A Haunting Deadline, and Some Ideas for Continuing Forward Anyway
It was a weekday afternoon, early on in the almost three years working with Parsons Dance as first a development temp, then an office assistant, and finally the Programs Associate. I sat beside David Parsons in his office in Times Square, surrounded by the stale pink walls and and posters of some of the innumerable shows his company has performed over a more than 30-year history. It was around my third year in New York City, and consequently, the third year of leading my own company, Kizuna Dance. When I mentioned my company to him, I had no idea that David’s reply would haunt me for years. The way he saw it, most companies only last for seven years. Over that amount of time, the founders become jaded with the state of the arts and with the burden of constantly providing, or you fall out with the friends that were the company’s founding members or those friends move on to greener pastures (other more financially capable companies or other industries entirely, find themselves married, choose to go back to school, etc) as an existence as a struggling artist becomes less and less appealing, or perhaps the company’s management simply makes a decision that maintaining the company is no longer fiscally feasible. In the past couple of years, as the coronavirus tore through our beloved community, we can all think of companies, large and small, who have closed their doors or downsized considerably.
My journey through the New York arts scene has taken many forms. I’ve been an arts administration intern and programs manager for multiple nonprofits, a front desk receptionist, a stage manager, a marketing associate, an adjunct professor and visiting lecturer in dance, and a dancer in touring companies. And, until recently, I’ve spent way too long as a restaurant server. The only entirely consistent part of my artistic career has been the management of my company, founded in 2014, which in 2021 has now reached that feared seven year benchmark. (Whether the 1.5 – 2 years that COVID shut everything down counts toward a company’s run time could be up for the debate, but based off how many places are so eager to jump in full force back into things, on paper those two years still count. How many times have you been asked by [peers, presenters, applications], “So how did you keep making art during the pandemic? How did your art change in that time as the world crumbled around you?)
As I’ve witnessed the dance scene change around me, even in the short time I’ve been in New York, the idea of the seven year timeline has continued to haunt me. This is mostly because it seems to actually be a deadline, by which companies (or their artistic directors) must find their work elevated from that of an emerging artist to that of a “mid-career”/otherwise nebulously titled artist. The definition of the latter being that the company has reached the invisible point at which its work becomes popular and more widely known, and most importantly, more consistently funded by prominent foundations. This achievement could be spearheaded by the artistic director’s receipt of prestigious awards (Bessie, Princess Grace, Doris Duke), sizable grant awards that increase a company’s organizational capacity enough to hire development staff, or just be a group of anonymous donors….. What drives me crazy — and I’m sure directors of smaller companies everywhere — is the idea that there’s a point at which your work is deemed worthy by some external force. Worthy of being seen on larger stages, worthy of having your art widely supported.
It can be hard to keep your morale up. In this contemporary environment, where dancers are rightfully asking for more (read: what they deserve) than what they have been offered in recent years for their artistry, sweat, and time, independent / emerging / young directors of companies are facing and will be faced with the question that just grows more pressing each year: how the hell do we make this work? When those feelings of defeat combine with the harsh realities of the limits of what you can provide at any moment, how do you conquer that sense that you’ve just been running in place? Even as the demands on what it takes to sustain a company and the morale and artistry of those artists within it increases, my funding capabilities remain the same — if not less if I forgo a service industry job. Now imagine if I want to increase to two weekly rehearsals….What about that dream of rehearsing multiple days a week with your company, investing in a deep and extensive rehearsal process that creates something meaningful for those involved and consequently lasts for years, instead of creating “what you could” with the limited time and finances you had?
How the hell does this work? Do we all wait patiently / compete internally / perform interpretative rain dances in our small apartments for some donor, institutional or individual, to come along and deem our work worthy of being funded? Do we kick the same $5 around amongst ourselves on Kickstarter — we give you $5 so your show can go up next month, you give it back to use for our show next year?
Like I said, it can be hard to keep your morale up. I commend you if you’ve made it this far. The sentiments above are ones I shared with and heard from peers, mentees, and even mentors over the years. We all want the time to discover with the people we’re working with, to to experiment, to give dancers time to be curious and explore. I, for one, wouldn’t mind an office in Times Square either.
So, where do we go from here?
I have no idea. Hit me up if you do.
