“IT ONLY GETS HARDER”: Randy Swartz on the dance scene in economically strapped times

Randy Swartz is the driving force behind Dance Celebration, one of America’s longest-running contemporary dance series. The core program of Swartz’s Dance Affiliates organization, Dance Celebration has been co-presented by the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts since 1982. The early years were heady days for dance in Philadelphia, as Swartz brought the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Royal Ballet from London, and even the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow to the city. Dance Celebration prepares to launch its 2014/15 series with London’s all-male BalletBoyz October 23-25, 2014. Henrik Eger talked to Randy about the inner workings of the international dance scene in these more economically strapped times.

Henrik Eger: What are the chances that you could bring major international dance companies to Philadelphia during these economically strapped times?
Randy Swartz:
The chances are slim to none. Most governments have cut touring subsidies. Our city, state, and federal governments never made a significant contribution, and lately that has been cut in half. Box office [sales] represent 50% of expenses that keep going up at an alarming rate. [Bringing major international dance companies to Philadelphia] could happen only if a patron or foundation steps up to the plate to underwrite the presentation.

HE: True, no major organization can exist today without major funders and an active board. What support are you getting?
We have 100% board participation, but we struggle to secure new board members to broaden our core support. Without the major foundations, most non-profit organizations of a certain size would cease to exist. Both are vital to our very existence.

Randy Swartz, 2005
Randy Swartz

HE: What is the connection between Dance Affiliates and the Annenberg Foundation, both artistically and financially?
There was never a connection in the 32 years we have been presenting at the Annenberg Center. We have never received or applied to the Annenberg Foundation for support. We had been told that their contribution of the theater to the University of Pennsylvania was the end of it.

HE: How much does the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia charge Dance Affiliates for the use of their facilities?
It depends on the number of days that the Annenberg Center is in use. Remember that Dance Celebration is a co-presentation with the Annenberg Center. It runs from $80,000 to $100,000 per year. Rent is waived to a certain extent if we have a shortfall.

HE: As the president and owner of Stagestep—the Philadelphia-based company, which specializes in flooring and subfloor systems for the performing arts—you are a major patron of the dance scene, both artistically and financially. In a press release, Stagestep announced that, for many years, it has “supported the commissioning of new work, subsidizing children’s performances, providing free classes and workshops for the dance community, and underwriting dance performances.” Without your engagement, many wonderful performances in Philadelphia could not take place. According to Dance Affiliates’ 2011 and 2012 501c(3) filings, Stagestep was paid $232,072 per year. Could you tell us more about the work done by Stagestep for Dance Affiliates?
All employees of Dance Affiliates are paid by Stagestep, allowing them medical coverage and other benefits. Stagestep is reimbursed for only part of those expenses. Stagestep also provides free rent, utilities, insurance, parking, telephone, equipment, etc. We have estimated these services are valued at $100,000 per year.

HE: According to the most recently available 501c(3) filing, it appears that Dance Affiliates spends more on Dance Celebration and educational programs than it generates, a loss of $98,878. Likewise, neither you, nor any other member of the board, receive a salary for their work at Dance Affiliates. With those kinds of numbers, how is Dance Affiliates able to offer all the outstanding programs it does? It sounds like a gargantuan task.
Stagestep provides my salary which is not reimbursed by Dance Affiliates. We are always trying to find ways to raise money to sustain the program. More than 90% of all the income from box office and fund raising goes to pay directly for the program, including artist fees, tech, and marketing. Less than 10% is used for staff and overhead.

This year our board will be making a challenged grant, matching dollar for dollar contributions from our audience to raise an additional $40,000. On April 27, 2015, we will stage a benefit performance to raise another $40,000. [The] William Penn Foundation provides $80,000 a year to support the program. Every year is an effort, but we have been doing it for 32 years—and it only gets harder.

UK company BalletBoyz kick off Dance Celebration's 2014/15 season.  Photo Credit: Panayiotis Sinnos
UK company BalletBoyz kick off Dance Celebration’s 2014/15 season. Photo Credit: Panayiotis Sinnos

HE: Given the many dance companies in North America, how do you select the best ensembles for each season?
It is a process that takes five months, three booking conventions, hours spent watching videos, talking to other presenters, and going to see live performances. One has to take into consideration fees, tech, and availabilities. A list of about 30 companies emerge, and then it’s a process of creating a balanced season and theme.

