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Flash Agenda, 1-11: The Importance of Arts Presenting
Five Suggestions for Dance Presenters

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The dateline says it first; who the heck am I to presume to drop pearls of presenting wisdom from across the Atlantic, ostensibly to splash down like manna in revelations at the Hilton Hotel in New York City, where the Association of Performing Arts Presenters convenes beginning Saturday for its annual Members Conference? Well, definitely not a presenting insider, but enough of a dance insider to say that if I'm thinking about these things, dancers, choreographers, and dance companies probably are too. So, with the upfront admission that nothing would make me happier than for a presenter to write and say, "Actually, we're already doing that," or "We tried that, Mr. Smarty, it didn't work, and here's why," or even, "You wanna write the check to pay for that?," herewith, some ideas to consider relating more or less to the presentation of dance in the United States:

1. Use the NYC model. Repeat: Use the NYC model. There's a great misunderstanding abroad (um, abroad in the U.S., not abroad from the U.S.!) that when members of the NYC dance community refer to NYC as the Dance Capital of the World, they exclude that valuable dance and stellar dancing happens elsewhere. Au contraire! Rather, NYC is a dance locus -- but not just for dance from NYC. In recent years, the NYC dance presenting community has been on an almost frenzied tear to present dance from around the world, particularly but not exclusively the Western world. (Okay, little Eurocentric problem there, admittedly.) These have included a New Europe festival, a France Moves Festival, a UK/NY festival, a Quebec festival, an Australian festival -- not to mention the more or less annual Euro dance and theater festival comprising a large chunk of BAM's Next Wave, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and other ongoing regular presenting features for dance from abroad, particularly from the Joyce Theater and Danspace Project, occasionally from Performance Space 122, and most originally (i.e., artists you've never heard of, but should know) at the New Victory. In addition to the just-mentioned venues, the presenters driving these festivals also include The Kitchen and, occasionally, Dance Theater Workshop. (Unrelated DTW presenting downside: Too often, in some of the local artists it presents -- Ellis Wood and Jeanine Durning come to mind -- DTW presents artists that, while they may be deservedly admired among many dance insiders in NYC for their integrity and/or dance pedigree, wouldn't fly outside of New York not because they're too daring -- or, attention please, because they're women -- but because their choreography isn't that strikingly original, and doesn't make an original statement, craft-wise.)

Yes but, I hear you saying, Out-of-Town presenter, the very number of NYC presenters means they have the resources, financially and in terms of infrastructure and organization and contacts, to mount festivals of this scope.

Okay, but what if consortiums of out-of-town presenters got together to organize a national festival, on the same precepts? I.e., don't just wait for a booking agent to contact you when he/she is trying to organize a tour for their foreign companies; get together, as a group, and research what's going on abroad; select a few companies; and combine resources to save time and money and development efforts on the more involved aspects of touring -- visas and funding, for instance. There may even be money from other countries available for this; AFAA in France, last time I heard, has funding specifically for bringing foreign presenters to France to see French companies. (A caveat, tho: When you come, don't just stop at the officially-sanctioned companies AFAA recognizes; these are worthy, but there's much more to see here, particularly from Belgium.)

2. Trust your audience to trust you. This is the best sentence I can think of to summarize this idea, which is, put more accurately if less pithily: Study and memorize the P.S. 122 model. What Mark Russell and his crew have done is unique: Unknown or little-known artists -- sometimes Mr. Russell barely knows them himself! -- are programmed regularly. What this theater, and particularly Mr. Russell, have achieved is that the brand is not the artist, it's P.S. 122. That's the known quantity. I for one will even "forgive" P.S. programs which disappoint me because Mr. Russell has me trained so that when I go to P.S. 122, the promise he has made me is not "Let me entertain you," but "Let me take you some place you've never been before. I have no idea if you'll like it, I have no idea if even I'll like it. It might rock and it might stink. But it will be a new experience for you." Of course it isn't quite so simple; Mr. Russell also programs some now established avant-garde artists, many of whom were in the unknown category when P.S. gave them their first big break. These artists in turn, particularly those who (tho it might not be called this) "workshop" a production -- in recent years, John Leguizamo, Karen Finley, and Spalding Gray among them -- also trust PS 122's audience.

Okay, realistically, what Mark Russell is programming for a Manhattan and Village audience might not play in Peoria over the course of a whole season. But at least try it for the slot where you have your "altogether different," "totally new," "this is the weird shit," or whatever you call your festival of new artists. Mr. Russell also has a unique advantage in that his background is in theater, meaning that when he looks for dance, he is not locked into any particular dance dogma, but is looking -- well, looking for effective theater (not to be confused with drama).

3. By this time many of you may be saying, "Easy for you to say, Mr. Starving Journalist, but are you going to pay the piper when the bills come due and the box office hasn't delivered?" My answer: You don't necessarily have to present these artists yourself. What the Joyce Theater and Danspace Project do, for example, is offer affordable rentals to dance companies. That's their contribution; the dance company takes the risk.

4. Let Our Dancers Run Around Naked. Skip this one if you've already heard me rant on this particularly topic, but when will presenters, with the exception of those in NYC and Durham, NC who are already with the program, stop requesting that Pilobolus and Momix dancers don "Esthers" -- the flesh-colored costumes in which dancers still look naked, but strangely denuded of features like nipples -- supposedly for their family-oriented audience which will be shocked to see something they see in their bedrooms every night? If there was an artistic problem with rampant nudity in American dance, okay maybe I'd understand, but judging by the amount of gratuitous nudity I and colleagues have seen here in Europe, U.S. choreographers, by comparison, are quite judicious; when they decide to strip their dancers, it's usually because the choice is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to the work. And as far as "family friendly" goes: Our children can run around naked as babies, why can't dancers?

5. Speaking of support, the bulwark of many theaters -- the worker ants manning the box office and house, answering the phones, and undertaking other grunt work -- are themselves dancers. France has a rather unique program which I'd love to see US presenters emulate. The way it works, as I understand it -- and it may even be a law applying not just to arts institutions but most work sectors -- is that the theaters all contribute to a fund. Workers at those theaters can then apply to that fund for money to "take a formation," to further themselves in their careers. For example, a colleague here who worked the box office at the Theatre de la Bastille just got money to take dance classes and workshops for six months. Okay, this is not really a presenting idea, but it's a tangible way to recognize your employees, to acknowledge that they do have artistic dreams beyond working the box office, and to help them in their careers. Think about it!

And...Good Conference. Look for our Senior Artistic Advisor and co-founder, Veronica Dittman, and our North American Editor, Darrah Carr, who will be covering the conference for The Dance Insider. Don't blame them if you don't like my ideas, but do be sure and say hello.

One more note: In honor of the Women in Dance panel and showcase being hosted Monday by Dance Theater Workshop (11 a.m. - 1 p.m., Studio 3A, t the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street) our Flashes posted Monday will be all women artists (not that this schedule is unique in Dance Insider-land!). Check it and check us, dance insider!

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