I would argue though that these seven years have actually been a necessary development time, instead of a deadline. It can, for some, take that long or longer to understand and build up to the ideas and projects that will hold your interest. For me, who started a company just a couple of days after graduating college, these seven years have been a lot of bumbling in the dark. While you fumble around, you often hear suggestions like, “trust your gut”, “believe in the process,” or “your time will come”. But I know you do and know all that already, and despite how much that does ring true, it can be frustrating to hear at times. So, here are some more concrete ideas for other emerging companies/choreographers for where you might go from here, as you envision from afar, approach, or pass your seven year mark. These are some things that have enabled me, even as a self-funded company, to begin to provide more for my collaborators:
The Classic: Focus on Teaching
I’ve certainly been teaching consistently before and throughout the pandemic, setting work and teaching masterclasses virtually and in-person. Teaching as an adjunct lecturer or spending a semester creating a work for college students can be an incredibly fruitful time that offers you a chance to explain your craft and aesthetic to students with very different training or backgrounds. For week- or two-long residencies, you can often receive a fair stipend, though many colleges still send checks out after residencies end which can take time to receive, so it still requires being very clear on payment dates and budgeting on your end.
As you develop more works capable of being toured, having confidence in your teaching ability will make you just that much more marketable as a choreographer. I have often traveled to a college by myself to teach on a smaller scale, and then used that as a jumping off point for the same college to sponsor a residency for the full company a year or two later.
I’ll add a note here for my fellow BIPOC artists, for when you’re asked to make that work about racial justice on a group of white students: you’re under no obligation to make those trauma porn works for their fall dance concerts, unless you choose to engage with those concepts. I would go so far as to say my teaching engagements doubled as things turned virtual earlier in the pandemic. While I’m grateful, it’s hard to ignore that as a Black male artist, the sudden increase in virtual and in-person engagements directly correlated to the number of Black bodies being shown lifeless on the news at that time. That desire by institutions to “make good” will last in some areas, and in others, it’ll be another fad that will slip away. Make the art that heals you.
The Often Overlooked: The Old College Try
I often recommend for choreographers to reach out to their alma maters to schedule residencies and performances. Besides the obvious connection you have there, working the college circuit (especially in the Tri-state area) has proven to be an incredible way to subsidize the cost of creating and rehearsing work in New York (though this could be applied anywhere). For example, a weeklong residency at a college might include daily rehearsals, a few masterclasses, and a culminating performance. While at the residency, the college is supporting the company by covering housing, food, and teaching / performance fees. Make sure you pay yourself in the fee requirements you give to colleges!
College and universities often plan far ahead so that departments have time to apply for funding from various sources both on campus and off, so it’s best to reach out way in advance. For example, I’m talking with colleges about Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 right now. This also gives you a chance to book your dancers far in advance, and have ample time to plan the logistics of travel.
The Basic: Solo Shows
Oftentimes, as young choreographers, I feel like we are just trying to get the piece we’re working on off the ground, out of our imaginations, and onto physical bodies. If you’ve been creating for a couple of years, you might have a few different works under your belt. Why not string those works together to create a full evening (anywhere from 40 min to 1hr 30min)? For colleges with larger theaters, and for presenters, it’s great to have an option for an evening-length solo show on deck. You don’t have to maintain a roster of dancers who know all these works at all times if that’s not what you’re interested in as a maker, but when that opportunity presents itself, or you have that elevator conversation with just the right person, it’s good to know what you could present. Combine this with the educational options from tip #1 and you’ve got yourself a full artistic package ready and primed for the college circuits.
The Constant Challenge for Dancers: Just Ask
Continue to ask for what you deserve – as a dancer, choreographer, whatever. Not all young choreographers will be able to give you everything you want, but the best ones will keep trying to provide in every possible way.
The Constant Challenge for Choreographers: Just Tell
Be upfront with what you can offer, and when. Be honest with yourself and your crew about what you can handle.
The Act of Rebellion: Curation
Resist the urge to say yes to everything (it’s hard, I know) and challenge yourself to really curate your artistic endeavors, whether they be commissions, performances, or other activities. Practice saying no. Practice saying “not now, but let’s try for later”.
The Way of Hey: Get into CRM
Most smaller companies won’t have a CRM (customer relations management) database like Salesforce under their belt, or have any staff to help track the people you meet, receive donations from, etc. So it falls to you. I keep a fairly simple excel spreadsheet that I update every couple of weeks with names, email addresses, titles, and relationship to me or the company (ex: John Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org / Presenter / John’s Theater / Met at APAP 2021). This isn’t for every single person you meet, just for the ones you feel it’s important for you to remember. The next time you find yourself out of town, check the list and see who’s in your area. Invite them to the show you’re presenting or to coffee. Just being able to remember the people you’ve interacted with and why can go a long way, as we know how small the dance world is.
