Working Behind the Scenes for the Field
Shelton in a casual conversation with Mindy Aloff
Linda Shelton, the 2015 recipient of Dance/USA’s “Ernie” Award (for “an individual working ‘behind the scenes’ within the infrastructure of the dance field, whose achievements have significantly empowered artists and supported their creativity individually or as a community”), is a current trustee of Dance/USA and a past chair of its board (2000-2002). You can’t get much further behind the scenes within the infrastructure of the dance field than that. But she is perhaps better known in the dance world at large as the soft-spoken, piercingly blue-eyed executive director of New York’s Joyce Theater, in the Chelsea neighborhood — and, at this point, as one of the major arts administrators for dance in the United States.
Since Shelton became the theater’s executive director 22 years ago, she and her staff have devoted themselves unceasingly to the mission “to serve and support the act of dance and choreography, to promote the richness and variety of the art form in its fullest expression, and to advance the public interest in, and appreciation of, dance and the allied arts of music, design, and theater,” a mission established by the Ballet Tech Foundation, cofounded in 1980 by Cora Cahan and Eliot Feld. It was Ballet Tech that had the vision to see a theater dedicated to dance hiding in the 1942 Elgin movie house, in Chelsea in Manhattan, and to oversee the gut renovation, by the archival architect Hugh Hardy, which transformed the building (today named for Joyce Mertz Gilmore, the beloved daughter of patron LuEsther T. Mertz) into a comfortable and charming dancegoer's destination. Its 472 seats each enjoys an excellent sightline and its design preserves the Art Moderne flavor of architect Simon Zelnick’s original.
The Joyce’s dance education program for grades K-12 reaches over 1,000 children annually, the seeds of which go back to the early 1980s. Shelton has overseen The Joyce’s growth and expansion in initiatives diverse and sustaining. They include 86 residencies for 71 choreographers since 1998, the commissioning of 149 new dances since 1992, the sponsorship of public talks and lectures by choreographers and critics, the establishment of presenting partnerships with large cities around the U.S., and the acquisition of additional spaces for rehearsal and performance to benefit dancers in New York. Recently, on Shelton’s watch, The Joyce Theater Foundation was able to raise sufficient funds to purchase its Chelsea theater (the sale closes in September). The sale of the Joyce SoHo theater-and-studios building, purchased from the DIA Art Foundation, in 1996, in order to afford the parent theater in Chelsea, was part of the price. However, in 2009, learning that the historic New Dance Group studios, a little uptown, at 305 West 38th , were imperiled by commercial conversion, the Joyce took them over as the DANY Studios, offering the nine rehearsal studios that DANY comprises to the nonprofit dance community for $10-$20 per hour.
A door to an achievement of national import almost opened in 2004, when it looked as if there would be space for the performing and visual arts in the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, and The Joyce was one of four organizations, selected to participate by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), in an intensely competitive process. Although the WTC arts program somehow fell by the wayside, for ten summers — through 2013 — The Joyce presented free performances in Lower Manhattan as part of the LMDC’s effort to revitalize downtown Manhattan. It would seem that the definition of an “Ernie” winner could not be better represented than by Linda Shelton.
D/USA: The Joyce now presents dance offerings that range from works by promising young choreographers through performances by esteemed modern dance companies at its home theater in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, to internationally admired and often huge ballet companies such as The Royal Ballet, at the Koch Theater, at Lincoln Center. How did you get to this point?
LS: When the theater started [as a theater devoted to live dance], it was going to be mostly a subsidized rental house. The plan was to book dance companies that could rely on set expenses (less risk) which would also be highly subsidized. Each dance company would keep its box office receipts. Then, in the mid-1980s, a more varied program was needed, so the presenting program was started. When I got to the theater, maybe 12 companies a year were presented and the rest were subsidized rentals (now called the Engagement Assistance Program). Over time, we realized that we would better serve the dance community if we presented more. We could present more companies that might not want to take the risk, like companies from outside the U.S. Now it’s flipped, so we only have a few companies under the Engagement Assistance Program, which are mostly New York based companies that can present themselves.
D/USA: You’re also presenting at the Koch, one of the largest theaters in New York.
LS: With the unfortunate situation at City Opera, the weeks opened up at the Koch. So far, since 2012 The Joyce has presented: Sylvie Guillem, the Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White, National Ballet of Canada performing Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Also, The Ford Foundation and the Howard Gilman Foundation are supporting the programming we're doing at Lincoln Center as well as some individuals and Joyce Trustees. They understand that these larger companies are passing by New York and not performing here unless someone brings them. And, like New York City Ballet, they understand that it’s great to keep the theater lit especially because it was built for dance!
D/USA: Could you speak a little about the challenges of being an American presenter of theatrical dancing in the 21st century?
LS: It’s always about making the connection between the audience and the artist. We just can’t take it for granted that there will be an audience. For all the work we do to insure an audience, it’s still almost one person at a time. And I think we still suffer from the general public thinking that they’re not going to be able to understand what dance is about. The Curtain Chats and Dance Talks we do help people to talk about what they’ve seen or prepare them for what they will see at the theater. We’re trying different things all the time to make that barrier go away — ticket prices or promotions that encourage people to come, or our membership, which is still in place after all these years, where you basically get a performance for free if you buy four. Sometimes a funding opportunity has allowed us to experiment with ticket prices. Seats in the first row in the Joyce are $10 and the second row are $19. And at the Koch we have subsidized tickets, too, that are used to remove the barrier for groups that we work with in our education program. Many who come to the Koch by taking advantage of subsidized tickets, are at Lincoln Center for the first time. I always need to think about how we make sure there’s an audience.
