Collective Insights: Women-Led Dance Companies Struggle to Survive

Recently, the Arts Work Fund held a conversation with several women-led dance companies to learn about the challenges they face.

Small dance companies often work in relative obscurity and face significant challenges in promoting and funding their art. Recently, leaders from seven women-led dance companies got together to talk about the challenges they face. All of the groups are highly acclaimed and have been engaged in their work for more than ten years, some for 25 and 40 years.

But all seven groups continue to struggle to survive. In the past, these choreographers sustained themselves through residencies at universities and cultural centers. The bad economy has dried up funding to support many of these residencies. Most keep their companies viable by offering classes and teaching. Challenges facing the groups include:

Finances are difficult and getting harder.

These choreographers have been running their companies to high artistic acclaim for many years, yet can’t seem to raise the money needed to stabilize operations and fully develop their art.

  • Financial constraints constantly force companies to choose between putting money into art or administration.
  • Often auxiliary arts education programs or other outside jobs are required to subsidize the broader artistic endeavor.
  • General operating funds have dropped in recent years.
  • Salaries for artistic directors and performers are too low, e.g. a lighting designer gets paid three times the amount of a dancer. This creates instability in the organizational structure required to support the artistic work.
  • Theater companies operate on a different model from dance. They have longer runs, bigger audiences, more financial support, and actors can act part-time and keep a regular job. Dancer don’t have the same flexibility, given daily practice needs.

Dance companies run by men may be doing better.

  • Male run companies tend to have more staff and resources, though there is not a clear reason as to why.
  • Men tend to leave Chicago when they reach a certain level of success.
  • Men earn more money than women in general: 70% of money goes to the 30% of male directors, including ballet and modern dance.

Dance is still not well-known; better promotion is critical.

  • Mainstream media attention is difficult to get, particularly with newspapers reducing their arts coverage in general.
  • Print media may no longer be the best way to get attention, but booking agents still expect printed materials from dance companies. There may be ways for dance companies to jointly market and raise their visibility that are yet unexplored.
  • Companies need an overarching plan for publicity over time.

A good board of directors is key, but board members for small dance companies are hard to find.

  • A good board that is passionate, helpful, and brings in resources is invaluable.
  • It is difficult to find new people with critical skills when a board has been around for a while.
  • Foundations require a specific model for a board and a group is not considered legitimate if it doesn’t do it their way.

Collaboration in some areas could help

  • Shared space would save companies money, build a sense of community and presence for dance and be a place where people could see each other working. There is a history of sharing space among companies in Chicago in the past.
  • A joint publicist and marketing person could also be helpful, as would a shared financial officer to take on the burden of bookkeeping and auditing.

Salaries of Woman-Led Dance Companies:

Hedwig Dances (established 1985) Artistic Director Jan Bartoszek takes no salary for her work.
Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak (established 1994) Artistic Director Molly Shanahan’s annual salary is $24,000
Zephyr Dance (established 1989) Last year, Artistic Director Michelle Kranicke was paid less than $15,000.
Same Planet Different World (established 1997) Artistic director Joanna Rosenthal is only paid when she performs. Last year she earned $2,000, which included teaching and performing.
Mordine & Company Dance Theater (established 1968) Artistic Director Shirley Mordine has never taken a salary from her work with Mordine & Company—the Midwest’s longest running contemporary dance company.
The Seldoms (established 2001) Artistic Director Carrie Hanson’s salary has ranged from $3,000-6,000 over the last 5 years.

Collective Insights:

Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak (MS/MS)

Molly Shanahan

Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak (MS/MS) has supported choreographer Molly Shanahan's movement and performance research since 1994. Core values stem from the belief that creation and performance form communities and inspire change for both artist and witness. Molly Shanahan has an annual salary of $24,000, growing from $6,000 over a several year period starting in the late 1990’s

Awards & Critical Acclaim

Shanahan is the recipient of two National Performance Network Creation Fund Awards, a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist Award, and an Illinois Arts Council fellowship for choreography, among others.

Her critically-acclaimed evening-length solo, My Name is a Blackbird, was listed as one of the "top ten dance moments of the decade" by TimeOut Chicago. Shanahan was included in New City's 2010 feature "The Players, 50 people who really perform for Chicago, writing "discarding the rules of modern dance, Shanahan creates gorgeous organic phrases by observing motion at an atomic level."

