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If winning a “best of” award at the Capital Fringe Festival were really important to a performing artist, the category to enter this year was dance. In what should have been an even-odds contest, DC Aerial Collective’s UPHeaval ended up tying with an all-female modern dance show called SHE.
Those were the only entrants.
Dance participation in the 6-year-old Capital Fringe hit a new low this year, with only a pair of troupes participating. Two years ago, there were 10. So what happened?
“Maybe there just aren’t a lot of people who want to do dance at the festival,” is pretty much all the speculation Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza offers.
Plenty of local companies want to do dance at Fringe; they have in the past, and they say they might have this year. But they also voiced concerns about economics, questionable venues, logistical difficulties, and the challenges of drawing an audience at the festival. In contrast, other cities, like Philadelphia, host fringe festivals that are rich in dance programming.
Cynthia Word, artistic director of Word Dance Theatre, succinctly sums up the money problem: “If you want to pay your dancers, it is impossible to break even.”
In 2008 and 2009, Word’s company presented Revolutionary! Isadora Duncan at the festival. Through monologues and short, reconstructed dances, the company recounted Isadora Duncan’s life and tragic death as a modern-dance pioneer. (If you know nothing else about Duncan, you may recall that she died when her silk scarf became tangled in the wheels of a Bugatti.)
Word considers both Fringe performances trial runs in which she tweaked Revolutionary! 2008 was especially successful. The Harman Center’s basement (no longer a Fringe venue) brought in more foot traffic, she says, than the Mount Vernon Square church where she drew considerably smaller crowds the next year. (I recall seeing the show with fewer than 20 people.)
But it was worth it, Word says, because Revolutionary! has had quite a life after Fringe. In 2010, Word was accepted into Charleston, S.C.’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival. In 2012, she might return to Fringe again.
“I had a good experience,” Word says. “But you have either have to be just starting out or looking to test out a new work. Otherwise, if you are an established local dance company, you really have to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
That’s the question choreographer Daniel Phoenix Singh faced three years ago, when he decided to stage a Find-Your-Own-Venue Fringe show at, of all places, the 9:30 Club. It wasn’t a packed house, but he did draw a respectful crowd of young, artsy people who sipped drinks in the balcony, watching tango and modern dance performances set to songs by the likes of Poe and Aimee Mann.
“For me, the biggest thing was audience development, and that didn’t happen, so it didn’t make sense for me to do it again,” Singh says. This year, Dakshina, his 8-year-old company, did have a show during the same time as the festival, but he opted out of Fringe.
“The structure of Fringe lends itself better to individual artists,” he says. A dual dance and computer science grad from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Singh is a good artist to throw number questions at, so he took a look at last year’s Fringe stats: 33,800 tickets sold for 715 performances.
“The numbers don’t make it worthwhile to a company like us, that has 12-13 dancers, and only 47 people coming to the average show,” Singh says. “Half the people there could be onstage.”
In order to recoup their upfront investment of $775 in application and insurance fees, Fringe artists need butts in seats. Artists get back about 70 percent of ticket sales. This year, that meant they needed at least 60 patrons just to cover the upfront costs, and that’s assuming those people were paying $17 a ticket, rather than $12 after the cost was cut for the final, heat-drenched weekend.
“It’s an expensive venture,” says Carla Perlo, co-director of Dance Place, the Brookland venue that presents pretty much any dance company not big enough to book the Kennedy Center. For the size of the dance community, and the size of the festival, Perlo says, “dance has always been underrepresented at Fringe.”
Both she and Singh agree that Fringe venues are less than appealing performance spaces, and that’s a big part of the problem.
Brienza proudly points out that the festival installs a sprung floor every year. She’s right. This is awesome. But it’s in the Apothecary. And over on Washington City Paper’s Fringe & Purge blog, there’s been pretty broad agreement that despite attempted A/C improvements, this abandoned crackhouse-style venue dispenses only sweat.
Putting the dancers and other movement-theater troupes in the hottest indoor venue doesn’t make much sense. It’s also one of the smallest, comfortably seating maybe 25 or so in pew seating around the dance floor, which is only about 10 by 15 yards and backs up against a brick wall. If that wall could talk, it would tell you about the many performers’ body parts that it’s bruised over the years.
One such resilient body belongs to Kjerstin Lysne, the young dancer and choreographer who created last year’s groundbreaking (snap)shots on a Greyhound Headed Home, a starkly beautiful work that, in true Fringe form, involved women disrobing, fake blood, and a pistol. The show ended with an ooze of red and a shower of paper hearts.
“I still get chills when I think about that performance,” Perlo says. “And I still feel that Fringe is an outlet for people who do really cutting-edge stuff.”
But as powerful a Fringe debut as Lynse had in D.C.—she moved here after graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ highly regarded dance program—she didn’t stick around. She has since moved home to Fargo, N.D., and is hoping to take her career overseas, says Perlo. (Lynse has performed with Perlo’s troupe, Carla & Co.). The District, Perlo says, has a limited appetite for really experimental dance. Unless your show involves blood and guts and existential angst, you might be better off renting an (air-conditioned) venue for a night.
She points out that in recent years, more spaces have become available for dancers, including the Lansburgh, Woolly Mammoth, the Atlas, and Baltimore’s Theater Project. And unlike at Fringe, you may get rehearsal time and tech support as part of the deal.
“Dancers are not feeling as driven to be part of the Fringe,” Perlo says.
That was certainly true for the Dance Exchange, the Takoma Park–based company that opted not to participate for the first time in six years. Each previous year, the company had found its own venue and offered a free site-specific performance under Fringe auspices. In 2009, the company staged a show at the Corcoran Gallery, helping the museum set a Saturday admission record.
These performances were all very much in the Fringe spirit: temporal, multidisciplinary, and unconventional. They were also possible because Dance Exchange was so savvy with its financial planning. Last year’s performance—set in a parking garage—was commissioned by the National Building Museum, and many of the dancers were actually students taking a Dance Exchange summer class. Which meant not only did they not have to be paid to appear, but they were paying the company.
“It was a difficult decision for us not to be in Fringe this year,” says Emily Macel Theys, the company’s communications and development director. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t go back to it, but we are sort of having our own Fringe performance outside of the festival.”
The company struggled to find a venue downtown that would meet the choreographers’ requirements and accessibility standards, Theys says. In the end, Dance Exchange decided to hold its July 23 show in-house.
It was a good five years. Dancers and choreographers—even the city’s best—have given Fringe a shot. Maybe they’ll be back next year. But for a variety of reasons, this just isn’t a committed artistic relationship. You can’t say that dancers haven’t tried to make it work.
Illustration by Carey Jordan