The Sustainability Dance

How Dance Companies Are Embracing Environmentally Prudent Practices

By Ellen Chenoweth and Emily Macel Theys

Global climate change isn’t just a hot news topic — as a dance organization, it’s our reality. Increased environmental awareness and sustainability can be practiced by individual artists, and organizations both large and small. Take flexibility beyond the studio and stage, and find your role in the dance ecosystem. At Dance Exchange, we’re committed to being a green organization by making sustainable choices in our studios and offices, in the work we put on stage, and in our educational and engagement activitiesBeing a green organization means making sustainable choices in our studios and offices, in the work we put on stage, and in our educational and engagement activities.. And we are encouraged to see the innovative ways that others in our field are taking charge, too. We all know that we should be recycling and turning off the lights when no one’s in the room, but here’s how our colleagues are going a few steps further (and you can too!) to minimize our field’s impact on the environment.

According to Julie’s Bicycle, a UK-based non-profit providing expertise in environmental sustainability, the largest contributor to environmental impact comes from audience travel to see performances. There are a number of ways to help reduce this carbon footprint. Companies and venues can encourage their audiences to use public transportation, increase the number of people in a vehicle, and walk or bike to the show. Clear communication with audience members can make a big difference. If you have secure bicycle racks, include that information in your marketing materials for the performance, and encourage people to use them. Or provide incentives for people to use public transportation or carpool, such as a reduced ticket price or a voucher for a free drink at the post-performance reception.

Another green way to decrease audience travel is by offering live-streams of your performances so audiences near and far can watch online, like Christopher Elam who has live streamed performances by his company, New York-based Misnomer Dance Theater, or the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which offers free streams of their daily Millenium Stage performances.

One more area that has great potential for decreasing environmental impact is around the creation of new stage work. This means going a step beyond illuminating environmental concerns through the subject matter of productions (though educating audiences through dance-watching is impactful too). Both pre-production and post-production practices can be examined with a lens of decreasing waste and energy consumption. Sets can often be recycled, reused or donated, rather than going to the municipal landfill. Lighting designers can work with LED lighting or other energy efficient alternatives. Vendors involved in the creation of stage work can be selected based on their environmental practices.

Earlier this month, March 2013, Dance Exchange premiered Cassie Meador’s How To Lose a Mountain at Dance Place in Washington, D.C., a work that investigates resource use and the way landscape changes over time. A 500-mile walk and community engagement tour last spring from Meador’s house in D.C. to the site of mountaintop removal in West Virginia’s coal country has been the artistic lumber for the creation of this work. Meador has made choices around her own resource use as she’s built the production for the stage and recycling and reuse have played a major role. For example, costumes are being upcycled from items from local thrift stores and the set includes a 150-year-old piano that was headed to the dump, but has been transformed into a voice in the work. Others in the field have brought the old “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” adage to stage too. The set to John Jasperse’s Misuse liable to prosecution was made up of hangers and extension cords; New Yorker Jill Sigman creates site-specific huts made out of entirely found and recycled objects; Eiko and Koma recently not only recycled a set for three different works, but they recycled choreography from earlier works as well during Retrospective Project I: Regeneration.

Perhaps the most high-visibility way dance organizations are changing their practices involves green facilities. The Center for Performance Research (CPR) in Brooklyn, N.Y., co-founded in 2007 by Jasperse and fellow choreographer Jonah Bokaer, is a LEED-certified building. CPR General Manager Ann Marie Lonsdale explains that the founders “were really committed to a pristine space and the environmental mission was really crucial to both as well.” LEED certification requires sustainable building practices and usage of utilities. Currently the organization is in the process of purchasing and installing an LED lighting system, which will draw substantially less energy from the grid while improving the aesthetics of the space. Many other dance institutions, like the dance building at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and North Carolina Dance Theatre in Charlotte, were designed with LEED-certified and sustainable practices in mind.