Shanahan’s evening-length solo My Name is a Blackbird was listed as one of the "top ten dance moments of the decade" by TimeOut Chicago. Shanahan was included in New City's 2010 feature “The Players, 50 people who really perform for Chicago: "discarding the rules of modern dance, Shanahan creates gorgeous organic phrases by observing motion at an atomic level."

Performances

Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak's work has been performed in Chicago and a myriad of venues in North America. In Chicago, MS/MS is an anchor arts partner at Berger Park and has permanent artist-in-residence status at High Concept Laboratories.

MS/MS is now increasing emphasis on cultivating partnerships and opportunities that will nurture the development of new work within community settings, building audiences for Chicago-based performances, and cultivating touring potential to national and international venues.

Education Program

Shanahan is a member of the Dance Program faculty at Northwestern University, teaches at the Lou Conte Dance Studio and conducts workshops and teaching residencies in Chicago and nationally.

Challenges and Opportunities

Challenges faced by Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak include:

  • Reaching new non-dance audiences who are positioned to appreciate and respond to the work.
  • Increasing Shanahan’s compensation so that the demands of outside teaching don’t compete with her role as generative artist.
  • Providing dancers with fair compensation.
  • Reaching individual donors capable of higher-level gifts.

Zephyr Dance

Michelle Kranicke founded Zephyr Dance in 1989 as an organization committed to showcasing the strength of the feminine voice. Last year, the Artistic Director, was paid less than $15,000 for choreography, direction, management, grant writing, PR, marketing concepts, and administration.

Awards & Critical Acclaim

Zephyr Dance has a history of impressive awards and accomplishments. In January 2006, Michelle Kranicke was awarded a prestigious $15,000 Lab Artist grant from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum.

Her work was nominated for Dance Achievement Awards from the Chicago Dance and Music Alliance in 1998, 2001 and 2003. Associate Artistic Director Emily Stein was nominated in 2001 and 2003.

Audiences and critics alike have described the work as “fascinating and authoritative” (New York Times), “evocatively structured” and “entrancing” (Chicago T ribune) and “remarkably subdued and elegant” (Chicago Reader, Critic’s Choice).

Audiences and critics alike have described Zephyr’s work as “fascinating and authoritative” (New York Times), “evocatively structured” and “entrancing” (Chicago Tribune) and “remarkably subdued and elegant,” (Chicago Reader, Critic’s Choice)

Performances

Over the years Kranicke has choreographed more than 25 works for Zephyr’s repertoire.

In January 2009, Zephyr performed its riveting evening length work Just Left of Remote in the town that inspired the piece, Marfa, Texas. In January 2005, the company performed three benchmark concerts in New York City at the Mulberry Street Theatre. The engagement earned Zephyr significant critical praise from national dance critic Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times who said of Zephyr’s work “... you couldn't look away. What happened onstage throughout the evening was too authentic-looking and authoritative.”

Education Program

Michelle has been involved in cutting edge education work using dance to teach the core curriculum in the Chicago Public School system and is valued for her expertise in curriculum development, working with artists and educators locally and internationally.

She has been a guest artist at Illinois Wesleyan University, Eastern Illinois University, and Ohio Wesleyan University, and taught residencies and master classes in modern dance in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. Michelle is currently a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University teaching in the University’s May Term program.


Mordine & Company Dance Theater

https://www.facebook.com/315582378200/photos/a.397635903200.163142.315582378200/10152747377368201/?type=3&theater

Mordine & Company Dance Theater is the Midwest's longest-running contemporary dance company, celebrating its 40th Anniversary in 2008.

Moving to Chicago in 1969 Shirley Mordine founded the Dance Center of Columbia College and directed it until 1999. Shirley has never taken a salary from her work with Mordine & Company.

Awards and Acclaim

Under the direction of Shirley Mordine, the company has been praised for original choreography that combines wit and sheer movement with technical sophistication.

The Company's work has been described by the Chicago Reader as "a two-edged sword of comedy and drama" and "adventurous, audacious, gutsy, and energetic."

Mordine received the Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Individual Contribution to the field of dance and for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for her ground breaking work combining movement with text, film, video, slides, and computer images.

Columbia College presented Shirley with Columbia College's Presidential Medal for Distinguished Service in 1999.

Most recently, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, proclaimed February 28, 2009, to be "Mordine & Co. Dance Theater Day in Chicago."

Mordine received the first Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Individual Contribution to the field of dance and was honored again in 1994 with a Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for her ground breaking work combining movement with text, film, video, slides, and computer images.  

Performances

Shirley has created several seminal works for the Chicago dance scene including Journey , RSVP , and Tongues. She created the prelude work Subject to Change for the Dubufffet sculpture in the landmark Dancing' in the State event at the State of Illinois Building in 1993.

