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The Finance Dance

'Jazz Train' offers a new model for performing arts funding.


Insiders glancing at the program for Donald Byrd's "Jazz Train" will note a disproportionate number of presenters co-commissioning the work.

That there are 21 of them--rather than the usual three to five--reflects a novel, grass-roots approach to financing dance at a time when traditional resources are scarce. Midlevel venues have kicked in $12,000 apiece alongside their bigger-budget colleagues. Many of them are first-time commissioners, new partners in the creative process.

Leading presenters such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and UCLA Center for the Performing Arts have commissioned dance for more than a decade. But not since 1988, when David Gordon's New York City-based Pick Up Company enlisted 24 regional co-commissioners for a work called "United States," has there been a project of this scope. "Jazz Train's" benefactors range from Virginia's prestigious Wolf Trap to the Lied Center of Kansas to Palm Desert's McCallum Theatre.

"By involving so many people, commissioning becomes affordable," said Tim Van Leer, executive director of the El Camino College Center for the Arts, where "Jazz Train" has its West Coast premiere on Friday. "We didn't have to have $40,000 or $50,000, which is common for big works."

"Jazz Train's" journey from inception to stage delineates the challenges of financing modern dance--an expensive art form that must tour to survive. The National Endowment for the Arts, a former gold mine for artists, has waned in terms of money and power. And private foundations--faced with increased competition for grants--are less reliable than in the past. Lining up a broad range of commissioner/presenters creates strategic alliances and lays the groundwork for another funding option. And it takes Byrd's work into such places as rural Louisiana and small-town Pennsylvania, where it has never been before.

"I think of myself as a serious artist," says the 49-year-old, Brooklyn-based choreographer, who has worked with such heavyweights as Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey and Robert Wilson since founding Donald Byrd/The Group in Los Angeles in 1978. "But I'm approaching my work like a Hollywood studio executive--considering 'demographics,' to whom I can sell. I'm also floating ideas like they do in Washington, to see how people respond."

They Got Presenters to Board the 'Train'

If Byrd gets sustenance from the arrangement, the commissioner/presenters also come out ahead. Commissioning helps bring world-class art to their communities, which is an integral part of their mission. And as investors, they "buy" the prestige of presenting "Jazz Train" on its premiere tour. Co-ownership of a work is in many ways an important step in a venue's professional development, says Martin Cohen, executive director of Dance/USA--a national service organization for the nonprofit professional dance field. "It creates a sense of pride," he explained. "Wherever the piece goes, your name is on it."

The three-part "Jazz Train"--a collaboration among Byrd and drummer Max Roach, pianist Geri Allen and guitarist Vernon Reid--was put on the commissioning market after the fall 1996 premiere of Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker" (which will have its second Southland run Nov. 12-15 at the Wiltern Theater). As a less obvious moneymaker than that annual holiday extravaganza, the evening-length, niche-oriented "Jazz Train" was a much tougher sell. More than 100 candidates were approached over a six-month period before the current crop of commissioners signed on.

"I met with a lot of resistance," said David Lieberman, Byrd's artist representative and booking agent. "Being involved in making work is far more demanding than shaking Donald's hand at a post-performance reception. To sell the piece, I came up with the title 'Jazz Train,' which was catchy and kinetic. And positioning it as 'an exploration of jazz from three different generations of composers' gave it a lot of different points of entry--dance, music, generational."

Bringing Dance to Decorah, Iowa

The appeal of the composers also helped. "Max is a legend and Geri is highly regarded, one of the few women in jazz," said Byrd, whose fast-paced, edgy choreography mixes African American movement with ballet and modern dance. "Vernon, founder of the band Living Colour, is a progressive rock crossover artist popular with the youth market."

Reaching as diverse an audience as possible was also a stipulation of a "Jazz Train" seed grant from the National Dance Project--a program created by the New England Foundation for the Arts and partially funded by the NEA. "Booking the work into such out-of-the-way places as Decorah, Iowa, or Lafayette, La., dispels the perception of some congressmen that NEA-funded stuff only goes to major cities and is irrelevant to their constituencies," says Rebecca Blunk, deputy director of NEFA.

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