they still get blocked by two questions. First, where does an organization raise the money for these projects? Second, how can the organization raise this money without taking away from core fundraising? In the fall, these very questions were asked of the leader of a major international arts organization who had just demonstrated an innovative film production, by the leader of a major domestic arts organization who was in attendance.

The response to the first question was brief. In short, the international company’s leader felt that fundraising was a non-issue because he believed these these media projects were an essential part of fulfilling his group’s artistic mission. To be fair, this company has a fairly substantial history of media projects (and a fairly substantial budget), therefore it would be inappropriate to infer that the opening media budget was $0. At the same time, his approach makes the second question irrelevant: If a company’s core activities include media projects, then fundraising to support media is not an issue because everything is, by default, core. But what came next should keep executive directors everywhere glued to their spreadsheets and donor lists for 2013.

To paraphrase, this company leader also stated that building the internal capacity of his organization to produce and, more importantly, iterate, advanced media projects was going to be essential to its future success as it worked to claim audience and revenue share in international markets, including and specifically within the United States.

The forces of globalization are permanently changing the landscape facing dancemakers throughout America. Without an organized national response that meaningfully acknowledges that the future is now, the scales will continue to tip in the favor of international companies, and there will be no visible path back to a level playing ground. There will be fewer opportunities for touring and performing, and our best artists and most talented dancers will filter overseas. Domestic companies will see their budgets and attendance continue to shrink, and we will see formerly proud institutions fade away.

Other countries have already committed to a new direction. Why can’t we?

Marc Kirschner
is the founder and general manager of TenduTV, a multi-platform network focused on dance and performing arts programming. Kirschner oversees TenduTV’s content acquisition efforts and distribution partnerships, and works closely with industry leaders around the world to reach and engage new and existing arts audiences. TenduTV currently is delivering dance programming in 16 countries to more than 1 billion devices, and continues to expand its footprint internationally. TenduTV is also a proud partner of 3 Legged Dog's 3LD/3D+ program, which produced the Sundance-selected 3D film Charlie Victor Romeo. Kirschner received his MBA from Columbia Business School, and a B.S. in Mass Media from Northwestern University, and also blogs for  Huffington Post. He lives in New York with his wife Susanna, a former professional dancer, and a pit bull mix named Daisy.

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