[Editor’s Note: The following was a performed paper presented with video footage, a ‘live’ car and ‘live’ dancer. The video played throughout the presentation and particular sections (as indicated below) were danced live with the assistance of Mellane Gale, highlighting both the video and talking. The car, on this occasion, was a Daihatsu from local dealer, Ward Motors, negotiated on Susan Jordan’s behalf by Paul Monaghan of Theatreworks.]

The Event

The Avery Ford Car Ballet was a choreography designed for outdoor performance employing eight dancers (six female, two male) and eight cars. It was performed in Civic Square, Wellington, New Zealand (Aotearoa), as part of the 1996 International Fringe Festival. The music was composed, arranged, and played live by Janet Roddick and her experimental jazz band, The Four Volts.

As an outdoor space, Civic Square has become a focal point for performance in Wellington City. It measures approximately 50 metres by 18 metres (the size of two basketball courts side by side) and is surrounded by the civic buildings of the Public Library, the City Gallery, and the Town Hall. These are buildings of interesting and varied architecture that provide shelter from Wellington’s notorious wind and give a welcoming ambience.

The Car Ballet was the third work I have choreographed for this site. Dance writer, Jan Bolwell (1996: 14) observed that I was beginning to turn Wellington’s Civic Square into a ‘performance laboratory.’ I had choreographed the opening of Civic Square in 1992 using a hundred school children. In 1995, I devised, choreographed, and directed a commissioned work Tiramarama Blinding Light, which was a postmodern pageant using 120 tertiary students, 150 school children, three groups of disabled people, thirty mothers with children in pushchairs, and a marching team of senior women.

I will choreograph anything that moves! Tiramarama included choreographed lawn mowers and abseillers down the wall of the art gallery. Choreography for me is any organised movement done for performance. I first conceived of a car ballet in 1990 in reaction to the annual road race staged on Wellington’s waterfront and sponsored by Mobil Oil. I have yet to choreograph my ‘hunting and gathering’ ballet using supermarket trolleys to be performed in supermarket car parks.

The Economics of the Car Ballet

The Avery Ford Car Ballet had six lunchtime performances in one week and four early evening ones the following week. It was a free event with audience sizes increasing as the season progressed and many people returning for second and third viewings. An estimated five to six thousand saw the work, certainly the largest audience I have ever had for any of my works.

[Section of dance performed at this juncture]

In 1994, having survived a decade of struggling on Arts Council project funding for small theatre works, I arrived at the conclusion that these theatre works could not be sustained in terms of return for the energy invested in them, both in monetary and in human terms. My personal artistic and financial solution was to stage large free outdoor works and, to balance this, works choreographed for the small screen. More pertinent was my boredom with the physical restrictions of working in theatre spaces.

Funding for the Car Ballet came from two main sources. Creative NZ, the central government arts funding agency, responded in full to my application for funds to mount the work, that is, to choreograph, rehearse, costume, and publicise the work. They invested NZ$24,500. Divide this figure by a conservative audience figure of five thousand and the subsidy amount was only $4.90 per person. This was the best return the agency had ever had from investing in Jordan & Present Company considering that the last theatre work I had staged was subsidised at $144 per seat!

The second source of funding was from car dealers, Avery Ford. Trying to quantify Avery Ford’s contribution is somewhat more difficult. It was a sponsorship-in-kind with the use of eight brand new cars for rehearsals and performances and included insurance, petrol, maintenance, grooming, storage and signage. In addition, they contributed a small cash amount for naming rights.

I asked them to quantify their sponsorship but they declined. The cost of a new Laser Lynx in early 1996 was $NZ28,000. We had the use of the cars over a four-week period. Rental of eight equivalent cars for four weeks would have been approximately NZ$19,000 including insurance but excluding petrol, maintenance, grooming, and storage. With the rental and the cash donation, I estimate Avery Ford’s contribution to be the equivalent of NZ$22,500, only $2000 less than Creative NZ invested.

The Evaluation of the Economics and the Event

Lesa Ukman (1995: 24-26) defines sponsorship as ‘a cash or in-kind fee paid to a property in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that property.’ The exploitable commercial potential of the Avery Ford Car Ballet is very obvious, especially in retrospect. However, three other car dealers who were approached before Avery Ford failed to see the commercial potential in such a sponsorship and were probably kicking themselves when they saw how much exposure Avery Ford received.

The gains for Avery Ford included:

  • Extensive publicity before and during the International Fringe Festival. The media loved the concept and it offered numerous photographic opportunities and interviews.
  • Avery Ford’s name was closely associated with unusual and interesting art. The operations manager for Avery Ford commented to the press, ‘We liked the show because it was different. We saw the opportunity to be involved with a community event with something that was a little unusual’ (in Houlaha, 1996). This accords with The 1994 Business Committee for the Arts report from America which shows that two-thirds of all business or corporate sponsors of the arts say they give ‘to enhance the quality of life in the community (Kotler & Scheff, 1997: 495)
  • Avery Ford’s name was printed on publicity brochures handed out at each performance.

