Surviving & Thriving

In the fall of 2008, during the early rumblings of the recession, Parsons Dance Company’s board of directors sat around a table discussing the choreographer’s first evening-length work. It was a collaboration with East Village Opera Company called Remember Me. “We kind of all stared at ourselves and said, ‘We’re looking at going forward with the biggest, most ambitious, most expensive initiative ever undertaken by Parsons Dance just as the economy appears to be on the brink of tanking—what are we doing?’ ” recalls executive director David Harrison. “It was at that point that as an organization we made what I believe was the right decision, but also a very courageous decision. We said we’re going to stay on mission.” In other words, they decided the show must go on.

 

Like arts organizations across the country, dance companies suffered a crippling blow when the financial crisis hit. Many are still struggling to stay afloat in what has proven to be the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression. But despite the hardships they faced, some dance troupes managed to weather the storm. They did so by reaffirming their creative integrity and seeking out new ways to sustain it. Whether their success stemmed from taking a calculated risk, making a miraculous turnaround, or just persevering through dire straits, these companies represent the resilience of the art form.

 

In the case of Parsons Dance, the path to a firm financial future was paved by the board’s Remember Me gamble. After green-lighting the costly rock opera, the modern company set a fundraising record for the 2009 fiscal year that paid for the production’s two seasons in New York City, a domestic tour, and the taping of a Public Television special. “When you can look a donor in the eye and say, ‘If you will help us, we can put this show on national television and reach thousands, maybe millions of new audiences and have a DVD to establish its legacy’—people couldn’t wait to help,” Harrison says.

 

Contributions didn’t continue at that dramatic level for long, but donations by individuals have increased 171 percent over the past four years. Harrison credits Parsons’ recent success in fundraising to the new “Campaign for Creation,” intended to cover artistic expenses like studio time, dancers’ salaries, costumes, and lighting design—as opposed to overhead costs. “People want to feel like they’re part of the creative process,” he says. Patrons can even co-commission new works at lower amounts. This helped pay for two of the three world premieres the troupe debuted at the Joyce Theater in January.

 

Sometimes the removal of a key artistic element spurs supporters to action. That’s what happened when Miami City Ballet resorted to canceling its orchestra in 2008 due to a lack of funds. The company performed without musicians in the pit for almost two years—until it was awarded a $900,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. But the money came with a catch: The company had to raise half of the award amount itself. Arts philanthropists stepped up to the plate, pledging enough matching gifts to secure live accompaniment for the dancers through 2013.

 

The recession forced some companies to make an even more impassioned plea to the public. In May of 2009, Oregon Ballet Theatre revealed that unless they came up with $750,000 in a month they would likely have to close their doors for good. The company’s precarious financial state resulted from both the bad economy and bad luck: Donations declined 50 percent after the economic collapse, and ticket sales for the prior year’s Nutcracker were devastated by the worst snowstorm in the history of the state.

 

Their lifesaver was a massive fundraising event called Dance United. In just three weeks, artistic director Christopher Stowell put together a gala performance with leading dancers throughout the nation that helped them net $900,000. The galvanizing effort ensured the company’s survival, but it also prompted a series of scalebacks aimed at longevity. The following season Oregon Ballet reduced their administrative staff, staggered performers’ work weeks, and forfeited the orchestra (all of which they are no longer doing). “I believe that collectively people understood the necessity,” says Stowell. “It was painful though.” Stowell also showcased existing repertory rather than invest in new works.

 

As a result of these cost-cutting measures, OBT trimmed its budget by 28 percent and ended the last fiscal year with a slight surplus. “We’re not out of the woods yet. I’m not sure we’ll ever be out of the woods,” says executive director Diane Syrcle. “But we’re well on our way to becoming—and sustaining—a healthy dance organization.” In June of 2010, a year after Dance United, the company reprised the event but on different terms. “It was a celebration this time and not a cry for help,” Stowell says.

 

The triumph of Dance United inspired similar ventures. After conferring with Stowell and others at OBT, Garrett Ammon, the artistic director of Ballet Nouveau Colorado, organized a Moving Together gala last summer to benefit his small troupe based outside of Denver. Again dancers from far and wide participated. “What a huge and humbling thing it was to see that kind of generosity from throughout the dance community,” Ammon says. Ticket sales bolstered finances, he adds, but mostly the performance raised awareness. “It helped get the word out about where we were. It was very grassroots in how it was achieved.” Ballet Nouveau Colorado also tightened the purse strings. One of the company’s 12 dancers left and was not replaced; the number of performances was reduced; senior staff members, including Ammon and his wife, associate artistic director Dawn Fay, took pay cuts; and cuts were made in all areas, including delaying upgrades to office computers and marley floors in the school.

 

With philanthropy down, some groups turned their attention to earning extra revenue. Since Chicago is a major corporate headquarters, roughly $2 million of Joffrey Ballet’s budget comes from corporate donations. When that number dropped by half due to the dismal economy, the classical troupe explored ways to grow their income so they’d be less reliant on contributions. They now have a large merchandising business—on site, online, and on tour—and have begun renting their studios for weddings. “I think you have to have an entrepreneurial culture in the organization,” says executive director Christopher Clinton Conway.

 

Equally important with a volatile market is saving money. Last August, the Joffrey offered a three-ticket package at 61 percent off on Groupon.com. It was the first time a dance company had been featured on the popular discount website, and they increased their subscriber base by a whopping 50 percent. The organization typically shells out $300 to $500 to obtain each new subscriber, notes Conway, which “means that the cost for us to have acquired those 2,500 people could have been well over a million dollars.” After analyzing the Groupon data, the Joffrey found they’d attracted a fresh audience: Less than 2 percent had previously attended a performance. Conway hopes to renew the majority.

 

Some companies benefited from having a bare-bones business model to begin with. The 10-dancer Aspen Santa Fe Ballet employs only five full-time administrative staff members and operates on a modest budget of $3.2 million. “We don’t have a wardrobe person. We don’t have a company manager,” says executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty. “Those are some of the sacrifices we made to put the dancers first.” As a result, there was no one to lay off and no fiscal fat to trim when the economy unexpectedly plummeted.

 

Instead, ASFB responded proactively. “Our ticket sales went down 20 percent,” says Malaty. “What did we do? Most people cut back; we added some performances.” Since the company has two bases, both populated largely by tourists and second-home owners, it was able to produce an encore in each town six weeks after the original program and capture a new crowd at little additional cost. The dancers have a 52-week contract, so they were available, and there weren’t season subscriptions or extensive marketing materials to worry about since the troupe has never had those. “Where our focus turned, more than to the bottom line and the bank accounts, was how to not lose our artistic value,” Malaty says.

 

At the end of the day, the saving grace of all these companies was resourcefulness and tenacity. Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s Ammon puts it best: “Is it tight? Sure. Is it gonna be tight for a while? Yeah. But if we can get through this period, we can get through anything. It’s a test of ourselves and our belief in our art.”

 

Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal and Time Out New York Kids.

 

The Joffrey Ballet in Jessica Lang's Crossed. Photo by Hergert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Just for Fun
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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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