Residencies on the Rise

By Ellen Chenoweth

A professional life in the dance field is often a fragmented one. Few choreographers have the luxury of working in the studio with a group of full-time dancers. Instead both dancers and choreographers are running in multiple directions, often juggling teaching jobs, bodywork clients, or day jobs in an office in order to round out making a living when they’re not creating. One powerful antidote to this fragmentation comes in the form of artist residencies.

Philadelphia-based artist Nichole Canuso defines a successful residency as “one in which I make discoveries about the work and my collaborators that I never could have anticipated making.” She feels that residencies are especially helpful for projects with a large ensemble of performers and designers. “Each phase of a process has different needs but can be fed by residency time away from the day-to-day demands of life. There’s time for conversations to spill out of the rehearsal and into casual conversations over dinner or late at night,” Canuso says. “There’s time for off-the-cuff experiments. The concepts of the project circulate and evolve in a more organic fashion during a residency. The performers grow closer and develop more trust as an ensemble.”

This feature of group development stands out to Mathew Pokoik as well. He is artistic director of Mount Tremper Arts in New York’s Catskill Mountains, which hosts residencies throughout the year, with a summer festival representing its most active season. “One of the things that magically happens during this time of year [when there is not a chef in residence, as there is for the summer residencies], is that the artists are in charge of making their own dinners and they often find that time of making dinner together to be very key in building a stronger cohesion among the performers. Most artists don’t work with fixed companies; they change on a project by project basis. So what happens when you’re living together or when your commute from the bedroom to the studio is a 200 foot walk?”

The word “residency” can define a wide variety of situations. Some residencies are application-based and some are by invitation only. Some residencies provide an empty studio, while others might provide space and meals, or expectations of community engagement by the artists. Residencies can be targeted to the beginning of an artist’s creative process, in the middle, or intended for right before the premiere, with a focus on refining production elements for the stage.

The Gold Standard
There are relatively few residency providers that offer what might be considered the gold standard of residencies: providing an artist’s fee in order to support the choreographer’s time and the time of their dancers. Many of the ones that do meet this criteria are relatively new. Choreographer Jane Comfort has been making work for decades, but describes herself as something of a “residency neophyte,” explaining that “I rarely go on them because while they may offer space and housing, they rarely offer much of an artist’s fee. With this new piece, I realize that the monetary loss of a week’s residency is less important than the gain I would have by getting my dancers out of their New York schedules and in a concentrated time of creation. So we are actively looking for residencies.”

The Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC), housed at Florida State University’s School of Dance, is one place that does provide an artist’s fee attached to each residency. MANCC hosts 10-15 residencies each season and each provides an artist fee, lodging, travel, and per diem for the company. Director Carla Peterson explains, “The intent is to minimize financial constraints on the artists. Everyone receives some kind of fee, and that’s important.”

MANCC is now celebrating its 11th year of residency activity in dance and Peterson believes that this time period coincides with a rise in interest on the part of the field at large in supporting the creative process. “While there’s definitely still room for more thoughtful expansion in support of research and experimentation, the amount of attention being paid to it has increased in recent years.”

There were a couple of moments that pushed forward the awareness of the need for residencies. Five years ago, MANCC, under the direction of Jennifer Calienes at the time, held a field-wide convening called “Choreographic Research and Development/Advancing the National Dialogue,” which invited artists, funders, and presenters to discuss the issues of supporting creative development time in dance. Around the same time, the Alliance of Artists Communities brought attention to the issue through an influential report called “Mind the Gap: Artist Residencies and Dance.” The report interviewed hundreds of dancemakers and residency programs in order to identify both existing resources and highlight where additional support was needed.

Multi-year or Longer Residencies
Several programs blossomed as a result of this discussion. MANCC began hosting multi-year residencies, able to support artists over a longer arc. The National Dance Project (NDP) began a new program, Production Residencies for Dance (PRD), responding to the need for lengthier tech time in the presenting theater. In addition to providing this invaluable time, the program also facilitates a deeper relationship between the artist and the commissioning partner.

The Andrew S. Mellon Foundation (a leader in the support of dance residencies in the United States) was a lead funder of the “Mind the Gap” study, and also supported research carried out by NYC Performing Arts Spaces, a program of Fractured Atlas. Entitled “We Make Do, but Budget is King,” the 2010 report highlighted dance’s dependence on “physical facilities that house the creation and production process” and stressed that “if the dance community is not just to survive, not just to ‘make do,’ but to be healthy and productive, new tools must be developed and implemented to ensure stability and growth.” One such tool proposed was the creation of a national residency network.

In response to this research on the need for creative residencies and through discussions with choreographers and with its Director of Artistic Initiatives Dan Hurlin, the American Dance Institute (ADI) in Rockville, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., developed its Incubator program, which currently focuses primarily on late-stage production residencies. (I work with the organization in documenting the production residencies on site.) “We’ve added all these layers based on artists’ needs,” Executive Director Adrienne Willis stated, noting that the program looked very different in its original year. “We added an artist fee after people told us how impossible it was to take their dancers away from their day jobs for a week with no pay. We added meals so that companies could keep working without having the distraction of tracking down lunch. We brought in a videographer after hearing from choreographers about their need for documentation. So all those things built the Incubator into what it is today.” This year the organization hosted six artists through the Incubator, with the number rising each season. Willis explains, “From each artist that comes in, we hear how incredibly useful this is, so we’ve done more each year.”

