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Dancers’ Rep Goes The Extra Mile

Dancers’ Rep Goes The Extra Mile – talent agent Vince Paul

Rita Felciano

Why was Vince Paul in a canoe on an African river? Call it customer service

VINCE PAUL DOESN’T mind a rocking boat. After all, until this past spring when he moved his performing arts management company, World Arts Inc., to more sedate quarters on 55th Street around the corner from Carnegie Hall, he had conducted business from the M/C Cliquot. It was moored in the Hudson River on New York’s Upper West Side. But even he was nervous when two years ago he found himself floating down the Ubangi River, the Congo’s largest tributary, in what can best be described as a hollowed-out tree, on behalf of one of his clients, Alonzo King of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet of San Francisco.

According to listings in Stern’s Directory, a performing arts guide, Paul is one of more than 200 booking agents, artists’ representatives, management agencies, and impresarios working in the United States–they go by almost as many descriptions as their responsibilities are varied–without whom dance wouldn’t move. Unless audiences look at the small print somewhere at the back of their programs, they will rarely know who the dance professionals are that make sure hotels are booked, schedules are followed, and companies get paid. These “middlemen” ensure that the product (the company, the art) gets to the customer (the presenter, the audience) in good shape and a timely fashion.

As companies grow and touring becomes more than a blip on the radar screen of ambition, artistic directors and their staffs often go through a wrenching process of deciding how to build capacity and infrastructure. If artists had a choice, they would spend all their time creating work. That’s why they are artists. But that’s not reality.

Bob Fogelgren, director of programs and administration at Dance/USA, and formerly a booking agent for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, remembers–he thinks it was–Alwin Nikolais saying that the process of growth for him was bittersweet, since bringing in people to help also entailed removing himself from some aspect of the work. That’s why finding the right partner is so critical to comfort and success (see sidebar).

IF YOU WANT AN

AGENT, THEN WHO?

Bob Fogelgren of Dance/USA has some

advice for choreographers and companies

who are considering signing up with artists’

representatives.

1. Decide whether you are comfortable

speaking about your work–as opposed to

letting the work speak for itself–in clear

language that says what you want it to say.

For artists who don’t feel up to the task,

having someone else do it might come early

in the evolution of the company.

2. Having an agent does not relieve you of

the responsibility to see that your work is

communicated well. You still have to be

involved in that process. You cannot forgo

your oversight.

3. An agent with a roster of artists can

introduce your work to presenters who

may not have known of it. Make sure that

this is a group of artists with whom you

want to be associated.

4. Understand the exact fit between the

agent and your company. Lines of communication,

accountability, and responsibility

need to be clear. Some agents primarily will

get the word out at conferences. Some will

not only book, but negotiate up to the contract.

Others will also do the contract.

5. Some agents charge costs associated

with promotion and calculate them into their

percentage fee. Some agents remain the

primary communicator with the presenter;

others at some point turn the process over

to the company. Some agents get involved

in production and even help secure funding.

Others only deal with a finished product.

6. An agent needs to be a good negotiator,

not only to negotiate the fee but also to

speak at the activities (pre-performance,

outreach, educational work) that are being

developed in association with a performance,

He or she may need familiarity not

only with the primary artist, but also with

company members who will share in

these responsibilities,

–Rita Felciano

The majority of artists’ representatives and booking agents are still located in New York, the nation’s primary marketplace for dance. But making a good match is more important than geography. Ronald K. Brown’s New York-based Evidence company, for instance, engaged as its booking agent PMG Arts Management, whose owner lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “Ron knew me from my work with the International Association of Blacks in Dance and the Chuck Davis and Cleo Parker Robinson companies, so when he needed someone he just called me up,” explains Pamela M. Green. “We email back and forth material a lot; it works just fine. I do go to New York two or three times a year to see what the work is like.”

Some relationships develop closer to home. ODC/San Francisco Booking Director Cathy Pruzan, who danced with the company from 1980 until 1987, is part of the company’s staff. “We decided that having an in-house booking director works best for us,” says Lori Laqua, company general manager and development director. “Cathy has been with us since 1991 [as booking director], and over the years she has built up many personal relationships in the field. Besides, she knows us well and is reflective of who we are.”

Dance Alloy in Pittsburgh, whose touring these days almost always is tied to residencies, has its company manager, Barbara Thompson, develop its bookings. She recently started attending presenters’ conferences. “For the time being, until we decide which way to go, this arrangement works,” she says.

IN-HOUSE OR OUTSOURCE?

Agents, too, have to decide what will make a good match. Pentacle, a twenty-five-year-old New York nonprofit, has developed a three-tiered system of artist representation. Dancers belong to the Roster (for example, Eiko and Koma, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Molissa Fenley, Zvi Gotheimer and Dancers) or Artists International (including Phoenix Dance, England; Silesian Dance Theater, Poland; Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, Canada; and Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, India).

