Essay: Limited engagements hamper Colorado dance companies
If you survey the dance scene in Colorado, it’s hard to ignore the fact that performance runs are short. Very short.
A seemingly prohibitive model, productions that play for only one or two nights provide limited opportunities for dance companies to showcase their work and audiences to enjoy it. The short runs are also a challenge for timely press coverage. Yet the model is prevalent, not only in Colorado, but also across the country.
Stephen Seifert, executive director of the University of Denver’s Newman Center says his organization “tries to be cautious and not incur unreasonable amounts of expenses” when presenting touring dance. This translates to one- or two-night runs—reflecting a classical presenting model taught to arts administrators.
Short runs are not the preference of Lee Prosenjak, executive director of the Denver-based contemporary dance company 7dancers. After four to six weeks of rehearsing for a production, he’s frustrated to have so few performance opportunities for the dancers. Additionally, the load-in process is fast, often requiring tech and dress rehearsals to occur on the same day as the show. “It's hard on the whole crew,” Prosenjak says.
The issue is not specific to Colorado. Martin Wechsler, director of programming at The Joyce Theater in Manhattan, says the logistics are complicated and go beyond financial issues.
“It's disheartening to perform in an empty theater,” Wechsler says . "For the most part, people select the number of performances to anticipate audience capacity.”
His goal is to fill the house, even if it means fewer shows.
Though widespread, one night stands are not completely ubiquitous.
Colorado Ballet has been doing two- to three-week runs at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver since the venue was renovated in 2005. Through an on-going relationship with Denver Arts & Venues, the ballet is guaranteed two to three weeks of performances in early October, four to five weeks during the holidays for its popular “Nutcracker” production and several weeks in February or March for its spring seasons at the opera house.
“Longer runs have more expenses because of stagehands, orchestra musicians, venue rental fees, rental fees for more elaborate sets and costumes, etc.,” Sanya Andersen-Vie, the Colorado Ballet’s public relations manager, says .
Yet according to Andersen-Vie, additional weekends generate more revenue as well as positive publicity. Budget goals are built based on the repertoire and length of the run. For example, a one-weekend run of “Ballet Director’s Circle” at the Newman Center -- an evening of contemporary repertoire that reaches beyond Colorado Ballet’s traditional fare -- is projected to bring in $125,000 in ticket sales, while the two-weekend run of the more classical “Cinderella” is expected to generate five times that amount.
Colorado Ballet artistic director Gil Boggs says, the company “generally has great attendance” the first weekend due to the ballet’s reputation for putting on large-scale productions as well as offering ticket promotions like discount codes or “buy-one-get-one-free” deals. Word-of-mouth and reviews drive additional box office sales for subsequent weekends.
Increased revenue is one benefit of extended runs. But more importantly, Andersen-Vie says long runs, “give dancers and musicians more opportunities to perform and people in Denver and the surrounding areas more chances to experience ballet.”
Other factors can affect the length of a run. The length of production runs for the contemporary dance company Wonderbound, which undertakes collaborations with diverse artists and institutions such as the indie folk band Paper Bird, the Colorado Symphony and Professor Phelyx, a Denver-based illusionist, is often contingent on the availability of the collaborating artists.
“Love,” the company’s February production, features both the Wonderbound dancers and live music by Confluence String Quartet. It runs for only one weekend, as the Wonderbound artistic staff had to work around the calendars of the chamber music ensemble, the dancers and the venue.
Dawn Fay, the associate artistic director of Wonderbound, finds these shorter runs challenging in terms of publicity.
“There is a shorter window to allow for pre-production articles as well as a much more limited opportunity for reviews that can aid in increasing ticket revenue,” Fay says.
Isabel von Rittberg, artistic director of AscenDance Project in Boulder, a performance troupe that melds elements of dance and rock climbing, feels the pressure to get press coverage on short runs as well. Rittberg says word-of-mouth is her best marketing tool. This strategy will no doubt prove challenging for the company’s upcoming production, “Uplifted,” which runs for only two nights, Dec. 27 and 28, at the Lakewood Cultural Center.
AscenDance has to load in a 2,000 pound rock climbing way and scaffolding for each run, expenses a traditional dance company would not have.
This makes booking extended runs even more challenging because venues have to make a large investment in the work. "We're something very different; people don't know what to do with us yet,” Rittberg says.
Long runs aren't always a company's primary goal. Although Wonderbound is interested in extending the length of some of its shows in the future, Fay says her company is currently more focused on appealing to new audiences by engaging more directly with the community through special initiatives like an open-door policy for the company’s daily rehearsals and undertaking outreach programs in local schools. “The number of season production performances will likely not see an increase for the moment,” Fay says.
Companies that do wish to perform for more than one or two nights will have to get creative in both securing funding and ensuring presenters they can recoup the additional expenses with increased ticket sales.
Rittberg wants to negotiate with venues on how to ease some of the financial woes on both ends, like suggesting ways to rent out the space in between performances so she doesn’t have to pay full rental fees and the theater can still make a profit. Prosenjak hopes to cultivate more local resources such as nontraditional performance spaces that will have lower rental fees than a theater.
Because of high expenses and the uncertainty of audience turnout, affording companies like 7dancers and AscenDance the chance to have a long run requires both the venue and artists to take a huge risk. Rittberg is exploring ways to scientifically present the data of short-run ticket sales versus long-run ticket sales to show venues that the investment is worthwhile.
"I know finance is important as well as marketing,” Rittberg says. “But I wonder if people have forgotten that art is a way of getting in touch with people and yourself, a way of being inspired.”
But the risk of staging a production that lasts more than a couple of nights could pay great dividends. Regularly scheduled long runs enable smaller companies to build larger audiences, gain more regional and national awareness to attract larger funders and engage with the community on a deeper level.
Don’t blink because you might miss one of these limited-engagement dance concerts...
Friday, Dec. 27–Saturday, Dec. 28
Civic Center North Building, Lakewood
January 31, 2014
Newman Center at University of Denver
February 1–2, 2014
Studio Loft at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver
February 14–16, 2014
Performing Arts Complex at the Pinnacle Charter School, Denver
February 14–15, 2014
Aspen District Theatre
Stephanie Wolf is a former professional ballet dancer and a freelance journalist based in Denver reporting mostly on the arts.