Dance Matters: Read That Contract

February 8, 2012

Exclusivity contracts aren’t meant to be broken


Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in
Jangle: Four Hungarian Dancers. Photo by Sharen Bradford, Courtesy Lubovitch



When Pavel Zustiak signed a contract with the 92nd Street Y, he thought the exclusivity clause disallowing New York performances six months prior to the concert applied only to the work commissioned by the Y for its Harkness Dance Festival. So when Zustiak, the artistic director of Palissimo, wanted to present an older work on a mixed program at P.S. 122’s COIL festival (during APAP, the arts presenters conference) a few months before his Harkness date in March, the 92nd Street Y protested. Zustiak ended up paying a guarantee of $8,000 against box office and only got part of it back.


Exclusivity clauses, an integral part of most artist-presenter contracts, are generally written to protect the presenter’s investment and maximize audience and media attention. A good intention, but it’s not always clear-cut.


In regions where there are multiple dance venues, exclusivity can be a big deal as presenters struggle to attract and build audiences. Though it can vary widely, presenters within New York City generally require three- to six- month exclusivity before and after a presentation within a 90-100 mile radius. The main purpose is to not undercut ticket sales. How big is an artist’s audience? How many times will it return to see a company within a few months? What if ticket prices are lower at one venue? Equally urgent is press coverage—the news media notoriously covers a company only once in a season.


Exceptions can sometimes be negotiated when there is a promotional advantage or little potential to divide an audience. This October the Joyce Theater, which requires six months on either side of an engagement, will present the New York premiere of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Orbo Novo, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (“Dance Matters,” July). In its agreement with Cedar Lake, it has approved the company’s presentation at the Tilles Center on Long Island four and a half months later. In exchange, the Tilles will cross-promote the Joyce season.


Bending the rules doesn’t always work to a presenter’s advantage. Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, recalls one such instance: “We had a sizeable financial investment and our relationship with the company was important in terms of our artistic identity.” She regrets agreeing to a single performance at another venue not long before the Pillow engagement. “It wiped out the press opportunity that we were counting on for ticket sales and institutional visibility.” After similarly unsatisfying experiences, Jed Wheeler, executive director of arts and cultural programming at Montclair State University, NJ, who commissions work for his Peak Performances series, now asks for a full season’s exclusivity within 90 miles of his theater.

As a cost-saving measure, presenters sometimes accept, or even encourage, multiple presentations by a touring company in their region. Presenters in Portland, Seattle, and down the California coast often partner on a tour. When two presenters are geographically close, the artist may perform two different programs to lessen the impact of a divided audience.


Self-producing companies face the same issues, but have more control over the amount of risk they are willing to take. Last fall the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company performed in New York City in three venues—a free outdoor program in September, a retrospective of early works co-presented with Dance Theater Workshop in October, and a self-produced season at City Center in November. Did they divide their audiences? Executive director Richard J. Caples doesn’t think so. The audience held steady and a few of the DTW audience members showed up at City Center. The more difficult obstacle was attracting press for each event, even with three unique programs.


No one wants to prevent opportunities for artists, but the logistics of presenting often demand a period of exclusivity. Limits vary, and if a compelling argument exists, the parameters often can be adjusted. Just make sure the negotiation happens before the contract gets signed. —Cynthia Hedstrom