Tom Strini
Where We Are Now

Danceworks works

By - Jul 13th, 2010 02:33 am
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I asked Deborah Farris how Danceworks is riding out the recession.

Deborah Farris, Danceworks executive director since 2002.

“We’re pretty good,” she answered — very, very quietly, as if saying it out loud might break the spell and attract wolves to the door of the Danceworks studio, at 1661 N. Water St.

With a little encouragement, she spoke up:

“We’ll top $1 million this year,” she said. “We’re projecting $1,017,000 in revenues, and we expect expenses to hold steady at about $906,000.”

Things are going so well that Farris, executive director since 2002, expects to add space next year, to give Danceworks a third teaching studio. (They are in negotiations with their current landlord and considering other locations.) Farris would take advantage both the soft commercial real estate market and the burgeoning demand for Danceworks’ many and varied classes.

“We’re turning people away,” she said. “That’s been the biggest boost in our revenues. I think it’s because of our new website. It’s easy to use, and it gives the big picture of what we do. It’s better branding.”

Farris has managed to brand Danceworks in a way that attracts audience, students for its classes, and donors for its operations. This was no small task; Danceworks is hard to explain.

The non-profit is a performance company, a massive and varied educational outreach center, a traditional dance studio, a service organization for professional dance, an incubator of professional talent, a welcoming home for dance hobbyists, a crucial performance venue for small dance companies, a close partner with the UWM dance department, a matchmaker of professional relationships among artists in diverse fields, and a promoter of healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise. Danceworks has done extraordinarily good work across the spectrum for years. At this point, anyone with a passing acquaintance with anything remotely involved with dance knows that if it’s Danceworks, it’s probably good.

Nothing has done more for the institution than the Mad Hot Ballroom program. Board member Mario Costantini knew of a New York City program in which ballroom dancing changed the lives of kids in a tough environment. Farris, artistic director Sarah Wilbur and her successor, Dani Kuepper, ran with the idea. Mad Hot Milwaukee has been a raging success. It’s in 42 schools, most of them in MPS. Middle school kids coming together to tango, waltz, fox trot and salsa has caught the town’s imagination and been wonderful for the schools and the children. Media has been all over it, especially the culminating dance competition held in June at the Bradley Center. (Jon Anne Willow did a feature piece on Mad Hot on our first episode of Arts Digest, for MPTV.)

And it’s caught donors’ attention, too. Donors sponsor programs in specific schools. Farris has found that they tend to get attached to the schools and the kids.

“They go to the Bradley Center and cheer for ‘their’ kids,” Farris said.

An added benefit for Danceworks is that patrons who contribute for social service then see Danceworks’ other endeavors and get interested in those, too.

Dani Kuepper, artistic director.

For years, Danceworks survived almost entirely on income from classes, tickets and school programs. In the last few years, donated income, from individuals, foundations and corporations, has shot up to nearly 60% of revenue, about where a non-profit arts group ought to be. That will be about $600,000 next fiscal year.

“When I came, donations were about $8,000 per year and earned income was about $70,000,” Farris said.

Danceworks has become the linchpin of Milwaukee’s vibrant dance community. Young dancers come out of UWM’s great program and have someplace to go to make at least part of their living. It has definitely kept a lot of high-class talent in town. Those dancers get to perform, learn how to work with kids and design educational programs that actually work. They also learn how to be creative in making a living.

Starting lower right and clockwise, DPC dancer-choreographers Kim Johnson-Rockafellow and Holly Keskey, dancer Sarah Wols, and dancer-choreographers Christal Wagner and Melissa Anderson.

Danceworks is a particular home for members of the Danceworks Performance Company, the public face and premiere ensemble of the institution. Under Kuepper, DPC remains among the most adventurous, entertaining and least predictable arts groups in town. The DPC audience grew significantly this year, and Farris has increased the number of performances to accommodate demand. Which is great for the dancers, who always want to dance more.

The coming season is still partially under construction, but we know this so far:

Oct. 1-9, guest artist Amii LeGendre, a New Yorker and a star of the UWM graduate program, will do a new piece for this program.

Feb. 18-27, DPC resident Kelly Anderson, will preside over a New Vaudeville program featuring acrobats, comics and magicians as well as dancers.

April 29-May 1, guest artist Liz Lerman, a Milwaukeean long established in Washington, D.C., will be featured in ways yet to be determined. Lerman is particularly known for her work with the elderly, which aligns neatly with Danceworks’ Multi-Generational Art Program.

Meanwhile, Danceworks’ intriguing, experimental summer season is up and running. Details here.

Categories: A/C Feature 3, Dance

0 thoughts on “Where We Are Now: Danceworks works”

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a wonderful article. I love danceworks….. and its true and well said ( I am quoting the above)
    “At this point, anyone with a passing acquaintance with anything remotely involved with dance knows that if it’s Danceworks, it’s probably good.”

    Thank you for this complete profile of Danceworks and its many hats.
    Sincerely,
    Melissa A.

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