Shirley has also created the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art's first site-specific work in its new location, Weather Watch.

Over the years, Mordine & Company has worked with a number of illustrious collaborators from diverse artistic disciplines, including choreographers Miguel Mancillas and Ishmael Houston-Jones; composers Tatsu Aoki, Henry Threadgill, Shawn Decker, Richard Woodbury, and David Pavkovic; visual designers John Boesche and Amy Lee Segami; puppeteer Michael Montenegro; video artist Miroslaw Rigala and recently Mark Messing of Mucca Pazza.

This collaborative spirit is part of an ongoing effort by Mordine & Company to infuse the field of dance with new modes of performance and expression.

Education Program

The company serves the dance community by the cultivation of performance and teaching talent. Dancers who work with Mordine & Company have a reputation for a highly developed awareness of dance aesthetics and performance skills. Emerging choreographers with distinctive voices and visions are mentored through the process of creating a new piece for Mordine & Company.

The mentees fully develop these pieces with the support and resources of the Company, and the resulting works are presented in performance with all expenses covered including dancers' sala- ries, technical and production needs, and space rental.

Challenges and Opportunities

Mordine & Company could increase its efficiency and capacity if it had the finances to increase and support an expanded infrastructure -- staff support, such as an Associate Artistic Director and part time Administrative Assistant, as well as physical space, such as an office.

Expanding its performance opportunities would expand its audiences and increase earned income. The organization also hopes to strengthen the ongoing commitment of its dancers and expand its Board. While the Company has an excellent and hard-working Board, recruiting new, committed members with different expertise, would strengthen the Company’s capacity as an organization to retain dancers and expand performances, audiences and financial support.


Lucky Plush Productions 

luckyplush.com/works-2/works-the-sky-hangs-down/ 

Lucky Plush Productions is a dance-theater company founded in 1999. The company creates original works that are known for their distinctive movement style, intellectually bold content, complex choreography and the fusion of contemporary dance with theater and visual design.

Awards & Acclaim

Creative research for Punk Yankees was supported through a fellowship from the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography in 2008-09, and Artistic Director Julia Rhoads was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2010 for her contributions to the field.

The company was featured in the cover story of Time Out Chicago’s “5 reasons to love dance in Chicago”, the Chicago Sun Times’ “lasting memories in dance” for 2005 & 2007, the Chicago Tribune’s article “Best of Dance 2008,” and Julia Rhoads was recently included in the feature “The Players: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago” (1/10).

Lucky Plush was featured in the cover story of Time Out Chicago’s “5 reasons to love dance in Chicago”, the Chicago Sun Times’ “lasting memories in dance” for 2005 & 2007, the Chicago Tribune’s article “Best of Dance 2008,” and Julia Rhoads was recently included in the feature “The Players: The 50 people who really perform for Chicago.”

Performances

Lucky Plush Productions has pre- miered over 30 original works, including performance installations, 2 dance films, and 8 evening-length productions.

Lucky Plush’s distinctive work has appeared in a wide range of venues & festivals including the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Steppenwolf Garage, New York City Center Blackbox Studio, Cusp Conference 2008, Rhinoceros Fringe Theater Festival, Tic Toc Performance, Festival, Ladyfest Midwest, and the Ruth Page Dance Series, among others.

The company has collaborated with Chicago’s Redmoon Theater, Walkabout Theater, Ruffian Pictures, and the collective M5, and it has performed extensively throughout Illinois and toured to Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New York, and Wisconsin.

Challenges and Opportunities

Lucky Plush is experiencing a high level of artistic success and in- creasing national presence. But these achievements aren’t being supported and propelled forward by a growing organizational capacity. The company believes that without effective executive leadership, it may be difficult to sustain the organization.


Same Planet Different World Dance

https://www.facebook.com/SPDWdance/photos/a.10150465505582903.369263.16745722902/10152390082852903/?type=3&theater 

Same Planet Different World (SPDW) was founded in 1997. It has grown into a strong professional presence in the Chicago dance community that has built a reputation for work that is evocative, entertaining and engaging.

Currently, artistic director, Joanna Rosenthal, only pays herself when she performs. She doesn’t receive any money for directing or administrative duties. Last year she made about $2,000.00, which included teaching and performing.

Awards and Acclaim

The company is a recipient of a Joyce Theatre Foundation grant from the A.W.A.R.D. Show! Chicago 2010. SPDW was one of the companies featured in HMS's Chicago Dance Project, which aired on WTTW11 in 2005. SPDW was also listed as one of the best dance performances of 2008 by New City.

