THE FINANCE DANCE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Creative costs for "Jazz Train" totaled $300,000--including salaries, rehearsal space, lighting and costume design, composer fees and sets. The National Dance Project's initial grant, $20,000, provided legitimacy in the minds of potential investors. Foundations and corporate sponsors--listed as "supporters" in the "Jazz Train" program notes--kicked in another $15,000. Each of the commissioners forked over $12,000--except Wolf Trap, which paid $25,000 for the privilege of presenting the June 25 premiere.

To get the show on the road, commissioner/presenters had to pay an additional $585,000 in touring fees to cover such items as transportation, hotel and per diems. Each venue keeps 100% of the box office, and most received National Dance Project grants to help defray the touring costs. Still, many had to rely on community fund-raising to come up with their total investment.

Reasoned Budgeting: A Key to Success

Careful planning was mandatory for Byrd. "Harlem Nutcracker" had seemed like a financial gimme, but its first tour in 1996-97 took Byrd to the brink of bankruptcy. Often touring with a 104-member company and an Ellington-style band, it left the choreographer $600,000 in the hole. Only by negotiating advantageous repayment schedules, touring a more cost-effective "Nutcracker" the next year, and aggressive fund-raising did he manage to pull himself out.

"It was a nightmare," he acknowledged. "We owed vendors, the technical crew, a dancer or two--and the Feds. I cried at a meeting of the musicians' union who picketed us after one performance. We couldn't afford to be novices this time around."

To ensure that "Jazz Train" stayed on track, Byrd and Lieberman kept the sets simple, relied primarily on taped music and stuck to the core eight-person company. The weekly guarantee for "Jazz Train" is $42,000, compared to $225,000 for "Nutcracker." Still, the bottom line is higher than it might have been since Byrd favors ambitious production design and paid hefty sums to the composers.

Commissioners Factor Risk Into the Gamble

Commissioners, for their part, are also taking a financial risk. Even "name" artists sometimes miss the mark, says Susie Farr, executive director of the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters: "A piece you invest in can do one tour and go out of the rep forever. Still, 'Jazz Train' seems to be a very successful collaboration in terms of its ability to tour."

Initial reviews were encouraging. Calling the work a "grand piece of cerebral funk," Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times said that Byrd and his dancers "match the intensity of the music."

Still, when it comes to the bottom line, the jury is out. "In the nonprofit world, it's not about being a moneymaker but about making art and not being a money-loser," says Lieberman. "That's the lesson of 'Harlem Nutcracker.' "

Byrd, another realist, is already focusing on his next works--and how he'll pay the tab. "There are a lot of midcareer artists like myself competing for an increasingly small pot," he said. "Finances are always on our mind. Just like baby boomers who fear the end of Social Security benefits, we're afraid the money will dry up."

* "Jazz Train," Friday, 8 p.m., El Camino College Center for the Arts, Crenshaw and Redondo Beach boulevards, $22-$26. (310) 329-5345. And Tuesday, 8 p.m., Bob Hope Cultural Center for the Performing Arts, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert, $15-$30. (760) 340-ARTS.

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