Whirled Wide Web

November 29, 2007

Chris Elam has the web to thank for his chance at choreographing Björk’s music video, Wanderlust. The two artists make a great team—both are known for intensely individual yet surprisingly accessible work. While Elam had a contact who helped set up the collaboration, he emphasizes that being able to say, “Go to this website, take a look at this video,” is what brought the project together.


The name suits its function: The web is a way to get linked up. Now more than ever, dance companies are taking advantage of their homes on the web to land work, attract new audience members, and make existing ones fall in love with dance all over again. Misnomer.org, the website for Chris Elam’s company, Misnomer Dance Theater, is ambitious. It’s filled with videos of the company’s repertoire and a blog that documents residencies, rehearsals, and choreographic process with text, photos, and video. Misnomer’s web initiatives include networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to identify audiences in various parts of the country that have shown interest in the company. Elam schedules a tour targeted to that area and Misnomer forms a presenter partnership with the local venue to bring new audiences to the performance space. As an added bonus, the company provides online content with behind-the-scenes goodies for the presenter through a Real Simple Syndication feed.


Misnomer also experiments with green screen technology. If you click on “Remix,” you can superimpose yourself into the rehearsal process and actually become part of the online dance, or part of the dance as it will be performed. Elam hopes that the challenge will encourage people to think more deeply about the work as they view it repeatedly and find their own way to relate to it. “Ultimately the web enables dance companies to connect with a wider range of people,” says Elam. “We’re putting a lot of energy into these areas. We’re trying to build the company for the next 20 years.”


Many other companies have turned to the web to engage audiences. San Francisco Ballet (sfballet.org) offers “Artist Spotlight,” a front-page feature linking to iTunes-compatible podcasts. Interviews with new dancers and recently promoted ones can be downloaded directly to an iPod. During Pilobolus’ month-long run at the Joyce last summer, they regularly updated their MySpace blog with behind-the-scenes photos. They have over 7,000 friends, including the Martha Graham Company, whose members regularly update its own MySpace page. Graham dancer Miki Orihara cross-posts on the mother of all dance blogs, TheWinger.com, which amasses the insights of 27 dancers from all over the world. If the contributor roster seems Lincoln-Center-Plaza-heavy, it’s no coincidence—its founder is Kristin Sloan of New York City Ballet. Her efforts began out of her frustration that there was no entry point for people who were interested in the arts at large, but who had never been exposed to dance. With personal photos, video, and commentary from ballerinas, dance scholars, Broadway mavens, and everyone in between, Sloan is “attempting to thwart the stigma of what dance is.”


Sloan’s fellow wingers have nothing but praise for her vision. David Blumenfeld, a dancer with Atlanta Ballet, feels that the site is an ingenious way for dancers to share their perspectives, especially if they happen to live outside of dance-centric New York City. Blumenfeld was inspired by Sloan’s extensive documentation of the weeks leading up to the premiere of Peter Martins’ Romeo + Juliet, and hopes to do the same with Lauri Stallings’ new work for Atlanta Ballet, set to the music of hip hop artist Big Boi. “Kristin is smart,” says Blumenfeld. “What she did was create a relationship between audience members, dancers, and people in production.”


Sloan says that it’s necessary to give nondancers a way to relate to what’s happening onstage. “If you can make dancers more personable—reveal their motivations, why they like to do what they do—that’s something that speaks across all industries,” she says.


Sarah Stern, the marketing manager of Houston Ballet, feels that sharing various aspects of the creative process sparks greater interest in the company. Stern updates En Pointe with Houston Ballet, and includes exclusive items like costume sketches at houstonballet.wordpress.com. “When people have a little back story, they feel invested in what they’re seeing,” she says. “It’s a great way to get people involved in a company they love and support.”


Misnomer uses the Apple iSight feature—a webcam built into Macbook laptop computers—to allow patrons leaving a performance to film video comments and questions about what they’ve seen on computers supplied by the company. “It can be really difficult after a show to have a conversation with the audience, because I’m tired and in a strange place emotionally,” says Misnomer dancer Dorian Nuskind-Oder. “But with video, audiences can immediately give their feedback and I can respond in a thoughtful way on my own timeline. Those conversations can extend past the 30 minutes in the lobby to become an ongoing dialogue.” The company blogs the audience feedback for everyone to view.


Amanda Nelson, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater director of individual giving and integrated initiatives, understands the importance of embracing online technology. “Direct mail is great; the theater is fabulous,” she says. “But today, the first place we go for information is the web.”


Alvinailey.org offers the Ailey E-Club, where members get access to backstage photos and artist blogs about upcoming works. “Alvin used to say that dance was for the people,” Nelson recalls. “In the 21st century, that means being on the social networks and using cell phone technology to share the mission of the company.” She hopes AAADT will be able to use cell phones to do performance Q&As and provide behind-the-scenes messages that fans can phone in to hear. Ailey audience members don’t only attend performances—they donate, they take class at the Ailey Extension, and they may have kids at The Ailey School. These are patrons who want to see the company more than once a year.


Hubbard Street Dance Chicago also uses its site to keep in contact with audience members across the globe. “We perform in Chicago for four weeks and then tour all year—we don’t see our patrons that often,” remarks HSDC marketing director Joanna Naftali.


Hubbardstreetdance.com has video clips of their extensive repertoire, which is great for its international presenters—“the ones in Australia and Japan can just as easily see our clips as the presenters here”—and for dancers hoping to join the company. “It’s a good way for them to check in to see if it’s appropriate to audition.” Plus, Naftali thinks seeing a preview of the work makes new audiences more likely to purchase tickets. “With contemporary dance, sometimes you don’t know what to expect,” she says. “With the clips, patrons can get acclimated to our style. They feel more comfortable knowing they’re going to enjoy a great performance.”


Doug Fox’s two-year-old blog GreatDance.com has become a resource for dance companies looking to use the web to promote themselves. The blogroll on his site lists over 100 international dance blogs that range from dancers to DM’s own Wendy Perron. Focused on the intersection of dance and technology, it’s full of simple how-to’s such as “The Problem With Most Dance and Presenter Websites.” Fox believes that exposing people to the processes behind dance can benefit companies. “Think about blogging, social networks, and reality TV shows—our whole culture is interested in what happens behind the scenes.” He cites examples such as the YouTube video “Dancers,” which features clips of Anaheim Ballet members warming up and doing simple combinations. It has been watched close to two million times. For many of the viewers, it was probably their first ballet experience.


Besides generating word of mouth interest, pursuing dance film for the web holds financial promise. Fox is working to develop a business model for video distribution. “As using the Internet becomes profitable, it will change the way choreographers and dancers spend their time and energy,” he says.


“I’m working with companies to develop new revenue streams. As technology improves, companies will devote more of their efforts to being creative online.”


Ultimately, web promotion is just a means to an end. As Elam says, “First and foremost, I’m a choreographer. It all comes back to the stage.”


Kina Poon is a student at UCLA and a former
Dance Magazine intern.