PORT: Keeping the Artists at the Center of the Conversation

FACT/SF. Photo by Kegan Marling

At the panel discussion about activism that took place at Margaret Jenkins studios last spring, participants discussed how artists evolve in a system that has been functioning vertically for decades– artists are dependent on grants to fund their projects and on the support of presenters to showcase their work. As Executive/Artistic Director of the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron Christy Bolingbroke explained to a group of artists two years ago, presenters book five to seven dance events a year in average, so, in her words, “it’s very competitive to get on their radar.” Similarly, higher costs of living and dwindling arts funding accentuate the challenges to produce work. There is therefore the need, as one participant of the panel about activism called out, to create alternative economies that would take artists outside of this model and empowers them.

“Horizontal,” peer-organized curation, commissioning and programming represent creative initiatives that artists have taken to circumvent these vertical relationships. In the Bay Area, many artists have created such programs, whether it is Hope Mohr’s Bridge Project, LEVYdance’s AMP (Artists Maximizing Potential) or FACT/SF’s JuMP (Just Make a Piece). To address the issue of insularity and lack of national touring, San Francisco-based FACT/SF Artistic Director Charles Slender-White and Los Angeles- based LACDC Artistic Director Genevieve Carson created PORT (Peer Organized Regional Touring) which aims at increasing exchange and touring opportunities for contemporary dance companies throughout the West Coast. The first iteration of PORT will take place September 14 to 16 at ODC Theater. Below is an edited version of my conversation with Slender-White and Carson.

Marie Tollon: How and who came up with the idea of PORT?

Charles Slender-White: PORT is the brainchild of Genevieve Carson (LACDC Artistic Director), Eva Angeloff (LACDC Company Manager), Kate Hutter (LACDC Co-Founder), and Charles Slender-White (FACT/SF Artistic Director). The four of us were introduced to each other by Christy Bolingbroke in 2015 during the APAP conference in New York. We began casually talking about our histories with touring, and the successes and challenges we’ve experienced while trying to take our work beyond our respective hometowns. We discovered a shared interest in working together to help each other out, and to try to improve the contemporary dance field more broadly. We continued talking over the last two years about what we wanted to accomplish and how, and PORT emerged as a clearly defined model.

MT: Can you talk about the specific challenges that contemporary dance companies face regarding touring?

Genevieve Carson: For mid-size dance companies (like FACT/SF and LACDC) that are not

established “names” or institutions on a national scale in the dance world, it is extremely difficult to gain notoriety outside of their local platforms. This is due to challenging financial constraints and incredibly limited resources. It has nothing to do with the quality of work that is being produced. On the contrary, because of the limited resources we are working with, we become incredibly conscious of how we choose to invest our precious time, money, and energy. This results in thoughtfully curated work, but the work is presented to the same audience every time.

While there are opportunities to apply and perform at domestic and international festivals, these festivals usually do not provide adequate funding for artists, and ultimately, companies end up investing a good percentage of their budget into these endeavors. In turn, the company is unable to fund the continuation of producing new work at home. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Due to this lack of exposure, touring opportunities are extremely rare to come by for up-and-coming companies, simply because we are not on the ‘radar’ of presenters, so to speak. Usually, presenters are most concerned with budget and bottom line. They are nervous to “take a chance” on a lesser-known company that may or may not draw in healthy box office numbers, and because of this, only a select group of ‘big name’ American companies are leant consistent touring opportunities nationally and internationally.

CSW: In my opinion, there are two basic challenges: money and opportunity. Some exchange opportunities are available in the US, but they are not usually structured to provide adequate resources for the artists and their organizations. And, while there is some financial support available for touring domestically and abroad, it rarely comes with a comprehensive plan for engaging with local venues and communities. If you’re a small or mid-sized dance company without national recognition, receiving these opportunities and/or support is incredibly rare. Because of this, artists often have to choose between either presenting work at home or presenting work elsewhere — they almost never have the resources or organizational capacity to do both.

MT: What support/logistics does PORT offer to counter these challenges?

CSW: PORT is all about increasing opportunities by working together in a comprehensive and mutually beneficial way. And, this spirit of collaboration allows both organizations/artists to share resources (financial, organizational, intellectual, etc.) in a way that avoids redundant expenses and reduces the overall workload. The monetary value of PORT is not so much in what it provides, but in the costs it lowers. And, the PORT model is totally scalable — small or large venues, solo projects or ensemble works — all can participate in and benefit from PORT.

The model is quite simple, and was developed in response to the fact that most artists are self-presenting. Though PORT might find support from local presenters (in our case, ODC is co-presenting PORT: SF/LA), the spirit of the program insists on keeping the artists and dance companies at the center of the conversation. This is why it’s peer-organized rather than presenter-oriented.

