What Future For Dance?

by Neil Nisbet

President George W. Bush is often accused of living behind a so-called “reality distortion field ‘ that protects him from what is actually going on in the world. No matter how badly things are going in Iraq, how many jobs are lost in the US or what public opinion is of the man there he sits, oblivious, pretending, in public at least, that all is well.

We could accuse many dance makers and the industry in general of living behind just such a distortion field.Existing in an alternate universe where the rest of the world as sophisticated and technologically advanced as it is simply does not exist.

While the consequences of the President’s ignorance are, all too often, grave in nature, dance suffers in terms of a public profile so thin it almost doesn ‘t exist.

At the end of this year Microsoft will release their long anticipated update to the Xbox games console, snappily titled the Xbox 360. Early next year Sony Corp. will release the Playstation 3 onto a suspecting world. These two ‘games ‘ consoles will feature computer graphics, soundtracks and user experiences of such mind blowing quality that the lines between reality and ‘games ‘ will become even more blurred. No one playing computer games 10 years ago would have thought such lofty heights possible.

Now the games themselves may be forgettable but the point is the world got smarter and more sophisticated very quickly indeed, reacting to the growing need of the general public for ‘bigger, better, faster ‘. Everybody else seems to be keeping up but somebody forgot to wake up the dance profession!

At the moment this art form lays slumbering, sunning itself on a rock oblivious to the rapid changes around it, even if it did wake up there would be little expectation that it could react.

This editorial had grown by several paragraphs, since deleted, when something started stirring in the murky depths of our collective minds here in the Lab. We had said all this before, four years ago, in October 2001. Back then we lamented the lack of progress dance was making in relation to both rival art forms, like cinema and television and other forms of entertainment, like computer games.

Whether the arts like it or not they are competing for attention and ticket sales against mediums that are far more able to lure the masses into their tent, so to speak, and it is all too easy to say this gaping chasm in sophistication is because of money or the lack of it. Let’s face it, the computer games industry pumps millions into the production of just one game, no matter how bad it may be, and the resulting media onslaught in all markets (television, cinema, print, billboards, etc) is hard to miss.

The results however are obvious to see. Despite protestations of being hurt by piracy the games industry is a multi billion dollar sales epic with no downturn in sight.

Obviously dance cannot compete in financial terms against the media machines of film and computer games but the art form could do so much more than it does at present to try and get some attention to sell its ‘ wares to an ambivalent public.

The Fight Back

We have said this so many times we are hoarse from the repetition; “Sort out your website!”. In the last four years the Internet has grown beyond all expectations. The number of people with access to broadband (high speed internet connections) number more than 7.5 million in the UK alone.

They want that high speed access for a reason, and the reason is not pornography or cheap flights, it’s information. People love having information at their fingertips about things that interest them and the internet is the perfect way to deliver that information right into their own home at very little cost to the originator.

However, as with four years ago little has been done to improve the online presence of dance. Some sites have become a little more presentable but the NDA ‘s, the central point of dance information in the UK, still come up short in the design and the information stakes. The internet offers the art form the means to present media rich, interactive content on demand and detailed information that can compete, in presentation terms at least, with the multi billion dollar movie and games industry.

When the internet was in its ‘ infancy the idiom was ‘content is king ‘ and that still rings true today. Up to date information is everything and being able to find it is the key to having an online presence that is not only popular but provides tremendous value to the organisation that owns it.

A common argument among NDA ‘s is that staff simply don ‘t have the time to update websites even if they had the skills to do so. We readily agree that some NDA staff are pushed to their limits in terms of what they can physically get done in one day. The answer lies in re-tasking their time, providing them with the tools to get the job done and re-prioritising the communications message away from printed flyers and local press.

If a website stagnates and the content becomes old then a first time visitor will not come back, a potential customer lost to an art form that has an awful lot to sell.The tools to update websites quickly and easily are readily available for very little money (or in some cases for no money at all!) Time of course needs to be taken by staff and administrators to learn these tools and implement new systems but it is surely time well spent and progress is dependent on the willingness of organisations to adapt to the changing times.

Dance companies are also guilty of not thinking things through when implementing changes in their online presence. One dance company recently altered links on its website to point to their own video content rather than a feature about the company on Article19 itself. It’s great that the company was featuring its own video but why remove the link to additional material about your own company when that information is provided at no cost?

The company also created its own self contained archives of material obtained from other websites in a format that is completely inaccessible to their users. Not only is this a little foolish because it simply does not work but it’s also illegal!

Some progress is being made but it’s glacial in speed and there are too many mistakes being made.

Pulp the Leaflets

Leaflets are probably the most used/overused weapon in the fight to grab the attention of the general public. Millions of these insidious, unsophisticated things are printed and thrown away each year with about as much positive effect as yelling at squirrels for running around in your garden!

The costs of the this paper and ink madness can be calculated in monetary terms, enormous environmental waste and lost time by administrators dealing with having the material designed, printed and distributed. You don ‘t escape our mocking gaze just because you print on recycled paper either. The printing industry, along with photo printing, are responsible for producing some of the most toxic chemical waste in existence. The paper may well be recycled but the inks, dyes, glues and glossy finish are not!

Common sense would dictate that it is far more practical to print a single poster that can be seen by 5,000 people than print 5,000 leaflets and try and put them in the hands of 5,000 people one at a time. In this modern age is it not about time we put an end to the catastrophic financial and environmental waste that is making a substantial contribution to this poor planet choking under the weight of billion tons of paper.

This is not a particular fight that the arts can win all on its own. Local authorities must be persuaded to designate high visibility poster sites for arts and community use only. Such sites are already used for commercial purposes so there is no reason not to hand some of them over to arts promoters for free. We are not suggesting places for A4 sheets of paper stuck down a side street either, right in the middle of the shopping centre or next to the local multiplex will be just fine.

Large electronic screens for serving media rich content, such as video material or animated graphics could also be installed in similarly high traffic positions around city centers. Content could be served straight from arts facilities over local high speed lines. Management of such resources would undoubtedly raise the hackles of some nervous bureaucrats but there is a tremendous arts and community promotion upside to be had by installing such systems so they need to be looked at seriously by local law makers.

You may think that such hi-tech projects are only pipe dreams but the technology exists and is readily available, you just have to run some cable!

It is doubtful if such sites, electronic or otherwise, would help dance or the arts gain visibility that translates into significantly higher audience numbers. It would certainly be cheaper however and far more environmentally friendly and a lot less management would be required by staff freeing up their time to tackle other tasks.

Let us also not forget that sending out 5,000 emails costs nothing, or almost nothing depending on your service provider, and as long as people have agreed to receive promotional material you can ‘t be accused of spamming.

Some will argue that email advertising is just as likely to end up in the trash as a leaflet. This is certainly true but the e-flyer creates no waste and costs a lot less money! It should also not be forgotten that emails and images can be received on PDA ‘s and mobile phones, distribution is not restricted to computers in the home or office.

Get Smart, Get Sophisticated

Dance needs to gear itself up for the rapidly changing world which it finds itself a part of. Instead of being the dusty old grandparent shouting randomly from the corner of the room it needs to move front and center using sophisticated, off the shelf technology, software tools and new methods to push a modern message in a manner more in tune with the 21st century.

Engaging local law makers to assist in pushing this message is also essential to secure promotional sites around urban centers, both technological and traditional. Devising new methods to get the message out and intelligent use of the internet and email is fiscally and environmentally responsible and you never know, it may just work!

Don ‘t make us write this editorial again in another four years.