Listening Well is the Best Advice
Your time line will depend upon that of your primary international partner. The tricky part is that most substantial international programs have several partners -- for example, a local host institution that invites you to perform or teach, the local U.S. Embassy or Post that agrees to help you with funding and facilitative support, a corporation that is willing to provide cash or in-kind sponsorship, and/or a foundation that is interested in your mission and offers a grant.
It is quite likely that each of these entities has its own timeline and that adhering to one may bar you from meeting the deadline of the other(s).
When dealing with the State Department, there is a basic conundrum. Good projects have a year or two of planning behind them; but rarely can DOS officers concentrate on a project more than a few months beforehand, being completely consumed with day-to-day tasks and projects.
It has often been my experience that a cultural or public affairs officer will start up a conversation about a program a year or so in advance; but when I try to push the envelope forward, to get to the budget, program planning and grant execution stage, I cannot regain the person’s attention.
My advice is to listen carefully and get a sense of the operating style of the key person and/or department or Embassy and try to glean how much you need to conform to their way of working and/or how much you can exert your own sense of timely practice into the collaboration.
The Most Successful Programs are those that Build and Grow
Battery Dance Company’s best results have been achieved by programs that build from a small launch (speaker program, cultural envoy, or two-person mini programs) into larger editions over a span of a year or two or even more.
It is common sense: You get to know your partners and they get to know you and your program, and both sides can take better advantage of the strengths of the other. Many of our programs (in Taiwan, Germany, Poland [shown above], India, in Sri Lanka) began as a single concept and then, over many years, took on new shape and dimension that we couldn’t have predicted at the onset.
Arts programs are not one-size-fits-all. It is important to allow yourself to be guided by those who really know the territory.
Collaboration comes as second nature to many people in the arts -- and international cultural engagement will take full advantage of your ability to collaborate in ways you never anticipated!
Think of the process as the building of partnerships. Your potential partners could be your artistic counterparts overseas, other American colleagues who have worked in the country where you are headed, international arts managers or Embassy Public Affairs staff, especially those who have been in country for a couple of years. Ask them to help you select from a variety of approaches that are comfortable and suited to your company’s repertoire and/or menu of programs.
Performances are the grand finale but your impact is strengthened and your interaction with local communities enhanced through Seminars, Workshops, Outreach events, etc.
Flexibility and adaptability are key traits. The only caution is to avoid taking on a project that doesn’t suit your artistic or social aesthetic or mission. You have to be clear about your strengths and weaknesses, and/or any rules that govern your institutional behavior.
Years ago, we were being wooed by top executives of a corporation based in Africa. As much as we wanted to accept their generous sponsorship offers, we couldn’t do so -- their main product was tobacco, and we work with youth. We had to forgo a potentially lucrative opportunity because this simply wasn’t the right message for Battery Dance Company.
On the positive side, where re-imagining our mission produced amazing results: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we worked with the local PEPFAR (the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) office, modulating our Dancing to Connect program to focus on the stigma of HIV+ and AIDS prevention. This allowed the Embassy to double up on its goals of engaging youth (our Dancing to Connect program brings choreographic skills to high school students and young adults) and helping spread awareness and education around the illness that is afflicting an astonishing number of people in Africa.
It scares me just to write these words. Imagine how we felt in Amman, Jordan, when several of our personal bags and our COSTUME CASE didn’t arrive from Tunisia. I still remember rummaging through the closets and chests of our extremely thoughtful and caring Embassy CAO and her husband, the dancers trying on various garments to see if they could find something suitable to perform in the next night at the Noor-Hussein Cultural Center. Fortunately, the costumes ended up arriving an hour or so before the show so we looked a little wrinkled but appropriately attired.
Hangers, Woolite, Shout, white tissue paper, Fabreze and sewing kit.
It sounds like the way Eloise at the Plaza would have packed, these things are essential. You need these items to maintain your costumes on a long (often dirty) tour. And trust BDC, you cannot depend upon a theater anywhere in the world to provide plastic hangers. Wrapping damp costumes in white tissue paper can mitigate the ill effects of packing after a show; and Fabreze can render a garment wearable even if there was no time to wash it between shows.
Here’s a special secret for costume-heavy productions: Find out if you can keep costumes hanging up to dry overnight in the dressing room of your theater after the performance (if you aren’t leaving on a 7 a.m. flight the next morning!).
