All the Citys a Stage
“APAP—the dance version of a pie-eating contest.”
Such was the Facebook status of a fellow New York dancer as APAP|NYC, the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference, descended on the city the second weekend in January. APAP always packs a brutal punch right after the holidays. This year, about 4,000 performing arts professionals flooded the Hilton during five jam-packed days of conference panels and plenaries, and over 1,000 performance showcases erupted all around the city; it was nearly impossible not to be affected by the excitement and hysteria. For artists, trying to navigate the competitive terrain and sell themselves to presenters from around the world, it can seem like a fight to the finish. A pie-eating contest indeed.
As a newcomer to the entire APAP experience, I wanted to get a sense of what really goes on and to gauge the effectiveness of APAP for the dance community. My conclusion? Pretty grim.
The main problem is that there is entirely too much going on for APAP to be effective for anyone. For someone attending the conference itself, there are four full days of plenary sessions, panel discussions, workshops, forums, meetings, networking, and expo hall vendors to attend to: one could stay inside the Hilton and be busy from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Yet that’s only half of it. The other component of APAP is attending artist showings in order to catch the trends and hypothetically look for performances to book. This is where APAP gets really chaotic.
For dance performances alone, there were 10 different venues with APAP-affiliated showcases: Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, New York City Center, Joyce SoHo, Dance New Amsterdam (DNA), Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Park Avenue Armory, Japan Society, and the 92nd St. Y. Add to this full-length shows at theaters like the Center for Performance Research. Factor in Dance Gotham, the Gotham Arts Exchange showcase Sunday night at the NYU Skirball Center. And don’t forget about the growing crop of indie performance festivals that have developed around APAP, including American Realness, Ben Pryor’s assortment of artists mostly housed at Abrons Arts Center, and Performance Space 122’s COIL.
“It’s exhausting,” said Catherine Peila, DNA’s executive director. As a presenter trying to get to as many shows as possible, she noted that early morning conference sessions had to be sacrificed after long evenings at the theater. Her strategy for covering as many shows as possible was to plan ahead which events were of interest to DNA and divide them up among her and a handful of staffers attending the conference. Sydney Skybetter, artistic director of Skybetter and Associates and DanceNOW [NYC]’s co-artistic director/producer, planned to camp out at City Center, catching as many showcases as he could and balancing out the informal studio environment with a few shows of interest at other venues and the occasional drink with colleagues.
Even with the best laid plans, though, it’s impossible for presenters to get to everything. Peila noted that fewer presenters attended the showcases at DNA in comparison to years past because so many more dance performances were added to the mix this year. “You have to be really good for people to show up or have really good word of mouth.” Getting people in the door is, of course, hardest for emerging artists. Telling me about her company’s first APAP showcase, ANAHATA Dance’s artistic director Natalie Teichmann said, “I’m not yet sure whether or not any presenters even came.” After sending dozens of letter invitations, postcards, and flyers to targeted individuals and organizations, only about 30 people came to the ANAHATA showing at Joyce SoHo on Monday evening. “Six of our press kits were gone at the end of the evening, so that might imply that six presenters came.”
Some artists have it slightly easier. Kyle Abraham enjoyed having an agent represent him for the first time at APAP this year and felt lucky to be placed on a bill with dance All-Stars like David Dorfman and Tere O’Connor in Friday’s danspace unplugged performance. Many choreographers, though, aren’t fortunate enough to be produced by an agent or venue and must put in significant time, effort, and money to book and market a showcase. In Skybetter’s words, “APAP is not better or worse than other showcases, just more expensive.” So far, he said, the conference has been worthwhile for his company, and remains economically feasible. But Carrie Ahern, who founded Carrie Ahern Dance six years ago, still does not feel that APAP is economically justifiable. Especially since, she notes, “Most people do not get work from it, anyway.”
Why is that? Is the actual format of APAP even conducive to the art itself? In thinking back on her many years’ experience with APAP, Ahern added that the showcase format, even at different venues, never felt effective. With little time to tech and usually only a snippet of time to perform, it’s impossible for choreographers to show their best work. “That is why you see even established artists not doing it,” she said. “And you see new formats, like COIL and American Realness, which have been very influential.”
And it’s no surprise that these indie festivals are popular with the artists. Anybody who has slogged through an APAP frenzy can tell you that it isn’t about the artists at all. Perhaps appropriately so, a conference for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters is focused on benefitting the presenters, and mostly those from out of town. The New York City dance community is forced to play the gracious host and put on a good show for the thousands that come for “the largest, most inclusive marketplace for performing arts in the world.” It would be nice for such a gathering to be equally beneficial for all, but it seems the size and scope of APAP renders this impossible. As the willing pawns in this annual spectacle, NYC dance professionals are forced to simply make the best of the week. A messy pie-eating contest indeed—and the most we can hope for is to get a meager slice.