IN DECEMBER 2013, with the support of my co-workers, I started an experiment called CHOREOFUND. It has been my life’s work to investigate the creative process. Some of the most inventive and creatively interesting people I’ve known are dance-makers. Bay Area choreographers are risk-takers, the open-minded, ground-breaking, rule- breaking “disrupters” of all time. I love them, support them and study them because they reveal what is possible in making art—and changing life.
The CHOREOFUND project came about after a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I enjoyed working with an old friend, Ann Law, a phenomenally creative dance improvisation artist. I taught with her, coached her, listened to her, and watched her perform. She talked about the challenges of working in a politically conservative landscape while pushing artistic boundaries. On the plane home, I thought about community— what is needed when and where. I imagined CHOREOFUND as a way to expand my community’s understanding of the dance- making process and embolden them to participate as audience and supporters. My plane touched down and I set out to make it happen. After five distinct CHOREOFUND events spanning two years, I’m taking stock of what has transpired, what has been learned, and how this event serves our community.
By community, in this case, I am referring to two groups—parents of the children we teach at Luna Dance Institute, and those of the general public who are unaware of, or intimidated by attending, performances by yet-to-be-known, independent choreographers. Luna’s curriculum, and pedagogical approach to teaching dance to children (and their teachers), places dance-making at the center. Parents enroll their children in our studio laboratory and after a few sessions are excited to see them as creators. Teachers, too, in our school and community programs, begin to recognize the transformative potential of dance for their students. Some of these parents and teachers, seeking experiences for their children, are eager to tell us that they’ve taken children to the “Big 3”: Nutcracker, Alvin Ailey, or The Velveteen Rabbit. While I respect the artistry of these performances, I want children to see choreographers in the process of creating—engaged in the same type of inquiry-in-action that the students experience in their dance class.
In 2012, I, with a group of Luna teachers, produced 20 Points of View: a peek into dance making, for this very purpose. 20 Points of View (now held annually) is a daylong event wherein 20 choreographers are invited to “play around” in our space in 30-minute increments while children and their families’ watch. Over the past three years, choreographers have generously responded. Their time in the studio ranges from a “cleaning rehearsal before tour,” to improvising, to interacting with the students, to sharing the latest thinking about dance and technology. Schools come to 20 POV as a field trip, parents bring their children afterschool, and the local community drops by at lunch—sometimes returning with their children or grandchildren again in the evening.
20 POV serves as the bridge between children’s dance-making and adult choreographers, but because of the random, drop-in nature of the event, it wasn’t doing as much as it could to educate parents and teachers about the craft of dance-making. A short, contained event like CHOREOFUND might do more. My co-workers at Luna agreed to commit to host four CHOREOFUND evenings, offered every six months, December 2013 through June 2015, with a fifth added December 2015. We invited parents and the general public to witness six choreographers at work. We asked audience members to contribute $40 cash to attend—we had a hunch that a financial investment to support a “yet to be revealed” choreographer might increase engagement. An audience of thirty created a bucket of $1,200 to be distributed to a choreographer chosen by that evening’s attending audience. Guerrilla fundraising! No grants to write, no bar to be met. Simply what a particular audience sees in a particular group of artists on a particular night that they vote to fund.
The structure of the first CHOREOFUND evening was set. The audience, reserving seats in advance, sat on sofas and pillows and enjoyed refreshments. Six artists, selected on a first come-first served basis, were given eight minutes to share their creative process. Although not required, most chose to perform. After each presentation, the audience had two minutes for questions. Intermission gave time for reflection. As the votes were tallied, the artists were welcomed back to meet and relax with the audience.
That first night was a success. It had the casual “junkyard dog” feel I wanted. By that, I mean it wasn’t curated; it wasn’t laden with rules, expectations and competition. As I’d hoped, the audience loved the randomness of the event. They did not know what to expect next and they seemed to appreciate every artist. Many told me that they were surprised and delighted to see so much creativity packed into one night. Attendees seemed to enjoy their roles as funders, too. They put cash in the box, watched the choreographers, and voted. They talked to each other about the experience and to the artists about their process. The winner was ecstatic to receive the bucket of cash with no strings attached other than to make some art.
