Looking Back and Moving Forward

August 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dance Project’s Artistic Director, Jan Van Dyke, reflects on the last 20 years of the NC Dance Festival, and thinks about the future of the Festival. 

Last season we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the NC Dance Festival –an occasion for reflecting on the longevity of an event that marks North Carolina as unique in the country, and beginning to set the focus for the next twenty years.  We began by trying to create a sense of pride and recognition of the dance that emerges from within the NC community.  In the effort, we have managed to establish a statewide network of spaces to produce that work.  Other states have dance festivals, but there is no other organized around the idea of bringing dance by the state’s own artists to audiences across the state. I wish I could say I thought it all up and made it happen, but in reality, we’ve kind of been making it up as we go along.  This event has been a long time developing.

Each season we perform in Charlotte, Boone, Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington, operating all along with three major goals:  First, with the philosophy of building demand by increasing the supply, thinking that if people just saw more dance, they’d like it as much as we do, we aim to expand the audience for dance in this state.  Secondly, we are providing opportunities to show work in an effort to build professionalism among North Carolina’s dance artists.  And thirdly, by enabling artists from all over the state to see one another’s work and perform together over a period of time, we aim to expand the connectivity and sense of community among choreographers and dancers.

Most of our collaborations have been with dance departments because of the resources available at universities. The economics are tricky though, and it hasn’t been all positive growth.  Duke University, an early partner, dropped out after the first year, deciding that the concerts didn’t draw well enough.  At that point, Meredith College stepped to present the concerts in the Triangle area.

Asheville was added a few seasons later, but it has been another casualty.  For a good number of years we traveled to six cities, working with the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, a community company run by Susan and Giles Collard.  They produced Festival concerts in the elegant Diana Wortham Theater right downtown, but audiences didn’t grow, and eventually, their Board of Directors decided they couldn’t afford to keep making up the deficit the concerts earned each year, and we lost Asheville.   Now, the Dance Cooperative in Wilmington is the only non-academic group we work with.

And so we have slowly grown over the past 20 years.  It is a surprise to me that we have sustained it for so long.  When, after we started touring and I realized how much work it was each season, I told myself I’d carry it forward for ten years.  Now we are beyond twenty.   I have had talented and dedicated staff members to work with, and the Dance Project Board of Directors has been staunchly supportive, working with a number of important ideas that sustain us as we struggle every year to maintain a sufficient budget.

First is a belief that the continued opportunity to show work and to feel a part of a larger community is necessary for artistic growth, especially in a badly funded field like dance where we rely on groups of practitioners to create work. For dance artists, perhaps the most serious drawback to living in North Carolina is the lack of venues that will present local work.  Bringing artists together from around the state to warm up backstage and teach community classes in each other’s studios has led to collaborations and invitations for residencies.  Unless choreographers and performers have regular access to audiences and other artists, their work remains undeveloped.  It takes opportunity to build professionalism in the arts, and increased access and familiarity are major components of building an audience.  In this day of global communication, in order to share a sense of place and a common vision, I think it is vital that communities know their own artists and claim them as their own.

Which leads right in to the second belief — that a strong and vital dance community will not happen automatically.  We all need to contribute– artists and audiences alike, by sharing opportunities, recommending good work, and initiating programs to educate and attract both children and adult audiences.  Though this state is noted for outstanding training programs at a number of colleges and universities, in addition to the American Dance Festival which draws hundreds of students to Durham each summer, how many remain when the programs are over?    Young dancers tend to gravitate toward cities such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles to continue their studies and careers because that’s where they see both community and opportunity.   One of our aims has been to provide young artists with a reason to consider staying in North Carolina, by offering opportunity in the form of a statewide infrastructure in which to show work, a chance to begin building a significant community here, and a little bit of pay.

Each Festival site has its own coordinator/host who manages the concert for that city: Susan Lutz from Appalachian State, Carol Finley from Meredith College, E.E. Balcos from UNC Charlotte,  Nancy Carson from Wilmington, and myself from UNCG.  All five of us are dance artists ourselves and we all share the vision of a statewide network which expands the possibilities for both audiences and artists.

To date, the Festival has contracted over 100 of the state’s dance companies and choreographers to tour, and many others have been presented as local artists in their own communities. Over 3,500 people statewide come to the concerts and participate in outreach activities each year.  The concept has attracted a lot of interest, including some national press in dance publications such as Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher Magazine, which can only enhance the state’s reputation as a cultural center, and, we hope, make North Carolina a more inviting place to pursue professional dance opportunities.

After 20 years, I wish I could say that the Festival sells out every season and has an easy time finding support, but it’s still not true.  Our audience numbers have leveled off recently, which hurts our ability to expand the budget.  We depend on grant support but without evidence of growing demand, we cannot expect to interest funders.  Our goal of promoting NC dance artists to NC audiences, hasn’t caught fire the way I’d hoped.  Both audiences and donors are drawn to big names from out of town more often than productions of local work.   It also turns out to be difficult to find funds for a statewide event because no one city can claim it, and we do not qualify as authentically “grassroots” either, since we are producing professional adults engaged in an art form most people do not know much about.

Each year, though, during the summer, the Festival staff, hosts, and technical director meet to plan for the coming year, evaluate the past year, generate new ideas for outreach and audience growth, and to discuss the artists in each region of the state.   We have begun making plans to be more of a year-round presence, to hold events involving Festival artists and other members of the dance community in teaching and performing in hopes of pushing dance awareness forward a bit more.   We will begin in a small way with a “Bonus Day” in Greensboro in early 2012, offering classes, an informal performance, and the opportunity to have a professional video made at reduced cost.  And we continue to ask ourselves, what haven’t we thought of?

We say–

How can we do better in helping the dance community in North Carolina?

Has the Festival fulfilled its need in its current form?

Would we have more of a draw with an out-of-town headliner each year?  Would funders find that easier to support?   Undoubtedly yes in both cases, but would that make our purpose unrecognizable?

Or should we produce more work by fewer state artists?

Or maybe focus more on classes and school concerts in each community?  That seems to be the area that most interests funders.

Or go into university classes at each site to talk about dance in North Carolina?

Offer less expensive tickets?  Or maybe more expensive tickets so that folks would value them more?

If the Festival were a contest and we offered a prize of some sort, would it create more interest?

Should we expand to more sites?

Or maybe cut back so that we can give more focus to fewer communities?

Do we need better “branding?”  A new name?

Or are we good to continue on the same way for a few more years?

I could go on– I’m sure there are many unconsidered questions and possibilities.  I do think we all need to consider what we want for our community here and work to make that happen.  With this Festival, we hope to continue playing a role for years to come and we hope to bring you along with us.  We welcome your input:  www.ncdancefestival.org

–Jan Van Dyke

Share YOUR thoughts about the future of the Festival below, in the comments, or send us an email!  And come out and see the performances!
Next week, meet one of the touring Festival artists!


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