D/USA: Could you speak about the Joyce’s travel program for prospective donors? People who’ve been on the trips really love it.
LS: We started it in 2000. We did a trip to France, partnering with a theater organization. We put together a phenomenal trip to Avignon and offered lunches with artists and great tickets to many festival performances. We had a big group of people, about 45, and we didn’t even break even. And it just didn’t seem like the people on the trip were going to become our donors. Then, out of the blue, one of our audience members approached me and said, “I see that you just did a trip to France. Would you be interested in doing another trip?” And I said, “No. This trip didn’t work out so well.” He said, “I’ll help you with this.” He was interested in going to Cuba. I had just been there as a guest of The Washington Ballet. So I said, “Okay. We’ll try Cuba, as long as you do all of the leg work.” And we had the best trip! That was in 2001; we’ve been travelling ever since. The travel program usually includes three to four trips per year and has included India, China, Myanmar, South America and France. Every year, we travel to Cuba at least twice and as a result of all our trips there, we developed relationships with dance companies in Havana.
D/USA: Twyla Tharp is now artist-in-residence of the Joyce. That brings you back full circle, doesn’t it? You managed her company for much of the 1980s.
LS: I was hired by Executive Director Steve Dennin as his assistant. Mostly from 1983-88, I was company manager but I did everything. Twyla could be demanding, and I was a lot younger then. But if you were willing, and I was, you could learn a lot. When I came to The Joyce, I was able to implement an artist residency program which was based on some of the values I learned from being around Twyla. When we started the residency program in the Joyce DANY studios it was, and still is, funded by the Mellon Foundation. We offered free rehearsal space, which we know is important to create or rehearse, but we also offered an assistant for the choreographer, so that there was someone to take care of the less creative tasks, like making sure you have the right music, or making the dancer’s rehearsal schedule, or whatever needs to be done so the choreographer can focus on making the new work. And thanks to the Mellon Foundation The Joyce is able to cover these expenses.
D/USA: And are these year-long residencies?
LS: We have two types of residencies right now. Creative Residencies are based on a certain number of studio hours and include the “extras” I just mentioned and also a $25,000 grant. Also included in the Creative Residency is the opportunity to work with an “outside eye” or advisor. In the past David Gordon and Phyllis Lamhut have served as advisors. We offer two of the Creative Residencies per year, this year Michelle Dorrance and Kate Weir are the artists. The other residency is called Artist-in-Residence and is a two year residency and for this year and next, Twyla is our Artist-in-Residence. This residency includes more studio time, approximately 600 hours and an annual salary.
D/USA: Who chooses the Creative Residents?
LS: We have a committee on the staff: the Director of Programming, Martin Wechsler, and others. And we always take suggestions.
D/USA: Your own career as an arts administrator has seemed so logical, from stepping stone to stepping stone. Let’s see: you started as an intern with the New York State Council on the Arts, in 1980, then assistant to the executive director and company manager of the Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation until 1988 . . . .
LS: The job with Twyla ended abruptly when her company merged with American Ballet Theatre [ABT]. That’s the last time I ever had more than two weeks off. Eventually, I went to work for Philip Glass’s production company. This company also managed tours for Sankai Juku, and projects which I was involved with in a variety of ways. Then, Charles Dillingham, who had just left ABT, called and said he was working with a company presenting large-scale ballet companies like the Bolshoi and the Kirov at the Metropolitan Opera House. I worked for this company for about two years when my friend Bob Yesselman, who had left Paul Taylor to be executive director with the Joffrey, asked if I wanted to be part of a new [Joffrey] management team. I loved the Joffrey repertory, and this was an opportunity to be the general manager of the Joffrey and work with Bob.
D/USA: You have a background as a dancer yourself, don’t you?
LS: I studied at my local ballet school [in Paterson, New Jersey]. Then I wanted to ramp it up a little bit. I didn’t know where to go, so I went to the phone book. We had phone books then. And the first entry was the Academy of Ballet. It was run by two teachers from New York: Janet Mitchell, a former dancer with ABT and her husband, Eddie Verso, a Joffrey Ballet dancer. I studied there through high school, and then it was time to go to college. What to do? They encouraged me to audition and get a dance degree, so that’s what I did [at NYU]. The Tisch School was more musical theater back then so I went to what’s now called Steinhardt. It was in the education department, but it was a modern dance program. So our teachers were from the Cunningham, Hawkins, Graham, and Limón. I couldn’t have asked for a better education in contemporary dance.
D/USA: What do you tell young people who want to go into arts administration with dance a specialty?
LS: I tell them to hone their writing skills. No matter what they do in arts administration, they have to be able write and communicate. I teach in the graduate program at NYU now. The class is very specific — “Boards of Trustees and Governance in the Performing Arts” — and I stress that good writing skills are a must.
D/USA: Is there any large area I haven’t asked you about?
LS: The thing I felt was one of my biggest achievements was when The Joyce was selected to anchor the performing arts center at World Trade Center. There were 126 organizations that applied. When we were selected, I thought, “This is just the most fabulous thing for dance in the world.” Of course, the endowment that we have is very nice, the fact that we are presenting so much dance, the fact that we’ll purchase the theater this September are all great. I am proud of a great staff and a fantastic board made up of extremely committed, dedicated generous trustees. Not everybody can say that. The board has grown from six people to 27. And the budget has gone from about two million when I started to $13 million now. With one exception, we have always balanced the budget.
Mindy Aloff’s writing and interviews on dance, literature, and film have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications internationally. A past fellow of the Woodrow Wilson and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundations, and a recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, she has also published several books, including Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation and Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World by Agnes de Mille. She teaches dance history and criticism and essay writing at Barnard College.
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