Same Planet Different World is a recipient of a Joyce Theatre Foundation grant from the A.W.A.R.D. Show! Chicago 2010. SPDW was also listed as one of the best dance performances of 2008 by New City.

Performances

The company self-produces two shows a year and participates in festivals throughout the Chicago area and elsewhere.

SPDW presents the choreography of artists from across the country, both seasoned veterans as well as up-and-coming innovators, with styles that range from classical to postmodern dance.

The diverse spectrum of work can range from humorous satire to

high-octane virtuosity, but never ceases to delight audiences with performances that are dynamic and inspiring.

Education

SPDW is responsible for the Guest Artists Project, a program that commissions national artists to conduct workshops and the High School Performance Series, which benefits high school students by offering workshops and performances. The companyis also part of Urban Gateways and holds open company classes.

Challenges and Opportunities

Unfortunately, the artistic growth of the company has significantly outpaced its growth as a business, putting considerable strain on the organization.

Additional events mean increased rehearsal time, space rental, dancer pay, and marketing and productioncosts. Whilemanyof these events bring in enough revenue for the company to break even, they do not provide enough revenue for organizational growth.

Unstable economic times are forcing the organization to choose between expanding its artistic vision and strengthening its business model. This year SPDW will focus on growing a strong, proactive board, and gaining the skills to maintain and further develop its board.


The Seldoms

https://www.facebook.com/theseldoms/photos/a.153917303958.115291.8262188958/10154077109568959/?type=3&theater

The Seldoms is a Chicago-based dance company entering its ninth season. The company has built a reputation for bold, unusual collaborations and a full exploration of the other media supporting dance, enabling audiences to experience relevant and engaging performances.

Awards and Acclaim

The group has situated itself in the center of Chicago’s creative community and consistently garners critical acclaim in all major local media outlets, both as a group and for the work of Artistic Director, Carrie Hanson, who has been awarded two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships, the Ruth Page Award for performance, and a 2005 Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum Lab Artist grant. Hanson’s work “GIANT FIX/dance in a pool” was named one of the best dance moments of the decade by TimeOut Chicago.

She was included in New City's 2010 feature "The Players, 50 people who really perform for Chicago.”

Artistic Director Carrie Hanson has twice been awarded two llinois Arts Council Fellowships, the Ruth Page Award for performance, and a 2005 Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum Lab Artist grant. Hanson’s work “GIANT FIX/dance in a pool” was named one of the best dance moments of the decade by TimeOut Chicago.

Performances

Since 2001, The Seldoms has produced twenty full-length programs and performed widely in the Chicago area. The company has performed nationally and embarked on its first international tour in April 2010 to Russia, to participate in the “Isadora” International Festival of Contemporary Dance.

The company’s interest in staging dance outside the traditional theater and within extraordinary settings has resulted in site-specific works for locations including the Lurie Gardens in Chicago's Millennium Park, the Morton Arboretum, a truck garage and an Olympic-sized outdoor pool.

Recently the company was invited to join the New York-based booking agent, Pentacle. The Seldoms will perform at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati in Spring 2011.

Education Program

To cultivate deeper and more direct audience engagement, the Seldoms develop side-programming such as the 2008 “Monumental Talk” post-performance discussion series, which brought a number of environmental activists, architects, and urban planners into a dialogue with the dance work, Monument.

Carrie has recently been a featured panelist for two events - “Body & Sound” presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago and “Ars Scientia,” a program of the Department of Cultural Affairs creating connections between art and science. The Seldoms conduct a yearly summer training intensive led by master teachers of dance and choreography.

Challenges and Opportunities

There are numerous challenges that persist and even threaten the growth and stability of the company, specifically revenue stream and board development.

The company continues to seek new sources of both contributed (foundation, corporate, individual) and earned (summer workshop, performance fees and commissions) income.


Participants included:

Julia Rhoads, Lucky Plush Productions
Jan Bartosek, Hedwig Dances
Carrie Hanson, The Seldoms
Molly Shanahan, Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
Michelle Kranicke, Zephyr Dance
Shirley Mordine, Mordine & Co
Joanna Rosenthal, Same Planet / Different World

Marcia Festen, Arts Work Fund: facilitator
Carl Vogel, Valerie Denney Communications

The Arts Work Fund invests in the financial sustainability, management, governance and growth capacities of small arts and cultural organizations located in the Chicago metropolitan region.

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Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development
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