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The Buzz, 6-29: Economies: A Tale of Two Cities
From France now to Dancenow

By Paul Ben-Itzak, with an interview of Robin Staff
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

ln last week's column, I discussed the contracted and contracting dance scene in France, where I've lived for three years after six in New York. Over tepid French coffee and fresh croissants, a visiting New York presenter, here working on a three-year exchange between French and US artists, told me of a conversation she had with a French colleague who contended that France, unlike the States, actually has a dance economy.

From the perspective of an American artist, the level of public support for dance here in France must seem like nirvana. As I detailed last week, spending on the new Centre National de la Danse facility alone is nearly three times the size of this year's National Endowment for the Arts allocation to dance, $20 million compared to $7 million. But the downside of an 'economy' that relies so heavily on subsidies is that those artists without access to the honey-pot have not developed their own resources. Thus in Paris there is effectively NO underground dance scene. Transplant the paradigm here to New York, and it would be as if the 'underground' scene started with Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, The Kitchen and PS 122. (Don't get me started on BAM's Last Wave.) The programming at these institutions is fine and often adventurous, but it's at least the second step up in dance presenting in New York, and one that relies heavily (and rightly) -- for local programming, at least -- on a feeder system from more intimate venues, entrepreneurial artists, and tireless street-level presenters like Robin Staff and Tamara Greenfield of Dancenow/NYC, the (now) city-wide festival which celebrates its 10th anniversary in September by presenting 160 dance attractions.

France could not have produced a Robin Staff. If Robin Staff had been born and weaned in France, she would likely have grown up to complain that the dance Establishment was not presenting her and was excluding her friends. She might have lead informational pickets, authored tracts decrying the the arbiters of dance presenting, and lead other excluded colleagues in occupying the stage of the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt until she got her way. But Robin Staff was reared, in the dance sense, in the milieu of the resourceful American dance artist, who must not only know how to create dance, but how to self-present, self-fundraise, and self-market. Yes, I know that from the perspective of the struggling New York dancer or choreographer, who must maintain five other jobs to support her dance habit, on which she never breaks even, it must often seem like there's something fundamentally wrong with a system that does not offer better support to its artists, developing or established. Staff and Greenfield have gone through periods of total burnout. But from the distance of a few years and an ocean, what I see is a system that, er, encourages artists to develope their own resources, rather than depend on public subsidies which may or may not come through.

But Dancenow is not just a system of survival, it's a systematic vision. Notwithstanding that there's a coterie of artists who seem to appear regularly at this festival and nowhere or at least little-where else -- which may be the curators' prerogative -- Staff and Greenfield, abetted in recent years by visionary partners like Bill Bragin of Joe's Pub, have walked the talk of a venture committed to giving untested artists a berth on the scene.

I can't claim to have seen everything, but as an assignment editor, it's safe to say I've at least seen a lot of names of artists performing in New York and elsewhere. Yet even I was able to find the following names on this year's Dancenow/NYC line-up who I've never even heard of before: Laurie McLeod/Victory Girl Productions, Anthony Rodriquez, Mary Suk, Jimena Paz, Nicole Graffeo, Alban Eved Dance Company, Tsukayama Dance Collaborative, Sasha Spielvogel/Labyrinth Dance Theater, Blue Muse Dance/Mayuna Shimizu, Robert Tynes, Airelise (Elise Knudson), Naoko Kituchi, Kara Golux, Sara Juli, Nicholas Duran, Ryuji Yamaguchi, Deborah Lohse, Naeko Shikana, Bent/Jeffey Peterson Dance, K.Johansen, Emily Bunning/Treehouse Shakers, Loreli Bayne, Jo-Anne Lee, Jeramy Zimmerman, Mary Ann Wall, Kim Whittam, Laura Peterson, Mak Movement Group, Tracy Dickson, Kitty McNamee, David Wes Dance, Marianna Bekerman, Everything Smaller, The Red Hill Project/Dana Ruttenberg, David Konyk, Spela Sterles, Michou Szabo, Shaun Boyle, Danielandsomesuperfriends, Laura Schandelmeier, Adreinne Celeste Fadjo Dance, Sheeryn Asghari, Susan Hefner and Dancers, The Roosters, Vicky Virgin, Orquidea Dance, Dance Entropy, (Latin) Alianza Dominicana, Caracol, La Santa Luz, Santo Rico, Sita Frederick, Centro Cultural Ballet Quisqueya, (Hip Hop) Concrete Soul, and Magbana Dance and Drum.

Yet its not just the open-ness of their artistic ambition which qualifies Staff and Greenfield's effort as unique. Part of the rationale that larger presenters like the Joyce -- well, let's not tarnish everyone else, let's confine the example to the Joyce -- use in programming the same known entities year after year is that, even for the so-called 'altogether different' festival, the theater can't take the financial risk of presenting companies who don't have a built-in constituency. So what we often get is the same companies coming back to perform for their same limited constituencies every season. Thus the agency which by its resources should be leading the artistic vanguard relinquishes the responsibility to a presenter, Dancenow, with much fewer resources. (To be fair: The Joyce does make its Joyce SoHo facility available to Dancenow as its primary venue.)

