Author Archive | Katy Dammers

Traveling and Touring: Part II

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.

Traveling and Touring

2017 was a big year for us, with our first large-scale domestic tour. Together with choreographers Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener we premiered Tesseract at EMPAC in January and went on to have shows at the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, On the Boards in Seattle, and REDCAT in Los Angeles before a homecoming performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their Next Wave Festival. With support from the National Dance Project we were able to travel the country with a work that had significant technical needs—Act 1 is a 3D film and Act 2 included live video capture and projection—and a large group of performers and crew. As General Manager I coordinated each leg of the tour: working with presenters, funders, and the creative team to organize over twenty performances in six cities. I loved traveling to new cities, experiencing working environments in different theaters, and getting to return to the same piece again and again. And yet, even amidst a successful, dream-come-true tour, it was hard—financially, administratively, and emotionally when we were away from home for weeks at a time. The rest of the team had more extensive experience touring, whether as part of stalwart dance companies like Merce Cunningham’s or Shen Wei’s, with huge Broadway productions, or smaller projects with choreographers like Rebecca Lazier. Speaking with the team it became clear that touring in dance has changed dramatically over the past fifty years, shifting in relationship to funding structures, political climates, and artistic tastes. I set out with this article to explore when, why, and how touring has changed for American choreographers and dance companies, with an eye towards illuminating the factors that made our experience presenting Tesseract across the country an increasing anomaly.

Tracing the changing tides of funding deftly illustrates the ebbs and flows of dance touring in this country, beginning with the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. The NEA immediately began to fund dance touring, with their first act sponsoring a national tour for American Ballet Theatre. Program Director June Arey started the Coordinated Residency Touring Program the following year, supporting four modern dance companies to travel throughout Illinois giving performances, teaching workshops, and offering lectures to communities across six host cities. Following this initiative’s success the program grew each year, making the NEA the most important source of touring support for primarily modern dance companies in the 60s and 70s, and nearly singlehandedly ensuring the rise of dance across the country, with the number of dance companies increasing exponentially over the next few decades.

The NEA’s notable emphasis on local communities and building regional networks across states was matched by the emergence of Regional Arts Organizations and the creation of the National Performance Network in 1985. Regional Arts Organizations started in the 60s with Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas banding together to support exchange and touring. These multi-state conglomerates were further institutionalized with support from the NEA in 1973, with ultimately 40% of the NEA budget being funneled to State and Regionally-based funders who allocated it to local communities through re-granting processes. Some regions, like the Mid Atlantic, support travel abroad for their local dance companies, with annual grants covering transport, visa, and housing costs. Other regional organizations including WESTAF (Western States Arts Federation) and South Arts bring groups from other regions to their areas, with South Arts launching a Dance Touring Initiative last year. The grants seem to be tipped in support of companies based in New York—giving them opportunities to travel abroad and to come to other venues across the country, rather than having each region provide equal support for their local companies to travel farther afield.

In 1985 David White, then the director of Dance Theater Workshop, founded the National Performance Network to address what was then termed a “national dilemma: artistic isolation and economic restraints that constrict the flow of creative ideas within and among communities, independent artists, and locally-engaged arts organizations in the United States.” Starting with fourteen organizations NPN created a network of presenters across the country, encouraging organizations to work together to support consecutive touring dates for companies. NPN continues to be a critical source of support today, with currently 77 members in the network and new initiatives for international performances as well.

In the late 70s and 80s dance touring internationally grew rapidly, with increased government funding and foundation support presenting dance as an important vehicle of cultural exchange and diplomacy. Anna Kisselgoff, writing in The New York Times in 1985, described the 1960s through mid 80s as a “dance boom”—a period of fervent activity with significant growth in the number of dance companies and viewers. She credited much of its expansion to government funding and increased touring that developed audiences across the nation while artists like George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham were at the heights of their creative achievements. Indeed, the NEA budget in the 1970s grew exponentially, expanding by 1400 percent throughout that decade as government charting of dance companies increased from 37 in 1965 to 157 in 1975 (which I would argue still seems low all around).

During this growth period the government increasingly turned to dance as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. Claire Croft details in her 2015 book Dancers as Diplomats: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange the State Department’s sponsorship of Alvin Ailey’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1970, making the company the first American modern dance group to perform in the region. As the Cold War continued to intensify this presentation of Alvin Ailey—billed as the “Cultural Ambassador to the World”—served to demonstrate the supposed freedom and tolerance of the American people, even as the civil rights movement continued to demonstrate the abiding racism embedded within the United States. Employing a similar tactic, in 1979 President Carter founded the International Communication Agency to “present the diversity of American culture to the world and deepen our appreciation of other cultures.” Initially focusing its diplomacy in China, it quickly grew to encompass Eastern Europe and sponsored a series of performances organized by The Kitchen, including dance by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane as part of the 1980 American Now exhibition in Bucharest, Romania. Its success led to subsequent multi-week tours organized by The Kitchen with government support across Europe with mixed bill programs that exemplified the range of artistic practices (dance, music, theater, performance, video) that were regularly seen at its NYC home. Other American organizations also began to sponsor international tours for dance, notably the Suitcase Fund based out of Dance Theater Workshop. Also founded in 1985 by David White, the initiative focused on performance and research abroad, facilitating cultural exchange and research for artists and administrators on a global scale.

