In last month’s issue of In Dance I wrote an article that considered the history of touring dance since the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965—a significant milestone in political, financial, and social support for dance touring. That piece, which largely tracked a downward trend in funding, concluded with a promise to explore the contemporary touring landscape and, through conversation with choreographers, funders, and presenters, consider how touring works today. Speaking with Amy Cassello, Associate Producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Andrea Snyder, Co-Director of American Dance Abroad; and Sean Dorsey, choreographer and Artistic Director of Fresh Meat Productions I gained further insight into the many factors and relationships that make up today’s touring ecosystem. Grounded in an understanding of how the dance field has dramatically changed over the last fifty years, our conversations brought up a number of challenges and highlighted several areas of possible development for the future.
As I tracked the history of dance touring in my last article much of its ebbs and flows were connected to changes in funding, particularly on the federal level through the NEA and trickle-down support from government-sponsored regional arts councils. All of the folks I talked with mentioned financial support as one of the largest challenges for dance touring. Snyder noted in the last fifty years there has not been a program on the federal level that has equaled the NEA Dance Touring Program Dance on Tour—“losing that has been the biggest challenge.” While organizations like the National Dance Project and National Performance Network (both established in the 1990s in the wake of significantly decreased funding from the NEA) serve invaluable roles in closing the gap, it often is still not enough. Dorsey noted that while these organizations are “the lifeblood of touring networks in this country” NDP and NPN are “constantly fighting and advocating to get adequate support for their own work,” and mentioned that in the last few years reduced funding has led to a more limited number of grantees and network subsidies.
While federal funding for touring has dramatically decreased, a more recent bright spot was the creation of Dance Motion USA? in 2010, a program of the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Put in place by the George W. Bush administration and largely operated under Obama’s tenure, it was developed as a cultural diplomacy program that supports dance companies curated by the ECA and BAM to travel abroad as cultural ambassadors. This past year for example Bebe Miller Company traveled to Colombia and Peru—connecting Americans with overseas entrepreneurs and social leaders through professional development, public programming and educational opportunities, and performances. Cassello described how the program quickly changed from solely presenting American choreographers abroad to focusing more on “engagement, workshops, teaching, and attending local performances—the shift was about being a holistic dancer and not just a performing dancer.” Sadly though, Cassello shared that this program will not be continuing, as funding is no longer available from the Department of State—a disappointing reality.
Funding aside, public programming and community engagement in addition to performances seem to be an increasingly visible part of touring. Dorsey, who has been incorporating workshops, discussions, and community events as part of his touring ethos for decades, was quick to note that “it was only when cisgender and heterosexual dance companies started taking on those activities as well that it became more of a mainstream idea.” As a queer and transgender artist Dorsey faces what he termed a “particularly thick glass ceiling,” recounting that—“before I could get in the door to have a presenter look at my work or come see it live I had to get past the transphobic assumptions around the quality of my work or the universal relatability of my work, the fact that it speaks deeply to a really broad audience.” He went on to explain that public programming and community forums were integral to his touring practice, allowing him to connect to people across the country while working with presenters to carve new spaces for queer and trans work and audiences.
Throughout our conversation Dorsey described his weeks on tour as “residencies,” an inclusive term that speaks both to the embedded nature of his performances and public engagements in a community and the larger shift towards what Cassello called “the residency format.” With touring performance engagements largely on the decline compared to fifty years ago, residencies have sprouted around the country as opportunities for companies to immerse themselves in a practice, providing invaluable time to rehearse, explore, and craft work. Snyder noted in this developing climate that she and her Co-Director Carolelinda Dickey were, “almost eliminating the word touring from our vocabulary. They [choreographers] may get a commission or a teaching gig or a collaboration, but not necessarily a tour to perform.” Cassello acknowledged that as artists balance increasingly busy schedules, with many people working on multiple projects simultaneously as freelancers rather than committing exclusively to a single dance company, residencies are a particularly important opportunity to gather together, often away from the distractions of major metropolitan areas. She felt that residencies often led to the creation of stronger work, allowing it to develop over multiple years without the pressure of an annual performance season.
That being said, residencies do not serve as replacements for touring, which gives choreographers and dancers valuable opportunities to return to the work multiple times within a presentational context. Dorsey elaborated that: “It’s so essential to my process as a maker to create something and have it be alive and grow on the road, and also frankly to have the dessert after working so hard on it—to enjoy the fruits of your labor.” These “fruits of labor” historically also garnered significant profits that could support the creation of new work after tours concluded. Snyder noted that international tours sponsored by the United States International Agency in the 70s and 80s were generously funded, giving artists like Bill T. Jones and Laura Dean not only consistent performance opportunities, but significant profits that they reinvested into their companies to create new work at home. Under the Clinton administration USIA was disbanded, and without this kind of government support touring now rarely brings surplus funding to companies.
