by Neil Nisbet
Booking a tour for a dance company is an unnerving experience, especially for those new to the game. What better solution than to ask someone who knows the ins and outs for a little bit of advice then? Gwen Van Spijk has been working in dance administration for 18 years. After promoting and fund raising for Motionhouse Dance Theatre for five years she broke into freelance work, creating CUE in the process, and currently promotes New Art Club, Nigel Charnock, Charles Linehan , Russell Maliphant and many more.
Article19: What are the basic principles that you follow to begin booking a tour for a new piece of work?
The first principle is seeing the work and preferably live. I wouldn't take on booking a tour for a company whose work I had never seen. The next thing I do is take a cold hard look at the work and then think about the venues which are appropriate for that work. So it's really about doing research and identifying the right venues for that artist and their choreography at that point in time. Another thing is to do a feasibility study and test out if the venues that I think are appropriate are in fact likely to be interested because, of course, people's programming plans and policies change.
So research, then a feasibility study and moving on from that coming up with a tour strategy or deciding that it's not appropriate to try and book a tour for this work.
Everyone communicates really differently and I guess it another principal is knowing how different promoters work and having an ongoing relationship with them as much as possible so that you know, this person responds better to email, this person responds better to a phone call or this person I should go and try and meet.
What I don't do is a huge mass mail-out [ followed by ] a huge telephone campaign because, for me, that just doesn't work. So try to build a one on one relationship with a promoter in a way that works for them and for me and the company [I'm promoting].
Article19: Are the UK and mainland Europe different in terms of how you approach them?
It's becoming much more similar than it used to be because now promoters in the UK do want to see work before they book it. People used to book "on-spec" or they would see a nice piece of publicity and think "oh that looks good" I'll book it. They don't do that anymore, they want to see the work, they want to have a better understanding of the company and the their aspirations. So it goes back to that idea of having a relationship.
Certainly, for Europe, promoters really do want to see the work and have a real insight into how the company operates.
What you get in terms of [promoting] in Europe is the involvement of the British Council. The British Council can be incredibly helpful in terms of promoting a company internationally. They have a portfolio of companies that they regularly work with and if you are in that portfolio there are huge benefits in terms of getting your work distributed internationally.
Article19: What happens if you see a good piece of work but think it will be a tough fit for any venue?
It's pretty much the same process. It's saying to the company "why do you want to tour this work?" People have got to want to tour and they've got to understand that it's really hard work. It's a huge investment of resources for which there is very little return. So they've got to have a really clear interest in touring and it has to be a big feature of what they want to do, it's not an incidental thing [and] it's not a way of getting rich quick.
So if a company comes to me with a piece of work that I think is not appropriate for touring then my question is "why do you wan to tour it?" because it presents [certain] challenges in terms of touring. So perhaps we should look at doing a one off event, finding a partner to co-produce or [something else].
Article19: What are the common pitfalls for companies and administrators when they try and promote their first show?
I think one of the common pitfalls of younger companies or people who have not done touring is thinking that there are hundreds of venues out there so I'll send out my publicity and then [call] them all up and they are all going to want to book the work. That's really not how it works.
The other thing is people under-budget for touring and they overestimate the income they are likely to get. They are also not realistic about the financial equations on the promoters side because it really does cost promoters a lot of money to present a show and people under estimate how much that is and therefore they have unrealistic expectations of the kind of fee they can expect particularly in this country (UK).
Another problem is people not knowing what to speak to promoters about and using inappropriate language.
Article19: What do promoters really need to know?
They want to know what the show is about in really clear, simple English. They don't want the show to be over hyped. What kind of movement language is it? Is it athletic, is it slow [and so on]. Is there a set? Are there projections? Just a really simple description of the piece.
[They don't want to know] that this is the most innovative piece of theatre ever.
[Let them know] where else the show has been and what the company's history is. It's also good to let them know what kind of backup the company can provide in terms of marketing support and education work.
Are there any specific technical issues that need to be addressed! Promoters hate it if they book a show and then, all of a sudden, discover there are massive technical implications.
This goes back to the idea of doing research. If a show has particular technical requirements [don't] approach venues that are inappropriate for them.
Article19: What type of publicity materials do you prefer to use?
I send a two or three page document which gives a history of the company, description of the piece, technical requirements, what we're going to provide in terms of marketing, what our education offer might be and an indication of the fees.
If they ask for video material [or] if they haven't seen the company's work before then I would send a DVD.
Article19: In the internet age, are promoters referring to dance company websites?
I think they're increasingly using websites and it's great if you can refer a promoter to a really good website. You can say "please go to our website and you can download a PDF of our tech spec, a description of the show [and] there is a video clip on the website". So if you've got a good website it can be really useful. But, it's got to be a good one otherwise it becomes counter productive.
Article19: In your view, what makes an effective company website?
Really simple layout, a menu that's easy to navigate and re-appears on every page so wherever you are on the website you can get to where you want to go. Not too much information on the website itself but easy access to downloadable information. So, as I've said, technical specification as a PDF, perhaps, images that can be downloaded, copy that can be downloaded, all that kind of thing.
Visually uncluttered, easy to navigate with information that can be downloaded that is of use to the promoter.
Article19: What's the advantage of having a dedicated administrator/tour booker over doing it for yourself?
Some presenters prefer to negotiate financially with someone who is not the artist. They [the administrator] will be honest about the work or their feelings about the work. I think people feel they don't want to be compromised by having a conversation directly with the artist where they feel they can't say what they really think because they might offend them.
What I think is great for artists to bring to that dialogue is their passion and enthusiasm for their work! It's also great for an artist and the administrator to visit a venue as part of building that relationship. So, the promoter gets to meet the artist, sees them as a real person and gets enthused by the artist's enthusiasm. Then the administrator picks up the dialogue and gets stuck into the nitty gritty. So in an ideal world, both people are involved.
Article19: Have you noticed any specific trends over the last few years, what work is touring the most?
What has been interesting over the past few years is the consolidation of things like the Dance Touring Partnership (DTP) which has really sewn up middle scale [touring] and makes it difficult for companies that are not embraced by that consortium to actually tour.
DTP is really into dance theatre for instance. So I think dance theatre is what tends to be the main trend at the middle scale and companies like Siobhan Davies, who tour a much purer contemporary dance, are touring less and less. Promoter are finding it harder and harder to sell work that is not accessible, for want of a better word.
Dance theatre tends to be more accessible because there's a narrative. Also, there is a real trend towards one off, site specific projects. A number of artists seem to be moving away from touring and doing one off events, taking dance out of the theatre and into different places.