Contemporary dance seeks a new generation of donors, while ballet focuses on attracting younger audiences.
At this particular, precarious moment in Seattle’s history, the contemporary dance scene is a bucket of conundrums.
Talk to almost any dancer, choreographer or artistic director and you’ll hear a wild oscillation between anxiety and hope.
On the anxiety side: spiking rents; construction squeezing out cheap rehearsal and performance spaces; the influx of a nouveau riche tech class that, with a few notable exceptions, doesn’t seem interested in attending or supporting the work. From that point of view, the current situation seems unsustainable.
On the hope side: Young dancers keep coming to make work here and find a way to eke out a living; the old guard (Pat Graney, Donald Byrd, Wade Madsen, Molly Sheldon Scott) soldiers on and mentors up-and-comers; Velocity Dance Center reports that audiences have grown by 298 percent since 2011.
A conversation with Donald Byrd — choreographer and longtime director of Spectrum Dance Theater — is a perfect example of the back-and-forth. Summing up the state of the Seattle dance scene, he immediately said: “I’ve been very disillusioned and disappointed with audiences … Seattle pats itself on the back about being progressive, but people are lazy. They love the image of performance art, they love this town, but they’re not going to leave their house to see it.”
On the other hand, he noted that the scene is becoming more ethnically diverse and “more white people are becoming aware of the work people of color are doing.” On the third hand, he’s watching the new wealth economically squeeze artists out without a new crop of young philanthropy. “At least the old robber barons like Rockefeller felt a sense of responsibility to give back to the community,” he said. “They were often awful people, but they felt a need to give.“
Dancer and choreographer Pat Graney seconded that idea. “Most newer rich people,” she said, “just want big toys.”
However, Tonya Lockyer, director of Velocity, said some of the dance center’s most significant donors work in tech and biotech. In the past few years, senior software engineer Case van Rij underwrote “Industrial Ballet” by Kate Wallich (which sold around 1,000 tickets at the Moore Theatre) and “How to become a partisan” by Alice Gosti at St. Mark’s Cathedral, as well as several other projects.
“I think contrary to what some people have suggested,” van Rij wrote in an email, “the arts are considered by some in the tech community as vital to the culture and the city they live in and would invest in keeping that culture alive and thriving.” But, he added, “it’s a relatively small number of people and they’re not likely to donate $10,000-plus to a random organization with the blind assumption that it will be put to good use.”
Graney thinks new philanthropists have shown more interest in social-justice and climate-change causes, which she supports, as a longtime prison educator and prison-reform advocate. But she would like to see the arts getting donor attention as well.
Lack of coverage in local media is also an issue, according to Graney. “When the dance writers started getting laid off, we got less and less grant money.”
One thing everyone seemed to agree on: Seattle dance has retained its eccentricity and uniqueness. Lockyer sits on national dance panels and has watched people see a work sample and say variations of: “I’ve never seen anything like it. It must be from Seattle.”
“Look at a piece from New York and you can recognize it’s from New York,” she explained. “Same with San Francisco.” But Seattle still bucks cliches: Cherdonna Shinatra skewers gender with her drag queen/clown/surrealist pathos; Donald Byrd choreographs unique and intense modern/ballet fusions; Wallich makes design-heavy works about yearning and emotional frigidity in the age of Instagram — and her weekly Dance Church, which started as a handful of dancers in 2010, now attracts more than 100 people per week. The list goes on.
“When you think about impact compared to size,” Lockyer said, “everybody is hitting above their weight.”
Still, anxieties loom. Currently, the Massive Monkees b-girl/b-boy crew have studio space in the International District and can survive off class tuition. Massive Monkees’ Brysen Angeles says the crew got a special lease for its studio in 2014 with help from community/government consortium Storefronts Seattle — with the expectation that they’d eventually have to pay market rate.
Sometimes, the survival of an arts center depends on virtuous landowners. Velocity’s property is owned by Betty Linke, who rents to Velocity for below-market rates. Lockyer says Linke recently told her she’d refuse to sell to developers (despite daily calls with big-money offers). Then the landlady crowed: “The arts are the soul of a city!” Lockyer said.
But not everybody lucks out with a landowner like Linke.
“Rents aren’t what they used to be three years ago,” Angeles said about the Monkees’ potential move. “Looking for other alternatives is tough, discouraging. If we have to move, we’ll probably have to go outside the city limits.” — B.K.
Seattle’s rapidly changing demographics hit Pacific Northwest Ballet where it lived: the South Lake Union neighborhood, just a few leaps away from PNB’s McCaw Hall. The huge population increase in that area in the last five years “triggered our desire to double down on the millennial demographic as an audience cultivation target,” said Ellen Walker, PNB executive director.
PNB had already been at work toward that goal, with a multiyear grant from the Wallace Foundation in 2009 to fund research aimed at attracting younger audiences. (A second grant was awarded in 2015.)
PNB examined persistent perceptions among its target age group, such as the idea that attending the ballet was too expensive, or that it was something for older people. “Some of those practical and perceptual barriers that we encountered in our work were pretty present and stubborn,” said Walker.
To PNB’s surprise, younger audience members weren’t necessarily drawn to edgier, more contemporary work, but to the classics. “We assumed young people will love Crystal Pite and William Forsythe and Victor Quijada and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, but it’s not the case,” said Walker, naming several cutting-edge choreographers whose work has recently been performed by PNB. “They were stepping into their relationship with us through more familiar works.”
After studying how younger audiences wanted to be approached (digitally rather than via physical mail), PNB initiated an opt-in email list aimed at audience members 25 to 40 years of age, sending out timed, targeted offers that aimed to present ballet as affordable and inclusive. “We’re always playing with it, always looking for what will be most meaningful to that group,” said Walker. The company also revamped its marketing materials, aiming for a cleaner, more modern look.
PNB also took its outreach efforts beyond McCaw Hall with Sculptured Dance, a free outdoor performance at the Olympic Sculpture Park that drew thousands of viewers of all ages over the past two years.
The efforts are already working. Walker said that PNB’s audience is now nearly one-third millennials (compared with “less than 20 percent” a decade ago).
None of this affected what was happening on PNB’s stage, as the company continued to present its trademark mix of contemporary and classical ballet.
“We’re not really messing with the art form,” said Walker. “We’re messing with the invitation and the institutional tone of voice — with our understanding of where millennials get their information, what feels welcoming to them and what feels like an intrusion to them.” She also pointed out that “as we shifted the way we communicated about PNB and who we talked to, our non-Caucasian audience members increased as well as our younger audience members,” creating a more diverse audience for ballet. — M.M.