Pilot: Start-up Strategies for 2013

By Katharine Hawthorne


This article discusses the Pilot Program, ODC’s long-running incubator for emerging artists, and contextualizes how it functions within the San Francisco Bay Area as well as the larger dance community, with particular attention to drawing contrasts with Europe. This perspective is grounded in the accounts of several artists who recently completed Pilot 61 and had previous experiences dancing and making work in Europe. These are their stories:

Liz Tenuto: During college, Liz spent a year studying Spanish literature in Granada, Spain, where she also took up flamenco lessons and participated in contact improv jams. She told me a story of walking into a flamenco studio, clearly a foreigner, without any of the proper attire.  The teacher bought her shoes and a skirt and told her to come back next week, trusting she would return and repay him. Liz participated in a number of outdoor performances in the plazas in Granada, her first exposure to “guerilla” style performance, and she commented on the easy barrier between viewing and participating in dance.

Phoebe Osborne: While living in Barcelona, Phoebe participated in a number of fully funded creative residencies and festivals. She became involved in the Plataforma CRIM.1 a collective of 60 “emerging” artists working collaboratively to share resources and support the creation of new work. CRIM is an acronym for “Independent creators in motion” and also plays off connotations of “criminals” and illegality. The collective formed during the Eurozone crisis in 2010 as a way of addressing the budget cuts in government subsidies for the arts. The CRIMS emphasized open dialog, shared resources and creating space to participate and collaborate in dance.

Erin Malley: After graduating from University, Erin moved to Montpelier, France to teach English and study at the Centre Choreographique National de Montpelier, directed by Mathilde Monnier. Erin commented that classes were often 3-4 euros, which enabled dancers to train regularly without prohibitively high class fees. Erin was able to work her teaching schedule around her dance interests (as opposed to vice versa), and the faculty at the school where she taught were extremely supportive of dance.

Katharine Hawthorne (me):  Upon graduating from University, I visited the P.A.R.T.S. Research Cycle in Brussels to learn more about the program and show my work to the application committee. The facilities at P.A.R.T.S were amazing and the level of instruction very high, although the focus remained on training dancers instead of providing space for new choreographic voices. I stayed with some graduates of the program during my audition and asked them about their overall impressions and also about the larger dance community in Brussels. I learned that primarily the large, famous companies and big opera houses received government funding, and that the city sustained little grassroots, emerging artist activity.

I share these stories not only as a way of fleshing out the depth of experience that might be contained within any given Pilot cycle, but also as a way of illustrating some examples to draw out comparisons with opportunities for emerging artists in the U.S.

As the stories above touch upon, European governments have historically provided significant funding, support and infrastructure for the arts. The impact of government support of the arts extends beyond economic considerations, to cultural values and how audiences view and receive work. The artists interviewed above commented that there was less of a barrier for the general public to attend performances, not only because tickets were relatively inexpensive, but also because people felt personally invested since their tax dollars formed the basis of the government subsidies supporting the arts.

According to Rocco Landesman, the outgoing head of the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. remains the weakest funder of arts in the developed world.2 We live and work in an environment that has less infrastructure, less government funding, and less cultural importance placed on live art. While the European model of government-supported arts seems exemplary in many ways, we live in a time when the European Union faces the realities of economic stagnation and collapse, including rising youth unemployment (currently over 25% in Spain and Greece), the eroding of welfare support, as well as a “crisis of confidence” in the common future of the EU.3 Not all regions have been affected equally – unemployment is as low as 4 or 5% in Austria and Germany, and the instability of the southern countries such as Greece and Spain may not have an overall effect on the arts in Northern Europe. Regardless, these stark inequities have caused political and cultural tensions across EU member states.

From this vantage point, the startup culture of Silicon Valley and tech entrepreneurship offers a contrasting model of how artists might make it work. The term “Silicon Valley,” coined by California entrepreneur Ralph Vaerst, first appeared in 1971 in the weekly trade newspaper Electronic News.4 1971 is also the year in which the Oberlin Dance Collective formed in Ohio. ODC relocated to San Francisco in 1976, and by the early 1980s the term “Silicon Valley” became widely used to refer to the geographic area of the Santa Clara Valley on the southern portion of the San Francisco Peninsula. Over the past 40 years, both ODC and Silicon Valley have both grown past their humble starting roots: the yellow school bus the ODC founders drove cross country and the apocryphal story of Hewlett and Packard’s garage in Palo Alto several decades earlier in 1939. ODC now represents the center of contemporary dance on the West Coast, with Silicon Valley powering the economy and marking the pulse of technological innovation.

