Hubbard Street Dance Chicago branches out to thrive in a troubled economy


Tech rehearsal for "Little Mortal Jump" by Hubbard Street Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. (Todd Rosenberg/© Todd Rosenberg Photography)
October 11, 2013

The hallways of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s studios are decked with old performance posters, vestiges of the 35-year-old modern dance company’s annual concert series in its home city.

One from its 1999 season bears an audacious tagline: “3 weeks only. You’ll need the other 49 to catch your breath.”

But the troupe’s executive director, Jason Palmquist, jokes that the ad might as well read another way: “You’ll have the other 49 weeks to forget about us completely.”

Since his arrival at Hubbard Street in 2007, after nearly 15 years working in the District as a vice president at the Kennedy Center and executive director of the Washington Ballet, Palmquist has sought to expand the reach and influence of Hubbard Street’s art by rethinking the business strategy behind it.

Key among his moves was ditching the model under which the company performed only once a year for its home crowd. Now, it is doing major engagements four times a year at the Harris Theater near Chicago’s Millennium Park, an arrangement that has boosted the company’s local audience by 50 percent. And Hubbard Street’s performances this week at the Kennedy Center are part of a more selective approach to touring that focuses on major theaters, because the company was finding that its travel-heavy schedule was a drag on its balance sheet.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer Quinn B. Wharton in a snippet from”Casi-Casa.” Choreographed by Mats Ek, the piece is set to original music by Fleshquartet. (Hubbard Street Dance Chicago/The Washington Post)

Palmquist has also launched initiatives that aim to grow revenue and to more deeply entwine Hubbard Street with its surrounding community, such as a summer intensive program for college-age dancers and a slate of 60 dance classes a week for children and families. The revenue this year from those two programs is projected to be on a par with the company’s ticket sales in Chicago.

Hubbard Street’s artists are also teaching dance and movement principles to a more unlikely cohort: Entrepreneurs at a Chicago start-up incubator who are looking to become more-creative thinkers and leaders.

These steps are part of an effort to build Hubbard Street into a contemporary dance troupe girded for today’s climate of lackluster economic growth, in which corporate philanthropy budgets are lean, consumers are cautious about opening their wallets, and businesses of all sorts are moving to become more nimble.

By diversifying its programs and taking dance outside the studio walls, Palmquist is hoping to build a broader audience for Hubbard Street’s performances and to pull down more dollars so its choreographers can better realize their artistic visions.

Working with entrepreneurs

Of all of Hubbard Street’s new endeavors, the most offbeat is its partnership with 1871, a Chicago facility that provides local entrepreneurs with access to work spaces, mentors and resources. (If the concept sounds familiar, that’s because it was the inspiration for 1776, Washington’s own co-
working center for start-ups that launched this year.)

The idea for the partnership was hatched when Hubbard Street was working with consulting firms ClearSpace and Strategos to identify ways in which it could bring dance into nontraditional settings.

“One of the kind of questions that came to my mind was: Imagine if a conventional business had as high a performing team” as Hubbard Street’s dancers, Palmquist said.

If they did, Palmquist said, “They’d rule the world!”

Hubbard Street soon applied for and received a grant worth $166,000 from ArtPlace to develop a curriculum and impart it to Chicago workers.

Entrepreneurs, they thought, were ideal guinea pigs for the experiment.

“Risk is involved in everything in both of our careers,” said Lissa Smith, one of the dancers who led the sessions.

Smith and other dancers visited 1871 regularly throughout 2013 to guide small groups of entrepreneurs through movement exercises. Each session was focused on a different theme, such as leadership, team-building or innovation. Often, the dancers would offer up instructions for improvisation.

“Try to experience swimming through a pool of peanut butter,” Smith said she would tell the participants. “And after a few moments of trying that out, you’re standing in front of a huge audience at an auditorium, and you’re trying to get their attention.”

It may seem fanciful that such an activity could translate into better business outcomes, but workshop participant Paul Caswell said the program helped him bring a different perspective to his technology business. Caswell was especially struck by a session in which he and a partner had to take turns mirroring each other’s movement patterns in real time.

“It was a real ‘a-ha!’ moment for me as a leader, that it isn’t just about vision. Leadership is also moment-by-moment activity,” Caswell said.

Forging relationships with entrepreneurs and businesses may prove beneficial, as it could give Hubbard Street entree to organizations with deep pockets. Still, Palmquist said the program is new enough that it’s not yet clear whether it could or should be something that Hubbard Street charges clients for.

“We don’t know yet what the end product looks like. We want it to be valuable,” Palmquist said.

Financial compulsions

Hubbard Street’s push into new ventures was fueled by the changing financial landscape that emerged in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

“We saw corporate contributions in a 12-month period contract from $800,000 to less than $300,000 on a $6.5 million budget,” Palmquist said.

The summer intensive program was ginned up to help fill the gap. In its pilot year, it drew about 25 students to a single classroom in Hubbard Street’s Chicago studios. In 2013, about 120 students participated in the program in Chicago, and an additional 60 students attended a second one that Hubbard Street has launched at the University of Iowa.

The change to the touring schedule, too, is largely a dollars-and-cents matter.

“One of the things that we realized was we were subsidizing our touring to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year,” Palmquist said.

Not anymore. The company continues to present at well-known venues such as the Joyce Theater in New York and the Music Center in Los Angeles, but it has cut back on shows at regional playhouses.

“The frequency of touring is less, but hopefully the impact of touring is perhaps even greater,” Palmquist said.

Still, Palmquist said there are plenty of decisions that are guided first by artistic impulse rather than by financials.

For example, artistic director Glenn Edgerton recently wanted choreographer Alonzo King to create a work that would be performed together by Hubbard Street and King’s San Francisco-based Lines Ballet.

“Think about the economics of that,” Palmquist said. “It’s hard enough funding the resources to create work on a single company.”

But they made it work, in part by lining up universities to host the rehearsals. The dance, titled “Azimuth,” premiered this year.

“At the core of everything for me was I just want to work in service to artists,” Palmquist said.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater at 8 p.m. Oct. 17-19.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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