What It Takes to Build A Financially Successful Dance Company: 6 Tips from Brenda Way
It's not often that you hear about dance companies that own not one, but two buildings, where they also run a school, theater, gallery and even a health clinic for dancers. But ODC/Dance is an inspiring success story. Since founding the company in 1971, Brenda Way, along with co-artistic director KT Nelson, has created a self-sustaining model that's still going strong almost five decades later.
Dance Magazine spoke to Way ahead of the company's performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week to pick her brain on how she's done it. Here's the advice she has to offer the next generation of dance directors:
Find Your Supporters
"From the very beginning out here in San Francisco, my relationship with the board has been key. I was very lucky to find people who believed in building an interdisciplinary center. Three of my original board members are still involved.
"My advice to young dancemakers today is to make friends. It's sort of simple, and it will take the shape of whatever the characters are. I think we're all on the same front here trying to remind a population about the importance of artistic contribution. We're not just struggling for our own work, but to make a place for dance in the popular consciousness."
Don't Be Afraid to Buy
ODC Theater in San Francisco's Mission District. Photo via designfordance.org
"I have great faith that if you can build a home for something, important things can happen because you can think about your work instead of where you put your foot.
"When we were evicted from our first space in San Francisco, our board members and I decided to buy a place. We wrote everybody we'd ever met and then managed to get a small business loan. Of course it wasn't easy to do, but I wasn't intimidated by it. I'd renovated a gym and made it into an inter-arts building back at Oberlin, then bought a house while still on a student loan in New York City.
"The real issue is imagining that you can do it. But once you buy a building, you have your feet on the ground in a different way. Once we'd bought ours, funding agencies felt, Okay, you're here to stay. Of course that actually makes you vulnerable, but I didn't mention that!"
Learn How to Talk About Your Work
"The ability to explain what it is you have in mind is not widely shared. You have to be able to communicate your vision to get support for it. We were good at painting a picture of this artistic environment we wanted to create in a way that people could get. I think being an English major helped with that."
Be Budget Savvy
"I'm pretty good at numbers. That helps mitigate any bias that might emerge over me being a female leader. If you can carry on a conversation about your budget, you're more likely to be taken seriously."
Pay It Forward
ODC dancer Josie G. Sadan. Photo by Andrew Weeks
"By now, ODC has the advantage of longevity. It feels safer for people to contribute to our efforts because they feel we'll be here to follow through. So it's our turn to nurture today's emerging artists. We have four resident companies in our building, we run a pilot series of people's first work, we have mentorship programs. We can be counted on to help next generation get a foot up, if not a leg."
Don't Give Up
Brenda Way. Photo by Steve Maller
"The advice I always give to dancers and students is stay in the room. Perseverance is everything."
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
I first started pulling out my eyelashes when I was 9, after removing fake ones at a dance competition. A few of my own eyelashes came out and I felt a new sensation. It hurt, but the prick also felt so good.
Eventually, I was pulling even when I was not wearing stage makeup, sometimes unaware of what I was even doing. It happened while I was reading or doing homework, or when I was sad or angry.
For the next five years, I secretly pulled my eyelashes, then moved to my eyebrows and eventually the back of my scalp. Finally, at 14, I told my mom what I had been doing and she took me to see a child psychologist. It turned out I had trichotillomania (a.k.a. "trich"), which is one of a group of behaviors known as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors in which people repeatedly pull, pick, scrape or bite their hair, skin or nails.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.