The U.S. dance world’s preeminent gathering comes to Miami this week, as more than 500 dance professionals come together for the annual Dance/USA Conference. Organized by Dance/USA, a Washington-based organization that supports dance companies and practitioners around the country, the conference will host panels, workshops and showcases around Miami-Dade Wednesday through Saturday.
The conference, now in its seventh year, will bring attention to the diversity and strength of the dance community in Miami, which Dance/USA ranks among the top 10 dance hubs in the United States. Miami City Ballet and the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs worked to bring the conference here, putting together a host committee from across the Miami dance spectrum, with the Cultural Affairs Council becoming the event’s primary funder. A number of local troupes and artists will be featured in conference showcases. And MCB founder Toby Ansin Lerner will be one of four people honored at an opening night awards ceremony at the Pérez Art Museum Miami on Wednesday.
This year’s gathering takes place as dance is on the upswing in the United States, says Dance/USA executive director Amy Fitterer.
“I am very optimistic for the state of dance in the U.S.,” says Fitterer. More than half the dance troupes she has visited around the United States in the last year and a half report increased ticket sales.
“It’s going through a lot of change, and that is going to be difficult for certain business models. But I’m seeing lots of new ways of making dance and sharing it with audiences.”
Where the classical music world has struggled with opera and symphony closings in recent years, Dance/USA’s roster of 360 troupes has mostly held steady, with new groups replacing those that have closed. From 2002 to 2012, dance was the only performing arts activity for which attendance did not fall, according to surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Yes, there was strain during the recession,” says Victoria Smith, Dance/USA’s director of information services. “Our five-year analysis from 2008 to 2012 found that the fiscal year ending 2010 was the roughest time.” However, most troupes have recovered. “Companies have grown since then, in some cases back to pre-recession levels and in some cases beyond that,” she says.
This year’s conference focuses on themes of technology, fundraising and social change, to help the dance field adjust to the changing landscape for creating, marketing and touring work. More dance artists are choosing to work project to project, instead of taking the traditional route of forming a full-time nonprofit company.
“Technology is an important part of how we make work and interact,” says Fitterer. “Whether it’s doing video marketing as a small pickup dance company, or getting music rights to post something on YouTube, to bigger companies who want to livestream into a park or movie theater.”
The paucity of African-American dancers in ballet companies has attracted attention in recent years, helping lead to a focus this year on race. Another of this year’s honorees is Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance with a major classical ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in 1955 — and a mentor to American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, a rare African-American ballerina.
“Race is a very important issue in dance and in our country,” says Fitterer. “So we are trying to make sure we are talking about the issues of what it means to be a racially diverse ballet company.”
(Also receiving awards are Trisha Brown, the ground-breaking post-modern choreographer, and Linda Shelton, executive director of New York’s Joyce Theater, one of the country’s leading dance venues.)
Ruth Weisen, director of the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, which serves 1,100 students at its main ballet school in South Miami and in four programs in underprivileged neighborhoods around Miami-Dade, says the conference will boost Miami’s cultural image.
“People still think that it’s a party town: glitzy, superficial, not a place to go for arts or education,” Weisen says. “This is a great opportunity for people to see Miami for what it is. The diversity in dance here is amazing.”
Hannah Baumgarten, co-director of Dance Now! Miami, whose company is in residence at the Little Haiti Cultural Arts Center and will be showcased during this week, agrees. She points out that this is the third major dance gathering in Miami since 2012, following the SouthArts Performing Arts Exchange presenters and booking conference and the National Dance Education Organization conference.
“Miami is in a very special moment in relation to the nation in dance,” Baumgarten says. “Having Dance/USA here speaks volumes to ... a real curiosity about what’s happening here.”
The conference, which is closed to the public, will take place at the Adrienne Arsht Center and Miami City Ballet, with activities at Pérez Art Museum Miami, The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood, and the Colony Theatre and New World Symphony’s New World Center in Miami Beach. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has underwritten scholarships for 32 Miami dance artists to attend, offering what Baumgarten says is an invaluable chance to network with colleagues and potential funders from around the country.
“Without being in competition, we can kvetch about what our world is like but also share solutions and resources,” says Baumgarten, who says she and partner Diego Salterini could not afford to attend previous Dance/USA conferences. “There will be other people on grant panels coming here who have never met us. That’s huge for us.”
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