The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 7: Crunch Time

Nineteen months ago, a small group of D.C. area Latvians nervously met up at Lost Dog Cafe, a local pizza and sandwich joint in northern Virginia, and listened to their friend Marisa Gudrā pitch a crazy idea; we should host dziesmu svētki.  One week ago, a similarly-sized group gathered around a table at Captain Larry’s, a Latvian-owned bar and restaurant in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood.  We were unwinding after what had been a particularly productive meeting focused on final gametime logistics.  It is amazing to think how much has happened in this short time.

 I view our journey thus far as being divided into three fuzzy, uneven sections: preliminary planning, initial public involvement, and crunch time.  The majority of this series has thus far addressed initial planning, with some forays into initial public involvement.  We worked hard to select a city, to find capable personnel to lead projects, to find venues and set a schedule and plan a budget.  This period lasted from roughly November through last summer.  Once the stars were aligned, we pushed our boulder off the cliff and watched what happened, and things became real as we opened the festival up to the public.  For the overall-logistics-based organizing committee, this meant opening up hotel blocks, ticket sales, and fundraising avenues to gauge interest and numbers.  For the music committee and folk dancing show organizers it meant opening up choir and dance troupe registration and sending out materials so that the performers could begin a year’s worth of preparations for the big shows.  Other organizers who we haven’t discussed yet in this series got their balls rolling, too.  Philadelphia’s Inta Grunde and llze Rēķis Bērziņa opened up registration and collected payments from Latvian craftspeople and vendors for the festival marketplace.  ALA Office of Cultural Affairs director Līga Ejupe sent out calls for submissions to the festival’s art exhibit. And Boston-based Karmena Ziediņa, director of the festival’s new choreography contest, sent out contest rules and deadlines and waited for the competitors to work on their creations.

 With the arrival of 2017, each project’s crunch times began.  Vendor sign-up ended for the marketplace, and Grunde and Rēķis Bērziņa turned to the complex tetris game of figuring out how to best pack in the large number of merchant tables.  Artist submissions came as a slow trickle for the first few months, then flooded in right before the springtime deadline, and Ejupe got to work planning out logistics of artwork spacing and transportation, and planning for an opening reception.  With the first couple months of early ticket sales complete, ticket coordinator Inga Bebris began the gargantuan and often thankless task of mailing paper tickets out to hundreds of individuals. She enlisted the help of her parents, Lolita and Jānis, and especially of their spacious dining room table, and every other weekend the family sat down together for an evening of family bonding and envelope stuffing.

January brought the deadline for new choreography contest submissions.  At that point submitted videos and apraksti (step by step dance instructions) were collected into a secret online location and then released back to the competing choreographers and dance troupes, who then were given a set amount of time in which to rate their competitors based on a handful of specific criteria.  This score, decided months before dancers step foot in Baltimore, makes up the majority of any dance’s score, with the live show’s small panel of expert judges (whose identity remains a well-kept secret until showtime to ensure no improper influence) only contributing a smaller percentage.  Here in these final days of crunch time, Ziediņa is focusing mainly on gametime logistics; meeting with Lyric Opera House staff, finalizing decorations (provided by Broadway set guru Andris Krūmkalns), and working out a detailed day-of rehearsal schedule that allows each dance exactly ten minutes onstage.

Crunch time is also an excellent time to test out our own resiliency.  Did early planning make us surefooted enough to roll with punches instead of crumbling?  The most dramatic and public test revolves around our theater production.  We were understandably nervous when, shortly after deciding to accept the Latvian National Theater with their dark comedy “Ceļā uz Mājām,” we heard news that a different Latvian theater had just had their performance visas denied and had to cancel a U.S. tour. With a determined gulp, Iveta Grava, Aivars Osvalds, and Dace Aperāne committed countless hours and cramped fingers to dotting every i and crossing every t on a mountain of visa application paperwork, yet after splurging on expedited shipping, we received the disappointing news that our actors’ visas were denied. Not giving up, Grava, our theater coordinator, set to work both preparing materials for an appeal, and searching for an emergency backup plan. She found one in Northern California, where the San Francisco Theater Workshop was in the midst of a well-received family-friendly musical “Emīls un Berlīnes Zēni.” When our appeal was denied in the spring, we hit the ground running and announced the program change, bracing for impact from any fallout from angry audience members.  No fallout came; most people chose to keep their tickets despite the wildly different shows, and some of the few who did return tickets even instructed us to keep their money instead of issuing a refund. Storm survived! Until we sailed right into a hurricane; the news media in Latvia had caught wind of the visa denial, and suddenly all eyes in Latvia were looking at us in Baltimore. Higher powers intervened, and suddenly the visa denial was reversed. We found ourselves with two separate theater shows in an already packed festival schedule.  I wish we could say that we never for a second considered dropping either show, because the more the merrier, but the truth is that we would be irresponsible organizers if we had not stopped to consider the impact of such a boomeranging change on our budget and/or credibility.  Still, after extensive group discussions and planning, we managed to keep both shows, and if ticket sales are any indicator, then it appears that our audiences are happy with our decision.

