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Flash Guide, 1-14: Inside Presenting
From the cradle to the grave, 10 new ways to build your audience

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1998, 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

The Dance Insider is celebrating 15 years as the leading magazine for dance professionals, teachers, and serious students, publishing 100% original content that can't be found anywhere else. First published in the DI's debut print issue of Summer 1998, this story is published online today for the first time.

"If what I'm saying about my art is that it is a metaphorical rumination on society, then I should be out in it."

-- Bill T. Jones.

After months of practicing with the basketballs, the stars were being recognized for their hard work. Their fans mobbed them for autographs. The scene was the New Victory Theater on Broadway, where Peter Pucci Plus dancers had just premiered "Basketball Jones." Like a corps de ballet of women which metamorphosizes into swans, the eight basketball-wielding performers had become an extra-human species. Magic had taken place. Pucci, performing as part of the theater's Family Series, had also revealed a practical truth: If you build an outreach program, they may come, but if it's not good, they ain't coming back -- let alone coming backstage for autographs. Keeping this tenet in mind, here, shared exclusively with the Dance Insider, are 10 cradle-to-grave ideas from presenters, choreographers, directors, and performers -- ranging from choreographer Bill T. Jones to former Kennedy Center director Lawrence T. Wilker -- for expanding the legions of dance maniacs.

1. Who's watching the kids? "How many of you have childcare at performances?" Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, asked a ballroom full of presenters at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in January at the New York Hilton. No hands shot up. "These children are your captive audience," Perloff continued. "Why we have no childcare in this country, and then scream that we have no audience is a mystery to me."

2. Employ star power. "We had Debbie Allen and pop singer James Ingram create a new ballet based on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," reports Lawrence J. Wilker, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "The work was performed by children ages five through 16, and both Debbie and James performed with them." All of the children were non-professionals from the Washington, D.C. area. "It was very exciting to see these youngsters, most of whom had never been onstage before in their lives, learn the work, dedication, and concentration that's necessary to pull off a professional work like that," says Wilker. The ballet sold out a two-week run last spring. "We have tried to make these productions available to groups round the country," Wilker adds, "so they can create their own indigenous productions. We try to do these at least every other year if not every year -- it depends on great performers like Debbie and James lending us their time and talent and expertise."

3. Never under-estimate children. When ODC San Francisco tours its holiday classic, KT Nelson's adaption of "The Velveteen Rabbit," it enlists local children. "I found not enough was being asked of the children," ODC co-artistic director Nelson says. "I would send (local teachers) a video of what I wanted them to do, and usually the adult would have them do something less. In the ballet, gymnastics, and ice skating worlds there are higher expectations of kids, so why not in modern dance?" Nelson founded ODC Dance Jam, an ensemble of five boys and four girls, ages 8-13. Troupe members take classes at ODC, perform their own repertory of five works, appear in ODC productions, and are not excluded if they're unable to pay. "Their imaginations and minds are at work, and I feel freer as a choreographer working with them than with adults," says Nelson. "It's more intuitive and instinctive. I knew the kids couldn't do all the complicated steps I wanted, and that started me worrying not so much about steps, but trying to draw something more from them, tapping into the essence of an image or idea."

4. Reflect the community. "We are aware that our company is white," says Francia Rusell, who directs Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet with husband Kent Stowell. The ethnic make-up of Seattle is changing, with the Asian and African-American populations growing, and, says Rusell, "our company doesn't reflect that. It doesn't work for us to go out and find dancers from different ethnic backgrounds; we need to take the best dancers we can possibly find and not look at that. So we are trying to raise dancers from our outreach programs who will come into the company and change it from within, and reflect the community." In part for this practical reason, PNB started Dance Chance. "Every year we go into the inner city schools, usually schools with a high percentage of minority and disadvantaged children, kids who would never be likely to be exposed to classical ballet, and we audition all the third graders who have any interest in participating. Out of 600 to 800 who try out, we choose about 60." The children attend a six-week introductory course at the PNB School. "We provide transportation, clothes, laundry, even dance bags," says Russell. The most gifted can make it into the PNB School -- and so far, four have, with full scholarships.

"These are all kids who would never have found their way to ballet class any other way," Russell says of the kids in Dance Chance. "We've had boys whose brothers are in gangs; this program is a chance to save them."

At a panel for the January APAP conference, an editor from New York magazine proclaimed, "Dance is the most elitist of the arts." He had obviously never met Francia Russell.

5. Back to School. In the traditional lecture-demonstration model, a dance troupe offers a community dance classes or demonstrations as an add-on to performances. Last winter, Hartwick College in Oneontoa, New York, working with the local concert organization and the State University of New York in Oneonta, requested that the Limon Dance Company, for its residency, teach classes throughout both schools.

"We infiltrated these small colleges," recounts Limon veteran Emily Plauche. Carl Flink taught an accounting class about non-profits and budgeting for a small dance company, assigning students to create a budget for a concert. Plauche worked with a photography class. "For 10 years I've worked with some of the top dance photographers in the world, and they wanted to know what it's like being on the other side of the lens," she recounts. "They wanted to know how to catch the moment of drama, what to look for." Other dancers taught music, poetry, and Spanish. "The students couldn't wait to see the performance, and I believe that's because they'd been intimately involved," says Plauche. "Maybe there's some key there in learning how to get people into dance. If they have a point of interest, perhaps that'll sidetrack the self-consciousness."

