Lauren Kearns on How to Start a Dance Company

Rachel Hanson
Lauren Kearns
Lauren Kearns (photography by Steve Clarke)

Lauren Kearns is a tenured professor in the Performing Arts department at Elon University. Head of the dance program and the implementer of the Bachelor in Fine Arts in Dance at Elon, Lauren teaches a wide variety of courses at the university as well as serving as the director of Elon's own pre-professional dance company. In addition to her university appointment, Lauren runs her own professional dance company, kearns dance project. Prior to relocating to North Carolina in 2006 and her company's debut in 2007, Lauren was a tenured faculty member in California where she founded her first private company, Bodytalk Dance in 1999. LoveToKnow recently had the honor of speaking with Ms. Kearns to learn about her experiences starting, and running, a dance company and keeping the choreography fresh.

Lauren Kearns's Companies

LTK: What inspired you to start your own company?

LK: I was 17 years old when I first saw the Mark Morris Dance Group perform at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and I knew then that I wanted to make dance my career. I had always been interested in creating art (theatre and dance specifically) and after seeing Morris's remarkable choreography, I knew I had found my own path. I completed my MFA in choreography and performance from UCLA in 1998 and I started Bodytalk Dance, my first company, in 1999. It was a Los Angeles based repertory company that rehearsed regularly, held weekly company class, and performed in consecutive seasons at Highways Performance Space (a national performance network venue.) I choreographed, performed and directed the company from 1999 until 2005. I then moved across country in 2006 to take an academic position as the head of the dance program at Elon University. In 2007 I formed my current company, kearns dance project. This company is a "pick up" based company meaning I hire dancers in when I get commissions or specific projects. This company model suits my interests more and also reflects the financial reality of running a company in our current economic climate.

LTK: How did you secure funding for your companies?

LK: I completed the appropriate paperwork to make Bodytalk Dance a non-profit arts organization. The majority of the funding came from grants and private donors. My current company, kearns dance project, runs primarily on grants and commission/project funding.

LTK: What about rehearsal space and performance venues?

LK: I've been fortunate to be affiliated with academic institutions during the run of both companies. I was given free rehearsal space in Los Angeles from the college I taught at and am currently rehearsing my new company at Elon University.

With both companies, I've performed in a variety of venues (from small and intimate black box theatres to mid-range houses of 500-1000 seats) as well as numerous dance festivals.

LTK: Where did you recruit dancers and are they only in your company?

Hush, 2008 Hush, 2008 by Lauren Kearns, photo credit: Grant Halverson

LK: With my first company, Bodytalk Dance, I auditioned dancers, taught company class and rehearsed regularly each week. We generally took one month off during the year. With my current company, kearns dance project, I have invited dancers to work with me on specific projects. Because this company is based on the pick up company model, I only hire in dancers for specific projects and do not teach company class.

LTK: How often does your company perform and/or do other things? Is there a kind of maximum and minimum?

LK: Even though my current company is a pick up company, we perform regularly throughout the season. For example, this past year I toured in the 2010-2011 20th anniversary season of the North Carolina Dance Festival and also performed in a few other concerts. I also made one new screendance during the season. Since the inception of kearns dance project in 2007, we have performed on a regular basis.

Developing the Company's Vision and Aesthetics

LTK: How do you develop the artistic vision for your own company and make sure you keep it?

LK: This is an excellent question. It is imperative for a choreographer to have a defined choreographic aesthetic as well as a defined artistic vision for her/his work and company. My "tag line" for kearns dance project is "Dynamic Athleticism and Intimate Velocity." My current company is dedicated to making dynamic and athletic concert dance, screendance, and multimedia theatrical events. I make sure that every new concert piece or screendance I choreograph is kinesthetically exciting, visually stimulating, and highly musical.

LTK: Can a company cover several different dance genres or should one genre be embodied in the artistic vision of the company?

LK: Another excellent question. There are many successful companies that are dedicated to performing work by numerous choreographers. Personally, I have never been interested in exploring that route. I want to make work that is completely based on my artistic vision.

LTK: How do you balance developing a performance in your own creative vein with ensuring that the choreography and staging will appeal to audiences and/or critics?

LK: Well, it is extremely important to make work that is authentic and that encapsulates what your artistic and choreographic vision is. If choreography is authentic, original, inventive and fresh, I feel that critics and audiences will be engaged.

Deciding to Start a Company

Cubed, 2008 Cubed, 2008 by Lauren Kearns, photo credit: Grant Halverson

LTK: What should dancers consider when choosing between joining an existing company and starting their own?

LK: Starting a dance company is not for the faint of heart. It is crucial for dancers to honestly answer the following questions: Are they, deep in their hearts, choreographers? If they are not interested in creating unique dance, they should not start a company. Can they put in long hours in the studio creating and teaching movement and then put in even longer hours in their office applying for grants, commissions, festivals, updating their websites, sending their press packages, etc… If a dancer is just truly interested in performing, they should pursue a performance career first and not start a company. However, if a dancer is also a choreographer and interested in and willing to put in all of the time necessary to administrate and develop a company, then they should go for it.

LTK: What advice would you offer to dancers in the earliest stages of starting their own company?

LK: Join forces with other young or new artists; perhaps form a collective where they can all share the work of managing a company. Join the local dance organization (most states have service organizations dedicated to promoting dance); take advantage of any dance and/or arts administrative workshops that local arts agencies offer. They also must choreograph, choreograph, and choreograph more. They must find ways to get their choreography shown in a variety of venues and to a variety of audiences.

More on Kearns

For more on Lauren Kearns and her exciting dance company, visit the kearns dance project online or check out one of their upcoming shows.

Lauren Kearns on How to Start a Dance Company