Eat Your Dogfood

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About a month ago, Dance New Amsterdam permanently closed its doors. This beloved — if perpetually on the brink — dance space survived in various configurations for almost 30 years, but a combination of poor fiscal management, contentious leasing agreements and exhaustion eventually killed the thing dead.

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Sydney Skybetter

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. I’m not actually sure. Authoritative treatments of the closure cite DNA’s inability to ”secure long-term partnerships or substantial donations” as well as nearly five million dollars in debt, but why was DNA unable to secure partnerships or donations? Probably because of the debt. Why was it so far in debt? Because it couldn’t secure partnerships or donations. And so we arrive where we began, having learned that a venerable dance institution is closed because it is no longer open.

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There have been many other high-profile dance shutdowns in recent memory. Slightly over a year ago, the Joyce Theater announced the closure of Joyce SoHo in an effort to shore up its finances. Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater closed this spring with some citing lack of “support from the Latin community” as a rationale. Boston’s Green Street Studios may be next. More small- to mid-sized dance organizations have closed in the last five years than I can count, and many more will simply evaporate by the end of the year.

With a zeitgeist of failing your way to success, given all of these closures you’d think we would have figured out how to sustain a dance organization by now. Personally, having come of administrative age in the post-9/11 economy, my understanding of choreographic success is that it tends to occur despite and not because of having a dance company. Ignoring better judgement, I started one of my own, skybetter & associates, in 2008.

With a failure resume in tow, I’ve also co-founded a change management consultancy called The Edwards & Skybetter | Change Agency with speaker and performer Jennifer Edwards. Among other things, our firm works to understand how technological change affects the creative sector. To a certain extent this means I am paid to postulate at what velocity the sky is falling, as well as consider how communities of practice can thrive despite the current arts ecology. I am the author of innumerable pieces about how traditional dance companies (*especially* single-choreographer companies) should basically just pack it up and go home. Meanwhile, my own single-choreographer dance company has a show at Roulette next week.

I’ve recently become obsessed with a notion called “eating your own dogfood,” (coined by engineers at Microsoft, predictably) whereby a company improves their own product by using it themselves. This is considered a best practice in the technology world, and understood as an effective means to deflect ethical compromise. My personal struggle is that to eat my own dogfood, I would have to close down my dance company, or (at least) irrevocably alter the current vehicle of my art making. I find myself wedged between an artistic practice predicated on the proscenium and a consulting practice predicated on technological disruption.

In the coming months, I will write candidly about reconciling my choreographer-self and consultant-self, perhaps shedding awkward light on the state of the dance world, as well as embodying the struggle to reconcile old aesthetics with new technologies, calcified organizations with accelerating change, and an aging workforce with a rising generation so boondoggled with debt they’re scarcely able to afford to ‘work’ in the arts.

William Gibson is credited with the phrase, “The future is here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” I enjoy this line, not for its utopian spirit, but for its ambivalence. My artistic world — the dance world — simultaneously exhibits signs of future renewal and probable collapse. My gamble, and thesis for this series, is to hold contradictory probabilities in mind simultaneously, on the naive hope that a hedged bet is better than no bet at all.