Start Your Own Dance Company, Part 4

Posted on March 15, 2006 by

Just as great dancers always strive to refine their technique, great artistic directors are always looking for ways to grow their company. By letting people know about your company, finding performance outlets, preserving your work and learning how to keep dancers happy, you can begin to boost your company to the next level.

Marketing and Advertising
Teachers who start a company after having run a school can be surprised at what’s involved in publicizing performances. “Most teachers have some experience with performances, because they’ve done recitals,” says Randy Swartz of Philadelphia-based presenting organization Dance Affiliates. “But recitals and performances are two very different kettles of fish. In a recital you are not dealing with public relations or advertising to the general public.”

Spreading the word can take numerous forms: advertising, editorial coverage, direct mail, posters, flyers, e-mail and your company’s website.

- Advertising: This is generally the most costly method. “It’s so sad to put money into a newspaper ad rather than give it to the dancers, but that’s part of the game,” says Kathleen Dyer, artistic director of KDNY Dance in New York City. Consistent advertising can keep your company in the public eye—and some of the cost will likely be made up by additional ticket sales.

Keep in mind that ads need to run just in advance of the show and should include the company name and title of the performance, theater name and address, dates and times of performances, a box office number, ticket prices and, if applicable, a website. Submission deadlines can range from two weeks in advance for weekly newspapers to several days ahead for dailies. The size and frequency of the ads will be determined by your advertising budget. Examining the publication in which you wish to place an ad can give a sense of the sizes available, and requesting a rate card from the publication will spell out the prices. If you have created a graphic design to represent the performance, a simplified version can be used in the ad, or the publication itself may be able to help typeset a simple ad.

- Editorial coverage: Most local publications have free listings of upcoming events. Getting your show listed requires sending a well-written press release with all of the relevant information to the appropriate editor before the publication’s deadline. Just be sure to budget more time for editorial deadlines than you would for advertising.

Snagging coverage beyond a free listing (such as a preview of a show or a review after the fact) is more complicated, which is why some companies hire publicists. For these companies, the cost of a publicist is justified because a good review can raise the potential for increased funding and performance bookings. A good dance publicist will be familiar with a wide range of media outlets and will be able to verbalize what your show is trying to accomplish.

- Direct mail: Distributing printed materials, such as flyers, postcards and posters, can be a relatively inexpensive way to raise awareness of your show and can be specifically targeted toward potential audience members. To build your mailing list, pass out questionnaires at performances asking audience members relevant questions about the show, their performing arts attendance habits and which publications they read (valuable for future advertising), as well as requesting contact information.

If the resulting list is still shorter than you’d like, consider renting a list from another small dance company, a theater that presents dance or a local arts organization. Some websites that collect e-mail addresses of those interested in dance, such as www.voiceofdance.com, will sell their list (with certain restrictions) to performing companies.

When printing up flyers and other material, don’t forget to factor in the cost of photography, graphic design, preproduction work and printing. More complicated designs using color and large print runs will inevitably be more costly, so get printing estimates in advance. Check postal regulations before you print to ensure that your materials conform. E-mails sent to a large mailing list should be as clear and compelling as your printed materials.

- The web: A company website can be an important step in getting established. Whether you choose to acquire the skills to create your own site or hire a web designer, developing and maintaining an effective site makes information about your troupe available around the clock. “It’s the public face of your company for those who don’t see your performances,” explains Jennifer Weber, artistic director of NYC-based Decadance Theatre. “And people who see your performances will then go to the website to check it out.” Dyer has even found that potential dancers often contact her through KDNY Dance’s website.

Getting an Agent
Catching the attention of an agent through positive press and word of mouth can create wonderful opportunities. An agent markets your company to presenting organizations, thereby removing the hard work of securing engagements on your own. “As a small company, you can’t book yourself in venues that can really pay you,” says Weber. “Those venues are not going to deal with individual artists—they’re used to dealing with agents. People aren’t likely to take a chance on an artist they’ve never heard of.” Being on a booking agency’s roster can be like having a seal of approval—many presenters trust the agents to deliver talent that will appeal to their subscribers.

Ideally, agents are in contact with the right people at presenting organizations and know which kinds of works they prefer, what they can afford and how to negotiate the highest fee. Agents also represent their clients at national presenting conferences, which can be daunting to negotiate for an individual choreographer. The flip side is that obtaining the services of an agent—difficult in itself, as agents will only accept your company if they think they can sell it to a wide range of presenters—requires signing a contract specifying fees and often a monthly retainer. Booking agencies vary greatly in size and scope, so expect fees to range just as much. The commission per booking may range from 10 to 30 percent.

Videotape and DVD recording is now an important means of communication for securing bookings, representation from agencies and backing from funding sources. Thus, hiring a videographer to record performances can be as much an investment in the future as a record of the past. It’s important to work with someone who understands the particular needs of dance and is willing to watch the work beforehand. “Every time we have a major production, we have a professional videographer do archival video,” says Dana Tai Soon Burgess of DC-based Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company. “Not only can we reproduce a work if we decide to shelve it in the repertory or set it on another company, but presenters can see the full work, not just a snippet.”

Companies that have representation often still work to create performance opportunities on their own. KDNY has organized exchanges with female-run companies in other regions, in which KDNY helps out-of-town troupes to put on performances in New York and then tours to perform alongside them in their hometowns. Dyer has also organized an artist exchange program called Women in Motion and a fiscal umbrella called Women in Management that offers nonprofit status to other small female-run dance companies for a very low fee. “Part of our goal is to support female choreographers,” she says. “Hopefully on the way up, I can help people out a little.”

What About the Dancers?
It’s an unfortunate reality of the field that even companies with established infrastructure can hardly afford to pay dancers enough to survive. You may find that you can’t afford to pay dancers at all. Getting to the point where dancers are offered a salary (and disability and unemployment insurance) is a big step for most companies and very few troupes can offer additional benefits such as health insurance.

How do you keep dancers coming back, despite the paucity (or complete lack) of monetary compensation? Support them in whatever way you can: “We look at dancers like our extended family,” says Burgess. “I respect all of them, because as a choreographer the only way to actualize your artistic vision is by having the best possible dancers who are keyed into what your aesthetic is performing your dances.” Dyer, who contracts five dancers for a one-year period, says it’s essential to treat the dancers as individual artists and value their input. “You have to be able to connect with them,” she says.

Some artistic directors who own schools offer free pointe shoes or classes, but, if the company is nonprofit and the school is for-profit, make sure that the dancers feel no obligation to pay for additional classes. Other small companies, such as Decadance, take on commercial work, such as industrials or performing at the company picnic of a large corporation, primarily in order to make money for the dancers.

“We love to see dancers getting paid for their efforts,” says Swartz. “The more you pay your dancers, the more likely they’ll stay and the more likely you’ll improve the quality of your company.” DT

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