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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

When good business supports good art

Updated: May 15, 2018

One of the attitudes pervading the fine arts is that “good business” and “good art” are fundamentally opposing forces, and that it is impossible to have it both ways: good art will never be economical, and good business will always seek to undercut, cheapen, sell out, and dumb down the art. While there are certainly many examples one can cite to support this view, I maintain that there are indeed ways for sound business practices and the highest artistic integrity to live harmoniously together. Just this week I encountered a great example of this.

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is one of the world’s premiere modern dance ensembles. Their shows travel the globe and sell out theaters

most everywhere they visit. With nine principal dancers, sound equipment, costumes, and any other performance gear they carry with them, touring is an expensive prospect. One of the most expensive elements for the company was the musicians performing in the pit. For this company, recorded music is not an option: “We do it with live musicians or we don’t do it at all,” says Assistant Artistic Director Janet Wong.

So what to do when the costs of bringing along musicians (and their instruments) starts to financially scuttle the entire enterprise? Most dance companies – particularly ones that tour – have addressed this question by simply cutting live players and using recorded tracks. (This also makes the rehearsal process easier, because the dancers get to work with the exact same music from day one.) But for Bill T. Jones, live music is central to his artistic vision. His solution? Hire local musicians.

In the case of the company’s visit this week to the CU-Boulder campus those local musicians were the College of Music’s best graduate string players, including the graduate string quartet in-residence, the Altius String Quartet. The effect of live musicians in a show that draws so much of its impact from a kind of raw, kinetic energy, was nothing short of electrifying. There is no question that recorded music would have fundamentally compromised the experience.

Beyond the obvious artistic benefit of the live music was another layer of benefit. By tapping into elite college student performers there was an immediate bond created between touring guests and the local audience: We have a stake in this, too. Part of our community is up there tonight. We’re making this experience together. I would argue that this added to the positively crackling energy that existed in the hall – as well as providing a great experience for the students.

At this point some readers will certainly point out that if the company had solved the touring musician expense problem on purely business terms even local musicians would still have been too expensive.  That may be true, but the point I’m making is that there is a middle ground, one in which both artistic integrity and a sustainable budget can be maintained. The two are not irreconcilable. What’s required is creative thinking, understanding what things are non-negotiable (both financially and artistically) and then looking for alternate ways to meet your goals. As was true in this case, there even be additional benefits that couldn’t happen any other way.

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