Thursday April 25, 2013
Business of dance
By REVATHI MURUGAPPAN
Akram Khan Dance Company producer Farooq Chaudhry tells us how he developed the company to become a successful venture.
IT’S not easy for any dance company to generate profits.
The London-based Akram Khan Dance Company (AKDC) is an exception. With a turnover of £1.5mil (RM7mil) last year, it is one of the most established contemporary dance companies in the world. AKDC’s works have received international acclaim and recognition as well as artistic and commercial success.
In fact, the London Business School studies the AKDC, alongside Cirque du Soleil, as examples of successful business models in the entertainment industry.
But a large part of the success is owed to its producer Farooq Chaudhry, 54, who views dance as a business. He keeps one eye on the art and the other on the money.
“There is a tendency in the arts world to consider the word ‘business’ as the evil empire that has little or nothing to do with the arts. They do not mix – like oil and water. I disagree with this assumption. Many of my heroes, such as Steve Jobs, are visionary businessmen who are crazy, foolish and passionate enough to build their companies by taking creative leaps into the unknown,” says Chaudhry, over a phone interview from London.
Chaudhry will be speaking at the Arts Entrepreneurship master classes, which will be held at the National Academy of Arts and Culture (Aswara) in Kuala Lumpur this weekend. Organised by Theatre Management Associates, the master classes are intended to change people’s way of thinking about the arts.
The two-day event will incorporate topics such as how to build up audiences, touring the arts, broadcasting the arts, how to produce shows, integrity and sustainability. Other speakers include Stephen Browning, John Causebrook, Anthony Field and Zalfian Fuzi.
Since he has taken AKDC from strength to strength, Chaudhry is a sought-after speaker in arts management and cultural entrepreneurship courses around the world. He is also the chair of Dance UK’s board and the honorary artistic advisor to China’s Guangzhou Opera House.
Born in Pakistan, Chaudhry graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School and had a 14-year career as a dancer, before switching roles and becoming a producer.
“I started dancing late, at 25. My body went through a huge kind of stress before I could express myself as a professional dancer. I ended up working with some big companies but by the time I got to my late30s, my knees needed operating on. I also had my first child in 1998. It wasn’t a conscious decision to quit. I woke up one morning and realised my body couldn’t do it any more. It was too stressful. So I stopped at 39,” recalls Chaudhry.
He then went on to pursue an MA in Arts Management from City University in London and got a job as a trainee manager for a small arts organisation in London. It was then that Chaudhry set eyes on a young dancer of Bangladeshi descent named Akram Khan.
“One of the things I look out for is modern dance with a difference. I am not too familiar with traditional forms so when I saw Akram dancing for the first time, I was immediately attracted to his unique way of moving. I saw someone speak two languages with his body,” enthuses Chaudhry.
Khan’s style was deeply rooted in classical Indian (kathak) and modern dance, and the language continually evolves to communicate ideas that are intelligent, courageous and new.
“It was organically beautiful. There was grace, power, fluidity and strength. There was the Western world and the Asian world. There was also a third world, which was not obvious. I was completely blown away.”
Chaudhry was sold. Excited, he went up and told Khan he was confident he could take him somewhere new. Khan desired to create a small company work with original production elements and have the time to explore his ideas deeply.
“I needed an artiste who could challenge me as much as I could challenge him. We started our adventure on this basis.”
Somehow, Khan was convinced and, in 1999, the duo teamed up and founded AKDC.
“There is chemistry between us. He talks about stuff that we really understand. He is 15 years younger than me so I have to be very careful that I don’t come across as patronising. He was in the hierarchy of artistic director. I didn’t want to call myself a manager but along the way, I became a bit of a producer,” says Chaudhry.
They had a project in mind but, like many artistes, money was hard to come by. So, Chaudhry sold his flat for £60,000 (RM280,000) to finance the project.
“That was my only option,” he recollects. “It was then that I realised I was an entrepreneur! I was putting my money where my mouth is. We rented a place around the corner. It was really tough. My wife was not working and we just had a baby. I told the landlord – if you don’t charge me high rent, I will decorate, paint and restore. The top half was rented to Japanese students and we lived in the basement. But I knew I would find a way out soon.”
The project left a big impact and attracted attention from the global dance community. The request for performances trickled in and generated revenue, which led to the process of converting talent, ambition, risk, belief and hard work to achieve success in the business.
“Our turnover that year was £88,000 (RM409,000). Within three years, I was paid back. And by 2010, our turnover for 10 years was £10mil (RM46mil), out of which 18% was public funds. The rest was earned income and sponsorship. We are prolific as we have done 100 to 120 shows every year for the last 10 years.”
Khan and Chaudhry do have their share of disagreements and arguments, but that helps them grow. There have been moments when they didn’t speak to each other for months.
“Akram does not think the best of business at times. I am the businessman. I am 50% creative and 50% business. Sometimes he is right, sometimes I am right.”
People constantly ask Chaudhry what his business strategy is.
“There is no strategy! I just have some plans and passion. I go with gut feeling,” he says.
Financially, AKDC is very stable. The outfit can weather any storm or an economic downturn because it has a good structure.
“One of the dangers you don’t want to get into is repeating yourself. You become familiar with what you do and it gets easy. You can do it with your eyes shut. When it gets like that, I don’t want to be working,” he cautions.
“I am never in the office now. As a producer, my job is to scout, to look for new economic, financial and artistic partners around the world.”
However, he is quick to point out that he is not selling the company but Khan.
“He does solo and duet work. We create three possible performance structures artistically but with conditions. The options are many. We started to develop a commercial arm, which Akram and I directed. It was to pick up all the commercial opportunities offered to us – films, television commercials or pop shows. We perform and we get paid well. We hope to eventually produce films one day.”
Unlike most dance companies, AKDC does not employ full-time dancers. Rather, dancers are hired on a project basis.
“We resisted the urge to follow other dance companies. One of the problems I have seen over the years is once you start having a full-time company, artistic decisions are dictated by the number of dancers you have. You have a very big constraint. So, we take on dancers and give them two or three years of work.
“We support them. When the company starts making money, they gain. We are not a charitable organisation. We pay taxes and support charitable institutions. We use that to support the young dancers once they leave us. We give them travel grants or educational resources. We help them develop,” he says.
Interestingly, they have never made anything of their Asian connection. Chaudhry says it’s dangerous to start labelling themselves culturally.
“If you were to be a global artiste, you would be taken seriously as an artiste. However, we can’t avoid what we look like, how we speak and our interests. Our Asian influences will be there but it’s best not to make a big deal out of it. The best art is to use feelings and expressions that belong to the whole world. It becomes a little bit romantic but that’s how I like it.”
As a teen, Chaudhry was out of control, ran away from home, begged on the streets, sent to a delinquent home and picked up some important life skills.
For aspiring artistes, Chaudhry has this to say: “Being an artiste is a combination of two things – the dreamer and the craftsman. From the classes come the tools. It takes a long time to build up the tools. Be patient. Work your tools well. Learn from other people’s technique. Don’t be frightened of critics but use that to further develop. And take risks.”
● For more information about the Arts Entrepreneurship master classes, e-mail email@example.com.