How to tour your work abroad
How to tour your work abroad
by Miguel Gutierrez
I was invited to speak on a panel on touring abroad for Dance/USA Winter Council, held in Washington, D.C. February 2006. it was definitely longer than five minutes.
Thanks for having me here. I have five minutes and I intend to fill them.
I am on this panel because of my experience as an artist in relation to the topic at hand. I will take advantage of the culturally sanctioned understanding that artists can and should say what they wish in order to speak plainly. It’s not that I think that people here at this conference or on this panel aren’t speaking plainly, it’s just that lately, as an artist, I am committed to pushing past or through, if you will, the professional niceties that subtly regulate the way information in this field is expressed or disseminated. let’s bring the back room talk to the front room. it’s what we all want to know anyway.
The topic is fairly monolithic to me. “Abroad.” You might as well say, anywhere else but here please! I think it’s important, as we walk into this conversation, to realize that “abroad” is actually a collection of a lot of different places, with different aesthetic concerns, economic conditions and cultural attitudes about the importance of bringing U.S. artists. It’s probably best to realize right away that you will have to approach each network of touring differently and that it’s not just about figuring out a “way” in. There are many pores, many possible inroads.
Let me tell you first a little of my experiences with touring abroad. My first experiences with touring abroad were as a dancer. First, with Joe Goode Performance Group and then later, several times over several years when I was dancing with John Jasperse and then one more time as a performer in Sarah Michelson’s Group Experience. When you’re a dancer, touring is the ultimate, the sort of dancer’s raison d’etre. It’s the dream situation, in which you return to a womb-like protective space called reasonable economic security and altered surroundings. Oh how I remember when I was dancing for John the sigh of relief that I’d let out when the car service would come and pick me up to take me to the airport, out of my impoverished, litter-filled bohemian New York life into the comforts of European hotels and meals and well, the general sense that everything in Europe is just better goddammit cuz it’s European. Getting that per diem check was like christmas come early, even though I never managed my tour spending very well, cuz the per diem is, quite honestly, never enough. Who are these unusual creatures exactly who can live abroad on $35 dollars a day? At the end of every tour I was making lunches of ham and cheese sandwiches from the free morning breakfasts of hotels across Germany.
Now I hardly want to paint a self-pitying picture of the touring life. I feel incredibly lucky to have had these experiences. Touring makes you a better dancer, plain and simple. Putting yourself in front of an audience that is not full of your best friends, your best friend’s unwitting co-workers, ex-es, lovers, soon to be lovers, old dance school friends, relatives, and well, the other local dancers who are there to appreciate or secretly compare or disdain, and their best friends, best friend’s co-workers, etc. forces you to look at why you do what you do, and you learn to trust yourself and what you’ve learned and you learn to trust the work and the people you’re performing it with. This kind of experience is absolutely invaluable, and quite frankly, just doesn’t happen in the same way if you never leave home. Also, it’s fantastic to see other places, be in them, realize that the world is bigger than you and your immediate sphere, to see that other people speak differently, eat differently, construct their lives differently, and see art differently than you. I remember the first few times performing in Europe the utter dejection I felt when I’d go to the theater’s cafe after a show and hopelessly waiting for someone, anyone, to come over and tell me and the group how great they thought we were. Well, it never happened. Turns out in other parts of the world they don’t feel that blessedly American need to approve and affirm immediately. Comments like “great job!” “beautiful dancing!” “thanks so much for coming here!” “you’re incredible” “you’re so flexible!” ne’er so much as were whispered in my direction when I toured as a dancer in Europe.
I do remember, however, a certain director of the railway cleaners in Arhus, Denmark, we’ll call him Sven, who gave me the most eloquent and insightful interpretation I’d ever heard of the show I’d just done with john. Sven! The head of the railway cleaners! Can I find him now and beg him to take over the job of chief dance critic at The New York Times, please?? On tour in other countries I was astounded by the layperson’s lack of fear to analyze, intuit and see. You never heard the oft-spoken “Well, I don’t really know how to talk about dance...” a sentence which cripples American audiences who demand and participate in their own willful ignorance. but that’s another panel.
Two other important benefits emerged for me as a dancer on these tours. First, I was able to see a lot of work from other places. while the people I toured with took advantage of the comforts of the hotel beds and local cuisine and underwear garment shops, I dutifully made my way to performances, jet lagged and bleary-eyed, as much hoping, I think, to see cute guys dancing as I was to see good work. I succeeded on both accounts. I was already making my own work, although on a small, mixed evening here and there sort of way. But seeing all of this work also proved invaluable and inspiring to me, as I saw how artists in other places were tackling content, form, cultural significance, aesthetics and specific questions regarding how you perform.