The vast majority of credit involved in navigating this revolving theater situation goes to Grava, but the ripple effect impacted several other aspects of the festival and its organizers. Bebris has had to be extra diligent in working out ticket calculations, and the same goes for treasurer Juris Mohseni (who amazingly happened to be on an off-the-grid vacation in Africa when these events unfolded and returned to find that all hell had broken loose). Marketing team members agonized over how to most clearly present this complicated situation to the public.  And other festival events had to be altered, none more so than the Children’s Activities.  Originally intended to be three days worth of free drop-in activities for youngsters, the addition of kid-friendly “Emīls un Berlīnes Zēni,” combined with a kid-friendly musical presentation by Latvian folk group Iļģi, cut our three days of playtime to one.  Jolanta Stoops, our children’s program director, shows no sign of being bothered, beginning her updates at each committee meeting with, “I’m ready for anything, even if that anything ends up being nothing!”

In case you think Stoops is bored now that her kids’ program has been slimmed down, have no fear.  Stoops is also in charge of both Thursday evening’s Pub Night with AKRA, and recently also took on leadership of the PRINTFUL Stage program.  In these final weeks leading up to Baltimore, Stoops is busy recruiting performers to sign up for the informal open mic style performances which will take place in the Renaissance hotel’s atrium. Also still recruiting in these final weeks is Volunteer coordinator Aija Moeller.  During Phase One Moeller worked out a plan and timeline.  During Phase Two all other organizers were instructed to figure out the exact number of volunteers that they might need for each of their events, a number that in many cases keeps fluctuating based on evolving circumstances.  Now in crunch time, Moeller has opened up a fantastic online tool, SignUp Genius, and is inviting everyone to donate a couple hours to help make everything run smoothly.

One of the most unfortunately crunched Crunch Time tasks is finalizing the Vadonis (official festival guidebook).  During Phase Two, requests went out to hundreds of individuals requesting information for the guidebook in both Latvian and English. These requests included bios and descriptions for festival participants (including not just dance troupes and choirs, but also choreographers, composers, and others), finalized programs for every festival show, formal letters from various community leaders, and various informative articles, not to mention administrative information such as festival schedules, lists of donors and organizers, and a hearty selection of advertisements.  Each word of this material needs to be proofread, and while efforts were made to get as much information as early as possible, the reality is that for many folks this information either hasn’t been fully known until recently, or it is frankly the sort of task that falls through the cracks. For weeks, content editor Aija Celms-Evans and layout editor Silvija Ozols have been poring over every page and word to prepare the 170-page long booklet in time for publication. In addition to the Vadonis, organizers are also preparing a Pavadonis (brochure-sized mini guidebook), as well as concert programs, all of which are now due for printing.

It seems impossible to count the remaining odds and ends of tasks that creep up in these final weeks and days. There are final arrangements with hotels, attempts to nail down final participant lists for various venues and events, final details being etched out regarding potential transportation, final organizer schedules to work out, final- well- final “everything,” really. But the amazing thing that it is difficult to wrap our brains around is the fact that these things we are still working on, they are actually the final things, the things that are supposed to be happening at this point, and while we are as busy as ever, we are by no means scrambling. And in just three weeks, we will be past final. We will be done.  Seeya in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

 The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit www.latviansongfest2017.com or write to info@latviansongfest2017.com.