HE: Who makes the final decision as to which ensemble will get invited?
The decision rests with me alone.

HE: Dance Affiliates not only invites companies to present part of their repertoire, but occasionally commissions new artworks as well.
RS: Commissions start in many different ways. Sometimes the artistic director will invite us to participate in the creation of a new work. Sometimes I have an idea, music, or a theme and will approach choreographers to secure their interest. We have produced works from the ground up, and sometimes we are part of a consortium of presenters. Other times the artistic directors or I will have an idea about a collaboration. There is no one formula, except to say it usually begins because of a long standing relationship where there is mutual trust.

HE: Europe has a long tradition of giving access to dance, opera, theater, and concert performances to students for a minimal fee. It is gratifying to see that Dance Affiliates is giving access to educational programs for thousands of young people each season.
RS: With most companies we offer a special Friday morning performance for students. It is an hour long, about 45 minutes of which is a fully staged chorographic work. It is preceded by an introductory talk and followed by questions and answers. Our educational coordinator prepares a study guide for teachers. We charge $5-$8 per ticket. Student rush is $10, and student reserved tickets are $15.

Randy Swartz (far right)  at a rehearsal from Thank Your Gregory: A Tribute to the Legends of Tap. Photo credit: Dance Affiliates archives.
Randy Swartz (far right) at a rehearsal from Thank Your Gregory: A Tribute to the Legends of Tap. Photo credit: Dance Affiliates archives.

HE: For fledgling Philadelphia dancers and budding choreographers, Dance Affiliates’ “Artist to Artist” series offers master classes, providing hands on and “feet on” experience. How much does that cost?
RS: Our Artist to Artist series is free and engages the local dance companies in master classes, technique classes, repertory classes, and, in some cases, auditions.

HE: Many theater goers, who used to support Dance Affiliates through subscriptions, or purchasing individual tickets, are now struggling financially. Would it be feasible for Dance Affiliates to reduce ticket prices, or have you already scraped the bottom of the financial barrel?
RS: Tickets start at $20 and we have discounts for groups. Our average ticket price is $37, which I think is pretty reasonable.

HE: As head of Dance Affiliates, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned over your three decades?
RS: It doesn’t get any easier. Consistently presenting and building a body of work that speaks to the audience, [even though] the audience and its taste are constantly changing—you can’t please everyone all the time. But hopefully, people will respect the choices that were made and learn to love the art form.

Never chase audience taste. You have to take risks and lead. There is always something new to learn. Sometimes a work or a company will so move you that it becomes a memory not soon forgotten.

HE: Similarly, in which direction do you see Dance Affiliates moving in the future?
RS: Social media and collaborations seem the wave of the future. Dance companies are becoming projects. Intermissions and act curtains are disappearing. Audiences seem to want more value added experiences such as talk backs, post-performance lessons, and meet and greets.

BalletBoyz, photo by  Panayiotis Sinnos.
BalletBoyz, photo by Panayiotis Sinnos.

HE: One of the best topics for last: Tell us about Dance Celebration at the Annenberg’s new 2014-2015 season.
RS: We are featuring ten companies from seven countries. [One company each from Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and four companies from the US.] Styles range from contemporary ballet to flamenco and everything in-between. For anyone interested, it is probably best to check out our 15-minute video preview [above and at danceaffiliates.org].

HE: Is there anything else you would like friends of dance theater to know?
RS: If you have any interest in or affinity for dance, go out and support it. Performance art truly only exists in that moment when dancers on stage and audiences connect—and then it’s gone.

HE: Thank you, Randy Swartz. Like thousands of Philadelphians, I can’t wait for the new season.

Dance Celebration 2014/15 program:
BalletBoyz, UK: October 23-25, 2014
Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Israel: November 13-15, 2014
Parsons Dance, US: December 4-6, 2014
Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre, US: January 15-17, 2015
Black Grace, New Zealand: February 12-14, 2015
Jessica Lang Dance, US: March 19-21, 2015
RUBBERBANDance Group, Canada: April 16-18, 2015
Pilobolus Dance Theater, Switzerland: May 7-10, 2015
Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca: November 20-23, 2014
Mummenschanz: December 11-14, 2014


For Dance Celebration tickets & subscriptions contact the Annenberg Center Box Office: 215-898-3900 or boxoffice@ac.upenn.edu.

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