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December 5, 2005

Press Releases for Dance

I’ve written them and I get them. The most pitiless fact is that when I get a release, the first thing I do is look at who’s involved. If I don’t see a name I recognize, the release will probably get pitched. This is not because I’m a snob. It’s because I’ve been watching dance for more than two decades now. Just keeping up with the people I know fills my calendar. Let me know who is working on this project, and boldface the names.

If I see no names I recognize but the work is in my field of interest (ballet, particularly classical or neoclassical) I may very well go, especially if the company is from out of town, which would be a very good reason for me not to recognize the people involved.

Other things could get me to go but they’re random and particular to every writer. A dance about knitting would probably not do much for other writers in New York, but I’d be interested.

It’s extremely tempting early on in your career to want to explain your work thoroughly. I did my early press releases in the form of an interview, which took nerve but may have helped get me a review or two. It probably also didn’t hurt that I was using good dancers and doing independent ballet, something relatively uncommon. My releases got shorter and shorter as I went on and as people became familiar with what I did. Try and keep them as pithy as possible. Invest in photography that conveys the mood of your dances. A really good picture could evoke more about what you’re doing than several paragraphs and a gorgeous one can even give legitimacy. It’s expensive and it sounds shallow, but the first impression a reviewer gets is your advance materials. They don’t need to be embossed on vellum but a professional looking job with a good design gives you credibility.

Your release will be taken painfully literally. Don’t include throwaway copy because it sounds sexy. You could get crucified. I'm pretty sure that some flights of fancy on my early releases led to a bad review or two. If you call your company “boldly innovative” you damn well better do something never seen before on stage. I’ve seen Dennis O’Connor pull an Evel Knievel doll out of his ass on stage; are you going to douse yourself with gasoline and light it ablaze? The danger is reviewers come in all shapes and sizes. “Boldly innovative” works that aren’t may get my goat but another reviewer might loathe anything that smells even faintly of the academy. It’s a crapshoot. Try and describe what you’re doing accurately and briefly. Say enough so that people know what you're doing, but not enough so they can hang you with it. “An edgy quintet to modern music inspired by the poetry of St. John of the Cross.” Descriptive, to the point and fair enough – but it had better be edgy.

Don’t use your grantwriting materials to fashion a release. Grantmakers are trying to use their money to do charitable work for the general good; this makes them interested in the cultural and social goals of your work in a completely different way than a dance writer. Nothing will set off my bullshit detector faster than a release declaring that your work seeks to explore the otherness forced upon dancers by society’s distorted views of body imagery. A press release is not the place for that kind of gobbledygook. Don't use your booking materials either, for the same reason. A dance writer is not a potential presenter.

This is labor intensive, but having more than one release would be helpful. You will probably find that there are a few reviewers you will especially target – the ones whose area of interest overlaps yours. Those people should get special treatment and a release with as little advertising language as possible. They already know what it is you do; they just want to know what the current project is, who is involved and the vital details.

There is a second level of reviewer who may never come and see your work because it isn't in his or her field of interest but you want them to recognize your name and work. The press release might not be different than for the first group, but you might want to include some other material to familiarize them with who you are. A nice postcard or a prior favorable review (one brief one, not a press kit’s worth) might be a good idea.

The third group would be general listings. These releases don’t go to dance writers specifically, but to people in charge of the calendar and listings sections. The pre-press this can provide is as valuable as any review. Unlike reviewers, listings people need exciting copy and especially exciting photos. If you’re going trumpet your work as “slash and burn” or “reinventing dance!” this is where you do it.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at December 5, 2005 11:51 PM

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I just always find it hilarious when I see the same turn-of-phrase from the press release in the 5 different publications' listings.

Posted by: Rachel at December 6, 2005 6:43 PM

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