The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 5: The Folk Dancing Show

On a gray day in early December, a small crew of folk-dancing organizers from Philadelphia was hard at work inspecting the nooks and crannies of the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, thoughtfully jotting sketches in their notepads, counting seats and wheelchair spaces, and talking with arena management. All around, staff members were busy setting up for an indoor soccer game. All business, the folk-dancing group’s leader stood in one goal, pulled out her stopwatch, and proceeded to polka past the forklifts and rolls of astroturf, timing how long it would take an ordinary folk-dance troupe to get from one end of the arena to the other. Eventually the representatives from the lighting company arrived, and the dancers headed to the center of the floor to greet them.

“Hi, I’m Astrīda,” the group’s leader said as she extended her hand. “I’m a math teacher.”

Astrīda Liziņa has danced in more Latvian song and dance festivals than she can recall. Her first was Cleveland 1973, where she performed as a member of the children’s group Ņudžersijas Zaglītis. She continued dancing with Ņudžersijas Dzintars in high school and Montreālas Ačkups in college. After school, Liziņa moved to Philadelphia, where she began teaching Latvian language and folk dancing at the local Latvian school and leading children’s dance group Filadelfijas Dzirkstele. Under her 26 years of leadership, Dzirkstele has expanded to include three generations of dancers; the original children grew up and continued dancing, and the children’s parents, wanting to join in on the fun, formed a senior branch of the troupe. In addition to her lifetime of dance experience and quarter-century-plus of dance leadership, Liziņa is no stranger to large-scale logistics, having run New York’s Latvian children’s summer camp Katskiļi for a full decade in the 1990s.

When Marisa Gudrā, the future XIV Latvian Song and Dance Festival organizing committee chair, first floated the idea of hosting a festival on the East Coast, the committee knew the idea would be a non-starter without three difficult-to-find yet crucial elements: a city with available and appropriate venues (which we have already covered in this series), a music director (coming up in a future instalment), and a folk-dancing director. Liziņa, with her extensive dance leadership, her deep East Coast roots, and her proven organizational skills, was the natural choice for the latter role. But she says she was surprised by the proposal, and spent a full month considering whether she had the time and skills necessary for the task. Having participated in festivals as a troupe leader for decades, she was already aware of what a titanic job this would be, and recognized that her experience leading three troupes in front of a couple hundred people at a Jāņi summer solstice celebration was different from leading three dozen troupes in front of thousands of people at dziesmu svētki.

Support and encouragement came from two sources. First, recognizing that such an undertaking would realistically become a full family project, Liziņa called a family meeting, where her husband (and de facto co-organizer) Andrejs and their three children overwhelmingly agreed that the project was worth taking on. Second, she turned to the masters: previous festival folk-dancing show leaders and renowned choreographers Māra Simpsone and Selga Apse (Hamilton) and Iveta Asons (Indianapolis). These folk-dancing icons were immediately reassuring, offering and continuing to provide counsel for the duration of preparations.

Even with the support of her family and advisors, Liziņa recognized that no one person could manage a project of this magnitude, so her first step upon accepting the job was to recruit a full team. For this she turned to the current and former members and supporters of Dzirkstele. In the spring of 2016 she called an all-hands meeting, and Philadelphia Latvian society responded with enthusiasm; 32 eager people attended. Volunteers signed up for various tasks and committees (though after prodding, Liziņa admits that she’d already mapped out who should take each task), and they were off!

Philadelphia dāmu komiteja leader Baiba Akkerman, who, along with Ieva Bundža, has been tasked with providing lunch to several hundred hungry dancers at this summer’s festival, says she was surprised at the first meeting by just how much goes into putting on a show – and how much it all costs. From lighting and sound design to large-scale decorating, catering and the logistics of moving hundreds of dancers around the arena, she had never realized, having danced in previous festivals, just how much was going on behind the scenes and how each element eats up time and resources. Even her somewhat straightforward task of finding caterers has been complicated by factors such as arena requirements and a dearth of caterers willing to work over the holiday weekend.