Basically, two companies work together in a reciprocal relationship — one company hosts a visiting company for shared evenings of performance, and shortly thereafter the roles are reversed. FACT/SF and LACDC are already self-presenting on a regular basis — one to two productions each year. Many of the costs of these productions are largely fixed: venues, technicians, front of house staff, marketing, documentation, etc., all generally cost the same regardless of how many works you’re showing or how many companies are involved. Including LACDC in our show in San Francisco does not significantly increase our local production expenses. And, because we’re working together, it provides us with the opportunity to share an evening with them in Los Angeles without incurring additional production expenses down there.

Each company is responsible for their own local costs (when hosting) and touring costs (when visiting). By keeping our budgets separate, the companies have the flexibility to tour and produce as they like. Companies all have different methods for compensating their artists, different touring conditions they like to have, different cast sizes, etc. This allows for a level of autonomy within the collaboration. And, because the touring company is hosted by the local company, the local company’s audience will come to the show to see the hometown work, with the added bonus of seeing something new from a visiting group. Even if FACT/SF could afford to produce a solo show in LA, it would be difficult for us to get an audience there because few people know about us in southern California. With LACDC as our hosts and producing partners, we know that their community will turn out — which reduces the pressure on us, as visitors, to pack the house.

Because both legs of the tour are planned together, we are able to collaborate on press releases, marketing materials, and outreach campaigns. By working together on these efforts, the organizational workload is shared while amplifying the benefit.

MT: You mentioned that PORT was initiated by FACT/SF and LACDC. In the future, are you hoping to include other companies? If so, what criteria would they need to fulfill to participate?

CSW: Absolutely. After this pilot year of PORT, we will review what worked really well and what could have worked better. From there, we’ll design a simple and straight-forward template that other companies can follow, as well as a questionnaire and database that will be available to any interested companies. From that point, our primary role will be facilitating the process by playing matchmaker. Currently, we are most interested in facilitating exchange between other contemporary dance companies on the West Coast, and it’s not necessary for our works or companies to be included in every iteration of PORT. A company from San Diego might want to connect with a company from Seattle for instance, and we would help to make that happen. Perhaps further down the road we could expand it to other regions and dance forms — but we don’t want to be overly ambitious at this early stage of development.

Though the program will be open to all contemporary dance artists on the West Coast, I imagine collaborations would work best between artists who have a history of self-producing and have already built up a local audience for their work.

MT: FACT/SF and LACDC have both had some exposure abroad. Can you talk about concrete benefits of having exposure outside of the Bay and/or the danger of only performing within one’s city?

CSW: For me and for FACT/SF, touring abroad has always meant exchanging and engaging with local artists and communities. Though touring helps raise an organization’s profile and increase its impact, I think the benefits of ‘going elsewhere’ far exceed the value of organizational development and growth. We have been very fortunate that none of our touring activities have been transactional — where you just show up, do your show, and go home. With each tour we’ve been lucky to get to teach master classes, create new works on local dancers, see performances that their communities are producing, and talk with audience members about what they enjoy and desire from dance. We get the chance to share our perspective, and a chance to hear theirs, too. Then, we bring all that information back into our home community, our own work as a company, and our own personal lives. As an artist, traveling abroad (or to another domestic city) is one of the most professionally fulfilling things I get to do — and without it my work and perspective on the world would surely stagnate. I think artists must be open, curious, and adventurous for their work to develop — and touring outside of one’s own city, and learning from the people there, can be a great way to discover the unknown. When we (the leaders of FACT/SF & LACDC) began our conversation back in 2015, we were dismayed at the lack of artistic exchange between San Francisco and Los Angeles — two culturally and aesthetically diverse places that have a lot to share with each other. We wanted to remedy that situation by working together for the benefit of ourselves as artists and for the local communities we serve.

GC: In the past two years, LACDC has had the privilege to perform and teach in Auckland, New Zealand, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The US Embassies in each respective international city funded these tours. The purpose of each tour was not only to perform and share our work with new audiences but also to engage in cultural exchange, teach classes, and create with dancers from the local communities. Despite language barriers, these exchanges reminded us of the incredible power of the universal language of dance, and left us feeling reinvigorated, inspired, and humbled. As a result of these enriching exchanges, we came back to Los Angeles with new appreciation and awareness about how and why dance is created in other parts of the world. While touring internationally has provided broader visibility for the work that is coming out of Los Angeles, it has also allowed us valuable interchange and dialogue with new communities, thus broadening our perspectives and enabling us to become more informed artists within our craft.