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UMS president Matthew VanBesien

Digital Performances

"This is not the year to hibernate," says UMS president Matthew VanBesien.

by Trilby MacDonald

From the October, 2020 issue

Even after the U-M shut down last spring, the University Musical Society held out hopes for an in-person fall season. Those hopes faded over the summer, as artists canceled tours and the prospects for holding live events dimmed.

As late as August, it still looked like the Paul Taylor Dance Company would be able to appear in September. But "in the end, they didn't feel they could adequately rehearse," VanBesien says. And "we have yet to have real access to U-M venues like the Power Center."

The organization's committed donor base, as well as university support and infrastructure, gave UMS the luxury of reimagining the season off-stage. But "I am not a huge believer in substituting a live performance with a digital performance," VanBesien says.

And since the Taylor company canceled its New York season as well, even that wasn't an option.

Fortunately, the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance had the Taylor company's official historian on its faculty. UMS recruited dance prof Angela Kane and Taylor artistic director Michael Novak to jointly curate a viewing of footage from several iconic Taylor works, culminating in what is widely regarded as his seminal piece, Promethean Fire.

Choreographed after 9/11, the dance declares the resilience of the human spirit in the wake of catastrophe, a theme whose poignance is particularly resonant today. The live performance was originally scheduled for Sept. 10 and 11. The digital format allowed UMS to extend the run until Sept. 21, including a live Q & A with Kane and Novak on closing night. This month, instead of performing live at Rackham, the Takács Quartet will record a recital while sheltering in place at the University of Colorado Boulder (See Events).

By making its digital performances about process as well as product, VanBesien hopes to engage audiences by "offering a more personal, bespoke performance moment from our artists." And by making them available free this season, they're expanding the audience to

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anyone with an Internet connection, with the potential to permanently grow the organization's presence from the local to the international stage.

"Arts organizations talk a lot about access," he says. "The digital piece does democratize access in a way that is hard to achieve in normal times."

UMS is creating individualized marketing and distribution strategies for each performance, enlisting the help of artists and partnering organizations to promote content to wider audiences.

Artists with large followings can more easily navigate the challenges of a season without live performances by devising creative ways to generate revenue online. "If you are well positioned to be able to do those things that's great, but there are a lot of artists that may fall through the cracks," says VanBesien. He saw an opportunity to invest in artists by offering digital residencies, paying them to create performances specifically designed for the digital frame.

The digital residencies, which roll out at the end of September, include actor Wendell Pierce, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, artist Brian Lobel, dancer/choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson, Flint-based musician and artist Tunde Olaniran, and jazz artist Tarek Yamani in a collaborative project with the Spektral Quartet.

Some residencies, like DiDonato's, focus more on the artist's creative process than the final product. Other artists, like Pierce and Olaniran, will be creating content for this year and next.

"What we like about this more open, fluid model," VanBesien says, "is that it gets us way beyond the transactional space of 'we pay you as an artist, and you create a video we can then push out or sell to our audiences.'

"Sometimes an artist will just provide some fun, whimsical content, or even collaborate with another artist within the UMS cohort on one of their projects."     (end of article)

[Originally published in October, 2020.]


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