Behind the Scenes: Communications and PR

Judy Lipsey
Judy Lipsey

Judy Lipsey, Associate Director at Premier, talks to Charlotte Kasner

This is the first in an occasional series looking at some of the supporting professions behind the scenes in dance. Like the frantically paddling swan displaying serenity at the surface, it takes a lot of work and collaboration with various professionals to bring a dance work to the stage. SeeingDance will be probing a bit deeper to investigate what is needed before opening night can happen.

Judy Lipsey is Associate Director at Premier, an award winning communications agency working with many of the biggest global brands in arts, entertainment and culture. Based in the heart of Soho, they were established in 1995.

Cast your eyes around the foyer at an opening night and you might spot Judy behind the press desk welcoming critics and other guests. Later you’ll almost certainly find her in the audience, her genuine enthusiasm for dance always evident.

Judy came to dance via music promotion and describes her introduction to the art form as a “baptism of fire.” She has always enjoyed dance and relished the opportunity to promote the ground breaking work that was being nurtured by, among other things, the Arts Council ring fencing funding for contemporary dance in the 1980s that enabled companies such as DV8 to explode upon the scene. DV8’s Lloyd Newson is nothing if not iconoclastic and Judy remembers using imaginative images of shadows on the top of his head and other unorthodox ways, to say the least, of overcoming his refusal to have a conventional headshot photograph taken. What to other publicists may have been a nightmare, seemed to be a spur to Judy’s creativity and she clearly relishes being in at the beginning of some of dance’s most exciting innovations.

A scene from the 2016 tour of Bridging the Void by Experiential, a contemporary dance and film companyPhoto Josh Tomalin
A scene from the 2016 tour of Bridging the Void by Experiential, a contemporary dance and film company
Photo Josh Tomalin

Dealing with the press at performances is just a tiny fraction of the services that companies such as Premier can offer to dance companies and others. Both fledging and established companies can benefit from a range of promotional services that would be well beyond their organisational scope and expertise. Venues often have their own niche audience, so reaching the right people in the right way, whether for a short season or extended tour, can make the difference between queues for returns and half-empty houses. The relationship between publicist and company can be intimate and detailed, as all of the services are to some extent bespoke. Each must gain knowledge of the other to establish trust as errors can be financially and reputationally damaging for both parties.

Judy explains that she has witnessed a big change in recent years in the way that dance is viewed and reviewed. Audiences are often loyal to a particular venue and can be reluctant to travel elsewhere. There is also a difference between the regular dance attendee and the “once a year” audience member who will be attracted by a big name or large company. The media has also changed dramatically with the advent of on-line blogs, specialist dance sites and the ability to display video previews which means that promotional opportunities need to be more flexible.

Qi Bingxue as Yang Guifei and Wu Husheng as Emperor Ming in Echoes of EternityPhoto Chen Wen
Major visitors to the UK looked after by Judy and Premier include Shanghai Ballet, seen here in
Echoes of Eternity with Qi Bingxue as Yang Guifei and Wu Husheng as Emperor Ming
Photo Chen Wen

When it comes to reviewing, much contemporary dance takes place in non-theatre venues or in smaller, out of the way spaces that daily newspaper reviewers cannot or will not cover. To a large extent that has always been the case. Much bigger changes have come away from the major conurbations where many newspapers that were evening dailies are now weekly with some disappearing altogether, again resulting in a loss of arts coverage, and when it is there, it’s often written by overstretched non-specialists.

Premier helps journalists by providing Q&A sheets, briefing notes and professionally written press releases. The latter can be especially useful when promoting international companies and can provide a backbone for preview material as well as a context for reviews. Judy will conduct in depth research into new clients and sometimes visit the company in their home setting before an overseas visit to gain a thorough understanding of the work.

Moving slightly away from dance, Judy managed the PR for the 2016 tour by Kodo, a Japanese drumming group, seen here in MysteryPhoto Takashi Okamoto
Moving slightly away from dance, Judy managed the PR for the 2016 tour of Mystery by Kodo, a Japanese drumming group
Photo Takashi Okamoto

Context is very important and Judy discussed dancers’ education, general cultural knowledge and what she feels is a narrow emphasis on athletic technique at the expense of a broader artistic education. Audiences too seem to be more narrow in their approach, and perhaps harder to attract in a world that offers so much easily accessible competition. Even changes in television have affected the way that dance is promoted as print media devotes more and more space to listings for the burgeoning number of channels, leaving far fewer column inches for the live arts.

Dance has often been the poor cousin in theatre arts and intimate contemporary pieces do not bring in the same audiences as, for instance, major international companies (although even some of those can be difficult to promote and sell). In fact, previews, reviews and other coverage are very important for all dance companies, and help especially at the stage where a company is building a profile and increasing its audience reach. Reviews in particular provide reference points for potential ticket buyers, bookers, producers, international festival presenters and even the Arts Council who may take them into consideration when receiving funding applications.

Award winners feature prominently among Premier's clients, including Ben Duke and Lost Dog, seen here in Paradise LostPhoto Danilo Moroni
Award winners feature prominently among Premier’s clients, including Ben Duke and Lost Dog, seen here in Paradise Lost
Photo Danilo Moroni

The relationship between PR, reviewers and companies can often be seen as being parasitic but it is clear from the way that Premier work that, at its best, it is in fact symbiotic. The worst sort of PR churns out promotional puffs, making no distinction between genuinely critical reviews, debate and promotion. It can also damage the reputation of the publicist and that of the company that they are trying to promote. On very odd occasions, publicists have been known to restrict the availability of tickets for the press if they feel past reviews have not been suitably favourable. This does no one any favours. Criticism should be fair, but surely, there is no point in in critics who do not criticise?

Information received from PR companies can help to make this criticism informed rather than just opinionated so that the end result is a balance between information about the company, cultural context and a reaction to what actually happened on the night.

Judy demonstrates that a good publicist will act as a bridge between company, critics and audience so that, in the best of all possible worlds, the flow of information can travel in both directions to ensure that the experience of dance is the best available for all concerned.