A notable development in ODC’s history was the founding of the Pilot Program in 1990. By this time, ODC had largely outgrown its collectivist roots and moved on to a new organizational structure. Pilot allowed ODC to maintain its core philosophy in microcosm, selecting six artists at a time to undergo an 11-week intensive session and collectively produce a showcase of their choreography. Pilot began as a mid-week low-tech showcase, limited by theater availability. Showings involved minimal technical support and presented the artists in a raw shared program format. In these early years, the focus centered entirely on production activities, with selected artists receiving limited artistic mentorship.

Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, the 1990s brought the heady days of the dot-com boom. New online businesses proliferated to the left and right of the 101. Commercial real estate prices along Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto were the highest in the world. In March 2000 the bubble burst, affecting many organizations in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area arts community. Notably, Dancers’ Group lost its space on 22nd and Mission, ending the long running Local Choreographers Series, a program predating Pilot which showcased both established and emerging artists.  ODC avoided displacement during the dot-com implosion, having invested in its current building at 351 Shotwell in the 1980s. However, the organization’s overall strategy and structure have undergone similar evolutions to the changes in Silicon Valley business post Internet bubble.

In the early 2000s an increasing number of consumers accessed the Internet and felt comfortable doing business online. In 1999, some 150 million people worldwide used the Internet; in 2005, over 1 billion used it regularly,5 and today around 5 billion people have access to the Internet.6 Similarly, the application rate to Pilot grew dramatically over the past 20 years. Although an application has always been required, initially selection occurred by lottery, and now applications are reviewed by a panel made up of representatives from both ODC Theater and School. In addition to a growing interest from applicants, audience interest in Pilot has increased as well, with shows frequently selling out.

Beyond the historical parallels between the development of ODC and the trajectory of Silicon Valley, the current structure of the Pilot Program operates like a startup. For the sake of comparison, consider startups as temporary organizations that are researching/developing a new market and have the potential for explosive growth. Pilot takes place over an intensive 11-week session, bringing together six artists who may never work together again. The choreographers are generally “up-and-coming” or early in their careers, and thus researching their creative practice and developing their audience or “market.” Pilot provides a platform for artists to introduce themselves to ODC, press and presenters in San Francisco, and the general public, with the potential to break into a larger performance scene.

Silicon Valley values responsive business paradigms, and over time Pilot has responded to market forces to shift its offerings. In the early years of the program, Pilot offered one of a few opportunities for young, emerging artists in the Bay Area. With the development of organizations like CounterPULSE and the Garage, Pilot has expanded beyond emerging artists to become a space for more established mid-career choreographers to experiment and go back to the drawing board. In response to feedback from participants, Pilot expanded to include a greater degree of artistic mentorship through a composition session and feedback from the inimitable Lizz Roman. As of 2013, Pilot continues to evolve, with the focus of the current cycle on dance on film (upcoming at ODC Theater, March 22-23, 2013), and a planned site-specific cycle next year.

In the States we often pine for a European model of support for the arts, when in reality West Coast grassroots entrepreneurship has played out successfully for Silicon Valley, ODC and the Pilot Program. ODC’s self-ownership allows it to adapt, persist and foster substantial creative innovation and public engagement through economic ups and downs. Rather than aspire to a model built from a different economic trajectory and contingent on centuries of European cultural values, it might be more apt to draw on startup strategies for the arts, responsive to the competitive and fast-moving environment around us.

Works Cited:
1. http://plataformacrim.wordpress.com/presentacio/plataforma-crim/
2. Mark Swed, “The Case for Naming a U.S. Secretary of Culture.”  Los Angeles Times, Jan 19, 2013.  http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-secretary-of-culture-notebook-20130120,0,162825.story
3. Andrew Higgins, “European Union Survey Says Outlook for Growth and Jobs is ‘Bleak’ for 2013.  New York Times, Nov 28, 2012.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/world/europe/europe-survey-says-growth-outlook-bleak-for-2013.html?_r=1&
4. Dan Hoefler, “Silicon Valley, U.S.A.”  Electronic News, 1971 (from the Computer History Museum archives).  http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/digital-logic/12/328/1401
5. “An echo of boom?”  The Economist, Jun 10, 2005.  http://www.economist.com/node/4073509
6. Google Public Data

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of In Dance.

Katharine Hawthorne is a San Francisco based choreographer and dancer who likes to watch thinking bodies in motion. www.khawthorne.net