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.