Next-Gen Interventions: What We Need To Perform

By Michelle Lynch Reynolds

December 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Contrary to common sentiment, ‘next-gen’ does not refer to ‘looking to the youngest person in the room.’ From our perspective, ‘next-gen’ refers to a combination of skills that are effective in their approach to contemporary technology and strategic thinking–a fluid and plural intelligence that entails technologic savviness, an ability to delegate to trusted online presence experts, and a willingness to learn amidst increasingly volatile conditions. The practice of entrusting your intern to develop your digital media presence is dangerous, as is asking interns to create email campaigns. Your various outreach platforms are the performative portals for your work. Just as no one would hope to entice audience members with a performance put on by a class of new students, untrained office newbies should never be handed what will inevitably be the introduction to your work for a countless number of potential new fans and contributors. This principle applies even more so when focusing on digital content.

Recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described a notion that is fast becoming known as “Zuckerberg’s Law.” Much like Moore’s Law (which states that the number of transistors on a microchip will roughly double every year), Zuckerberg’s law states that the amount of content shared on the Internet will double every year. This simple statement encapsulates a pressing technologic riddle for many organizations–namely, ‘how can one be seen in an ever more crowded space?’ It also distills a truism about our contemporary moment that will require a radical re-alignment for organizations interested in reaching an audience on the Internet–specifically, ‘once people have been reached, how does one hold their interest?’

This realignment is far from easy to accomplish of course, and many organizations have controls in place that prevent exactly the sorts of agile maneuvering required to make these critical adjustments. To address this we need next-generation strategic planning–but first we must explore what that means, where problems lie, and how we might re-tool our approach in order to, as Ben Cameron (paraphrasing Wayne Gretzky) often encourages, “skate to where the puck will be.” When exploring how we perform next-gen intervention in the field of dance, we must first take a hard look at where we are.

The dance world, with few exceptions, is working far behind the times. Little is being done to counteract this on any level: perhaps, least of all, at universities, conservatories, or professional companies. Even dancerly periodicals do little to combat the problems that hold the field back.

What we have:
1. Dance has a split personality disorder: Dance organizations have been known to expend more energy delineating between high-art professional companies and commercial dance, than they do developing outreach strategies, growing audiences, and conveying the relevance of dance in general. Most consumers know nothing, nor care, about the internal struggles that prevent the field from developing.

2. Conservatism is intrinsic to the form: In the field of dance, the most valued players systematically recreate classical works. Subject to its own particularly myopic form of founders’ syndrome, the dance community has the propensity to suffer from its own history. History is of course valuable, but when examining the future of a company, it is also useful to acknowledge that the audience for dance continues to change. Insistence on total ownership, infrastructural opacity, and baroque-era hierarchies has locked much of the field in stasis and makes it hard to navigate in this ever-evolving art world.

3. A lack of understanding that tech tools are only tools: In dance performance, good choreography is key. Anyone can string together sequences of steps, but transitions (the intention, exactness, and understanding with which those steps are executed) make a dance piece function at a high level. For dance organizations, everything from the mission statement, to email work flow, to social media marketing must be drawn together in choreographic harmony. These organizations need more than efficiency consultants, and upgrades to their hardware and websites. Companies need a plan and the training, understanding, and empowerment to implement that plan.

What We Need:
1. Brand Management: Most dance companies focus on projects and programs–not on building a marketing strategy for themselves. This hurts companies because they have not taken the time to establish a clear identity and, therefore, often find it hard to build new relationships with audiences in the quickly shifting landscape of our modern world. By building and marketing a clearly defined brand, dance companies can open a channel to their audience through which vastly different programs can flow–this can happen without having to reinvent the wheel for every new offering. MSNBC, PBS, and HBO don’t have to market their channel in order to launch a new show. Audiences have an understanding of what these brands represent because they broadcast the consistent message of who they are.

2. A Culture of Trust: Fear is rampant in the dance field, and fear leads to paralysis, which is not healthy for any organization–especially an art form that prides itself on virtuosic flexibility. This discrepancy is ironic, because down to is bones, the model for dance companies is stiff and sedentary. Perhaps managers need to spend more time in the studio–but that’s another subject altogether. It is imperative to learn to set boundaries, protocols, and structures necessary to build trust in co-workers, managers, and teams. The only way to move information through an organization and out to an audience–including funders, board members, and staff–is to trust employees to do their jobs well. In this undertaking, it is vital to build a workplace where people feel safe enough to ask for help when it’s needed and get the assistance they need–without judgement or criticism.

3. Vision-Keepers: Successful CEOs of major companies are often called visionaries. They are successful because they can dream big and inspire others by sharing that dream in such a way that it seems not only attainable but meaningful. Their work has a purpose that has been clearly defined. Fundamentally, the dance world appears to have a lack of vision as a whole.

In order to cultivate a vision for the field, we need people willing to nurture and share their dreams, and we need others to feed, hold, and share those visions.

Where We Can Start:
There are four core components to building a company that is sustainable: First is a clear and compelling vision. This is the dream of your ideal future. It is specific and grand. Your vision is the reason you and every other member of your organization will get up and come into work each morning. Second is your mission. The mission of your organization essentially outlines what you need to do in order to work toward that dream. Your mission and vision are two separate things. Your mission is doable in a definable amount of time, while your vision will take a lifetime (or several) to achieve. The third is your message, or the true story(ies) you craft about each step and out-growth of your mission as it supports your larger vision. Finally, make sure that the content you disseminate encompasses working examples of your message / mission / vision and brings them into the context people’s everyday lives.

Next-generation consultants must help complex organizations function with speed, agility, and transparency. A core theme persists: productive teams rely on flexible, focused infrastructure achieved through equal attention to human and technological capital. Dance organizations must understand the gravity of environmental shifts in the field and the need to engage expert trailblazers and guides for this new terrain. Organizations can prepare for the future best by coming to the table, with a strong vision in hand, a want to bring it to fruition, and an open approach to change.

Jennifer Edwards is a consultant specializing in messaging, organizational change, and stress management. She is also a writer and culture critic, writing for The Huffington Post on topics including innovation in dance, shifting culture, and the positive impact of technology. Sydney Skybetter is a writer, technologist, and infrastructure consultant. His expertise in emerging technologies and futurism has resulted in engagements at a wide spectrum of companies. Both Edwards and Skybetter are the founding partners of Edwards & Skybetter | Change Agency, EdwardsAndSkybetter.com


Michelle Lynch Reynolds is Program Director at Dancers’ Group, is part of the leadership group of San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals and is a member of Trio, a loosely London-based experimental performance collective.

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