VNPAC: Dance Lessons

VNPAC: Dance Lessons

Attending a roundtable with dancers, I realized that they face a lot of the same issues as composers, and really probably all artists. A few points that stood out:

1. Working for free was a big topic. Essentially it boils down to what makes sense for you individually. If you can gain experience, contacts, or otherwise benefit, then it may make sense. However, as long as there is more supply than demand, there is the potential for abuse. As a result of dance being a bad mistress, as it were, the struggle to survive acts as a filter, leaving only those who really want to dance badly enough and who are the best. When there is not a lot of money to pay the dancers, transparency in financial accountability makes a huge difference. Budgets can be posted online so that everyone knows exactly how the money is being spent.

2. Explaining the value of the arts to a community can help. The arts should be valued and well funded because they can re-vitalize a neighborhood. For example, the arts have completely changed the new 42nd street in New York City, including The New Victory Theater, and brought in enormous economic value. This new model for supporting the arts allows for the economic benefit created by the arts to be returned back to the arts so that they can be sustained.

3. Pursuing a master’s degree was also discussed, and it seems for employment in higher education, a MFA or doctorate is required. Some dancers have pursued arts administration degrees as a way to still be in the arts yet have a regular paycheck, even if it’s not a large one. It also was recommended that you take opportunities that present themselves, even if it is not exactly what you were expecting, as you never know exactly where it might lead you.

4. What was markedly different from music was the use of technology. Unlike music and film, where the barrier to entry has been lowered by the advancements in technology, dance has not been affected in the same way. The biggest obstacle for dancers is finding good studio space, even more difficult than finding good music.

5. Audience education was discussed as an important goal to ensure the future of dance. There was strong opposition to watering down what they do to make it more accessible. I, however, think that all arts must communicate, and if they fail to communicate then it is only an exercise in self-indulgence. The arts can and should still be accessible without sacrificing quality.

6. There was some talk about the value and necessity of social media, and that it must be authentic to work properly.

(left to right) Director and Producer of Vail International Dance Festival Damien Woetzel, choreographer Edward Liang, and Director of the Joffrey Ballet Ashley Wheater.

While I found the panel on global networking to be a complete snooze, the panel on new commissions was fascinating. Director and Producer of Vail International Dance Festival Damien Woetzel, choreographer Edward Liang, and Director of the Joffrey Ballet Ashley Wheater (who had commissioned Liang) discussed their dedication to new work and giving it a life beyond the original premiere. When works are done more than once, they can be tweaked and improved upon, much like the lengthy process a musical may go through. It was interesting that their perception was that theater was allowed to have a development that take years, but that dance was not.

The relationship between the choreographer and the dancers is important, and working with the same company for an extended period of time can have great benefits. It needs trust and a lot of good communication, as the process of creating a new work can be difficult. However, when the dancers have worked hard and exceeded their boundaries, then the results can be spectacular with a large sense of accomplishment. It is important to bring the audience along on this process. Yes, audiences must be excited about seeing a new work, but it is equally important to know that works can be in development for a long time and change. This creates a challenge in communicating properly to audiences and accurately portraying a balance of both completion and work in process.

One of the inherent problems in commissioning is the tendency to play it safe, but by playing it safe there are not only no risks, there are no corresponding potential gains by embracing risk. The work must be authentic, honest, and relevant both to the dancers and the audience, and you risk having none of these if you play it safe.

There was indeed considerable respect for the importance of music to dance. There was some discussion of making sure that proper rights were obtained, and well before rehearsal is started, as a new dance can be sabotaged if the rights are not cleared. I did notice, however, that the creation of a new piece of dance does not necessarily mean the creation of a new piece of music. There was concern over tardiness when it comes to the completion of commissioned music, and using pre-existing work, even of living composers, avoids this. If there is new music commissioned, then ample time is a pre-requisite.

Wheater talked about using his instinct or gut to decide whether a new commission is right for his company. There are many factors that must be right in order to successfully move forward—budget, style, fit, relevancy, etc.

Getting the most out of any conference requires some basic networking skills. There are a couple things to keep in mind that can make a huge difference. When talking to someone, give them your undivided attention, including eye contact. Don’t be looking around the room to find someone else more important to talk to. You never know exactly who may be able to help you, so treat everyone with respect. It is also the quality of the contacts that matters much more than the quantity. Better to have only a few business cards at the end of the day, but have them be from people that you have made real connections with.

While a composer at a dance conference can be a bit out of place, you must remember that you need to meet people who can hire you. Music conferences are great, but if you are only meeting other musicians, then you are not meeting the directors that may be looking for composers. If you want to compose for dance, then you need to go where you’ll meet choreographers. This is a great place for that.

The day ended on a positive note with remarks from George Stevens Jr. (writer, director, producer, playwright, and author). Stevens is currently co-chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and author of the play about Justice Thurgood Marshall, and he was upbeat on how the Obama administration enjoys promoting the arts.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “VNPAC: Dance Lessons

  1. Chris Becker

    Why is it that dance companies are expected to hire a composer? Why not the other way around? Are there any grants out there for composers for funds to hire a dance company to create a work around their music?

    If a composer really wants to work with a choreographer, they need to work together to generate funds for the production. The notion that just because someone has a company is automatically a “cash cow” for composers is false and contributes to the dearth of new music being written for dance. Not to mention the lack of coverage of composers for dance by music press.


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