The World of Dance Tries Out New Moves on the Web
Source: NY TIMES by Julie Bloom
For proof of dance’s mainstream popularity on the Internet, look no further than YouTube. That site’s most-viewed video, an absurdly silly stand-up comedy routine called “Evolution of Dance” (youtube.com/watch?v=dMH0bHeiRNg), still captures hit after hit. But until recently, such attention to movement on the Web has largely eluded the professional dance world.
In the past year dance has finally carved out a space for itself online as dancers, choreographers and institutions embraced the Internet with video, blogs and new Web sites. Now artists are using the medium as a way not just to build awareness for their work but also to change the nature of the form.
Driving these developments is a wave of young dance artists, among them Camille A. Brown, the 28-year-old choreographer whose new work, “The Groove to Nobody’s Business,” had its premiere this month as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater‘s season at City Center. (“Groove” has its final performance on Saturday.)
Along with the pictures of friends and shout-outs to the singer Jill Scott and the actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, Ms. Brown’s MySpace page, profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=68029298, is flooded with studio portraits, reviews of “Groove” and blog entries about the City Center engagement, as well as an up-to-date calendar of her performance schedule.
Ms. Brown, who put up her page a year ago, is one of many young artists using the Web as a way to level the artistic playing field.
“Everyone has a page,” she said, “and people have contacted me about jobs through MySpace – both dancers looking for jobs and directors who want to use my work. A lot of companies have them now.” These include companies as diverse as Martha Graham and the Pennsylvania Ballet.
“It’s the sign of the times,” Ms. Brown added. “A year ago it wasn’t really geared toward business, but in the past six months it’s been turning into that. The amount of contacts you can have – you can send out a bulletin about your show, and all of your friends, whether it’s 1,000 people or whatever, can find out about it. You can reach so many people.”
Reaching out and connecting with fellow dancers is a big part of what going online is about. When Jennifer Alexander, a corps dancer with American Ballet Theater, was killed in a car crash in early December, her colleague David Hallberg paid tribute with photos and reminisces on The Winger (thewinger.com/words/), a blog started by Kristin Sloan, a 27-year old former dancer with New York City Ballet who is now the new-media director for the company. His posts were met with an outpouring of comments.
“The dance world, particularly ballet, is very closed and isolated,” Ms. Sloan said. “It’s supposed to be mysterious, which kind of goes against everything today. There are tons of reality TV shows; people want to know what goes on behind the scenes, and what goes into creating things.”
Ms. Sloan started by posting photos, which she took backstage, and eventually other artists, including Mr. Hallberg, wanted to contribute. “I did a lot of blogging in Saratoga in 2005,” she said. “I did it from my mobile phone, and there was no community online yet to provide links or anything. It’s not like now; you make a blog and everyone knows about it. It was literally a needle in a haystack of nothing.”
Dance Theater Workshop (dancetheaterworkshop.org/) rolled out the first phase of its new Web site in September. With constantly changing photographs and video, the new site is sleeker and inspired by sites as diverse as those for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and MC Hammer’s Dance Jam. The workshop put $25,000 into making the site more user-friendly.
“We knew we wanted there to be much more movement,” said Megan Sprenger, the workshop’s marketing director. “On the previous site there was almost none, and here’s a movement institution with no video. What’s that about?”
“So definitely we wanted much more motion,” she said, “and to have it be a part of the DNA, which is why we chose the changing colors. Every click, it changes colors to kind of subconsciously highlight the user’s movement through the site.”
The site now also focuses more on resources for artists and international programming. “People didn’t even know we offered grants,” Ms. Sprenger said, “and it was because it was buried in the navigation bar.”
The next phases of the rollout, expected in February and in the fall, will involve creating a members-only section, turning the artists’ directory into a collection of profile pages like those on MySpace.
“It’s a place for them to speak to each other,” Ms. Sprenger said. “Now we have a member directory that lists those people and links to their Web site if they have one. What we’re doing in the fall is making it much more depthful.” She said the site would provide members with pictures, links to video and a networking system.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (merce.org) is also moving much of its focus online, said Trevor Carlson, the company’s executive director. “We’ve been engaging in biweekly e-newsletters and e-mails,” he said. “The biggest thing we recognize is that Web access is really driving the way that we communicate with one another, and how can we utilize that form of technology not only to communicate but to influence our creative concepts?”
This focus is hardly surprising for Mr. Cunningham, who has spent much of his career experimenting with technology, from incorporating iPod shuffles into a dance score to using DanceForms software, which allows him to visualize and chronicle dance steps in 3-D images.
Other companies, including New York City Ballet, are putting their entire repertory online. This winter season the company will have video clips of performances and rehearsals, as well as background information for each piece on its Web site, nycballet.com. Voice of Dance (voiceofdance.com/new.cfm), which went online 10 years ago, is restarting in January with an interactive global dance directory, dance news, a video gallery and sections devoted to various styles.
“You’ll have a big directory, and you can see all these different styles of dance and all these different companies, and sample and see the video and listen to the music,” said Lori Smith Sparrow, the Web site’s chief executive. “People can really have a quality little snippet of what they can see onstage, and it means something, and they can have it on their computer or on their phone.”
This emphasis on video is a recurring theme. “Video is dance’s best marketing, and if you can use it and broadcast it to Mars, you should,” Ms. Sprenger said. “So we’re really trying to put up as much video as possible. Video performance art is what we’re interested in, and using video in that way to promote dance.”
For dance, an art form that has always struggled with issues of preservation, online video may provide a kind of solution. On MySpace, tribute pages for great artists like Anna Pavolva, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn include photos and video that provide a public archive of their work. Sadler’s Wells in London now has its own YouTube channel, and more institutions are following suit, despite continuing questions about media rights for artists on the Web.
This fall Voice of Dance teamed with YouTube for a competition, inviting professionals and amateurs alike to submit a two-minute dance; there are plans to continue with a series of competitions online. “We got everyone from 12-year-old hip-hoppers to college dance students to professional companies submitting videos,” Ms. Sparrow said. “I think that people are starting to see the real value of it.”
In a kind of reverse influence, artists are using video in different ways in performance, as seen in the New York debut of Christopher Wheeldon‘s company, Morphoses, at City Center in October. Carefully edited rehearsals shown before each work served as mini-trailers, possibly a sign of things to come.
“With movies you get a preview,” said Ms. Sloan, the blogger. “But with dance it’s a huge leap of faith. For some companies it’s a really expensive ticket, and you don’t know what you’re going to see.”
“So,” she added, “if there’s any way of letting them know, helping them make decisions about what they might like; there’s a lot of different kinds of dance out there.”