A report on the 2015 Dance/USA Conference in Miami, Fla.
By Lisa Traiger
Surviving and thriving in the dance field these days means asking, often. Whether it’s an ask for grants or audience development programs, space for rehearsing and performing, or volunteers to help out in the office, dance companies and dancers become well-versed in the ask – and how and when to do it. It’s not that the field doesn’t give back, too, through educational and artistic programs, through artistic and cultural development, through jobs and training programs. It does. But at Dance/USA’s Annual Conference June 17-20, 2015, in Miami, Fla., a number of panels, speakers and sidebar conversations focused on how the dance field can provide benefits that give back even more – to our communities, to our cities, to the field, and to its next generation of artists and administrators.
The opening plenary, in the Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center, featured Rob Gordon, a former U.S. Army deputy undersecretary of defense, and the founder of the growing non-profit Be the Change, Inc., which initiates broad cross-sector coalitions that effect positive cultural changes in our nation and accelerate public policy development of new programs.
He made a case for turning the education buzz word STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – into STEAM – adding an A for arts. “The arts are just as important, especially in an innovation economy. We’re now moving our nation forward and moving from an information economy to an innovation economy.” That he noted forces us as a nation to ask: “What skills will we need in an environment where creation is part of the economy?”
And, he noted, he met his wife at a dance for military teens – his dad was also a career military officer. “Dance,” he said, “is part of my soul. It is a part of who I am,” adding that “dance and the arts nourish our country.” He also made a case for the speed that new technologies are taking over and leading the way, but pointed out that dance should be able to harness that “to bring your craft to new people in countries around the world.”
“The fourth dimension,” he said, “is upon us.” But he warned that it still requires us to “find our humanity through other human beings,” not just machines. Here Gordon encouraged dance organizations and individuals to find ways to forge connections because, he said, often the best way to learn about ourselves is in helping or serving others.
In developing strategies for engaging the arts, Gordon said it starts with leaders in sessions “like this … partnering to get the right thinking to ensure the message is clear, lucid and forceful.” He also noted that diversity is vital to success no matter the field. “To be able to compete whether in the arts, technology, the military or the government, we need to seek the highest level of diversity. We need to get to know each other and build our trust and social capital.”
Among the major focal points of the Conference, discussions and panels centered on financing dance, technological change, and social responsibility. Diversity and racial equity were also a prime topic throughout much of the four-day Conference. From the attendees themselves – including the largest cohort of first time conference goers in two decades (representing 31 states and four countries) this gathering of dance professionals demonstrated the depth and breadth of dance across America. And Miami itself served as a microcosm for that diversity. Miami has long been a majority minority city, with a dance community that is keyed into many of the immigrant neighborhoods – the city itself was a talking point for many at the conference.
Among the panels that discussed race, diversity and community involvement, “How Can Dance Be Use to Address Complex Social Challenges in My Community?” forced participants to think more broadly about the communities they belong to and interact with in their home cities and towns. Choreographer and dancer Thaddeus Davis, co-artistic director of the South Carolina-based Wideman/Davis Dance, said dance needs to be a catalyst for change. But dance cannot be seen as the end result. He discussed Ruptured Silence: Racial Symbolisms and Signs, a collaborative new media and dance performance dealing with issues of race and the display of the Confederate flag. Davis created the work because, he said he intended to reflect his community and where it was in relation to the Confederate flag issue. This, he said, was how he wanted to put dance “at the table of social discourse in the community.”
Two well-attended sessions, titled “Race and Dance Town Hall Real Talk,” delved deeply into issues related to what it means to be a person of color in the ballet world and beyond in the larger dance community. The discussion continued with “Off Balance: Resembling All of America Throughout Our Field Is Still an Aspirational Goal – What Are We Prepared To Do About It?” During this session, a group of dance artists shared their collective experiences in becoming more integrated and more accepted in their home communities or working toward a more fully integrated community. An overarching question – how, as a field, can we work to change institutional biases and expand the idea of what dance can and should look like – set the course for much of the discussion. “Why,” Afua Hall, a Jamaican-born dance educator, choreographer and dancer, asked, “is there this compelling sense that dance and dancers must look uniformly the same?”Hall added that for her nothing is unconscious: “I bring inclusion wherever I go.”
Ruth Wiesen, executive and artistic director of Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, and a long-time Miami-based dance educator, has seen her Nutcracker auditions evolve over the decades through concerted efforts she and others have made to bring ballet and dance classes to youngsters who are poor, often of Haitian or Latin American descent, often living in inadequate conditions in their immigrant neighborhoods. “Now our audition looks like our community and on stage it’s the same, from our tiniest angels to our principals.” She sees dancers of color and dances representing a range of communities from various Caribbean and Latin American nations and ethnic groups.