  • Their signage on eight cars for each performance lasting twenty-three minutes totalled about 3 hours 50 minutes of people seeing Avery Ford’s name and logo on their cars moving in interesting ways.
  • To top it off, they sold two of the cars between the first week of performances and the second! These sales were reported to have been a direct result of the Car Ballet and word spread like wildfire around town so that Creative NZ heard the news. However, I made enquires of a trustworthy car salesman who stated that the profit margin on new cars in 1996 would have been 10.3%. In other words, it would have taken the sale of 7.8 cars to recoup the money Avery Ford invested in the sponsorship of the Car Ballet.

So what did Creative NZ get out of it? They were pleased that it justified the Arts Board support because the work

  • Was exploring new ‘vehicles’ for choreographed movement;
  • Demonstrated a professional collaboration between dancers and live musicians;
  • Introduced a large new audience to possibilities of a performing art experience;
  • Captured the imagination of creators and audience alike; and
  • Apparently presented a lucrative partnership between Creative NZ and private enterprise in supporting the arts.

However, I was reprimanded for not profiling Creative NZ sufficiently well. Although its name did appear on all publicity including the brochures handed out at each performance, it did not have equivalent ‘vehicles’ to sell. Creative NZ was more than a little upset that its signage was not on the cars along with Avery Ford’s. In defence, I replied that Avery Ford had paid for the signage and that I had made it absolutely clear in my funding application that I was seeking sponsorship for the cars and this would likely necessitate a contra deal of some sort.

Although Creative NZ in effect complained that it had missed out on the lucrative partnership, I would maintain its role is different. Government-funding agencies play a pivotal role in private sponsorship. The government agency is the stamp of approval without which business sponsorship is unlikely to be forthcoming.

There is a significant difference between government subsidy of arts and business sponsorship. According to Harold Vogel (1994: 265ff.), government support for the arts is for three reasons. Firstly, it opens opportunities for development of talented individuals from non-affluent backgrounds. Secondly, it has educational benefit, exposing young people to cultural activities that they might not otherwise encounter. Thirdly, it is for the public good which, when provided to individuals, automatically becomes available to, and is of benefit to, other members of the community.

Thus, funding for the arts has four kinds of value. There is, as Frey & Pommerehane (1989) argue, the option value of having a supply of culture even if an individual does not currently use it; the bequest value for future generations unable to express preferences on currently existing markets; the existence value such as for historic, landmark buildings which, once destroyed, are unlikely to be rebuilt (and, I might add, without cultural heritage documentation will never be recovered); and a prestige value, even for those who are not at all interested in art.

[Further section of dance performed]

The foregoing is in contrast to business sponsors whose bottom line is to sell more products. Sponsorship will surely enhance their reputation; give something back to the community; and perhaps benefit staff morale. But, as stated above in Ukman’s definition, it is the ‘exploitable commercial potential’ that business seeks. Was the government arts funding agency’s reaction as much about being coupled with a car dealer as it was about not having its logo displayed alongside? Had an artist, who until now had never commanded popular appeal, smudged the etiquette of fine art with that of low art? Had Jordan & Present Company stooped to a low point and been coupled with a less than prestigious sponsorship?

With the success of Car Ballet, I had the sneaking suspicion that I had strayed from the nobility of high art dance into the arena of vulgar popular culture. By courting and winning the sponsorship from Avery Ford – without whose help the ‘Car’ in the Car Ballet could not have happened – perhaps I had stooped to mere entertainment of large crowds and demeaned my art form without realising it.

What is entertainment anyway? It carries notions of diverting attention; an amusing distraction. Peter Schumann of the former Bread and Puppet Theatre disliked the term entertainment, which implies a kind of superficial pleasure, ‘meant for the skin.’ Theatre, he had maintained, should be more like bread ‘meant for the stomach’; it should be more like a necessity. (For some insights into Schumann’s Marxist or at least Brechtian approach, see: http://affinityproject.org/groups/breadandpuppet.html and http://www.pbpub.com/bread&puppet/bread.htm.) However, William Walker (1992), former director of Downstage Theatre in Wellington, had another slant upon the notion when he said, ‘I’m entertained when my mind is stung, when it’s provoked into thinking. I’m entertained by feelings, by reaching an empathy… .’ Certainly my intention was to provoke thought and possibly even sting the mind.

[Further section of dance performed]

These questions still bother me several years later and yet, as I look back at written documentation, I see that I was originally motivated by society’s attitude to cars, especially the male members. ‘Movement and cars are part of everyday life’ I had said in a press release at the time, and I wished to comment on the place of the car in society with ‘colour, music, nifty gear changes, lots of laughs and the swishest windscreen wiper moves in town.’ The car is an icon of the consumer society and as such deserves critical and artistic appraisal.

