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
"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, Courtesy ODC
"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, Courtesy Way
"The advice I always give to dancers and students is stay in the room. Perseverance is everything."
Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.
But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.