The Gateway 501c3: Get a Fiscal Sponsor
Obtaining a fiscal sponsor means a larger nonprofit organization offers you / your company / your specific project its legal and tax-exempt status. For smaller companies, this means you can apply for some larger grants that might require being a full 501(c)3 nonprofit through the fiscal sponsor. You can also receive donations through them, and not only will the money stay in your account with them (separate from your personal funds), it will also be tax deductible as a result of the fiscal sponsor’s full nonprofit status. I, personally, have been with Fractured Atlas for years, but The Field, New York Foundation for the Arts, or another nonprofit that is familiar with your work would also be viable options.
The Underestimated: Help the Homies
Create opportunities for each other. I often tell students in college talkbacks that even though I apply for a whole range of things, I get the most opportunities from my peers — and from their peers. Looking up the dance funding gods is all great and good, but it’s your peers who will eventually be deciding factors in festival circuits, or chairs of college dance programs, or maybe even the future heads of foundations.
How can you help? It doesn’t always have to be hiring them for a show or connecting them to a presenter. Send applications for festivals or funding to people that work for them. See a festival application for female-identifying artists and you identify as male? Send it to people in your rolodex who might be interested. It takes two seconds to forward an email. You might even have others send things your way from time to time.
The Financially Responsible: Keep it Small
If you’re looking to start a company — or emerging from the pandemic and beginning to return to making work — you can always start small. When I moved to the city, I had a company of five dancers in less than a week — before I even had a steady place to live. Soon I had eight dancers in the company, and it made the stress of coordinating, paying, and rehearsing all those people so much greater, as a choreographer with limited experience and understanding of the dance scene I was joining. Like I said earlier, there was just a lot of bumbling my way through. These days, I’d recommend starting small, if that’s what you can manage. Work with two dancers – or one. Create that magical duet or solo that’s easy to tour — you can apply to international or out-of-state gigs and just take yourself. That’s definitely a way of introducing yourself to different communities that could commission your company later. I performed two solos at a festival in the UK before they finally brought the entire company out.
The Well-Known: Squad Up
Create a team of supporters and constructive challengers around you. It’s a common suggestion, but take it from someone who, for many years, prided himself on never asking for help. Don’t do that yourself. My advisory board — two people I’ve known for years, who work in the arts and in nonprofits, and have seen the company grow from a Facebook page with no likes — have opened some of the most amazing doors for the company over the last few years. Having mentors in this field is an incredible thing. If there’s someone you have connected with — a senior thesis adviser, for example — ask them to consistently review your work and offer their constructive criticism. Take them to coffee and ask about their views on the dance world as they were coming up and how they may have changed. Have friends outside of the arts review your grant and performance applications. Have them come see your show and tell you what they saw and felt.
I’ll be the first to admit that even after all this time, I don’t have many solutions to the 7 Year Deadline. But isn’t it strange how dancers can feel so connected, but choreographers can feel so distant from each other? I think it’s important for other choreographers who are freefalling alongside me in this “emerging” stage of our careers that we admit our frustrations, share our victories, and realize that we’re not alone. When you’re racing to finish that application 15 minutes before it’s midnight closing time, know you’re not alone in this struggle.
As I approach this seven year mark for my company, I am trying to look forward to a brighter future. I know I am not alone when I say I continue to give every part of myself to the dream of my company’s success. I have encountered untold hardships under the myth of the “struggling artist”. While I have met some of the best people and artists I know, I’ve also made friendship-shattering decisions in the name of the company’s growth. I’ve left jobs that demanded allegiance to their schedule over my company’s rehearsals. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Yeah, me too”, then I hope there’s a small bit of solace in the fact that it’s not just you chasing the elusive idea of a fully fledged company. I hope, in thinking about where we all go from here, that you remember that you are deserving and that your artistic voice is as beautiful as it is valid. Your success is my success is our success.
Cameron McKinney, the Artistic Director of Kizuna Dance, is a New York City-based choreographer and educator. He was recently selected as a 2019-20 U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Fellow to collaborate with renowned Japanese choreographer Toru Shimazaki and present work in showcases alongside the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. He was a 2020 Choreographic Fellow at The School at Jacob’s Pillow, a 2018 Asian Cultural Council Individual Grantee, and a 2017-18 Alvin Ailey Foundation New Directions Lab Fellow. He has presented work in fifteen states and in Japan, Mexico, France, and the UK. His commissions include twice from the Joffrey Ballet School, twice from the Let’s Dance International Frontiers Festival, The Dance Gallery Festival, LIU Brooklyn, CREATE:ART, and SUNY Brockport, among numerous others. He is currently on faculty at Gibney Dance, and has taught for festivals nationally and internationally. Through Kizuna Dance’s Culture Commissions program, he directly supports emerging artists through commissions for new works created through research-oriented explorations into the Japanese culture.