My lurking paranoia that the critics would think I had sold out to commerce was never fulfilled. All the critics were highly favourable and positive. ‘For once,’ wrote Ann Hunt (1996), ‘the hype is true…wittily illustrated society’s attitude to cars.’ Another wrote, ‘quirky, innovative, thoroughly entertaining’ (Bolwell, 1996: 14). A third, Mark Amery (1996), commented, ‘slick style and grace, funny, cute, beautiful.’

This work became the highlight of the Fringe Festival and was also claimed by the International Festival of the Arts as their own product. The Car Ballet took off beyond my expectations. The media ran with it and it did catch people’s imagination. It was a novel and imaginative marriage between a creative concept and consumerism. Should I say, as did Pulitzer Prize composer Morton Gould, ‘I’m sorry I wrote something a lot of people like. I’ll try never to do it again’ (Kotler & Scheff, 1997: 13)?

[Further section of dance performed]

That many people took it to be a promotion for a car does not negate the fact that I was commenting on the male love affair with the automobile (as indicated in my communications with Creative Arts NZ). However, had I unintentionally fuelled the male love affair with the automobile by colluding and reinforcing the sentiment that sexy women sell cars? Women sell cars; men drive them. Since the days the first automobiles rolled off the production lines in Detroit, the female body has been used to sell cars and has been compared corporeally to it. Their cars are polished, pampered, prepared for male occupation. They are driven at speed, used as status symbol, and traded in before the use-by-date has expired.

[Further section of dance performed]

The audience clapped after impressive moves by both the cars and the dancers, especially the risky car reverses. Because it was an outdoor event unencumbered by theatre etiquette, the audience also felt free to voice comments, such as ‘So that’s the new Laser Lynx,’ ‘What a good turning circle,’ and ‘What a novel way to promote a new car.’

My then neighbour, who had not availed himself of my previous dance productions, told me over the fence that a co-worker had come back to the office amazed at what was going on in Civic Square. The whole office went to the next performance and was delighted. Entertainment? Yes. A car promotion? Yes, but a definite suspicion that it was more than either of these.

Because no official opinion data was collected nor was any forum held for public debate, I can offer you no objective conclusion. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that, although the audiences may have initially felt they were watching a car promotion, by the end of twenty-three minutes they might have been provoked, if not stung, into thinking that there was more to The Avery Ford Car Ballet than smart cars and slinky dancers.

[Further section of dance performed]

As far as I was concerned, I had used the Avery Ford sponsorship to achieve my own artistic ends. Although I still express unease at being linked with an international car conglomerate, I did not have to compromise in the scale of work presented. In fact, I achieved more than I dared hope with the use of brand new cars rather than having to use an odd assortment of the battered heaps most artists drive. The creative idea of dancing cars came in reaction to the Wellington Road Race, which caused noise and air pollution and fouled the traffic for days at a time. Incidentally, the Road Race itself died when sponsorship was withdrawn.

So, who tuned the car in The Avery Ford Car Ballet? I do not believe Avery Ford did, although it was very satisfied with the exposure. Creative NZ, whose initial investment made the ballet possible, thought it had, but in the end felt compromised and cheated. I believe I tuned the car, but do I delude myself?

I am still left with an uneasy feeling that I let Creative NZ down for delivering a successful work. Geoff Chapple (1987), an arts commentator, had this to say about sponsorship and the arts:

The final answer of who runs the art [or, in this case, tunes the car] must be answered by the artists themselves. They know at a personal level how much they are, or are not, compromising their work to get corporate money, and for whom they are performing.

[Final section of dance performed]



Mark Amery (1996). ‘Driving Lessons in Ballet,’ Sunday Star Times (Auckland, 3rd March)

Jan Bolwell (1996). ‘Car Ballet,’ Danz: Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (May), p. 14

Geoff Chapple (1987). ‘Art for the Sponsor’s Sake,’ New Zealand Listener, Vol. 175, No. 2475 (26th September), pp. 31-33

B.S. Frey & W.W. Pommerehane (1989). Muses and Markets: Explorations in the Economics of the Arts (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Mike Houlaha (1996). ‘All Geared Up for the Ballet with Drive,’ The Evening Post (Wellington, 25th January).

Ann Hunt (1996). ‘Wiper-Hype Lives Up to Claims,’ The Dominion (Wellington, 27th February)

Phillip Kotler & Joanne Scheff (1997). Standing Room Only: Strategies for Marketing the Performing Arts (Boston: Harvard Business School Press)

Lesa Ukman (1995). ‘Mutual Attraction,’ International Arts Manger, Vol. 7, No. 12 (December), pp. 24-26.

H.L. Vogel (1994). Entertainment Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

William Walker (1992). ‘Interview,’ The Evening Post (Wellington, 7th November)