I am sitting at the threshold of the Expo Hall, where the performing artists (or their agents and managers, representatives and administrators, depending on what’s in the budget) have come to peddle their wares. My outpost, a bench across from the escalators, abuts the “Relaxation Station,” where weary convention-goers can lay down their iPads and rest a moment, indulge in a shoulder rub or one of those vibrating foot massages. An imposing row of kiosks and skirted tables lines the long, glossy corridor. Here, the unregistered hand over their credit cards, and the registered form lines according to first letter, last name.
“IMAGINE,” “WELCOME,” read the signs above the double doorway leading to the Expo Hall. “DON’T MISS THESE EVENTS,” “IT’S ALL HAPPENING IN THE EXPO HALL,” urges a flashing flat-screen monitor nearby. The carpeted expanse beyond beckons. At the moment, though, I really can only imagine. I’m just a few strides away—but to get any further, I’m going to need a badge.
I should have known: you don’t just drop by the “global performing arts marketplace and conference” that is APAP/NYC. You don’t just show up at the midtown Hilton in a spirit of unfocused curiosity, as if embarking on some sort of art project, to check it out or get a feel for what goes into the buying and selling of live performance. It’s like Christmas; people have been planning for this since it ended last year. “You . . . didn’t register online?” asks one of the six genial young women whom I encounter in my 90-minute effort to secure an orange slip of paper, sheathed in a plastic case, dangling from a lanyard. “Just so you know, our web registration was open for quite some time.”
My badge-acquiring mission begins at a crescent-shaped counter and takes me figure-eighting between name-tagged personnel ensconced behind similar counters. I progress from “Information” to “Onsite Registration” to “Special Inquiries” (I think it’s called) to “Press,” just an arm’s length away from where I started.
While filling out a form that asks me what I’m doing here, waiting for the person who (I’ve been assured) possesses badge-granting authority, a depleted-looking woman wanders over. “Do you have any information about the conference other than this?” she asks the assistant in the blazer, holding up a wafer-like Pocket Guide to APAP/NYC. “Are you registered?” the assistant replies, looking up from her page of ornate doodles. The woman shakes her head—“It’s too much, I can’t afford it,” she confides—and walks away empty-handed.
“Sorry for the wait!” says the assistant.
“That’s all right!” I say, glancing at her doodle, which has evolved into a nice cartoon etching of an alien-robot.
When the bearer of badges arrives, she swiftly assembles her iPad and wireless keyboard so I can prove that I am, in fact, a writer. I Google my own archive of blog posts and scroll through a few of them. “Thanks,” she says. “It’s just, we have a very limited number of badges.” When she asks what I plan to write, I tell her I’m not really sure. I spend a lot of time seeing performances, I say, but I don’t know much about the industry surrounding it all, and I want to start by just getting a sense of “the ambiance” in the Expo Hall. “Maybe focus on the business side of things?” she suggests. “Since that’s where all the business deals go down.”
But as it turns out, even once endowed with a badge and supplementary materials—a coveted spiral-bound program book, an APAP membership pamphlet that teases “Imagine Belonging: Association of Performing Arts Presenters”—I won’t make it into the Expo Hall that day. “Sorry, no media allowed,” says the stern man (grey hair, navy blue suit) at the entryway. “The exhibitors are setting up their booths. There’s nothing to see. Come back at 2 o’clock, or tomorrow.”
When I return two days later, I sail right through the Expo Hall doors, into the fluorescent-lit maze of booths sporting banners and stacks of brochures, staffed by dutiful servants of the arts. The scene is at once terrifically colorful and tremendously banal. Every conceivable kind of arts organization has staked out its territory: family theater bumps up against commercial entertainment bumps up against regional music and culturally specific dance. Folklore Productions International, The Mystical Arts of Tibet, Dutch Performing Arts, Double Grande Entertainment, Cirque-tacular Entertainment, The Paul Taylor Dance Company, Gilday Magic Show, Nebraska Theatre Caravan, IMG Artists, The New York Neofuturists, The Broadway Boys: it really is “all happening” in the Expo Hall.
As I saunter up and down the aisles, I get the feeling that eyes are feasting on my orange badge, a hunch that actress-singer Penelope later confirms. “If you have the white or blue badge, people are like, Oh, she can’t get us work.” (These colors, I gather, are reserved for exhibitors or volunteers.) “But if you have another color tag or no tag, people are like who are you?”
Penelope is manning the booth for The Construction Company, a nonprofit based in the Flatiron District that presents contemporary music, dance, and visual art. For the five days of APAP each January, she tells me, The Construction Company serves as an umbrella organization for 10 small modern dance groups. This structure allows artists to pool their resources, sharing the cost of a booth ($850 to $1870, depending on the size) and the work of putting on a showcase. It also eases the hustle of getting presenters’ attention. “You can cross-pollinate,” says Penelope’s fellow booth attendant, Rachel, who directs one of the 10 troupes, Racoco/Rx. “There might be a presenter who clearly, what I do is not right for them. But I know that my colleague would be perfect, so you get more out of it than you could if you were just by yourself.”
But what of the eye-rolling cynicism that so many artists seem to feel toward APAP and its meat-market atmosphere? Penelope describes the conference as “equally inspiring and frustrating or demoralizing, because you have this sense of all of these opportunities and ideas about who to collaborate with, and then quickly the reality is that they’re not the opportunities you thought and they don’t happen quickly. You can have the greatest tour on earth, and it can fall apart, and it happens all the time.”
She goes on: “It’s very expensive, and it’s time-intensive. Small dance companies that are paying dancers but don’t really have operating funding, they have to rehearse all through the holiday break to prepare work for this, so you gotta get your publicity materials together and —”
“—make all your color copies,” Rachel interjects, “and then you get here and realize that you forgot to print out a certain thing and you only have enough for three press kits and then some guy comes to the free showcase and eats the food and takes your press kit but he’s just some guy who comes all the time.”
At a panel discussion two days ago, Rachel says, “I quit and then restarted my company about 10 times in my mind.”
Penelope adds: “The pressure that’s already on choreographers to do every job in order to keep a company running is really intense over these few days. But they do it. That’s the amazing thing: year after year, people do it.”
We get to talking about the pressures on presenters to please their audiences, to shy away from “riskier” work. “I hear presenters saying they can’t lose money on ticket sales right now,” Penelope says. “Post-recession, things are coming back, but they have to fill seats. I’ve had so many say, ‘My aesthetic for what I want to program is something so different from what I have to do to keep my theater right now.’ They’ll come by and be like “I love this kind of stuff! We’re bringing in The Nutcracker.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with The Nutcracker.”
At which point Rachel exits the conversation to chase after a presenter she’s been courting, before 6 p.m. comes and the Expo Hall load-out begins.
Siobhan Burke writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times and Dance Magazine, where she is an associate editor.