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Dance Notation Bureau leaps out of peril

A little over a year ago, one of the world’s most important centers of dance history seemed doomed to bankruptcy. Between failed grants and overextended resources, the Dance Notation Bureau was forced to lay off five of its six staff members in November 2005.

Today, the organization, which is based in New York City, has not only paid off its debts, but also boasts a balanced budget through the end of the fiscal year.

“We weren’t aware of the situation,” said Senta Driver, a board member of the bureau since 1997 and part of the emergency rescue committee after the crisis hit.

This treasury of dance has served for nearly 70 years as the only place in the world to house more than 750 dance scores. It trains specialized notators in Labanotation and actively increases its archives by sending notators to document many different kinds of dance works by creating a dance score.

A dance score is much like a musical score: It is read in order to reproduce the creator’s intentions. Written in Labanotation, a geometric representation of movement invented by Rudolf Laban in 1928, the scores in the bureau range from social to classical to folk dance.

An article describing the bureau’s plight ran in The New York Times in November 2005. Afterward, the organization received several phone calls from individuals and foundations who wanted to help.

“I think the crisis made it possible for our name to be seen in The Times, which helped us,” said Lynne Weber, the bureau’s acting executive director and board chairwoman.

And how has the Dance Notation Bureau leaped out of peril? The rescue committee, made up of Weber, Driver and 35 volunteers, began reorganizing.

First, Weber called the bureau’s private individual donors to explain the situation and ask for help.

“They spanked us, and then they stood by us,” Driver said of the private donors. “They renewed their support.”

Many in the nonprofit world agree that financial success depends on the relationship an organization has with its private sponsors.

“It is most important for a nonprofit to find supporters who connect with their mission and to create and maintain that relationship,” said a spokesperson for the nonprofit informational site GuideStar.

The bureau’s outreach brought more than $600,000 from private contributions and more than $60,000 worth of contributions from government and other foundations as of the end of its fiscal year in June 2006. So far this year, the bureau’s funds exceed $150,000 in government and foundational support and $70,000 from individuals.

In addition to contributions, the committee looked for steady revenue streams to make the bureau more secure. It now has multiyear funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and has received grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and an anonymous donor. The bureau’s $500,000 endowment will yield yearly interest of about $30,000, which can help pay the rent on its Manhattan office.

On hearing of the crisis, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation invited the bureau to submit a proposal for funding last June.

It offered a $150,000 endowment for notating several Martha Graham works over a three-year period and for a plan to catalog the bureau’s archives online.

“For many of these choreographers, their works only live in the body of the dancer,” said Diane Ragsdale, associate program officer of the foundation, who awarded the grant. “Notation is an important way to try and archive an ephemeral art form.”

Reorganizing the staff also played a role in the turnaround. The bureau hired William Kiley, previously a programmer and project manager in the information technology departments of several investment and commercial banks, as the new director of finance and administration.

Nancy Allison, one of the individuals who called after reading about the bureau's plight, became the program director. She called as a client, wanting to document dances by modern dance pioneer Jean Erdman, and, with the help of the bureau, orchestrated the entire process, including the fundraising.

“We were so impressed with her, look what we did,” Weber said. “We said, ‘We want you here!’”

Allison, who started in January, has already received about 10 requests to restage dances from the archived scores.

“We hope to build that to a bigger number,” she said.

She thinks the online database will help interest colleges and companies in restaging works waiting to be performed in its archives. The bureau receives a fee for these services. Already, a physical education college in Taiwan and Karen Peterson and Dancers in Miami are using some scores to recreate dance works.

It’s no wonder that the Dance Notation Bureau, along with hip-hop, hula, Busby Berkeley and Martha Graham, secured a place on America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100, a list compiled in 2000 by the Dance Heritage Coalition.

But the bureau hasn’t stopped searching for donors. While the current financial situation has improved, many of the bureau’s grants await matching contributions.

A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts will allow the bureau to begin transcribing older dance scores onto a computer and to catalog its archives onto a database online, among other projects. The bureau is searching for two other matching grants to complete the funding for these projects.

Kiley would like to develop a promotional multimedia package about the bureau and Labanotation to distribute to funding organizations, colleges and the media.

“For an organization to believe in what we do, they have to understand what we do,” he said.