In a photo posted on ideablob.com, Chris Elam is holding one end of a white sign; his grin is almost as wide. He has just become the December winner in ideablob’s monthly competition. The prize is a check for $10,000. This may not seem like big bucks to folks in the coporate world, but in the world of not-for-profit dance organizations, it’s a chunk. Elam, however, didn’t win for the enthrallingly odd choreography that makes up the repertory of his company, Misnomer. Ideablob.com was established in the Fall of 2007 by Advanta, a credit card issuer that focuses on small business owners, and the official title of the award is “Best Small Business Idea.” Over 1000 people voted for the plan Elam submitted to the website, beating out seven other finalists chosen from hundreds of entries (online comments range from “I think this could be really valuable to dance and theater companies struggling to grow their base of support and find funding” to “This is way cool. Awesome idea”). Advanta’s Chief Innovation Officer, Ami Kassar, who wrote on ideablob.com that “Chris Elam’s work brilliantly combines web 2.0 technology with the arts,” also emphasizes in a phone conversation that ideablob is less about competition than about entrepreneurs honing their ideas and spreading knowledge about what they’re doing. That’s what Elam’s project is all about too.
He holds an MFA in dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, but he got his BA from Brown University in Public Policy and Computer Science. His award-winning proposal (and the funds to implement it) will certainly—in a phrase he often uses—move Misnomer forward. But it also has an altruistic side. With the very welcome prize money, Elam and his new media director, Jaki Levy, plan to develop and distribute three online tools that other dance companies can use in their own ways to broaden their fan bases. As Elam points out, even though live performances are vital to a dance company’s artistic life, ticket sales account for only a portion of its income. The necessary fundraising involves stirring up public awareness of the work and generating interest in it, and Misnomer has already been extremely creative at this. According to Elam, the company’s very classy website (designer: Abby Gaudette) already receives “between 200 and 300 messages a month from people who interact with us, see the videos, or read about the work online” and send in queries or statements. Elam also posts company information, news, and videos on various social networks (“I call them “portals”), like MySpace and YouTube. In 2007, more than 40,000 people connected with Misnomer via one online site or another.
Understanding that people are often almost more fascinated in how dancers work and how choreography gets made than they are in the finished product, Misnomer.org has already tried a new approach to posting videos of its work online. “For instance,” says Elam, “we did voiceovers for some of the dances, like a director’s cut…At the moment you see the movement occur, you hear the voice of that dancer talking about what’s in their head or what images are going on for them. You could choose to watch the video online with or without that feature.
One part of Elam’s three-pronged ideadblob proposal aims to make watching videos on a computer an all-around better experience. He’d like to create what he calls an “online theater” in which spectators can see a work from two or three different perspectives simultaneously or sequentially (including, he writes in his proposal, “backstage views and the performers’ point of view via body-mounted cameras”). In effect you create your own viewing experience instead of having it chosen for you. According to Elam, much of the technology is already out there, waiting to be tailored for a dance company’s purposes.
Not every choreographer would be as interested as he is in trying to crack open up the whole dance-making process. But one of his plans—web streaming from rehearsals— makes the staged lecture-demonstration, followed by a q & a, seem, if not obsolete, limited and one-dimensional. Here’s the idea. The company schedules and posts a date to upload rehearsal footage to its site while it’s taking place. So imagine yourself to be a tuned-in person—maybe a Misnomer fan— or a surfer who’s come across what seems like an interesting site. Even if you weren’t clued in, you’d realize pretty quickly that you’re watching a rehearsal in real time (always a turn-on) and that you can instantly text message a query to the company in general or to that tall woman who just flipped her leg over that guy’s neck. At the end of the rehearsal, one of the dancers will be selected to reply to some of the questions or comments that have come in. Those open rehearsals and the messages that follow will be saved and archived. As Elam says, “for one of the 354 days a year that you’re not in the theater seeing the company, it’s a way of getting into the interesting creative things that are happening behind the scenes. So much happens in the studio.”
People who visit the Misnomer website may be moved to make contributions or buy tickets to a performance. If they happen to be where one is taking place. The third tool that Elam and his colleagues plan to develop will enlist potential audiences to help make a live performance happen. “We’re trying to make a form where people will put in their zip code if they want to see us come to their hometown. Then we make an interactive Google Map of the country, and each time someone from a zip code says, I want Misnomer to come to my town, a little number will show up at their zipcode on the map, and once you get 150 people from any zip code who have said ‘I want you,’ a big red dot happens at that zip code.”
You see where this could lead. A dance company can then contact a theater manager and announce that it knows of so-many hundred people living in or near that zip code who’d like to see it perform there. What’s more, some of those people may also have indicated they’d be willing to get the word out to friends and neighbors. Elam’s voice fairly crackles along the phone lines when he considers how many sectors would benefit from a tool that could facilitate this process. “It empowers audience members to be able to bring the art that they want to their hometown, and it helps presenters to be able to make an assessment. Often when I talk to presenters, I find there’s a real concern about ‘how is my audience base going to respond to this? Is it going to sell tickets?’ So it will help take a little of that mystery out. And it could enable dance companies to create local audience bases around the country.”
Choreography is Elam’s passion, and the fact that he’s a networking maven seems to me to fit right in with the kind of dances he makes. Anyone who’s ever seen Misnomer, whether live or on the web, remembers the extraordinary ways in which people thoughtfully tangle with their own limbs and the bodies of others. “The nature of my work,” he says is that I love the way people try to connect and negotiate with each other and understand one another. That’s what I put on the stage. And how does that connect with an audience inside a theater and how does it connect with people outside a theater? This type of work is really meaningful to me, and it also matches my background in computer science and public policy and the cultural anthropology research I’ve done. I mean, this is not the art. This is a different thing. It’s a building of audience education, of marketing, of outreach, of communication exchange. It’s very nice to be in a merge just now.”
Not all artists are able or ready to swim in this multicurrented virtual flow. But the possibilities are seductive as well as productive. There’s a big choreography of shared information out there. Why not find a score of partners and join the dance?