Assembling and organizing a multi-city, contiguous tour often requires a strong administrative team to build long-term relationships with presenters. Cassello noted that touring is significantly harder to develop without infrastructure, while affirming that a support system can take many different shapes. Talking with everyone there seemed to be two parallel developments in administrative structures in the last fifty years: as the number of dance companies has exponentially increased some larger companies (like Alvin Ailey for example) have formalized to develop robust administrative teams that support touring on large scales; whereas the significant loss of general operating support and individual artist grants has led smaller companies (like Miguel Gutierrez for example) to develop nimble and flexible structures that rely on a combination of freelancers. This stratification of the touring landscape has made breaking in increasingly challenging without some kind of support, and Dorsey acknowledged that given the amount of touring his company does, not having an agent or company manager is extremely rare. He has been doing much of that work himself, while managing his nonprofit Fresh Meat Productions and creating new work for his company—a balance he acknowledged was physically and emotionally demanding.
However, Dorsey did highlight that he cherishes the long-term relationships he has built with presenters, and indeed it is these kinds of connections that lead to touring opportunities. He pointed to FundArte in Miami as an example of a conversation that unfolded over several years—after reaching out to say they were interested in his work they diligently raised the funds over four years to bring his company to Florida, and have since presented Dorsey’s work three additional times. American Dance Abroad works to facilitate these kinds of relationships by bringing international presenters to the United States to watch performances, meet artists, and see strongholds of American dance in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, and New England. They also bring American choreographers, agents and administrators to festivals and marketplaces abroad. Cassello highlighted the importance of the international festival circuit, noting that it’s a critical context for presenters to see new work and discover artists that they can nurture and support.
And so the fateful question remains: even if you’re able to bridge all of the barriers to touring, how do you get a presenter interested in supporting your work? Dorsey explained: “I know so many artists who ask me: how do you tour so much? There is often an assumption that the answer lies in how to woo a presenter or package yourself, but the answer lies in having strong work that is ready to tour: right fit, right time, right work.” What then constitutes the right work?
While Cassello acknowledged, “certain projects click and others don’t for a variety of reasons,” she argued that ultimately over time “people haven’t really changed what they want to see in the dance world—you want to see interesting ideas cleanly executed.” She sees artists from around the world grappling with similar thematics including race and class divisions, the role of technology, political conflict, and personal relationships. Ultimately she finds the most successful work to be that which “responds to the moment so that people have insight into their feelings and experiences.”
This question of “right work” begets a larger consideration—right work for whom? Cassello noted that: “You can’t talk about touring without talking about how one expands a dance audience, and that’s something people have been talking about for decades.” Audiences for dance have dramatically changed in the last 50 years as they are increasingly faced with more options for how to fill their time, opportunities that while increasingly accessible often silo people in their homes or on their devices. Framing this broader shift in a dance-specific context Cassello asked, “What turned people off or distracted them such that audiences shrank?” Dorsey attributed a fair amount of “the blame” as he termed it to the field, saying “modern dance has earned a reputation of being cryptic, heady and irrelevant—most human beings feel like they don’t get modern dance and they feel stupid and bad about themselves. Why would they spend money to experience that if they could see a play or a concert and not only understand, but connect and relate to what they’re seeing?”
Indeed, why dance? Admittedly, I see this question as a bit of a chicken and the egg situation—are audiences shrinking because dance is less accessible as touring opportunities diminish, eroding previously booming viewership in the 70s and 80s? Or does dance need to be more relatable to meet audiences where they are, adapting to the needs of a contemporary population? I would like to think that there is a middle ground. With the decline of arts education there seems to be a change in arts literacy in the last fifty years that can’t be discounted when considering the shifting tides of audiences; while similarly arts institutions have been slow to adapt to new modes of viewership, remaining focused on supposedly tried-and-true formats that cater to increasingly aging populations. There is a delicate balance between holding space for work to be challenging, opaque, and/or provocative—work that might be characterized as hard to understand—and providing opportunities for audiences to approach it, carving valuable time for communities to experience and discuss together, rather than leaving in frustration to return to their cell phones. I firmly believe that there are audiences for dance that could be better served with more touring opportunities, and, that we (as presenters, funders, and artists) need to continue to create and support work that sparks discussion and builds community through shared time, space, and consideration.