Director Ivan Sygoda explains that a few years ago, “We also developed the Gallery because we realized how difficult it is for young artists to get agents.” Gallery artists (such as Creach/Company, Isadora Duncan Dance, Maureen Fleming, and Headlong Dance Theater) pay Pentacle a flat fee and get exposure through association–by having their materials on Pentacle’s table at conferences, for instance. “If a booking results, no commission is owed,” Sygoda adds.

David Brick, co-artistic director of the Bessie-winning Headlong Dance Theater, thinks this is a good deal. “The leg work and informal networking which Pentacle does frees us from some of our administrative burdens and gives us more studio time, which is what we really want to do,” he observes.

Vince Paul is clear about what he wants for his five-year-old World Arts. Matchmaking, he says, is like a ballet. “You need a concept and you need composition. If the artist has lots of wacky ideas and the dancers are poorly trained, the piece won’t work. Though if everything is danced correctly and very smooth, but you have no concept behind the work, it won’t hold up either. If, however, you have a good match between artist and manager, you have a much better chance out there in the world of presenting.”

The 37-year-old Detroit native, who attributes his loyalty and business savvy to having grown up in a family with heavy Sicilian and Jewish input, is looking for nothing less than “the next generation of dance from the world community.” He currently represents Het Nationale Ballet, Australian Dance Theater (making its maiden appearance under its new artistic director, Garry Stewart, at the Joyce Theater next month), Joffrey Ensemble Dancers, the Washington Ballet, Complexions, and Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, which debuted in New York at Central Park’s Summer Stage last June.

Dance, like all the other arts, evolves, Paul says, “so we try to be on the cutting edge. You take somebody like Jean-Christophe Maillot [artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, whom Paul toured for five years] or Nacho Duato [artistic director of Compania Nacional de Danza, for whom he is developing a nationwide tour for 2002]; that’s a definite movement in dance. So is what Alonzo does with his dancers.”

The son and brother of dancers, Paul got hooked for life when he saw Gerald Arpino’s Round of Angels with The Joffrey Ballet one summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He had taken modern dance lessons in high school (“when I got interested in girls”) and college, but always was more interested in the technical aspects of theater. This led him to become a stage manager, then a production manager, and finally a tour manager with various companies. He remembers one in particular, the American Ballet Company, which “we took to forty states and probably eighteen countries.” While working on Tango Argentino and Black & Blue for impresario Mel Howard, the 26-year-old got a challenge he couldn’t resist.

Howard sent him to Africa to find seven tribes a French anthropologist had recommended for a show. “I had the approximate locations of where they were. One was in Niger, one in Mali, one in Senegal, and three in Zaire and one in Guinea. So, I developed my contacts and then, literally, dressed safari style, I went to find these folks,” Paul remembers. What he encountered, besides marvelous artists, was what might be called cultural differences. Paul had to get these dancer-musicians ready for a new world. He remembers the paperwork for the passports:

“Where were you born?”

“Here.”

“How old are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you look about 35 to me.” [writes down 35]

As for luggage, there wasn’t any, Paul says, “so I just went and bought shoes, trousers, underwear, and socks for all of them.” The resulting Africa Oye tour traveled across the United States and around the world.

The experience gained on that and subsequent trips to Africa for Les Ballets Africains, among others, was the reason Paul found himself on that fateful trip down the Ubangi River in November of 1999. John Killacky, executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, who is co-commissioning Alonzo King’s upcoming “People of the Forest,” asked him to take the choreographer to the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) to meet with members of the Aka clan of the Mbuti people, the artists who will create the music for the work.

Paul’s first reaction was, “Whoa, I am older now, I have two kids. Do I really want this?” Of course, he did. Going to a part of Africa, the Congo Basin region, where he had never been proved to be irresistible even though it was an area beset by political strife.

Safety proved to be the major issue. Paul used all of his wit and negotiating skills. “Alonzo is the artist; he could `ooh’ and `aah’ about what he saw. I had to make sure I got him in and out in one piece.” After finding a tiny window when it was possible to travel–the rainy season and the periodic closures of the borders had short-circuited several previous attempts–Paul still had to contend with leaky boats (“Just row fast”), suspicious cultural authorities (“We will treat your nationals with respect and return them safely”), hooded soldiers (“I have a paper signed by your president that shows that we have the right to be here”), giant ants (“They are very baaad”), a security chief reluctant to return passports (“The bottle of whiskey I had given him earlier helped a lot”), and a blown tire.

Changing a tire in the middle of the night in a very dark rain forest is not usually considered the responsibility of an artists’ representative. For Paul, it comes with the territory. “There are too many what we call `castles in the closet,’ very good choreographers and artists whose agents don’t know what they are doing. I am not one of them.”

Rita Felciano is dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a San Francisco Bay Area correspondent for Dance Magazine.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Dance Magazine, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group