The challenges of unconventional performance venues
A student performs outdoors on the Stanford University campus.
Imagine a group of your students surging through a sculpture garden, the sunlight glancing off their limbs. A breeze floats leaves across the grass, and the dancers roll and tumble after them.
And then, without warning, the irrigation system kicks on and sprinklers shoot water in all directions, flattening the leaves, soaking the dancers and drowning the choreographer in despair.
A similar situation did, in fact, happen to Diane Frank, a dance lecturer at Stanford University (and one of the 2011 Dance Teacher awardees). It made her realize just how much she had to account for when preparing a performance in an alternative space—the irrigation schedule, for one thing.
While performances in a wide range of venues (or non-venues) can expose your students to significant challenges and hazards, they can also create unforgettable adventures. How can you prepare? By gathering as much information as possible, using it to prepare your students as thoroughly as possible and coming prepared for contingencies.
Step 1: Gather Information
Jana Belot, owner of the Gotta Dance studios in New Jersey, regularly takes large groups of students out for all types of performances. "We've performed on baseball fields and at bar mitzvahs, tea parties, fashion events, cancer walks—even Ellis Island," she says. "Basically, anywhere there's people." Over the years she has learned that the more questions you can ask the event sponsor up front, the better your chances of success.
"Two years ago," she says, "we hired a full-time project manager and event planner. And at that time we realized we needed a list of questions." The three-page list ranges from the fairly obvious, "What will the floor be? What will we use for a sound system? Will the stage be marked?" to the more detailed, "What chaperones are needed?" and "Will we eat lunch on the bus?" And, she says, "One hundred percent of the time we preview the site and meet with the person in charge."
Joan Hope MacNaughton, who owns Leggz, Ltd., in Rockville Centre, New York, has also led students through an endless variety of performance situations. "There are a lot of variables that you have to take into consideration," she says. "Most importantly, get your stage size and make sure that it's going to work for you. If it won't, don't accept the job—because there's nothing worse than putting on a bad show. Nobody cares whether or not it's your fault; all they're doing is looking at your performance and saying, 'Oh my gosh, that studio was horrendous. Who were they? Let's not ask them back again.'"
Step 2: Prepare Your Students
Frank created a course at Stanford titled Figure/Ground: Site-Specific Dance Performance in Outdoor Environments. "You have to let your students know what it means if you're dancing on grass," she says. "Then you have to build movement that can be danced on grass." The students, she emphasizes, can only be as prepared as the teacher is. And location-appropriate choreography is important when it comes to your dancers' safety, too. If you know they'll be dancing on a hard surface like concrete, for example, limit the number of jumps to protect your students' joints.
MacNaughton recommends taping out unconventional stage sizes on the studio floor for rehearsals, so that students learn how to fit their movements into small or unusually shaped spaces. If they'll be performing on concrete, she takes them outside to rehearse on the sidewalk, so they can get accustomed to a surface with no give. If it'll be a tennis court, she takes them to a local court to experience the total lack of slide.
Step 3: Prepare for Contingencies
Once you've asked the important questions and prepped your students, you'll need to plan for the unexpected. Weather and dancing surfaces are two big concerns. MacNaughton always asks her dancers to bring several types of shoes, for example. If the stage turns out to be too slippery for tap shoes, she'll put her tappers in sneakers. If it's too risky for pointe, she'll have them use ballet slippers. Belot follows her gut instincts: "If it's sunny, do we add sunglasses? Sometimes that's adorable, but sometimes it's cheesy. Can we work with the weather? We do this Santa number in a parade, so one year we bought red hats, red scarves, red legwarmers that the students wore over their regular costume to stay warm." Cute in a parade? Yes. Cute at a more serious event? Probably not.
Sometimes, you just have to know when to throw in the towel. MacNaughton tells the story of a performance on an outdoor stage, on a day with pouring rain. The stage was slippery, but her dancers gave it a shot for one number. "They were soaking wet," she says. "They had white dance pants on; the dance pants turned black because the dye ran from the tops, which were black, onto the white bottoms. The dancers were troopers, but it was beyond what you could even realistically expect." She pulled them out of the rest of the show.
But most often, your preparation and your students' dedication will pay off in cheers and applause. As Frank puts it, "The value of doing site-specific work is that it places dance in situations that allow us to both see and think of dance differently. You're fostering a fresh take on the world." DT
Lea Marshall is producer/assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Dance and Choreography and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.
Top 10 Questions to Ask Before You Go
From the list compiled by Jana Belot, owner of the Gotta Dance studios in New Jersey:
1. Have I previewed the site?
2. Have I met with the person in charge?
3. Have we purchased insurance for the event?
4. Do we have all permission slips and/or photo release forms signed
5. Do we have emergency phone numbers for all of the dancers?
6. What will the sound system be?
7. What will the floor be?
8. What shoes will the dancers be wearing?
9. What will the lighting system be?
10. Have I planned for inclement weather?
Photo: a student performs outdoors on the Stanford University campus; by Tony Gautier, courtesy of Diane Frank