EDA Profile of The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts

Building a Cooperative Dance Community within a City

Dance companies that work together within a community might see both financial and logistical benefits, and increased connections among their audiences. But how might such a cooperative dance community evolve within a city? What are the motivations and rewards for the dance companies who participate and the audiences who view and support them? How could such a network encourage dance companies to share their audiences, if it means they can achieve a common goal of increasing audiences for the art form overall?

The Cowles Center and its consortium partners (ARENA Dances, Black Label Movement, James Sewell Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Ragamala Dance, Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater, Zenon Dance Company, and Zorongo Flamenco) believe that the most loyal and sophisticated dance audience is one that is fully engaged with the field at large and can enjoy multiple types, genres, and companies. These partners are working together to transform “silo-ed” audiences, or those currently divided amongst their companies, into audiences for the broader dance community, and ultimately transform fans of dance into ambassadors for the art form. The consortium at Cowles has been developing collaborative strategies in management, marketing, and performance.

The Cowles Center and its partners hoped to develop a model for a collaborative dance consortium that both works on a local level and can be adopted by dance audiences throughout the country. Yet this project came at an interesting, yet daunting time for the organization, as it opened its brand new, state of the art facility for dance and performance. An environmental challenge within the building resulted in unanticipated and costly delays in the opening of the facility. And, there was considerable staff transition, including an injury to the manager of the EDA project. All of these factors affected the timeline and coordination of this project.

In their Opening Acts experiment, one ensemble “opens” for another’s concert, to increase the awareness of each company's audience to other groups. Curtain talks given by both artistic directors warmed up the audience. All companies' initial hesitation dissolved as the artists discovered this experiment to be a rewarding and easy way to collaborate. In-venue, post-performance mail-back audience surveys were used at a sample of the Cowles Center Consortium’s Opening Act performances to gauge audience reception of the opening act format and whether/how that affected their engagement with the main performance. About 70% had never heard of the opening company before hand, providing important first time exposure, and most felt it enhanced their experience. Just over half were more likely to follow the work of the guest company and liked that it provided something new. Most audience members enjoyed it, though some mentioned being surprised by the appearance of a guest artist on the program. While largely successful, this new idea was not without challenges. Cowles had to rely on other venues’ schedules and logistics. It required significant oversight and even costs, including artist fees, crew and some production expenses.

In their iDANCE program, Cowles selected members of the dance community to become docents or ambassadors to the wider audience. By involving these ambassadors in activities that included lectures, open studio meetings, workshops, and group event attendance, the consortium hoped they would become lifelong fans and eventually educate others about the art form. In June 2010, iDANCE launched with 65 members and nearly all of them stayed to attend some or many of the three dozen events that were offered thru the grant period. The majority of them had firsthand exposure to dance early in life and want to continue iDance. Interestingly, technology and social media did not play a key role in group dynamics; instead people wanted to participate if they knew each other ahead of time or had some existing affiliation.

The Consortium saw success in its joint advertising, as well as the opening Acts, which was largely seen as positive to the artists involved. While ideally the group of artists want to continue, questions were about what can, and cannot, be accomplished through a consortium, and the importance of setting mutually beneficial goals and reaching clarity on other aspects of operations, in advance.

Cowles’ work in cross-cultivating audiences and creating dance ambassadors reflects the need of the field at large to be creative and inclusive in its audience engagement methods and willing to share what it learns. Here again, the timeline was key: Cowles felt that a program with these components may require a multiyear commitment to ensure it is worth the entire investment. Cowles’ experiments with audience development leave lessons for the field in collaborating with dance companies, generating new audiences, and working with affinity groups.

Read a description and hints for adapting Opening Acts.
Read a description and hints for adapting iDANCE.
Read about the EDA research for this project.

Shannon Joern

See also the content about this project that was presented during Dance/USA’s EDA Learning Exchanges, including video presentations from the grantees themselves about their project, as well as timelines, budgets, and other details.