How to Create a Dance Lover
Bringing dance to the streets: STREB’s Fabio Tavares in midtown New York City. Photo by Jordan Matter.
When AXIS Dance Company got a call to perform on “So You Think You Can Dance,” artistic director Judith Smith’s reaction was mixed. “It was short notice, we needed to distill a longer work to 2.5 minutes and there was something off-putting about that to me,” says Smith, whose company features dancers with and without various disabilities. “But how else can we reach 13 million people?” She decided to go for it. Although the performance didn’t result in any financial windfalls, the company saw a spike in its social media and online community—and it gained both name recognition and validity with presenters.
In the last few years, the profile of dance in pop culture has grown immensely—from high-brow movies such as Black Swan to reality-television shows such as “SYTYCD,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “Breaking Pointe.” And yet the audience for concert dance seems to dwindle. Many companies are responding to this disconnect by working to reach beyond the screen and develop true relevance in their communities.
“Dance on TV is a fundamentally different medium than dance on a proscenium stage,” says Sydney Skybetter, creative consultant and artistic director of skybetter & associates. Because you can view televised dance in your home and it is packaged in short bursts, he points out that this format is convenient, consumable and free. “But it should not be regarded by the concert dance world as free press. In fact, it is more like disruptive competition.”
This point of view may seem harsh. But Amy Fitterer, executive director of Dance/USA, explains that while there are ways that commercial and concert dance can support each other, they have different goals: “Mainly entertainment and competition versus individual artistic vision—and there is no simple correlation to get butts in seats.”
Fitterer adds that the way people spend their leisure time and disposable income is changing. A live dance performance is only one
of a dizzying array of choices available on any given night in today’s world—not to mention one of the most expensive choices. “With technology, audiences can easily be anywhere, so why on earth would anyone choose to come out to my show? That is the important question to ask,” says Skybetter. It’s the question that motivated Dance/USA to start the Engaging Dance Audiences re-granting and professional development program in 2009. Through EDA, grantees, such as innovative dance companies like AXIS and STREB Extreme Action Company, seek to find out how to establish and maintain meaningful connections with audiences. The research, from the National Survey of Dance Audiences, has found that potential dance-goers are looking for two things out of their experience of live dance: social connections and meaning. While Fitterer acknowledges that video trailers and social media are useful for educating and exciting ticket holders about what they are going to see, many companies are finding that true audience development comes from a more personal introduction to the artists and their work.
Above: Lil Buck dances on top of JR artwork in the atrium at an NYCB performance. Photo Courtesy NYCB.
To do that, companies have started becoming integrated members of the communities around them, rather than hiding away in an ivory-tower model of a dance studio. When dance pioneer Elizabeth Streb moved her company headquarters in 2003, she modeled it on a garage, a space symbolic for its unpretentious history of invention, from carpenters to rock bands to the tech industry. The residents of her Brooklyn neighborhood can walk by the open garage doors and catch the company rehearsing, sip from the drinking fountain or use the bathroom.
Similarly, Wonderbound, a contemporary dance company in Denver, Colorado, recently moved from the suburbs to the center of the city. Directors Dawn Fay and Garrett Ammon replaced mirrors with couches and the garage doors were made transparent. “It’s not unlike having someone peer over your shoulder as you type,” he says. “It is also one of the most rewarding experiences we have ever known.” Inviting strangers and interruptions into the process can not only create added meaning for future audience members, it has helped the company get to know the people in its neighborhood.
On the flip side, other companies actively travel to potential audiences. AXIS Dance Company, for example, often performs free concerts in outdoor public spaces—as well as at events like conferences for the Social Security Administration and human resources employees. “We have had to learn how to reach people that would never go to a theater,” says Smith. “The truth is almost everyone has a unique community. I do think what we are doing is replicable across the field.”
Breaking up the rules structure can also be key to facilitating the kind of social interactions that dance-goers seek. When you attend a traditional dance performance, there is an unspoken contract that you will show up at the appointed location, at a specific time, in a certain formality of dress and behave in a mannered way, sitting still and quiet until it is time for the applause. While for many dance enthusiasts there is beauty and value in the preservation of this ritual, there is no denying that it is out of step with the constant interaction of today’s fast-changing world.
“Can we give audiences more sovereignty?” questions Streb. “Do they have to come on time? Do they have to sit in their seats? Can they take a drink/food into the theater? Do they have to turn their devices off?” She points out that the designated rules of leaving your life at the door are directly at odds with the type of freedom today’s youth are used to. “Don’t think the audience won’t be texting while they are sitting there for all of that time.”
Skybetter, also a producer of the DANCENOW NYC Festival, an eclectic showcase of work from varying genres, remembers the liberation he felt when the festival was strategically moved from a traditional theater to the cabaret space of Joe’s Pub. “Now it is more fun and less alienating because you can have a manhattan and ravioli while watching the show,” he says. “I can even bring my son and not be afraid if he makes a noise—before, we would get shunned when I brought him to a traditional theater, even at my own show.”
Following the runaway success of interactive dance theater productions like Sleep No More, some companies have experimented with making live dance more of a nightlife experience—even the most traditional organizations. For the second installation of its Arts Series initiative launched in 2013, New York City Ballet reached out to culturally savvy 20-somethings last season by offering special $29 nights complete with free refreshments from Brooklyn Brewery during a DJ-ed after-party. Even programming choices—such as Les Bosquets, a piece with choreography by popular Parisian street artist JR, Lil Buck and Peter Martins—have been designed to attract a hipper crowd.
Wonderbound has embraced their local culture by trading out The Nutcracker for a new production called Winter, which will stimulate all five senses with food from local chefs, new songs from a local band, the creation of new perfume scents from a local salon, video-projection mapping from local artists and new, interactive choreography by Ammon. “People want more than a performance; they want an evening, to make an event of it,” says Wonderbound communications manager Amber Blais.
While it is not possible to track the numbers directly, there’s reason for hope. NYCB has seen an uptick in ticket sales. STREB will be performing at the nearly 18,000-seat Barclays Center next year. AXIS Dance Company is planning to develop regional hubs for education and performance. “People don’t just want to sit in the dark,” says Streb, “so how do you create a theatrical event of dancing on a stage?” It turns out there are no limits to the new and engaging answers to that age-old question.
Candice Thompson is a former dancer and a writing fellow at Columbia University.
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.