But Dancenow's risk doesn't stop at presenting lesser-known companies who don't have constituencies yet. The constituency Staff and Greenfield tap goes beyond the rarified confirmed dance audience. "Our audience is not a dance community audience," Staff told me recently, "as they are all in the fest, but the general public."

Geographically, this year's festival will search for its public starting from SoHo and reaching all the way uptown to 173rd Street and the Highbridge Park Pool, with presenting partners including Joe's Pub (named after another legendary and expansive producer-presenter, Joe Papp) and Danza Washington Heights.

I recently sat down with Staff -- in the virtual sense -- and asked her to assess the festival at ten.

Paul Ben-Itzak: How did you make it to ten years?

Robin Staff: It feels like just yesterday that we were asked to join the SoHo Arts Fest and bring dance into the annual multi-arts fest. Tam and I look back with amazement and still question how it all really happened. I guess the answer is that we are still driven by artist need, audience enthusiasm and a passion for what we do -- introducing dance to new faces and making them dance converts, but mostly giving artists (from young to old) opportunities. If we discover/uncover a handful of new gems each year, that is worth the energy we invest -- the blood, sweat and tears, 24/7 and 365.

PBI: What was the mission (curating, etcetera) when you started, and how has it evolved?

RS: To present a multi-generational roster/line-up, from the true and tried to the fledgling -- the something for everyone approach. This has been our formula from the beginning, and we believe it is our recipe for success: diverse, multi-generational programming, mixing the youngest with the oldest.

PBI: Who was your intended audience at the beginning, and was this the audience you got?

RS: A new audience that did not frequent dance; they came to us because we were not intimidating. We were fun, informal and they could get a feeling for how many different voices there are out there. How has the audience evolved? We have a loyal following that moves with us and continues to grow as we develop our programming in new venues from downtown to Harlem to Washington Heights. We have been working the last few years to bring the downtown dance scene uptown and vice-versa, and thus the audience follows.

PBI: What's the place of Dancenow/NYC in the bigger cultural picture -- for the downtown scene, the New York-at-large cultural scene, and the dance scene in general. What's Dancenow's place in the development of the art?

RS: We are the only presenting organization focusing on NYC-based artists and we are really trying to give the new/young/unexperienced artists a chance -- we still take risks with the unknown and often the result is totally worthwhile. Each year there are more than 100 artist/dancemakers who apply that we (and our peer advisors) simply do not know, and we try very hard to give as many of them as possible a real chance. We are a threshold opportunity for new artists as well as a means for many mid-career artists to continue to show their work and experiment with new ideas. We are willing and excited by these challenges.

PBI: What advice would you have for potential curators in other cities (or countries) who are thinking of launching a festival? Pitfalls to be avoided and how, helpful hints, etcetera.

RS: Keep the programming diverse. Less is more. Every artist is treated the same way, so you really develop a great community sense -- this has always been a part of why we have been successful. We have worked hard to respond to the needs of our artists and audiences, to shift our programming when needed. Organization is key, and establishing guidelines, but for us we try not to get rid of that Mom and Pop feeling that holds us together. As we grow it gets more difficult, but it's a challenge worth accepting.

PBI: Glancing over the line-up for this September's festival, I see a lot of the same names. If I said a lot of this line-up looks like the same insular crowd, how would you respond?

RS: We are honoring our past this year, particularly at Joe's. These artists have grown up with us and they continue to grow with us, creating great and fun ideas for these new urban venues to which we are bringing dance. Joyce SoHo has 85 artists this year. There is a sprinkling of our past here, but there are mostly lots of new faces. This is the testing ground and we hope to find a few new gems this fall to move into our new Urban Space series at Joe's, and to take up to Harlem and Danza in the future -- like Aszure Barton, who we showcased at Joyce SoHo last fall and who will be at Danza and Harlem this year. Her work is wildly full of great movement, fun and poignant at the same time. An artist like Aszure is really worth promoting, as are many of the others that you see in our line-up -- artists you say look the same, (but) we believe their work is worth the effort. They need the chance, the audience wants to see their work, they are part of our history and our future and they deliver. We do more than our share of promoting new faces. Check out our Danza programming -- this is a whole new and exciting aspect to our programming, and Harlem too.

PBI: Anything you'd like to add?

RS: This had been an amazing ride. Tam and I and now our small, but wonderful staff, including our new manager Andrea Sholler and our Danza coordinators, Harlem team and Bill Bragin at Joe's have great dreams, maybe too many -- but that is really why we have been able to do this for ten years. The ideas keep growing and when we feel stagnant we move on. There is some exciting new direction for 2005 that we hope to share very soon. In the meantime we are working on honoring this great time, all the artists who have made it happen and just being what we are: a place where NYC artists get a chance to show their work, and to full houses, in an environment that is full of support and is very inspirational. If we could be a vehicle for all the voices to be heard, that would be great, but it's just not possible. We do a lot for very little and try to do the best we can. I believe that we have made a difference in getting dance out there and integrating it into the community, and this is what we plan to continue to do.

The 10th annual Dancenow/NYC festival opens September 8 and runs through September 18. For more information, please click here.




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