Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Wanna watch?

Dance blogs lately have been on building dance audiences, perhaps through the internet/blogosphere, in the wake of diminishing press coverage and public indifference. Downtown Dancer sums up some of the debate here, with links to Leigh Witchel's take on Great Dance's Doug Fox's plan for the net to save us, and Doug's response to Leigh. In a previous post on the subject, Doug cited several assumptions regarding dance coverage and how those assumptions don't hold in the web sphere. I'd like to look at another assumption: what do we mean by building audiences?

Of course I'd like to see a greater general interest in or at least acceptance of modern dance as a legitimate pursuit. Acknowledgement by the mainstream media is a nice but somewhat paternalistic way of achieving this, and some of the response to diminishing press coverage is not unlike what I feel when my mother pushes me to get "a real job" again.

Most of the shows I go see are sold out; and there are a good number I've missed for that reason. Generally, these are limited-run shows in smaller venues, and their scale is at least somewhat in their favor. If I produce a weekend at University Settlement (which, at my current rate of output, I should be ready for in about 2010--I'll keep you posted) I've got some shot at recouping my investment. A week at City Center can sell out every night and will still be vastly in the red. Obviously, there are several steps in between, but the jump from level to level is such that the financial headaches tend to increase with success.

So if our paradigm is a music business-style trajectory from coffeehouse pass-the-hat to Madison Square Garden, the equivalent of an album would help generate buzz. These days, more of that happens on iTunes and shared mp3s, so net-based dance multimedia could create phenomena, especially as computer video-capability improves. Video hasn't generally treated dance well--it's flat and no substitute for the real thing--but the medium is improving and, presumably, we'd want it to be just good enough to make folks want to come see it live.

Longer runs in the small houses are another solution, one that within reason would appeal to me as to many dancers who rehearse for months for the sake of a 1-4 night run. Here in NYC, the number of small and nominally affordable spaces is limited, so extending one run would take space away from other choreographer/producers, space already rapidly disappearing given the real-estate crunch. Is the paradigm here the movies: run one show after another (tough on the dancers), create double or triple features (could be tough on the audience), slice City Center up into a multiplex? Or perhaps the exclusive restaurant, wherein it could become a virtue to seat people too close together and/or raise prices far beyond where we've typically dared to go? Strategies would be different for pursuing each of those.

Another possible paradigm is sports, where a very small, elite few players/teams/leagues generate lots of attention and revenue while others, potentially just as good or nearly so, play in semipro obscurity and still others play for the sheer love of it. Dance was a participatory form long before it became a concert art. Doug of Great Dance mentions that he is taking class and expects that will help him build his understanding of the dance he sees. Classgoers, too, are an audience, and there are a lot more classes (here, at least) than performances.

It's an age-old problem. Music has had a life beyond and after the concert hall in the form of records, later tapes, still later CDs and now MP3s. Additionally, music reaches an audience beyond the concert hall via radio and television. Visual art breaks the museum wall barrier with reproductions, art books and photographs. Theater, unlike dance, is often well-served by video and makes the jump to television or film fairly well.
Dance, however, is pretty much limited to live performance. As you note, the opportunities and venues are few and the expenses are prohibitive. How many aspiring choreographers, despite having talent, vision and ambition, are forced to give up because they lack resources? The competition for space, for funding, for attention and for audience is fierce, especially in New York.
Is there a solution? Perhaps more activity in the dance blog world can generate more of an audience, but are the dance blogs read by anyone who isn't already in the dance world? And can dance bloggers do anything about the lack of venues? One can only keep trying and hoping...
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