Thursday, December 11, 2014

A New Sense of Value at the Core

This article originally appeared in the Dance/USA Journal, Vo. 25, No.1, Spring 2009, as part of a series of comments on the state of the field from a diverse set of DUSA Trustees.

Recently, my family entered the 21st century by getting a DVR. Suddenly, we are able to choose and enjoy any entertainment offering when and how we want it. We have been freed from the past, where the only way to experience culture was communally, joining with others at a set time to partake in what was being offered.

This change has been coming for a long time. Television, like radio before it, fostered a regular presence for the performing arts that one could enjoy in private. As is inevitable, technology has continued to advance so that information and experiences are now available on demand, at any place and any time. The result, epitomized by the DVR and like devices, is that each of us can act as a curator, determining our own personalized entertainment, obviating the need for communal experiences, which is inherently a part of what we in the dance community do best.

Studies show that the most reliable predictors of commitment to the arts are continued exposure and education, whether in a formal setting (such as at school), or in a private setting (such as in the home). Those who make the commitment are guided to it by their own private curator(s). It is not surprising, then, that as individualization has replaced community, we have lost the innate appreciation for and valuing of the live arts, which we as a nation should hold dear. Even worse, life is often experienced today through simulacra, replacing real experiences with ones that we believe are real. Umberto Eco would say, rather than using these representations to invoke previous memories, we now take them as the real thing without yearning for the lost original.

As a response to this individualization of experience, engaging audiences - meeting them on their own terms to empower their individualization - is currently a high priority among funders and administrators. Recent studies conclude that although more people participate in dance and classical music than ever before, fewer and fewer experience these arts in the theater or concert hall. In a world of individualized experience, culture is falling prey to the elevation of the individual over the communal. Opera and theater director Peter Sellars, at the American Symphony Orchestra League (now known as the League of American Orchestras) annual conference two years ago, described how he and Music Director Esa Pekka Salonen moved the Los Angeles Philharmonic out of the concert hall. Others have embarked on similar efforts to redefine the relationship between audiences and classical arts.

Last spring, impresario Gerard Mortier, at his keynote address to Opera America, implored us to remember that performance is truly unique and transcendental when it is experienced live. Peter Gelb, who as general manager redefined the Metropolitan Opera by offering performances around the world in high-definition video transmission, believes that his program's success depends on audiences in Des Moines, Palm Beach, San Antonio, and Edinburgh knowing that they are simultaneously watching a live performance along with 3,600 others sitting in the theater in New York.

Curious about how younger people feel about live performance, I asked my son (for whom technology and on-demand access to information and experience are innate) about it because he periodically asks me to take him to a ballet or opera performance. He told me that live performance is all-enveloping and cannot be matched by a two-dimensional version of the same experience. It might be satisfying in a different way, but it is not the same.

Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report on the state of theater around the country. It concluded that we have successfully stimulated the supply of theater performances and spaces over recent decades, but put little effort into stimulating demand. The result is an over-capacity of theaters and theatrical offerings with insufficient demand to draw adequate audiences.

At New York City Ballet, we perform seven times a week for 23 weeks in our home theater each year. Like many of our Dance/USA colleagues, we are suffering from decreasing demand and outlets for our artistry. We now sell 330,000 tickets annually in New York, a decline from the 400,000-plus tickets we sold 25 years ago. Increasing costs are conspiring with these diminishing audiences to threaten our very business model. I spend much of my day learning to address this challenge - whether through exploring ways to increase audiences or re-imagining how we present our work to make it more available to more people in more places.

But these efforts, and those of my colleagues, will be for naught unless there are audiences who appreciate and value the live performing arts we esteem. Sufficient demand for our art is essential to our future and the future of the field. And it is the only way to assure the future of our artists' unique work and its relevance. Herein, then, lies the crux of the matter: unless we are able to inculcate a new sense of value for the live performances we all believe so deeply are core to our dance experience, we are in danger - in danger of losing our relevance and our very future,.

This is the greatest challenge we face and I urge all of us - government, foundations, administrators, and artists - to face it head on and with all earnestness. I am unsure of how to accomplish it or what the answer is, but, one way or another, we must all commit to what we have neglected over recent decades: stimulating demand and appreciation for live cultural performances.

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