Monday, 4 November 2013

Guest post: "Choreographing a management strategy", by Dóra Juhász (Hungary)

When I was invited to see X&Y by Compagnie Pál Frenák in Budapest last April, I didn´t know that the company´s new artistic manager would be one of my new colleagues at the Kennedy Center fellowship in the summer. So, the first time I saw Dóra Juhász in Washington it was like meeting an old friend. Dóra is a young woman full of energy, ideas and ambition. I asked her to write for this blog, not only because I loved the company´s work, but also because of their special connection to deaf audiences. mv

InTimE, Compagnie Pál Frenák.
Choreographer Pál Frenák has a special French expression for explaining to his dancers what he wants to see and what he wants to reach during the creation process: the fragile balance of juste. When the movement, the presence and the emotional content on stage is just right; not more, not less; enough and precise; not created by routine, not shy or forgettable, nor over-expressive or exaggerated. “Juste” the intensity that is needed in that moment, created after deep research in the dancers body and soul, after weeks of improvisation and experimentation. When you reach this moment, you have to recognize, catch it and keep it, because it is exactly what we need. “Juste.”

After working in a big contemporary arts institution for 6 years, with clear and defined frames and ready-made structures, it was really inspiring to arrive to the French-Hungarian contemporary dance company, Compagnie Pál Frenák (here and here), an internationally acclaimed, independent company, that has existed for 15 years and has got a rather small management team. I arrived at a moment when the Hungarian cultural politics is changing, when the contemporary dance and theatre scene is losing a huge percentage of its annual budget and government funding,  while there is no tradition in private funding in the country for contemporary performing arts at all. Step by step, I had to realize how crucial it is to find a fragile balance, in this case, to create a management strategy which is exactly right and suitable for my organization in this specific moment, appropriate, adequate, understandable for my own artists, but innovative, brave and adapted for the needs and context. A management strategy which is just right. “Juste.”

How can we do this? How can all our management knowledge be transformed into something which may be new, provocatively new, and at the same time sustainable, because it is breathing together with your company? Going deeper, exploring the patterns in the way your artists work and use them as a source of inspiration to create a strategy, a certain campaign or project.


Pál Frenák’s childhood was marked by the fact that his parents were severely hearing and speech impaired, making sign language his first means of expression. This rendered him especially receptive towards mimicry and gestures and all other ways of expressing content with the help of the human body. For Pál Frenák, the great technique is just the minimum. He tries to, literally and physically, unbalance his dancers and motivate them to step out from their comfort zone and totally forget their learned technique.

Sign language, leaving the comfort zone, creating physical and mental circumstances where the moments of (self)reflection necessary happen (of course working together with people with hearing disabilities is an important part of the company’s mission from the very beginning), but how could these components and way of thinking influence the strategy-building of our audience engagement projects and long-term education strategy?

The team in Kunstahalle.
We created an education package for our Twins performance, where we invited teenagers with and without hearing disabilities; during the preparation workshop of the performance in schools, we worked intesively with them in separate small groups playing associative games, movement exercises based on the choreography of the performance and the main theme of the piece - and all the groups worked together with a drama peadagogy expert with hearing disabilities communicating with sign language, a translator and a dancer of the company. Finally, all the groups met at the show and there was a post-show workshop as well, where everybody participated, combining sign language and verbal-vocal expressions and using the scenario of the show. After this, our dancers visited them again is their schools for a follow-up.

We regularly organize post-show discussions, where groups of people with hearing disabilities also take part, communicating directly with the choreographer in sign language – there is an interpreter for the rest of the audience. Why is it so important? Because, just like in the rehearsal room, we are physically creating a thought-provoking disbalance for the majority of the people in the audience, when they need to face a situation where they organically become the minority. This is the logic and framework for building our audience engagement and audience development projects at different levels, based on what is happening in the rehearsal room with the artists, always focusing on finding a strong link between the artistic part and the structural part of our projects.


In our marketing strategy, we involve our own dancers and invite photographers and filmmakers to create personal and unique backstage materials as promotional content one one hand, it is an exciting way of involving our audience and bring them closer to the everyday life of Compagnie Pál Frenák; on the other hand, it organically fits the team: as in the creation process, the choreographer composes the elements of the piece based on the dancers personality, and they become more emotionally attached, involving them in the marketing strategy opens up the possibility of a very honest and unique way of communicating our art product as well, and it is more than inspiring to figure out together how deep we can go together.

The same thing happens in the development and membership strategy. Our company doesn’t  have a venue of its own, so we collaborate with different venues. This means that we can mainly offer our sponsors an insight of the life of the company, rather than, let’s say, discounts for parking. But, in order to have a sustainable structure, when we choose a form and event to involve our future donors we need to see clearly who we are as a company, to keep ourselves true, honest and free. If the company never wanted to organize a new year’s eve party, but there is a nice tradition of a 2nd of January get-together event, it is important to use that as a development event. In some cases, we go for open-air picnics with site-specific choreographies in the park, instead of formal dinners, because that’s what and who we are; a fashion designer’s tote bag collection about a piece, instead of pencils or magnets with logos as a merchandising; because this is our way.

We are, of course, in the very middle of this process, but exploring the identity of the company together and finding management tools for these elements is a long-term team-building activity in a way, and also a fantastic challenge. In this case, strategy building in management is a real creative process parallel with the artistic one. And when it comes together, when the management strategy is synchronized with the artistic field and the two become inspired by each other, when it is just right.. not more, not less than what we need... Thats what we call you know “juste”.

Dóra Juhász is Artistic Manager for Compagnie Pál Frenák in Budapest, Hungary. She oversees strategic planning, international networking, branding, tour management, artistic coaching, audience development, sponsorship and fundraising. From 2006 to 2012, she was Press and Communications Manager for the Trafó House of Contemporary Arts (Budapest). She is a member of the Hungarian Theatre Critics´Association and regularly gives lectures and participates in conferences around the world.   

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