This way, you or the stage manager or delegated dancer can return to the theater and pack DRY costumes for your next show rather than throwing sweaty costumes into a case and digging through the moist malodorous garments upon arrival at your next destination.
If the dressing rooms are not an option, try to convince your dancers (or actors) to be responsible for their own costumes and hang them in the shower over night. Another interesting option: get some large standing fans and direct them at the costumes on a rack during the performance -- as the dancers come off stage and change, instead of hurling the wet stuff into a corner, hang them up and blow them dry!
Once, in Trivandrum, India, where it was at least 95 degrees on stage, BDC were allowed to hang our costumes to dry overnight. There was no garment rack per se, so the company tech director rigged a rope between two walls of the dressing room and all of the sweaty costumes were hanging there.
The next morning, the company was horrified to find the entire bunch of costumes in a disgusting pile on the floor: the rope had broken and everything fell together on the filthy floor. UGH!
One of BDC Director, Jonathan Hollander's favorite memories is of a performance in Lucknow, India.
With this particular costume-heavy production with lots of printed silk garments, the company had requested an iron and ironing board at every one of the 17 theaters they were touring.
Normally, a sputtering, rusted iron was provided, scaring the daylights out of BDC with the thought of scorches and rust stains.
Well, in Lucknow, an iron-wallah showed up, must have been about 80 years old, with a huge, heavy implement and a small board.
The implement turned out to be an iron and into it, he placed hot coals. Well -- to the companies Western-bred minds, the combination of fine silks and burning coals did not go together at all. But BDC was proved completely wrong.
This little man with his big iron produced the smoothest, most beautifully pleated costumes ever!
Battery Dance Company's 1995 trip to India was one of its earliest and most extensive trips. It was the third annual tour in what would evolve into over a decade of tours in India. Below are some of the press quotes from the 1995 trip. It is important that a reliable archive of media clippings be created and archived after each trip. These can be essential when applying for funding to support future tours.
1995 India Quotes
India Press, 1995
Femina Magazine - Hima Devi
"Once in a while, and only once, comes choreography with the lyrical beauty of Moonbeam: a breathless, magical moment in the history of dance."
SRUTI - Nala Najan
“Hollander possesses a sensitive awareness of the substrata of the stage and a deft control of those dimensional kinships between earth and air-space into which the body travels with endless surprise.”
India Currents (U.S.) - Jyothi Kiran
Battery Dance Company artistic director Jonathan Hollander boldly goes where most men generally don't dare: into the world of dance... Hollander soars beyond the limits of tradition in his production "PURUSH: Expressions of Man.".
The Economic Times (Calcutta) - Sunil Kothari
"the romantic adagio drifts on at a hypnotic pace after bringing a man and woman together; a moment of transforma¬tion from lonely yearnings to fulfillment."
Economic Times (Madras) - R. Gowri
"(Hollander's) Testimony to Nataraja was a separate American entity, with no material or spiritual connection to the Indian segment. What it did, however, was to reveal quality of a kind rarely achieved in Indian performances; disciplined purposes, faultless rendition.... The music composed and performed by Badal Roy on the tabla and Ken Wessel on the guitar set up intense moods... the dancers Kevin Predmore and John Freeman achieved so many (rhythms) in their movements. Their leashed power forced viewers to sit up."
Indian Express Sunday Magazine (Madras) - Vasanthi Sankanarayanan
"The feel of water, the occasional eddies and whirlpools, the rhythmic rowing of boats, the water spirit flitting across, the mys¬terious night blue aura of the underwater world. Interspersed with staccato tabla beats punctuating and guiding the movements." "Lovers, lonely in a fierce world, seeking out each other, entering the quiet, tranquil world of a moonbeam, cocooned by its sil¬ver glow, protected from a world of violence beyond, reflected the pathos, uncertainty and the occasional glimmer of hope."
The Hindu (Madras) - Nandini Ramani
"Both the dancers exhibited perfection, precision and total involvement in their work. Special patterns and rhythmical structures and a variety of movements depicting grace and elegance, marked this presentation, sometimes even including some of the Karanas or stances of Nataraja. ... A joyful blend of music and movement."
