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.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."