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.
This article appeared in the June 2018 edition of In Dance.