Office operations are another area to target for green initiatives in the dance world. Washington, D.C.-based CityDance opened an eco-friendly “black box” theater at The Music Center at Strathmore in Maryland in 2011, and simultaneously migrated all its business utilities to cloud-based technologies in order to embrace green business practices. CityDance’s Director of Marketing and Communication Julie Gerdes-Becnel highlights some of the organizations cloud-based technologies: “SharePoint, a customized company intranet that stores and secures all essential administrative documents, making everything instantaneously accessible across all offices; Zoho, a cloud-based CRM software, which tracks data and generates reports for all CityDance programs and activities; DropBox, a cloud-based shared storage service, which stores and shares photos, documents, and videos across sites; and Adobe EchoSign, which allows CityDance to digitally send and sign contracts and agreements to artists and contractors without ever printing a page.” As dance marketing increasingly takes place in the digital world, companies are also reducing paper flyers, programs, and other paper materials. Organizations can reduce travel impact here as well by encouraging employees to work from home when possible.

Mahomet Aquifer Project, Illinois, 2009, created by Jennifer Monson, photo by Valerie Oliverio, courtesy iLAND (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance)Dance organizations are choosing to highlight environmental issues through residencies and initiatives, too. A standard-bearer for this type of work is Jennifer Monson’s iLAND (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance), a dance research organization based in New York that investigates the power of dance, in collaboration with other fields, to illuminate our kinetic understanding of the world. One component of iLAND is iLAB, a collaborative residency program that partners choreographers with scientists, environmentalists, urban designers/landscape architects, architects and others that integrate creative practice within different fields and disciplines.

Similarly, Dance Exchange has piloted its Green Choreographer’s Initiative as a way of building a community of dancemakers who, through socially engaged artistic practices, address environmental issues in their work. This season, the inaugural green-choreographers-in-residence included Amara Tabor-Smith of Deep Waters Dance Theater in San Francisco and Jill Sigman of jill sigman/thinkdance in New York City, each artist spent a week in the Dance Exchange studios (in Washington, D.C.) working together with the Dance Exchange artists and environmental collaborators like permaculturists and urban farmers. This residency structure is a way for Dance Exchange to offer resources, like studio space and connections to partners in the nation’s capital, in exchange for creative research dialogue and investigations with other environmental leaders in the field.

Dance Exchange's Moving Field Guides take place in outdoor spaces incluidng national parks. Pictured Dance Exchange dancers, Mark Twery of the U.S. Forest Service, and children dancing in Maryland's Glen Echo Park, as the company embarked on a 500-mile walk in the spring of 2012 in preparation for the evening-length work How To Build a Mountain. Photo by Jori Ketten, courtesy Dance ExchangeDance can be an environmental educational tool, too. If you want audiences to understand why it’s important to make choices that are respectful of the planet, get them outside and moving. Dance Exchange’s Moving Field Guides are part nature walk, part dance rehearsal. The dance company partners with the United States Forest Service, and participants are led by dancers, naturalists, scientists, and historians on nature walks where they learn about local flora and fauna, while creating a dance along the way. By learning about the environment through movement, participants are able to connect with nature at their core and Dance Exchange hopes this gets people to understand on a physical level why conservation is crucial.

One of the more intangible areas to address is the organizational culture or mentality around environmental issues. If there is a commitment to environmental practices in place already, make sure that your stakeholders and audience members know about them. Organizations could assign a board member or a staff person to be the environmental watchdog and make sure that questions about best sustainable practices are being raised and addressed.

At Dance Exchange, we have a belief and practice that nothing is too small to notice.  Usually applied when giving feedback to a work in progress, the principal can also be used when thinking about our own habits and practices in the world. Many of these recommendations could seem small on their own, but if the field starts to move in greener directions, the impact will be real and measurable. Choreographer Emily Johnson’s recent work Niicugni asked: “Can we pay attention to the ways we do and do not listen to our bodies, histories, impulses and environments?” If we all pay attention together, the effects can be real.

Resources for Additional Information

Emily Macel TheysEmily Macel Theys is a writer and arts administrator based in Silver Spring, Md. She is the communications and development director for Dance Exchange, and regularly contributes to Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, and Dance Teacher.






Ellen ChenowethEllen Chenoweth lives in Washington, D.C., and is the managing director of Dance Exchange. She is a member of the Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Commission and a member of the steering committee of the Emerging Arts Leaders DC.


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