6. Cocktails for 1500. A school audience is still a captive audience. How to lure people to an arts experience when they don't have to be there? At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, on the second Friday of each month, they throw a cocktail party, reports performing arts curator Philip Bither. "The whole museum is opened up, there are martinis, the galleries are opened. People can talk back to certain pieces of art by writing down their comments and seeing them projected on the walls, and all the disciplines are represented," Bither explains. "There's avant-garde jazz in the restaurant, a film showing in the lecture room, and dance companies performing in the atrium at our entrance. We have sold out nine straight months, with 1200 to 1500 people coming." The Walker has done this -- for an audience that ranges in age from their twenties to their forties -- by selling this art experience as "a fun, trendy, exciting thing to do rather than something that's going to be hard work," says Bither. "It offers them the chance to sample the contemporary arts the Walker is sponsoring, without making a whole evening's commitment to sitting in a seat for something they're not familiar with."

7. Visual Aid. Art Performs Life, an exhibition opening at the Walker June 28 and running through September 20, ups the anté. Museum attendance across the country has been increasing, and one reason may be that museum-goers can come and go as they please. Art Performs Life hopes to capitalize on that model by presenting three major dance artists in a visual arts context. Since the artists are Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, and Meredith Monk, the construct is not an artificial one. In these budget-constricted times where scenery is often the first "expense" to be cut, these choreographers have upheld the tradition of integrating modern art into dance. Each will have a separate gallery, highlighting visual art by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring, Monk, and others.

The three companies will also perform. On September 12 at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Cunningham presents an "Event" using clear inflatable sets by Johns. On September 26 at Northrop auditorium, Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company presents Jones's "We Set Out Early... Visibility was Poor," set to music including Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale." Monk performs June 28 at the First Unitarian Church.

9. Speaking of church. "We were in the second year of a three-year program, funded by the Lila Wallace - Reader's Digest Fund, to target specific populations," says Gerald Myers, co-director with Stephanie Reinhart of the American Dance Festival's touring African-American Perspectives in Modern Dance Project. "We [were] impressed with the role of the black church in the cultural life of the African-American community." The dances the project was supporting, mostly live productions by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, often had a strong spiritual dimension. So Myers and archivist Joe Nash started holding their pre-performance discussions in black churches, beginning in Alabama, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. "The churches saw the connection between what we were doing and what they were doing," reports Myers. "The performance audiences have been added to by these programs."

Myers envisions a project focusing on modern dance and spiritual life in America. "In looking at quotes from people like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Martha Graham, we see references to the spiritual dimension of dance. Modern dance is an entertaining and a very physical art, and yet all leading modern dancers insisted it was something more. When you try to define that, very often the term 'spiritual' comes up.

9. Make the audience the stars. The Mexican Day of the Dead commemoration was the impetus for one of the most successful outreach efforts in Ballet Arizona's history. Last November, artistic director Michael Uthoff choreographed a ballet called "Dias de Muertos," but that was just the beginning.

"We did about 60 outreach and educational activities surrounding this piece," reports Gray Montague, the company's executive director. "In the most popular of these, the company sent designers Monica Reya and Rafael Cayduro into Tucson and Phoenix schools to help 550 children build Day of the Dead altars for lost relatives and heroes, a familiar tradition to the youngsters. With the support of American Express and others, Ballet Arizona brought 8,000 of these children to the performances.

"We were able to reach the kids in a direct and compelling way, and to make the piece relevant to them on their terms," says Montague. "The piece was not an anthropological recreation of Day of the Dead festival activities, but a ballet based on those traditions. It dealt with cultural assimilation, and how people have lost or were about to lose some of their heritage. The ballet spoke to their experience; it wasn't one of the traditional ballets in the fairy land of "Swan Lake," "Giselle," or "La Sylphide," although it had magical and fantastical elements to it." The ballet also spoke to the children's more recent experience, he explains. "It finishes with the characters building a giant beautiful altar on stage." The children's sense of ownership was completed by seeing their own altars displayed in the lobby. "It was like saying 'You too have creative ideas and thoughts and instincts that are valid.'"

10. Show me the money. Future Ballet Arizona efforts will be funded in part by a Lila Wallace - Readers Digest grant of $500,000 earmarked for helping companies build audiences in their hometowns and other cities where they have long-term relationships. Also receiving the grant were Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane ($400,000), Liz Lerman Dance Exchange ($500,000), Pacific Northwest Ballet ($400,000), and Pilobolus ($400,000). In making the grants, says program officer Rory MacPherson, the foundation looked not for the biggest companies, but those "doing the most to grow and diversify audiences and find innovations that bring greater audience participation." The fund will give out $26 million this year, with the largest portion going to arts and culture organizations, MacPherson says. "Based on our past grant-making experience, giving people a chance to see the same companies perform many times, plus engaging them in the creation and presentation of dance, helps build audiences. People enter arts participation through a lot of different paths, and their engagement accelerates when they have an active role in shaping the format. Our hope is to bring them along a continuum, so they will become people who appreciate the arts -- and perhaps become arts supporters. Our mission is to bring the arts to the widest and most diverse audience, and that's what we support with our grants."

The fund is serious about not just maintaining popular companies at their current audience levels, but growing them. Says Bill T. Jones: 'They don't feel the audience base is competitive with those of movies and Broadway shows. They feel even a company like ours, which is perceived as being popular, could do better. We have to become more active in courting people across the board who would not normally come.... You can never have enough audience. You have to constantly look to the future -- who is the audience base? How is the demographic shifting? You're responding to that demographic. It's not something that comes naturally to me -- I'd rather be in the studio creating the work. But it seems to be part of my job as an artist and being a vital part of society. If what I'm saying about my art is that it is a metaphorical rumination on society, then I should be out in it."

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