The Dance Ecosystem: National Conferences & Conversations

By Julie Potter

September 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

IN THE DANCE ECOSYSTEM each individual role is reliant on another, requiring dialog and sharing. Ongoing conversations strengthen the relationships between dance artists, choreographers, administrators, presenters, funders and the press. How can communication within the dance ecosystem enable dance’s future and allow the form to thrive as part of the mindshare in an age of infinite choice?

This summer several national conversations of dance professionals illuminated rich perspectives of the industry from a variety of angles. Dance administrators and presenters, among others in the field, exchanged ideas, examined best practices, and discussed trends at the Dance/USA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, dance artists and companies convened to teach, learn, create and perform. In addition, dance writers gathered at the Dance Critics Association Conference in New York City with the charge of using written language to discuss and help document the craft in the current media landscape. A handful of topics echoed and resurfaced at all of these gatherings, illustrating the issues and ideas shared by many roles in the industry. The overlapping conversations result in this snapshot:

Survival is the new success. The gripe is not new, as dance has maintained a resilient resourcefulness for some time; however, survival seems to be especially resonant during the current economic reality. Coping includes an increase in project-based work over company contracts, as well as the return of choreographers to colleges and universities. Universities in particular are a haven for the arts, offering ample rehearsal space and time for research—rare luxuries outside an academic system. For example, choreographers such as Susan Marshall at Princeton University and Bebe Miller at Ohio State University each maintain a company and create new work while teaching.

Exchange as a solution allows companies to share resources such as space, administration, and even performance evenings. Baraka Sele, Assistant Vice President of Programming at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, reminded dance professionals that in addition to funds, wisdom, talent and skills count as resources. She frequently works with arts groups outside of Western countries where monetary resources are not the center of exchange. Dialogue between service organizations and presenters unfolded at the Dance/USA convening as an increasing number of presenters provide artist services and vice versa. The phenomenon is very much alive in San Francisco with organizations such as CounterPULSE and Dancers’ Group facilitating a host of offerings, including marketing assistance, professional development and video services.

Finally, the cost of domestic touring is increasingly prohibitive and dance-only presenters seem to be dwindling. In San Francisco, the ODC Theater is part of the SCUBA National Touring Network for Dance (started in 2002), which partners with presenters in Seattle, Philadelphia and Minneapolis to enable touring of contemporary dance artists, through a relationship-based model shared by sister cities. The National Dance Project also continues to support the production and touring of dance advised by a network of Hub Site representatives. In dance, primarily a nonprofit enterprise, industry workers find ways to supply the public good of providing the best art possible.

Everyone has a role in building dance literacy. Dance appreciation, like dance itself, is aerobic. The more exposure to dance, the deeper one’s relationship to the form can be. For some it’s love at first sight and for others it’s an acquired taste. Dance literacy entails not only viewing dance, but digesting reactions, having a dialogue about the work, and developing a genuine point of view as an audience member. Although no formula exists for guiding a dance experience, the goal of cultivating and maintaining audiences is a pursuit shared by most people working in the field. Audience members want interpretive assistance and empowerment to react critically to performance. How can professionals contribute to dance literacy from each role in the dance world?

Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA), a national initiative to rethink how dance connects with audiences, supports nine projects sharing this goal. The programs (some currently in development) presented at the Dance/USA conference include both Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Dance Savvy program—which will incorporate the practice of Visual Thinking Strategies, a way of engaging in critical thinking based on images, to look at dance—and ODC’s “I speak dance” curriculum for Bay Area schools. In Minneapolis, the Walker Arts Center’s SpeakEasy program implements the easily understood model of a book club gathering to get people talking about dance after Saturday performances with a guide from the center and a local artist. These EDA projects tackle big jobs of facilitating a relationship to dance, investigating why work exists and how it relates to the world–dance literacy.

Dance writers also possess the opportunity to serve as conduits of dance literacy and artists themselves contribute to the conversation on the Internet. Tere O’Connor’s blog (tereoconnordance.org/blog) thoughtfully articulates his creative process and generates regular feedback. Fueling the conversation about why dance matters is crucial for the whole dance ecosystem.

Leverage media and technology to encourage dance. Across the board, dance professionals, from artists to those in marketing departments, labor to harness the opportunities media and technology make possible. With more leisure and on-demand options available, a diversification of cultural tastes exists, creating an appetite for more customized and specific interactions with dance. In addition to attending an evening performance at the theater, it’s possible to stream a dance film at six in the morning or listen to a choreographer interview podcast during one’s work commute. An authentic use of media and technology will take different forms depending on the organization. Acknowledging the opportunities available and bravely trying new media strategies is important for dance to maintain part of the mindshare.

This summer, the National Endowment for the Arts released the Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation report. The executive summary states, “Arts participation through media appears to encourage—rather than replace—live arts attendance. There is a strong relationship between media arts participation and live arts attendance, personal arts performance and arts creation.” The research suggests that live art can grow alongside technology.

During the American Dance Festival season, Pilobolus encouraged audience members to take photos, Tweet and film the work Megawatt, which transformed the theater into more of a rock concert environment than that of a typical dance evening. In discussions about layering real time technology with live dance and its effect on the performance experience, contributors emphasize that sitting quietly in a dark theater has not always been the etiquette of watching a dance performance. What binds the audience to conventions and when is it appropriate to adapt?

Dance writing is also being shaped by technology as print publications and space for arts coverage in mainstream print disappear. Many of the voices now appear online, testing new forms and models of dance coverage and critical response.

In the digital age you still have to show up in person. Nothing is quite like a face-to-face interaction. Whether it’s an exchange with another colleague in the dance field or attendance at a live performance, showing up in person still matters.

A number of professional networks in the arts share information and mobilize online. Extending the action of the group to gather at live events is a key component of many networks. The online platforms haven’t replaced the need to dialog in person. In the codependent dance ecosystem the relationships and exchanges are vital.

In addition, the direct personal transfer from a live dance performance offers a different experience than viewing dance online. The sensory involvement of live dance maintains its own territory and the audience has to show up to feel it.

Think towards what you don’t know. ADF’s season theme asked at panels and artist conversations, “What is dance theater?” Each time the topic was discussed, panelists and artists wondered aloud why the category should be defined. Instead of defining, why not let each new model, type of performance and industry practice enrich on its own terms?

In addition, the culture of perpetual connectivity seems to have ignited a desire for a more participatory experience with dance. Consider how a “Do-It-Yourself” attitude and increasing accessibility to resources unleashes the creative potential of individuals, bringing dance to a personal level. Last year, the Clytemnestra ReMash Challenge, an online video competition of the Martha Graham Dance Company, invited the public to radically re-imagine any of five solos from the historic 1958 masterwork and submit videos for the opportunity to be screened during the company’s season. Not only did it encourage people to watch and think about existing work, it released a ballet to the public and empowered people to select, edit, and organize dance into their lives.

So think towards what you don’t know. Think towards enabling dance.


Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.

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