Then came the criticisms: “Why don’t you ‘educate’ the audience about what to look for in the choreography? They don’t know how to evaluate.” As a $40 payer myself, I had listened to my friends and colleagues discuss their voting choices. Reasons varied: “She already has support, so I’m voting for the underdog”; “He’s the strongest dancer”; “I like the risks they took culturally—telling stories no one tells”; “I like these youngsters—let’s give them a chance”; and so on. This personal interpretation of the artistic “pitch” is exactly as education philosopher, Maxine Greene describes aesthetic valuing. Art works—and is so universal, whether one makes or views it—because the truth of art, its aesthetic essence, lives in the intersection between maker and viewer. The choreographer creates something with personal meaning, from an aesthetic related to culture, experience and personality; drawn on study, family and tradition; and pitches it on a particular day, in the feelings of that moment. The audience “receives” it and imbues it with personal meaning – from their aesthetic cultural viewpoint, experience, personality, family, tradition, and how they feel that day. I witnessed 30 distinct audience members catching the work of six choreographers. It was exciting and alive. I wouldn’t interfere with that power.
The first four CHOREOFUNDs were won by varied artists: Nol Simonse, a veteran dancer, yet new choreographer; Jessie Barber, a new choreographer and performer; Randy Paufve, veteran award-winning choreographer; and Heather Stockton, representing a collective. The runners-up—often a close call—were strong choreographers in their own right (LV Collective came in second, twice). At Luna, we celebrate the choreographer in every child, every person, so we publicized each “winner.” This seemed to incite more criticism: “People like only the polished performers—it isn’t fair that new choreographers have to compete with super experienced choreographers.”“If you have a lot of your friends in the audience, you’ll win.” And again, “People don’t know how to evaluate choreography.” While I had ready answers—“Heather didn’t know anyone in the audience and she won”; “People vote for many different reasons”—some began seeing CHOREOFUND as a competition, and I became defensive. I was hurt that people wanted or expected it to be like other competitions, rather than the “free from influence” experiment intended.
Choreographers and dance companies struggle with audience development. We know some non-dancing friends are intimidated by modern dance; they don’t know what they are supposed to think, or feel, or like. CHOREOFUND was meant to introduce relative newcomers to the many different ways choreographers work. Specifically, parents and teachers in Luna’s composition-based programs could see adult artists engaged in dance-making using strategies similar to their children’s learning. By voting, the audience could think about what they heard and saw, listen to those around them, and claim their own their experience.
One person, one vote: as democracy was intended. The added perk of funding a choreographer made me happy because these new artists get few opportunities for support, but it was not the main point.
With each CHOREOFUND, we at Luna examined our motives and the outcomes. Do we allow repeaters? Why six and not seven chorographers on a program? How do we attract more parents—the audience we want for this event? Do we allow children? New staff challenged us to be very clear about CHOREOFUND’s purpose. Why not let the dancers watch each other perform? (We want the audience to be able to chat without “expert” influence.) Why not let more than 30 people come? (We like the intimacy.) And sadly, and most recently: Why is Luna holding a competition? This, asked by a new faculty member after the most recent round, CHOREOFUND5, gave me reason to pause.
CHOREOFUND5 did feel different. Several artists made “pitches” rather than describe their creative process. The audience was filled with friends of one particular choreographer, vocal in their support. When she won, her friends began talking about how hers was clearly the best. Audience newcomers—for whom the event was intended— expressed concern that they might not be “doing it right.” Past in-house conversations about “stacking the audience” always ended with the reasoning, “If a choreographer has so many supporters, why don’t they ask them for money directly? Why risk a competition?” We didn’t see a problem. But now we are looking at it again— figuring out what we need to do differently to convey our intentions.
Experiments, inquiry, chance-dances all test a hypothesis: what would happen if…? We have learned a lot. Some CHOREOFUND attendees haven’t seen independent dance before. Others come to see an artist who was their student years ago, or just to see a sampling of what is new. They do not balk at paying $40 to see a randomly selected group of artists. Bit by bit, CHOREOFUND audience members become aware of their aesthetic preferences, and the variety of those preferences underscores the very purpose of art. Dance-makers can practice describing, revealing and sharing their creative process. They have a chance to attract new audiences. Though not allowed to watch each other’s presentations, they witness being part of a larger community as they wait “backstage” in our offices. As an educator, I know that people have trouble accepting a brand-new idea. To understand it, they must connect it to something familiar—something known, and what is known is competition. I recognize that this disequilibrium is where the criticism comes from. I must become less defensive and more courageous (and maybe reconsider the name). So far, this unfunded, grassroots experiment is based on a hunch I had in 2013. CHOREOFUND6, scheduled for June 2, 2016, will allow me to see how that hunch plays out one more time.