It is critically important that there be one person on your tour who is responsible for planning and executing all of the technical elements of the show. Perhaps this is one of your company's designers who is willing to do lots more than normally expected of a designer because of the perks of international travel. Perhaps it is a freelancer who is chosen because s/he knows the part of the world where you're touring, or because s/he speaks the language.
Ideally you will have two people covering this area – a production designer and a stage manager -- but with budgets as tight as they are, you may have to count on one person to handle the gamut of responsibilities.
This person must have the requisite skill set to match the considerable challenges that go beyond his/her brilliance as a designer: Patience, powers of persuasion, ability to repair broken equipment, improvisational talents, calm under pressure, optimism, charisma, willingness to take on any task and leadership.
In addition, when a tour calls for performances in large theaters where high production values are critical, it may be necessary to factor in extra local technical support in the way of rental equipment and contracted professional crew.
Each touring company should create a tech rider describing as much as possible about the technical needs of your production(s) (ie. lighting, sound, scenery, floor, props, crew.) However, it is not sufficient to send out the tech rider and expect that everything will be in place when you hit the ground. There is no such thing as too much advance preparation.
Here is a check list that will give you the feeling that you’ve done everything possible to prepare yourself and the venue for your arrival:
Sending Initial Production Information (several months ahead of the project)
A Technical Rider specific to the tour or projects should be sent to the tour host, producer or Embassy, before the venue is selected so production needs and schedules can be accommodated
Follow up questions should be sent to the theater tech director, with a copy to your local host institution or Embassy, especially if no response to schedules and plans has been received. The purpose is to determine if there are communication issues, assess the comprehension and capability of the local management, and collaborate on solutions to any difficulties uncovered from the previous communication.
In the situation where the Production Designer/ Technical Director doesn't speak the local language (and the locals don't speak the touring company's) a translator should be in place for any working time in the theater. This need is vital and not to be underestimated. If the translator is not experienced in the vocabulary and work style of theater technology, s/he should familiarize him/herself in advance.
Some things are almost always the theater's responsibility (dance floor, soft goods) and some things are almost always brought by the company (costumes, intricate props). But so much lands in the middle. We recommend bringing a stock of color (gel), spike tape in a variety of colors, glow tape and black gaffers tape. These things are expensive and can add poundage to the company’s baggage; however, it is often impossible to obtain these items locally and if they are not needed for some reason, donating some of it to a local theater or arts organization can earn a lot of gratitude.
If you have a show that requires certain equipment that is unavailable in various venues (within one country) on a tour, it might be worthwhile to investigate renting it once and then traveling with it in-country. This is often a great solution for items like light boards and projectors, which are heavy and expensive to transport from home, but which are critical to the show. Why configure and program this stuff anew at each theater if there's a way to carry it along?
Thanks to Barry Steele and Mike Riggs, both of whom contributed to this document with knowledge derived from Battery Dance Company tours..
Also see: Mumbai 2006
There are two important lessons BDC learned on this very short engagement. The company were only in New Delhi for 2 days, but what an eventful two days they were …
The first take-away is:
Track your itinerary carefully and obtain visas to match. In this case, BDC were on an extensive tour of 6 countries and went through the obligatory visa process well in advance, noting that there were special conditions for those members of the BDC ensemble who were not Americans. When the company obtained their visas for India, they asked for multiple entry visas because the itinerary called for a stop in Mumbai; then hopping over to Sri Lanka; and then back to New Delhi... OK? Straightforward? Yes, but one of the dancers was only given a single entry and nobody noticed this until he was detained at the ND airport and nearly sent back to Sri Lanka! Fortunately, BDC were able to talk and buy their way out of the dilemma but had this not been the case, the performance would have been very cancelled!
The second is:
Make sure that, if you have several sponsors, they are all in agreement on the times/dates of the performance, and how many tickets they are permitted to have for their guests. Especially when your sponsors are not “equal” -- i.e., a government agency vs. a corporation -- you can get into serious trouble. Read on!
Performance for the general public at Kamani Auditorium, October 15:
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations coordinated with Battery Dance Company in hosting a performance for the general public at New Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium. BDC had performed on the same stage in ‘94, ‘97 and ‘01. The event was compromised by a miscommunication with ICCR, which sent out over 4,000 invitations and announced the curtain time as 6:30 pm. BDC had earlier established 7 pm with its sponsors – who had been promised blocs of tickets as a sponsorship benefit. Some of the guests of Taj Hotel, Citibank and Boeing were unable to find seats as a result of the hall’s being packed, every seat filled and hundreds of standees, by the time they arrived. The media coverage gracefully avoided mention of the chaos in the auditorium, focusing instead on the company’s dancing and the repertoire which received high praise.