In the 1990s funding from the NEA dipped dramatically, and even as other financial support structures rapidly developed to fill this gap, changing company structures and audience tastes led to decreased touring overall. By 1985 the Dance Touring Program sponsored by the NEA had stopped, and with the brewing culture wars of the early 1990s funding significantly declined. Notably, changes in legislation mandated that the NEA could no longer grant to individuals beginning in 1996. By limiting support to nonprofit organizations, independent, unincorporated artists who depended on government support to finance tours were left without support, leading them to increasingly reach out to larger organizations like NPN and the newly established National Dance Project (both of whom received re-granting funds from the NEA) for assistance.

Created as a direct response to the NEA’s decline, the National Dance Project began as a regional program to support touring in New England in 1995 and quickly expanded nationally in 1996 to support the creation and production of work in addition to its touring and presentation. In this climate of scarcity choreographers increasingly began to work on more of a project basis, hiring dancers as needed for performances and working with administrators who managed a number of artists. This sharing of resources and division of labor signaled the decline of the boom period in dance that was further cemented by the deaths of significant choreographers and dancers (many of whom passed as part of the AIDS pandemic), the rise of European dance theater as the American imprimatur declined abroad, and increasing pulls on audience attention leading to declines in ticket sales.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of new initiatives in the last five years that show increased support for dance touring, both abroad and locally. The State Department renewed its support for dance with the establishment of DanceMotion USA in 2010. Billed as “dance diplomacy for the 21st century” the program works with the Brooklyn Academy of Music to facilitate international residencies that focus on cultural exchange and engagement, with recent participants including Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Kazakhstan and ODC/Dance in Southeast Asia. Seeking to increase the presentation of American choreographers internationally, Andrea Snyder and Carolelinda Dickey founded American Dance Abroad in 2011. They host an annual symposium in the States to show international presenters American choreography, bring American artists and administrators to international marketplaces, and provide crucial rapid response grants to help cover travel and visa costs. Meanwhile, both the National Dance Project and National Performance Network have begun to focus on local and regional efforts—putting in place systemic initiates like NDP’s Regional Dance Development Initiative and NPN’s Leveraging a Network for Equity that identify long-term strategies and build networks amongst presenters, artists, and administrators in specific geographic areas. This year NDP also established a new, annual fund for grantees to support additional touring partners in regions that usually receive less dance touring including the South, Southwest, Midwest, Hawaii, and Alaska.

While new sources of touring support have developed in the last few years, choreographers continue to face a number of challenges when trying to tour work. Notably, costs of living have increased while touring fees have remained somewhat consistent over the past decade, making it more challenging for touring to be a profitable enterprise. While touring in the 1970s and 1980s could be a viable source of income and a means of amortizing creation costs over multiple years, it now often barely enables a choreographer to break even without significant grant and fundraising support. Moreover, when working with freelance dancers it can be hard for a team to commit to multiple weeks on the road as they balance additional work, teaching, and family schedules. Overall there seems to be a sincere relationship between the diminishing stability of large-scale companies and touring support—with touring increasingly a financially risky endeavor large companies are less able to support consistent work for dancers, leading them to take freelance jobs that destabilize the market and complicate schedules, making it even harder to tour when the rare opportunity arises. There are few large companies—Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris Dance Group, and Paul Taylor being examples—that continue to have stable, consecutive company models, primarily because of their robust touring schedules.

As January approached after a successful 2017 touring Tesseract domestically together Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener and I considered participating in APAP. The annual conference of the Association of Performance Arts Professionals in New York City is a high-intensity convening of presenters and dance companies from around the world who, in the span of 3-4 days, go to countless performances and meetings in hopes of making connections that will lead to touring opportunities. Begun in the 1960s as a consortium of college-based presenters, it has grown into one of the largest international marketplaces for performance, with its frantic pace often leading to partial showings in cramped studios and hurried conversations that, at least in my experience, rarely lead to future commissions, though I know artists for whom it has been fruitful. Nevertheless, with a desire to make the leap to international touring we screened the 3D film (technical requirements of the work made it impossible to do a partial staged performance and dancers were busy with other showings) and hoped for the best. While receiving financial support makes touring possible, the first step is always capturing the interest of a curator or presenter, a process that I imagine has in some ways remained consistent over the past years and in other ways radically changed as the landscape for touring has shifted.

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