For Toni Pierce-Sands, co-founder and co-artistic director of St. Paul, Minn.-based TU Dance, the key is being intentional about everything her company does. Her partner and husband, Uri Sands, noted that they “look for community leaders who are like-minded, who are trying to move the needle on racial diversity and we seek funding and collaborations with them.” All the panelists emphasized that early intervention – by consciously providing the highest quality classes to the most diverse cohort of students they can find from the very start of the youths’ dance training at age five or six – is key to leveling the playing field. But efforts don’t stop in the studio; they also include reaching out to parents, developing relationships with families, so they know their children are welcome, taken care of, and have opportunities to grow in their dancing. That inclusion, the panelists stated, needs to be deliberate and conscious.
Developing business skills was the focus of the popular Dance Business Bootcamp sessions, which, led by Tim Cynova, Jason Tseng and Nathan Zebedeo of Fractured Atlas, a New York non-profit that provides business tools for artists. Dance Business Bootcamp attracted more than 50 active participants. This hands on workshop session allowed participants to brainstorm together and practice wordsmithing their own mission statements and business plans in collaborative groups and ended with a room filled with sticky notes where participants could note their skills and what they need to move their own dance business ideas to the next level. The energy level in the room over the course of the four hours remained high as the steps for strategic decision making were laid out. Other panels for those involved in the business of dance included a lively discussion on “Managing Technology for the Long Haul” facilitated by Sydney Skybetter, a self-described dance technologist, and Victoria Smith, Dance/USA’s former director of information services. Additionally, individuals had the option of brief highly focused one-on-one meetings with experts in Dance/USA’s SmART Bar, where issues related to funding, marketing, technology, audience engagement, international touring, sustained giving, and mobile apps were among the topics discussed.
But the Dance/USA’s 2015 Conference found time to focus on the artistry in the field, too. The Conference kicked off Wednesday, June 17 with an elegant Opening Night Celebration at the contemporary Perez Art Museum Miami, where renowned leaders in the field were honored. Toby Lerner Ansin, received the Champion Award for an individual who has made an outstanding impact on the dance field, which she has done as a founder and long-time advocate of Miami City Ballet; Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater, received the Ernie Award, named for beloved dance administrator Ian “Ernie” Horvath, for her tireless work behind the scenes as a manager and presenter of modern and contemporary dance.
Trisha Brown was awarded the Honor Award for her extraordinary leadership in the dance field through her artistic leadership and force of vision. Stanford Makishi (New York City Center and Trisha Brown Dance Company) and Carla Peterson (Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography) accepted Brown’s award on behalf of the groundbreaking post-modern choreographer who changed the way we see, understand and create modern dance through her uncompromising daring and imagination. And Raven Wilkinson, the sole African American ballerina in Serge Denham’s Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo, received the Trustee Award for her artistic achievements, determination and steadfast example as an inspiration to many young dancers of color over the decades since. Wilkinson accepted her honor via video joined by American Ballet Threatre principal Misty Copeland, who was readying for her ABT New York debut in Swan Lake. The heartfelt tributes to these inspiring contributors to the dance field showcased the breadth of artistic vision, determination, hard work, inspiration and courage it takes to attain the highest levels of achievement in the art form.
Dance was programmed on local stages by the Miami host committee featuring two evenings of showcase performances, which provided a sampling of the breadth, creativity and high-level training that this city’s dance community supports. Conference attendees, too, were able to take an hour away each day for a movement class – yoga, Pilates, and jazz were offered and many attendees enjoyed the opportunity to break away from the conference sessions.
The Conference closed on a high note with a galvanizing talk by thought leader John McCann, president of Partners in Performance, that returned the Conference attendees once again to the idea of service and giving back by having the dance community rethink ways of reaching goals in a volatile and ever-shifting business and non-profit environment. His advice was basic but bold in sussing out new strategies for addressing age-old problems. “It’s about doing versus planning,” he said, adding, “we have to learn our way into the future and we learn by doing stuff.” But he discounted those who march into solving a problem or addressing an issue with too much knowledge. Instead, McCann advised, “Be humble and ask good, open-ended questions.” That will enable a more holistic approach. And, finally, and most fundamentally: “Challenge your own deep-seated notions about your purpose and your relevance.” If the old mission isn’t working, write a new one and craft a strategic plan – one page only, he advised – to orient your organization and the individuals who work there toward the future.
That means being strategic about the clarity of your group’s mission and goals, not about the details. Decide what matters, and “be willing to learn your way through – not just plan your way through.” Be radical: plan an experiment to test out something you’ve never done. But, he advised the intention must be radical or else you’re just talking. Finally, ask good follow up questions: What did we intend to happen? What was our purpose? What really happened? What did we learn? And, what would we do differently based on what we learned? With those simple but direct questions, McCann sent conference attendees home with the challenge to move forward and incorporate thoughtful, risk-taking ideas into the work dancers and dance companies do in their communities.
Lisa Traiger edits Dance/USA’s From the Green Room and writes on dance and the arts from the Washington, D.C., area.
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts if Miami-Dade County. Photo credit: Ben Doyle
Linda Shelton, executive director, The Joyce Theater (l); and Amy Fitterer, executive director, Dance/USA (r). Photo credit: Ben Doyle
John McCann, president, Partners in Performance. Photo credit: Ben Doyle
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