Each international cultural engagement project or tour has its own funding model. U.S. and foreign government agencies may be involved in a primary role or as a supplement to other forms of sponsorship. Likewise, local host institutions, corporate sponsors, foundations and individual donors may be drawn to support a particular initiative. Browsing through this toolkit, one can find projects with every possible configuration of support (sometimes insufficient…).
In the 1990’s – early 2000’s, the Company was unable to attract significant U.S. Government participation; however, this trend has been reversed in recent years with Embassies and Bureaus of the U.S. Department of State engaging more frequently. Many of the lessons learned along the way are universal and cross-referential. Though it may seem self-evident, it is important to understand the strategies, needs and expectations of each host or sponsor, and to endeavor to fulfill whatever requirements and expectations that come with each gift. Sometimes this may be difficult (ie. corporate sponsors in India often expect to put their advertising banner across the backdrop of the stage – something that is completely normal in the local scene and completely antithetical to Western dance.)
Finesse and politesse and the ability to put yourself in the other’s shoes are indispensable attributes in the negotiations that will inevitably take place, either well in advance, or on the spot.
Small and mid-sized dance companies such as Battery Dance Company normally operate without a safety net. Trip insurance, under-studies, over-time pay, vacation days …. These are abstract concepts, sadly far from reality. The dancers, technical and artistic directors, project managers and administrators all operate close to the bone. With these circumstances as a background, put a tour cancellation into the equation, and you’ve got a full-fledged crisis.
This is what happened to Battery Dance Company in 2003 when, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a major tour of North and East Africa collapsed. With the benefit of hind-sight, it was probably predictable that U.S. Embassies would hunker down at a time when bombs were dropping on Baghdad. However, after 9 months of planning, rehearsing and creating of a new piece of choreography specifically designed for the tour, it was devastating to see the pieces fall apart. The drama of the situation was under-scored by the fact that two male dancers who had been part of the tour left the Company and retired from the dance profession immediately afterwards. The immediate disappointment and financial loss added to accumulated frustrations with the dance career and these two talented men began career transitions.
It would be instructive and helpful if I could point to strategies that I used to recover from the cancellation. However, the actions that I took to mitigate the disaster, no matter how energetically and fervently I tried, proved unsuccessful. Perhaps, with a little more time and more experience on my part, they might have given us a toe-hold:
The Take-away: When someone or an institution (or government agency) takes an action that you feel is unjust, or damaging, how you respond is pivotal to your future. Can you reveal your disagreement with the action and or your distress at the result, while at the same time, encouraging the other party to take responsibility and do everything possible to help you recover? That is the challenge. Sometimes it’s a lost cause and venting is unavoidable. I’m talking to myself when I say, “Let it go; keep your cool; be a pro.”
When booking tickets for air travel often times the cheapest fares are purchased. Usually this comes with hefty change fees not only from the airline but also from the travel booking company. Sometimes those fees end up greater than the actual price of a new ticket, especially if flying between two cities in a foreign country. But if you end up buying a new ticket without cancelling or changing the original ticket you will be registered as a no-show for the original ticket, and this could risk the rest of your itinerary if you originally booked one comprehensive itinerary involving different legs.
For example, on a recent trip to South Africa booked through Vayama one comprehensive ticket was booked that included round-trip flights from NYC to Johannesburg and Johannesburg to Cape Town, all on South African Airways. After a new meeting with a potential corporate sponsor was arranged we needed to change the timing of Jonathan’s return trip to Johannesburg from Cape Town. Changing the ticket through Vayama before the itinerary began would have cost over $250 per ticket, when the cost of a new one way ticket was only $126. But just buying the new ticket and being a no-show for the original ticket would have cancelled the rest of Jonathan’s itinerary and thus his return flight to New York City.
The solution: Once Jonathan started his itinerary he would be able to change that specific leg at a South African airlines office in South Africa with only a fee of $17. Once an itinerary with an airline begins, the ownership is transferred from the booking company to the airlines, and change fees can be greatly reduced by talking directly to the airline.