The Powerpoint slide in Cecily Sommers' much-debated keynote Thursday at Dance/USA located "innovation" at the intersection of art and science. (photo by Caroline Palmer)

By Caroline Palmer

The Dance/USA conference continued Thursday at the Cowles Center with statistics, futurism, workshops and showcases. Executive director Amy Fitterer kicked off the morning plenary by reporting the conference data: 31 states represented, over 400 attendees, 50 volunteers from the Minnesota dance community, 50 scholarship recipients and performances by 30 local artists. “There’s endless dance in this city,” she said.

Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York went so far as to call the Twin Cities among the greatest in the world for arts and arts philanthropy. He spent several years here as senior program manager for the Dayton-Hudson Foundation and manager of community relations for Target stores.

Cecily Sommers provoked some strong reactions to her keynote presentation. After recounting her personal journey from professional dancer to chiropractor and now global trends analyst, Sommers urged the conference attendees to “step out into something you’ve never done before” and to “get super-curious about what’s happening in the world” in order to adapt to the fast-changing world. Sommers used examples from the technology and science boom (the advent of 3-D printers and genetically modified organisms) as well as corporate and entrepreneurial business models that use unexpected approaches to draw attention.

But as local choreographer Chris Schlichting pointed out during the question and answer session, Sommers’ message also hewed to a capitalist model where the end goal of risk-taking is making money, which is rarely true of the dance world. For most artists (and especially in cash-poor dance), innovation is borne out of the ability to do so much with so little. Meaningful funding is welcome but cannot be taken for granted so artists are constantly working on creative ways to keep their efforts alive that extend beyond a paycheck. Art for art’s sake still matters. And while some business models have relevance in arts management they are not an automatic or even a comfortable fit. This is a longstanding tension in the arts world and Sommers hit upon this particularly sensitive nerve during her keynote.

After her presentation the lobby was abuzz with discussion on everything from the challenges artists face when required to adopt ill-fitting business models by funders or boards to questions about why the future Sommers described wasn’t racially diverse or cognizant of the social justice downsides that can accompany innovation (genetically modified foods, for example, that are often sent to poor countries in famine with little knowledge of the health effects). The tension between short-term solutions versus long-term consequences kept people talking.

The day’s agenda was filled with a variety of workshops focused on the nuts and bolts of arts administration, leading into night-time showcases featuring repertory excerpts from Twin Cities dance companies and independent choreographers including TU Dance, Hijack and Ragamala Dance. In addition, Katherine and Robert Goodale, dance patrons for whom the Cowles Center’s main stage is named, were honored with the Champion Award. And just as the day began, it ended with numbers, this time courtesy of Cowles Center executive director Lynn Von Eschen, who reported that since the new facility opened in 2011 some 60 companies with a total of 500 dancers have performed there for more than 100,000 audience members.

The conference continues through Saturday with workshops at Northrop Auditorium plus more performance showcases around the city and at the Cowles.

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