Dance Presenter Plans His Next Moves

Growing up on Long Island during the heyday of live television, Randy Swartz C’67 used to tap dance on a local TV show. Once adolescent hormones took up residence in his body, however, “It was all over,” he recalls. “I was horrified by getting on stage and performing for anyone.”

Fortunately, the adult Swartz has no qualms about presenting other dancers. This season he marks 20 years of bringing dance of all varieties to the Annenberg Center through his Dance Celebration and Next Move series (

Among those invited to the anniversary party: 

• The National Dance Company of Spain (November 7-9). In “Bach Multiplicity,” the dancers become musical instruments in a symphony orchestra,” in a production so large that the stage must be expanded to the loading area behind the theater.

• The Emmy-Award winning Paul Taylor Dance Company (December 5-7) brings three pieces to the stage, Black TuesdayEsplanade, and Images.

• River North Chicago Dance Company (April 10-12), performing a specially commissioned commemoration of the 100th birthday and work of composer Richard Rodgers.

As excited as Swartz gets by seeking out the fresh and novel in dance, he carries nostalgia in abundance for his days at Penn. The 1960s “were an extraordinary time on campus because you had the capacity to find your own way here and the University would support you,” he recalls. “I took full advantage of that.” A journalism major, Swartz worked as entertainment editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, started a filmmaking group called Penn Cinema, and even ran a radio show on WXPN, called Theater Philadelphia, “where I got my feet wet doing reviews and interviews” with actors when they came to the city to promote their films. He once spent the better part of a day chatting with Michael Caine at the Warwick Hotel.

After graduation, Swartz got a job working as a field executive for Columbia Pictures, taking stars—including the cast of Easy Rider—out on tours as their films opened around the country. Swartz later became executive director of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater and started going to New York to look for the best dance companies to present. 

In 1982 he took his Dance Celebration series to the Annenberg Center. In addition to bringing more than 140 varied dance companies to the city over the years, Dance Celebration has commissioned new works, provided outreach to schoolchildren, and held classes for the area’s dance community. Next Move, also started by Swartz, provides performance venues for new or small dance companies. 

At first, he says, “We were struggling for an audience” for the Next Move series.” So he started to offer $5 discounted tickets for Next Move events at the intermission or end of performances in the main Dance Celebration series. “And people just lined up.” 

A continuing challenge, however, is raising student attendance. Swartz thinks many of the performances would resonate with younger audiences, if given a chance. Take Bird Brain, for example, performed in October by the Australian Dance Theater. “It’s like Swan Lake done in a techno nightclub. It’s so far from anything that looks like classical ballet.”

Though a season of dance is typically planned more than a year in advance, Swartz knows from experience that anything can happen before a work hits the stage. A dance troupe can experience turnover. And longtime collaborations can be tested by the last-minute need for kitchen utensils. 

Swartz recalls that during last year’s world premiere of Too Many Cooks, he and David Parsons, the choreographer and director, were “running around Philadelphia and going to stores that have commercial cooking supplies, looking for all kinds of crazy props.” From one performance to the next, “there were changes going on in the work.”

And of course the audience’s reaction can never be predicted. “Philadelphia is a very, very difficult audience: the 700 level of the Vet come to the Annenberg Center,” says Swartz. “If they don’t like something, they will sit on their hands and they will also let you know about it.” 

Swartz remembers a performance he presented outside the context of Dance Celebration, in which Mikhail Baryshnikov “basically takes off his suit and tie, puts them on a chair, and puts them back on again.” The piece was about American dance history, and it revisited the Judson Church movements of the early 1960s, which explored the notion that dance was movement of any kind. “People were really upset at the performance and would accost me months later. What’s wonderful about it is that it stirred all of those emotions. Most of the time our audiences are very positive about their experiences coming to our dance performances. But I also make it a point not to curate with that in mind,” Swartz says. 

In each season, he adds, “I always try to throw a little curve ball” to the audience. “If people respond in some way, shape or form, either with enthusiasm or with [anger], then you get them moved some place.”

—Susan Frith

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