The Austin Chronicle

Dance/USA Convenes in Austin

The national arts organization brings honors for the Butlers and big questions about the form's future

By Jonelle Seitz, June 10, 2016, Arts

How do you finance art that often leaves no tangible record of its occurrence? How can digital technology augment practices that are as organic as rhythm itself? What responsibility do dancemakers and dance companies have to their societies and communities? And how can dance undo reputations of esotery and exclusivity to work toward inclusion and diversity?

It's the task of nearly 500 members of the national organization Dance/USA – choreographers, company directors, arts administrators, marketing professionals, fundraisers, and others who work to create, fund, present, and advocate for dance – to consider these questions when they convene in Austin for the organization's eighth annual conference. Why Austin? For starters, the organization is bestowing its Champion Award on local philanthropists Sarah and Ernest Butler, whose Butler Family Fund has been a key supporter of Austin's dance, music, and opera organizations for nearly two decades. Secondly, Ballet Austin Executive Director Cookie Ruiz, a longtime member of Dance/USA's board of trustees and past president, has advocated for national recognition of the ballet company and other local developments in dance. There is another Austinite on the board, Kristopher McDowell of the agency KMP Artists. In fact, there are seven Texans on the 45-member board, making this state's representation second only to New York's.

The far-reaching work of individuals such as board members Ruiz and McDowell, as well as artists like Tapestry Dance Company Artistic Director Acia Gray, who serves as president of the International Tap Association, put Austin's pin on the map. And while Austin dance artists no doubt are faced with a dearth of performance venues as well as challenges in economics, availability of dancers, developing audiences, and media coverage, Dance/USA Executive Director Amy Fitterer points to some good things we have going: Our mayor (he'll speak at the conference's opening celebration) and economic council understand that artists and arts organizations make legitimate contributions not just to quality of life but also to innovation and the economy. We have some good – if too few – performance venues (much of the conference takes place at the Long Center for the Performing Arts and Ballet Austin's Butler Dance Education Center). The cost of living here, for now, still remains below that of, say, Brooklyn or Oakland. Over the past five years, says Fitterer, there has been a trend of dance organizations developing relationships inside their communities, engaging in collaborations, and lowering ticket prices. Austinites needn't look far for exemplars.

Take, for example, Ron Berry's 12-year-old Fusebox Festival, which has presented boundary-anarchic, rhetoric-disrupting performances by national, international, and local artists; advocated for ethical and mindful development of East Austin land; and, through its Free Range Art initiative, proved that performances can be funded without ticket sales. Take the multimedia troupe Arcos Dance, which, since moving to Austin just three years ago, has filled a niche for high-tech narrative work, engaged in university partnerships, and offered "Class + Coffee" for independent dancers. Or take Allison Orr's Forklift Danceworks, which has collaborated with the city's Solid Waste Services department and Austin Energy to spotlight the art in trash removal and keeping the lights on – reminding residents old and new that part of living here is saying "good morning" to your trash collector. Take the fact that there are too many choreographers and companies now making significant work here to note in this space.

Berry and Arcos co-director Eliot Gray Fisher, along with teacher-choreographer Sandra Organ Solis and producer-artist Prakash Mohandas, are the speakers for the conference's opening plenary, which will be livestreamed Thursday, June 9, 11am–12:30pm. While most other sessions and conference events are for registered conference-goers only, a Dance Business Bootcamp, a workshop hosted by the tech nonprofit Fractured Atlas, is free and open to independent artists and companies with budgets of less than $200,000.

The Dance/USA annual conference takes place June 8-11. For more information, including links to the opening plenary livestream and Dance Business Bootcamp registration, visit

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