Monday, February 21, 2011

Poverty and the Dance Artist

For the first time ever the other day I watched the NBA Slam Dunk Contest sponsored by Sprite, a part of the NBA All Star Weekend.


That's all I could say as I caught the last half hour or so of the competition between Blake Griffin and JaVale McGree. These two young men alternated dunking the ball in the basket with physical tricks, props, child actors, a gazillion pairs of shoes, choirs and a CAR!

Celebrities and basketball legends filled the front rows of the Staples Center; product placement was in abundance (how many different ways can you say "Drink Sprite"?); and all I could think about was how much MONEY was spent to put on these shenanigans and how much MORE MONEY all those involved will be compensated.

Just hours earlier, I had come from a talk at Dance Theater Workshop, now New York Live Arts. Just 10 days old, the newly combined executive and administrative staff of the historic presenter, DTW, and the acclaimed Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company sat on stage to answer the questions of the New York dance community.

Among the conversations that came up were the linked ideas of dancers and choreographers being synonymous with the "starving artist" trope; and the ability of mid-career artists to become really established because of the lack of support and resources beyond the spring-board-get-yourself-out-there-and-seen programming. More specifically, this notion that choreographers are leaning more toward project-to-project/pick-up company models instead of full time companies, because they don't have the money to hold on to dancers. In essence, unless you are dancing for a major company that can contract you for multiple weeks out of the year (i.e. Ailey, Mark Morris, BTJ/AZ, Pilobolus etc.) in order to "afford" to be a dancer you usually take up a couple of part-time jobs (low on hours, "high" on pay), so you have the flexibility to spend time in mostly un-paid rehearsals, and low-paid performances.

We honestly take a vow of poverty for the love of what we do. With most dance (and arts organizations in general) acting as 501(c)3 not-for-profits, artists in American culture are literally seen as charity cases. I dare anyone to declare that art is any less important than let's say... sports. Yet the professional dance community is just barely hanging on hoping people want to throw us a bone and get a tax write off while their at it, while Sprite goes hard for the man who jumps cars to dunk a ball.

I'm ready for solutions. How do we get mass appeal? How do we get major corporate sponsors, celebrities and everyday people to throw their money at us?

This is where I think So You Think You Can Dance has been helpful to the concert dance field. Even if there are plenty of tricks, it has increased the visibility, knowledge and appreciation. Do I think that the most exciting, interesting, innovative choreographers of our time are getting shine there? Not really, but do people know what a dance concert might look like? Yes. Are they a little more inclined to go see a show? I hope so.

Bill T. Jones made a huge point yesterday: This is New York City! A destination! Arguably the capital of American arts and culture. How do we make this place (the DTW building), a place historically nurturing those on the forefront of modern dance, a destination? And I would like to add, a destination where they spend a huge chunk of money?

A young woman I met in the lobby said that may be one reason downtown dance doesn't attract a mass appeal is because we ask people to engage; to bring their thinking caps. She says that people don't want to do anything but sit back and be WOWED, like the Radio City Rockette Spectacular (that's another post). Maybe modern dance is a little to intellectual? Maybe it incites people to action in a lazy and sedentary culture?

How do we connect the dots between Dance and Big Business? What is a more creative and lucrative business model than the 501(c)3 not-for-profit dance company? What do we need to do to create a culture where people are just as inclined to spend money on concert tickets as ther are on a basketball game? What is it about our product, dance performance, that will get people excited and support us, the dancers and choreographers?

I ask these questions because I am living the life of the "starving artist," literally at a financial low right now. At the same time however, I am just launching my dance business off the ground. One thing I know for sure is that I am going for a For Profit structure in tandem with Fiscal Sponsorship through a 501(c)3 organization. The question I am now asking myself is what are creative solutions to making money in this business? How do we get a return on our financial, creative, time and emotional investments?

I know it's an age old question, old as the field itself. Suggestions?

1 comment:

Crystal said...

These are all good questions and you'll become rich if you come up with the answers. This is a common problem in all of the arts. For example I would equate modern dance with American jazz a musical art form that very few find financial success while staying true to the original art form. Wynton Marsales and Miles Davis would be examples that were able to transcend poverty and not be looked upon as sell outs. What was it about these artist that catapulted them to international prominence? What was it about Bill T. Jones, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp etc what did they do? I think comments you mentioned from one girl is part of it. That at some point in time they all created a work, took a job or wrote a piece of music that may not have been the most mentally challenging to the audience but was just aesthetically appealing and pure entertaining. I think to appeal to a mass audience you have to find the right balance. It shouldn't be so simple that people walk away saying "I could do that"but not so complex that they walk away saying "what was that?". That's if you want mass appeal which if you want corporate sponsorship you must have. Corporations are all about the dollars "Can they make money?""Can you sell tickets, sponsors for a TV show etc. So you as the artist have to decide where on the sliding scale you want to be and go after that. If you want to be completely true to your art for arts sake, resign yourself that you will not be wealthy and be content with making the best art you possibly can. If not audition for SYTYCD try to make a bunch of money and then establish your company. Modern Dance certainly has a much broader appeal thanks to those artist previously mentioned but as I said to get corp sponsorship it has to sell and the masses won't buy it if they don't get it. They reason the masses don't get is another whole issue our education system its not taught.


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