ADI has both a traditionally presented series in its theater and ticketed showings for its residencies. The residency series is one component of ADI’s audience development strategy. With artist-led talks before each performance, and a reception with the performers and choreographer following, Willis feels that the series “gives the audiences an entrance into the work. We’ve given them some really challenging stuff and our audiences love being part of the process, even if the work is challenging.” Craig Peterson, a board member of the Alliance of Artists Communities (no relation to Carla), believes this element of audience education through residencies can be applied on a field-wide level: “This [dialogue] can serve the art but also the form and field at large — elevating discourse around process and practice can facilitate higher levels of inquiry and literacy.”

Many of the most generative residencies take advantage of whatever unique factors might exist at a particular site. At MANCC, for example, there is a part-time staff person dedicated to creating connections between visiting artists and scholars or community members in support of the artists’ research process. Peterson underscores, “I want to make sure, in particular, that they can utilize the brain trust of a research university like FSU as well as the community at large.”

Time and Silence
At Mount Tremper Arts, the site utilizes its rural location to provide a “monastic space” that provides time and silence. There is a sense of support for process, as Pokoik describes wanting to allow artists space, “so if they need to lie down on the floor and stare at the ceiling for three days, that can be a very important thing. A huge part of the artistic process might come from a space of boredom, or play, from a space that is less goal- or product-oriented.”

ADI makes good use of its black box theater and full-time production crew, led by Director of Production Jason Wells. The crew is at each artist’s disposal for their entire residency, and they are dedicated to realizing the vision of the choreographer. When Jane Comfort arrived for a production residency in the fall of 2013 for her work Altiplano, she had a dream of creating a light rain on stage for the work’s conclusion, but wasn’t sure how to make it happen. “I had been working in my backyard, I poked hundreds of pinholes in a garden hose, and then strung it up in a tree at sunset so it was backlit, but I really didn’t know if it was going to work.” Wells and his team got to work experimenting with different solutions, and eventually rigging up a system involving a water pump and some PVC pipe. The ADI audience saw two minutes of gentle rain on stage, creating a beautiful effect in combination with Joe Levasseur’s lighting. Comfort laughs, “It’s the worst thing to ask a theater: can we make your floor wet? But they were always willing to try anything, they always want to say ‘yes.’”

ADI is not the only organization devoting a great deal of resources into their residency programs. Gibney Dance recently announced an expansion of its Dance in Process residency program for mid-career New York-based artists in the middle of their creative process on a given work. DANCECleveland just completed a feasibility study to open another national center for choreography in conjunction with University of Akron (based on the MANCC model) in Ohio.  With two pilot choreographic residencies during summer of 2015 completed, Pam Young hopes the National Center for Choreography will be fully operational within two years. A consortium of four presenters is experimenting with a national network of four linked residency sites and four initial artists through The Hatchery Project. The Hatchery has also been instigating dialogue in the field around the issue of residencies, convening a day-long gathering as part of the Alliance of Artists Communities conference held last fall in Charleston, S.C.

Even though there’s a growing awareness in the field of the great value of creative residencies, everyone I spoke with agreed that many more residency opportunities are needed and that demand greatly outstrips supply. Craig Peterson notes the difficulty: “Over the past few years, many organizers have responded to the ‘Mind the Gap’ report — but the crisis is far from over. Dance residencies are inherently complicated, organizing and funding ensemble groups is still an enormous challenge.” One frequent obstacle is that dancers need a floor that is friendly to bodies, an element often lacking in spaces more accustomed to hosting visual artists.

Pokoik of Mount Tremper Arts reports that the organization started as a multidisciplinary center, and remains so, but has been focusing on dance and performance “because they were deeply underserved areas. There are hundreds of residency centers out there, but very few where a company can come and have a residency. There are logistical and institutional reasons for that; you could bring in 10 visual artists, or one company for the same amount of resources. We felt that the little we could do [with the resources at Mount Tremper] could make a big impact on the field.”

Willis is vocal about the joys of hosting residencies as well: “It’s our most favorite program by far. It allows us to become an integral part of the process and it’s really rewarding for everyone involved when you’re working with an artist and giving them something they need so much. You really can’t put a dollar amount on it.” Carla Peterson agrees that the benefits are hard to quantify with just numbers, “That time is essential, and we have been seeing the fruits of what artists are able to bring to their finished productions, how they more fully realize their visions. The value of such residency time in how it translates into the ultimate quality of work going out on stage or alternative sites is pretty much immeasurable.”

Choreographer Keith Hennessy encourages prospective residency hosts to not be discouraged, and to consider including dance artists in their targeted groups. “The economies and ecologies of making art (which includes not making, researching, learning and unlearning, experimenting…) are neither fixed nor stable. Any structure that offers time and space to artists is to be praised and considered for support.” As dancemakers continue to search for opportunities to facilitate the creation of new work, the field will only benefit from more infrastructure and residency sites supporting them at various stages along the way.

Ellen Chenoweth works as a program consultant and grantwriter for a variety of dance artists and organizations. Her company, Solid Seam Consulting, is based in Philadelphia. She brings a wealth of formal experience to her current work, with several years at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and several at the Dance Exchange, where she helped to shepherd the organization through its founder transition and spent two years as managing director. Her financial management and budgeting skills were developed while working for an international consulting firm. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Rice University and a master’s degree in dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is currently an adjunct instructor in the dance department at Temple University and writes regularly for Philadelphia-based dance journal thINKingDANCE. Ellen recently completed an emerging curator fellowship at the Arlington Arts Center (Virginia), where she curated a show entitled “Wrapped & Wrought.”


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