How do you attract audiences to see contemporary dance companies that they may never have heard of? Jeanette Siddall has some ideas.
Dance Consortium is probably the only organisation in the world to bring together 16 large-scale theatres to tour international contemporary dance. In a little over a decade we have presented 35 tours by 22 different companies from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Israel and the US. This might sound rather niche and it is certainly ambitious, but the particular challenges it presents and some of the strategies that we have developed are worth sharing. It is not that any of our individual strategies are especially innovative, it is more that the mix of making the conversation multi-dimensional and personal, and inviting people to get involved has worked.
So what are the challenges? The most obvious one is that while some companies may be internationally famous, many are not widely known in the UK and are not used to talking to UK audiences. One example is the images they send us - rather generic, ‘arty’ images that fail to say anything special about them. So we have done location photoshoots of the dancers in their home country – on the streets of Cuba and on the beach in Tel Aviv. This works in giving an immediate sense of where the dancers come from, and when that is somewhere warm and sunny with the personalities of the dancers shining through, it gives potential audiences a warm glow.
We have also filmed interviews with artistic directors, choreographers and dancers for many years, allowing them to talk directly to audiences and social media now lets us do this in more ways. We encourage dancers to write blogs and use Twitter, Facebook and other social media before and during tours. Prior to the recent tour by Grupo Corpo we used images of the company at home in Brazil, and then as they toured the UK its dancers tweeted photographs of themselves beside iconic images in the places they visited.
We encourage dancers to write blogs and use Twitter, Facebook and other social media before and during tours
Social media is great for breaking down barriers between performer and audience. It helps audiences feel they are getting to know the people and the personalities of the dancers. This is a less remote kind of human connection and one that is more familiar and comfortable for non-dance specialist audiences. ‘Making it personal’ is a familiar theme in conversations about audience engagement, and pictures can do this in ways that are more immediate and have more impact than words.
Another challenge is finding ways of giving audiences a sense of the experience they can expect from the performance. Titles and descriptions often tend to be poetic more than descriptive, and dance experiences are highly subjective anyway. We still use traditional print, including theatre season brochures, posters and leaflets, and complement them with video clips for theatres to use on their websites and screens. For dance, moving images are more effective in communicating something of the visceral experience that audiences might expect.
Audiences are also great at talking to other potential audiences. The filmed vox-pop of responses at the end of a show is a familiar tool, even if people tend to overuse the word ‘amazing’. Occasionally they offer insights that help potential audiences understand something about a show, but at the very least, vox-pops tell us that lots of people like us have enjoyed the experience. They are also a way of inviting audiences to get involved at a very simple level and letting them know that we care what they think. This idea is developed through inviting them to tweet, post opinions on Facebook and write reviews for our website. We offer prizes, usually free tickets or signed programmes, as encouragement.
In making it personal, we also pay attention to theatre marketing teams. Multi-artform venues often feel that they only have a very small dance audience. In the lead-up to a tour we discuss targets and strategies with individual venues and provide marketing materials, content and campaign angles designed to appeal to different audiences and not just for those who have booked dance in the past. We also share ticket sales information between venues, and sometimes organise a group visit to meet the company and see a performance. Bringing venues together for debrief meetings following tours helps share experience and better identify what works.
Working as a consortium brings a number of advantages. Our tours can be planned and booked well in advance, so we can concentrate on engaging audiences rather than just booking performances. We developed the consortium model, and it has been adopted to promote circus, street theatre and work for young people. Our theatres have agreed to pay fees in no-contra deals and share marketing information and ideas, all of which demonstrates their commitment.
But audiences still surprise us. Not every tour succeeds in reaching as many people as we would wish, while others really ignite the public imagination and far exceed our expectations.
Jeanette Siddall is Consultant Executive of Dance Consortium.