The second benefit of touring, which relates directly to the subject of our panel, is that I participated in festivals and in the general cultural spheres that eventually, in my mind, looked like the kinds of places that I would be interested in performing my own work. As a result, towards the end of my touring career with John, when I had already begun making evening length pieces, I began to approach the presenters at these festivals and introduced myself as a fledgling choreographer. I would give them a press packet, a video of my work, and attempt to say something about what I was working on. Now at this time in my life I was absolutely terrible at speaking with presenters. I would stammer and trip over my words, and generally come across as some kind of neurotic, pathetic recluse who hadn’t interacted with many people before. The truth is, approaching presenters out of the blue is probably not the wisest move. They’re being solicited all of the time and so they probably aren’t in a rush to be approached by one more festival hopeful. Nevertheless, I did this in several different cities, as much to train myself to be courageous, I think, as to expect anything from these interactions.
Reflecting on it now, I recognize some of the main problems of these interactions. One, I didn’t really know what my work was well enough yet to be able to speak about it immediately, succinctly and effectively. And two, my desire for recognition exceeded my understanding of where I was as an artist. That first point is somewhat understandable and can be moot if the presenter you’re talking to happens to elicit information from you about your work in a gracious, simple series of questions. That second point, however, is deadly. Overzealous ambition, in this field at least, is sort of ridiculous. You’re working yourself up for something that you don’t even understand, when you’d be much better served saving that energy for becoming a better artist.
Now another way that I began to travel abroad is through teaching. I am lucky to actually truly enjoy teaching, and it has been part of my dancing career since i was a teenager. Soon after I began teaching on an ongoing basis in New York, I began receiving offers to teach in other places. I also teach regularly at the American Dance Festival. It was by teaching there that about five years ago I was asked to teach in Moscow. When I was there, the summer intensive decided to have a day of video presentations of the work of the different artists who were present at the festival. I showed a ten minute from my first evening length piece, enter the seen. From this presentation, one of my students approached me and said that she worked for a festival in Saint Petersburg and would I be interested in performing there the following year. I said yes, of course. I gave her a video and press information (I had gotten good at traveling with these at all times) and when I went back to New York I followed up with an email and that got us under way. Now this offer being Russian, they offered absolutely no fee, no travel support, and no housing. Hmm, some invitation, right? But I was hopeful. iIdid some research and found Arts International, an organization which, sadly, no longer exists. They had a fund for touring to festivals abroad. I applied, sweated over the grant and we got 10,000 bucks to go to Russia. As a result of these two visits I was invited to Russia the following summer to participate in a cultural exchange program with Russian dance artists. When I was in Moscow that time I ended up at a dinner sitting next to Nikolai Schetnev, a young dance artist from Archangel, who had been putting on a summer festival there called TOUCH. There was a conversation, an exchange of press packets, dvd’s and videos, and emails. Again, I followed up. he invited me officially. I contacted the presenter from Saint Petersburg and said, Hey, I've been invited to a festival in Archangel, maybe I could come and perform in Saint Petersburg, too? He invited me as well. Both invitations offered no fee, although the Archangel festival did offer to put us up and to pay for a workshop. Arts International was now gone, but I discovered the Trust for Mutual Understanding, which specifically funds projects going to Russia. Once again, we were lucky to get the money and so we went.
I had a similar experience in Hong Kong, where I was invited to teach and so then one day on a mad dash of ambition and pure guts I managed to meet all of the main presenters in Hong Kong in a day. The last one I met was the marvelous Catherine Lau, who runs the Hong Kong Fringe Club. In her sauced up madness she said, if you’re ever in Asia again, and you’d like to perform at the Fringe, just let me know. Well as luck would have it, the following summer I was invited to teach in Tokyo. I contacted catherine and said, Hey, if I get myself there can I perform. She agreed, and so I used my frequent flyer miles to book a ticket from Tokyo to Hong Kong and to do my solo there. You may ask, why did I take this risk? Because honestly, about 25 people total probably came to see me perform over the course of three nights in Hong Kong. Well, the answer is simple. I love performing, and I also believe in planting seeds for future possibility, which means that I am willing to take some risks. As for getting myself there, it was just about talking to people and keeping the conversation alive.
But this makes me realize that I've neglected to mention something. The work that I've recently made is inherently easy to tour. I did this on purpose, when realizing, after my last project from two years ago, that no one would touch a set-heavy piece, at least not at this stage in my “career.” When that happened, I asked myself, what do I really need to make a piece of work that i care about? And I realized, not much. My whole worldview pretty much shifted at that time, and I began working with materials that were easy to find anywhere, a tv, vcr, mirror, amplifier, etc. I was inspired by the punk ethos of “do it yourself” and just work with what you’ve got. Strangely enough, as the scale of the work diminished, the clarity of the work expanded. From limitation comes a lot of power, this is something that I've realized in the past two years. Honestly, also, during the last two years, I just put more focus on the work and stopped worrying so much about other people’s impressions of it or of me. Suddenly now I am able to speak much more clearly about what I make because I have spent more time with the work than I have with making a cute press kit, or with looking up some other young choreographer working in Europe who is getting a lot more gigs than me. I have become addicted to my work and to understanding where it is going and I have let my ambition subside.
