Below is an article on a west coast choreographer managing life in the arts. The excerpt is from a downloadable pdf publication called CROSSOVER: How Artists Build Careers across
Commercial, Nonprofit and Community Work by Ann Markusen | Sam Gilmore | Amanda Johnson
Titus Levi | Andrea Martinez. This is out of a great series of research papers from the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs; the business school of the University of Minnesota.
They have compiled a number of economic arts impact articles over the past decade and although current conditions are vastly different than ten years ago, the information is relevant and packed with interesting stuff.
Sarah Swenson Pg. 64
Choreographer Sarah Swenson faces the unique challenges of running a commercial
dance company based out of Los Angeles. As co-founder of Sarah Swenson & Vox
Dance Theatre, she balances the demands of being a commercial artist with being a
nonprofit dance teacher. While the teaching supports both herself and her
company, it keeps her away from her own creative work.
In 1976, Swenson moved from Boston to attend New York University, but she
left after two years to focus on performing as a dancer. Early on in her
career, she worked with Jubilation Dance Company and Alvin Ailey’s third dance
company in a piece entitled Northside. In 1984, she began
studying at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and eventually started
teaching, working in repertory and performance coaching. Teaching provided stability
and allowed her to make a living exclusively in dance through teaching, dancing, and making
While still on the East Coast, she began to choreograph, earning a positive review in the New York Times for a piece she developed in 1990. By 1995 she had cofounded Seraphim Dance Theatre with the
late Raymond Harris, performing in New York venues such as the Aaron Davis Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the United Nations. A few grants trickled in, including support from the Brooklyn Arts Council.
After burning out on New York, Swenson came to LA. She decided to attend graduate school at California State University-Long Beach, where her choreography blossomed. “It was there that I started doing important work, when I was sure I had something to say as an artist.” After finishing her MFA, she landed
a job as a choreographer with The Long Beach Opera for a performance of Euridice by Jacopo Peri. She gravitated toward the stability of academia, taking a job at Missouri Valley College, in Marshall, but
resigned after two years and returned to Los Angeles.
With Sarah Swenson & Vox Dance Theatre, she has choreographed several pieces, some of which have been
produced in festivals, such as the Festival Under the Stars in Palm Desert, the South LA Contemporary Dance Festival in Torrance, and most prominently, the FIDA International Dance Festival in Toronto, which invited the company to return for a performance in the summer of 2006. Some of these appearances provide artist fees, and some awards. In each case, payments tend to be small.
Even so, Swenson makes it a point to pay the dancers most of the money to help cover their expenses.
Funding the project is a pressing issue. Swenson harbors reservations about becoming a nonprofit organization. “For me to be competitive I ought to have a nonprofit organization, but doing that will
probably make my life even more impossible than it is, and I’m not sure what I’m going to get out of it
because there is so much competition for so few grants.” In addition, she doesn’t see a clear path to
attracting corporate sponsorships, although Adobe has contributed support. “And I would have to
change my style, my choreography, who I work with, my contacts… everything. These worlds aren’t compatible.”
She covers her living expenses teaching courses at Cal State-Long Beach, Loyola Marymount University, and
Saint Joseph Ballet. But this hardly keeps her head above water, especially as she continues to do the basics of promotion and incurs expenses for website design, renting rehearsal space, buying sets and costumes. “I
spend a huge amount of time and money on how I am presented.”
This leaves her between a rock and a hard place: “I could teach more, but I’d be in a panic because I couldn’t keep the company moving.” She’s considering working with a dance agent in order to help focus her
marketing, publicity and organization efforts. And somehow, amidst all this, she continues to work as a dancer, most recently in a performance of the works of Rudy Perez at REDCAT.