On Thursday, June 18, Shen Wei Dance Arts will inaugurate the new home of the American Dance Festival‘s big-ticket actsthe Durham Performing Arts Center. The performance will mark a milestone in both the long, proud history of ADF and the unfolding history of DPAC.
For many local arts observers, the idea of a large, publicly financed concert hall in downtown Durham was controversial. But DPAC’s boosters justified the theater’s $47 million price tag and dubious contributions to local arts by offering it as a home for ADF, which had been struggling for years with Duke University’s cramped facilities.
It was unclear, though, if ADF really wanted the gift of DPAC. While Duke officials kicked around the idea of replacing Page Auditorium and revamping Reynolds Theater, as they had for years, in 2004, ADF Board Chairman Carlton Midyette criticized the proposed downtown concert hall as wasteful and unnecessary, the brainchild of a few powerful people in Durham whose real goal was economic, not artistic. Midyette called the ADF a “thorn” in DPAC’s side, since its needs and priorities often conflicted with DPAC’s goals. (The criticism came a month after corporate radio conglomerate ClearChannel dropped out of negotiations to manage the theater, and well before current operator PFM/ Nederlander stepped in.)
Though ADF was offered as a major reason for DPAC’s existence, a number of the dance festival’s requests were not met, most notably, a smaller “black box” theater space that would accommodate smaller, avant-garde dance troupes.
ADF has scaled back its usual eight-week run to seven weeks, in response to the stalled national economy, and both ADF and DPAC officials declined to offer specific numbers on current ticket sales, though ADF Director Charles Reinhardt indicated they are “pretty close” to 2008 sales (Reinhardt said 2008’s sales were up 10 percent from 2007).
In April, five months after DPAC opened, Durham officials released a “project summary” containing few specifics, indicating the theater had met its budget projections. Meanwhile, City Council approved an additional $200,000 to pay for a trash facility and video system.
DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus indicated that DPAC is simply serving as a location for ADF, not a partner.
“Our role is really to host the event,” Klaus said. “In terms of sales or marketing, the festival organizers would be best to answer that, in terms of their expectations.”
Reinhardt said that ADF didn’t expect to sell out the 2,800-seat theater. In fact, ADF will sell only 1,500 tickets to individual eventsa little more than half DPAC’s capacity.
However, ADF officials are pleased with the festival’s new digs. A recurring complaint about Duke’s two biggest theatersPage and Reynoldswas that the stages were too small to accommodate big troupes, and the backstage dressing areas were woefully inadequate. Reinhardt said DPAC solves those problems.
“The stage is much bigger … therefore, we’ll have greater artistic freedom,” he said. “Second, the sight lines are excellent there, and third … it’s exciting to have something new.”
“We’re thrilled,” Klaus said. “As many people know, one of the original thoughts behind the DPAC was its ability to host bigger performances from the dance festival.”
Another concern that has dogged DPAC is the issue of competition. Even before DPAC’s construction, the Triangle had a glut of large concert halls: the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Memorial Auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek, Duke University venues and, less than a mile from DPAC, the Carolina Theatre. Critics wondered if a preponderance of such venues would dilute the ticket-buying public to the point that no venue could thrive.
Klaus dispelled the notion that ADF, which may not sell as well as DPAC’s big-ticket performances, would financially dent the venue during its six weeks of performances. He said that most theaters like DPAC have an off-season in the summer, and ADF’s timeline fits that downtime.
However, that downtime, which coincides with ADF, features a massive run of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys, booked for 32 shows at the Progress Energy Center’s Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh. Progress Energy Center General Manager Jim Lavery said 32 dates isn’t an excessive amount for a show this big, pointing to the success of The Lion King, which ran for seven weeks in 2007 and sold 99 percent of available tickets.
Moreover, the timing of Jersey Boys and ADF was just that, Lavery said, and not a booking strategy to compete with Durham’s big summer event.
“We book these things three years in advance,” he said. “It’s the first national mega-tour. You take the dates they give you.”