Not entirely! I have also done what every independent choreographer should do. I’ve hired Julie Alexander. Julie Alexander is a young, extraordinary dancer who also happens to be a kick-ass administrative assistant. She works with me for 4 to 8 hours a week and helps to keep all of the balls in the air. I simply cannot manage this work by myself, and working with an excellent administrator makes a huge difference. Now, as is so often the case, however, she also happens to be a beautiful dancer and so I know that she isn’t going to work with me forever. And also, sadly, there are so few resources for administrative funds. I’ve applied twice to New York Foundation for the Arts BUILD programs and have gotten rejected. So it’s been on me to fundraise for this position and at this point - it’s just coming out of my income and from some of the gigs that I’ve had over the last few months. But basically the message here is that Julie provides a buffer between me and presenting organizations so that the nitty gritty details can be handled by her and so I can try to focus more on just making the work.
There are two more points I want to make about how to tour abroad. First I’ve been very lucky to cultivate the support of New York presenters who themselves can act as advocates on my behalf to international presenters. When I say “cultivated” i don’t mean much more than being friendly and honest. I don’t much like sucking up to people in positions of power or authority in this field. I hate how that makes me feel endlessly infantilized so I choose to make these relationships conversational rather than steeped in dynamics of power or “what can you do for me” undertones. But for example, a few years ago, Cathy Edwards, director of Dance Theater Workshop, passed my name on to Simon Dove, the presenter of Springdance, a festival in the Netherlands. It just so happened that I was performing in Amsterdam and Belgium a few months after that introduction and so I had the chance to meet with Simon for lunch in Utrecht. Now this was when I was way more overzealous and tongue tied but fortunately for me Simon was very easy to talk to. TWO YEARS later, I’ve been invited to participate in their festival. Two years isn’t very long really, but it’s longer than what you think is going to happen when you meet a presenter in another country. The second thing that’s happened is that I’ve met Wouter Bouchez, who co-runs Performing Arts International, a young, European based organization trying to bring a new generation of U.S. based dance artists to europe. I met wouter last year through my friend and fellow artist Jeremy Wade, who introduced him to me. He came to watch a rehearsal run of my work in the studio and now, a year later, we’re finally in contact regarding the possibility of setting up other performance possibilities in Europe.
I suppose that the lesson here is patience. You don’t know what presenters are looking for, if you fit that or not, or if the timing is going to be right. So don’t drive yourself crazy or walk around assuming that anyone owes you a gig. Stay open to possibility and just try to remain clear. And be careful of what you wish for. I find now, as the director of my own work, that touring is no longer the icing on the cake of this field. It’s a lot of administrative work, a lot of financial haggling, and, as the choreographer, you can expect to work around the clock to make sure that your presentation goes off as you want. It’s no longer the little cradle that it once felt like when I was only responsible for dancing.
My personal goal when I tour is to find ways to ensure that the “cultural exchange” that is so often just paid lip service to on these tours actually happens. One extraordinary example of this was last summer in Archangel. On the last day of the festival, Nikolai gathered all of the festival performers and students from the workshops and we drove 40 kilometers to the White Sea, where we ran along the beach, made a campfire and basically just hung out together. We weren’t officially “dancing” but it was a unique experience that could come from having gone there to perform.
So I’d like to close with some main points from my experience on how to tour your work abroad:
1- Familiarize yourself with the presenting circles that make sense for your work. Who are the people performing in them, who are the presenters?
2- Realize that the world is a big place, it’s not just Western Europe and sexy festivals. There are emerging contemporary dance scenes all over the world and there is funding support to bring yourself there.
3- Be willing to balance between self-production and presentation in overseas venues. Again, this depends on where you’re interested in going.
4- Be friendly. Introduce yourself to people when you go places. Don’t expect anything from these conversations but just be able to speak clearly and simple about who you are and what you do.
5- Be a good listener. Part of what makes cultural exchange possible is paying attention to the ways in which cultural conditions are in a constant state of change.
6- Hire a manager who is good! Keep your structure simple and your ear to the ground.
7- Establish relationships with your local presenters who can advocate on your behalf.
8- Be realistic. Maybe touring your 30 person dance which has an operatic set isn’t the most likely thing to happen. Although, at the same time I will say that you should make exactly the work that you want to.
9- Make really really really really good work and stop worrying about touring so much. Let the networks come to you.
and finally 10- If you wanna perform in Europe, take your clothes off, and if you wanna perform in Japan, keep them on.