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Where do we go from here? 

Area leaders organize forum to analyze regional dance from all angles

Mimi Benjamin, Michelle Cawley, Bridget Kelly and Caroline Williford want to know exactly what you think regional dance needs. That's why they're inviting you over on Jan. 9. Whoever you are, whatever your role in the dance community: choreographer or dancer, musician or technician, amateur or professional, hired help or volunteer. Even if you're a member of the audience. They want you. They're calling it the Triangle Dance Forum, and its first meeting takes place a week from Sunday, from 1 to 5 p.m., at the Durham Arts Council.

The open call comes during a period of major transitions--including several significant reversals--on the regional dance scene. Its founders are designing it to let the community openly respond to those changes--and make plans to best help regional dance as a whole.

"We don't have a specific agenda," says Bridget Kelly, a choreographer/dancer with Choreo Collective and The Field. "In this first meeting we just want to gather people together, have them identify what their needs are, and then brainstorm on how to meet those needs. This first one's about getting people to identify what's most important to the most people."

The quartet anticipates a number of hot topics. An informal email sent at the first of December to a circle of dance practitioners proposed sharing perspectives on "audience building, publicity, production, rehearsal space, performance venues, performance opportunities, fundraising, networking, documentation and anything else that comes up."

The response to that initial email was, in Kelly's words, overwhelming. "Just the number of people who emailed back, and how quickly they did, right away.

"One of the things I was most excited about," Kelly says, "was that I heard back from a lot of different types of dance groups. It wasn't just modern dance. People from schools, from university programs, from independent groups--right away we had a spectrum of responses. We really have a mandate. This really seems to be something the community wants."

Mimi Benjamin, co-artistic director of Footnotes Tap Ensemble, remembers the difficulties she had getting her two-year-old company underway. "We were not really trained in the production end of things: what kind of resources we needed to actually get out there and show our art.

"Which theaters are easiest to work with? Could you go into a theater and have them help you by doing a split of the door instead of having to pay money up front? Those lessons were very hard to learn.

"Getting not-for-profit status was a huge job," Benjamin recalls. "It's so important in getting grant money, and actually there were other ways to do it. Looking back now, we really could have used a fiscal agent. We could have saved ourselves hours and hours of work. Knowing what I know now, we may not have gone the same way we went."

Kelly wants to do something about the "burnout factor" in local dance: "A lot of what everyone in the dance community does involves giving their own time and effort, in addition to keeping food on the table and a roof over the head. People put so much time and effort into doing a project, that they have to go into hibernation for a while to recover.

"Maybe there are ways that, if your project's related to other projects, it becomes less work for you to promote it or publicize it, then you could be more involved more regularly," Kelly says. "So it's not so drastic a spend-all-this-energy-at-one-time thing that makes people have to recuperate and then come back months later.

"Maybe it's not necessary that it be that way, if more things like audience building, publicity, marketing and promotion are shared across groups," Kelly says.

The first part of the afternoon forum involves what the organizers are terming a "peer forum" for the dance community, to determine the issues the group wants to focus on in subsequent meetings. The second part will open the conversation up to the larger community. Representatives from arts councils, granting organizations, and the musical and theater communities have been invited to share their views in an open forum on what dance needs.

You can too.

What prompted this action by the group? Being in the same room at the same time, at this year's annual gathering of the North Carolina Dance Alliance. "It's funny," Kelly says, "ever since I've come here we've kept having this idea that we needed to come together. It's come up with different groups of people at different times. It just never coalesced into anybody sitting down and organizing it."

"This year we were all at the same place at the same time," she continues, "and we said, 'Let's do it.'" A flurry of exchanged emails resulted in an open letter to the community.

The call--and response--represents the largest public expression of an artistic community attempting to learn and share survival skills with one another. Call it an open inventory of how much a community knows--and what it doesn't know--in techniques needed to insure its continued growth.

For it's become clear that brilliant choreography and inspired technique by themselves do not insure the continued well being of any artist, company--or community. If few see the work, the workers cannot thrive.

The list of prospective forum topics call on skills one gets--if lucky--in business school, not the conservatory. Effective marketing, promotion, advertising and publicity have historically been taught to M.B.A.'s, not artists. So have the techniques of appropriate company infrastructure and delegation--so that one person doesn't wind up with an impossible list of responsibilities. Even theatrical tech has been the province of drama programs much more than dance.

Yet the dance practitioner of this day--and the dance itself--suffers directly without these skills and strategies.

"All these things are really important for artists," Benjamin observes. "I hate to say it, but I think that the business end is probably equally as important as what you create artistically for the success of a company, if not moreso."

Without sustainability--the tools, techniques and structures that permit an art form to exist, thrive and grow--what does dance truly have?

For the answers to these and other questions, join the community, Sunday, Jan. 9.

All this talk about dance makes me want to see some. What better way to start the New Year than with two unusually promising performances? Annie Dwyer reminds me that local hero (and Shen Wei dancer) Jessica Harris returns--again--to native soil to organize the Carolina Friends School 40th Anniversary Alumni Dance Concert , Sunday, Jan. 2 at 3 p.m. The dance is a benefit for the Kaia Parker Fund , a charity that supports local dancers and choreographers. If this year capitalizes on the promise of the 2003 alumni dance, you won't regret it. Call 383-6602 extension 235 for directions and details.

And then there's this little thing Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp just threw together... Movin' Out wowed the critics on Broadway and killed around Tony Award time. This musical dance theater work about a group of friends who experience the optimism of the 1950s, stay on the ride during the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, and make it to the other side opens next Tuesday, Jan. 4 at BTI Center. At this writing, tix are scarce, so move it if you plan on Movin' Out.

Noted, without comment. At least for now...
The list below contains the number of different theater award categories the following groups and publications recognized in 2003:

  • Robert's Reviews: 33
  • New York Drama Desk: 27
  • New York Outer Critics' Circle: 23
  • Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards: 21
  • The Independent: 10
  • The Village Voice (Obies): 7
  • New York Critics' Circle: 4
  • The News & Observer: 1

    Our modest opinions on the best of 2004? Out next week. I wonder what you'll think. Happy New Year.

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