Similar complications exist even for something like dance selection. It’s not just Liziņa picking her personal favorites and calling it a day. Instead, a committee has been assembled of dancers and former dancers of various ages. First, each member went out on his or her own and brainstormed a list of favorites. They then came together and assembled a master list. Then the toughest job began: picking which beloved dances to remove from the very long list. An early and relatively easy step was to avoid repetition and cut (almost) every dance performed in the past couple North American festivals. Another major consideration was whether there were enough fun dances for the increasing number of smaller groups, which are often left out of the more popular eight-pair dances. The committee also wanted to ensure there were options for various dance abilities, ranging from simple dances for older or less experienced troupes to fast, complicated dances for more advanced groups. Finally, the committee strove to evenly fill each segment of the program, titled Dejā uz Latvijas simtgadi (“Dancing to Latvia’s Centennial”) and divided into three historical sections: dance before exile, dance during exile, and dance after exile. Once the committee had come up with a solid list, Liziņa sent it to previous folk-dance program leaders for their expert opinion, resulting in a few more tweaks.

But Liziņa still faced a summer’s worth of tasks before anything could be finalized: informing choreographers that their dances had been selected, and tracking down all the apraksti (written instructions), videos, and audio recordings necessary for troupe leaders to adequately instruct their dancers. Particular attention was paid to finding audio recordings good enough to use during the actual performance, as the idea of using live music was quickly scrapped for budget considerations (for which I as a dancer am thankful, since live music can often differ in pacing and arrangement from the music used to learn the dances).

The deadline for troupe sign-up came in the fall and provided a first reliable gauge of interest. An initial questionnaire in the spring had yielded positive results, but with this new official response, any lingering fears about diminished dancer counts disappeared. Liziņa had initially hoped for 450 dancers; instead, 650 (spread across 35 troupes) registered. Why the surge? Good news: it has come largely thanks to the next generation of folk dancers. Children will make up one third of all performers in this summer’s show, a welcome sign for the future of Latvian dance, considering that previous years have shown a decrease in child participation. For one, GVV (summer high school Gaŗezers) will be in attendance, bringing with it nearly a hundred young dancers – and in many cases inspiring younger siblings to make the trek with their respective children’s troupes. There is also a single troupe coming from Latvia with 85 child and teen dancers. But even without the infusion of young dancers from these two sources, the participant count happily exceeds expectations.

A lot can be gleaned about the changing nature of Latvian dance from the demographics of the participating troupes. In some ways this folk-dancing performance will be the same as it has been in festivals past, but in other ways it is changing. Baltimore will continue a recent festival trend of welcoming participants from around the globe, with five troupes arriving from Latvia and two from Ireland. Stateside, areas like Rochester and New Jersey are seeing the rebirth of dormant troupes, while newer groups such as Denver’s Virpulītis are thriving. Several chapters, new and old, are being run by first-time leaders, many of whom have arrived from Latvia and thus have little to no previous experience with an American festival. And a few long-standing, established troupes are run by non–Latvian speakers. All of these factors signal a rebirth and continuing growth for the North American Latvian dance scene, but they also require clear communication by Liziņa and her crew; gone are the days of saying, “Just do it like we always do,” as plenty of new folks are inspired to enter the scene.

Five months before the festival, what is still on the plate for the capable team from Philly? Plenty. Dāmu komitejas from across the continent have been chipping in to help cover the costs of feeding the dancers. Following the December walk-through, the decorating committee started planning under the leadership of Ņujorkas Jumis dancer Andris Krūmkalns, who works on Broadway sets for a living. For them the focus will be on efficiency: giant space, limited budget – good luck. And sound and lighting design continues apace, requiring the careful planning of set pieces, lights, and sound equipment; elaborate calculations regarding the length and number of trusses, the weight of the lights, equipment, and set pieces, and the size of the motor needed to lift that weight; as well as a full team of paid staff. After several meetings, estimates, and evaluations by friends in the lighting business in other cities, an overall plan (and acceptable quote) has finally been hashed out, but details are still being finalized.

For Liziņa, the next big step is designing floor plans – a much more involved task than it might seem. For each dance, Liziņa has to check which troupes are dancing, where they’re coming from, and where they need to go. A troupe can’t dance off through Gate A and immediately dance on through Gate B. It takes meticulous planning and attention to detail. Thankfully, Liziņa is up to the challenge, as you will see for yourself this summer in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit www.latviansongfest2017.com or write to info@latviansongfest2017.com.

The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 4: Venue Selection

As soon as I heard we might be hosting a Latvian song festival on the East Coast, the flashbacks hit. “Well,” I thought with a laugh, “It’s a good thing that we just had all that practice with venue selections.”

It had only been half a year since Washington, D.C. had hosted the traveling annual multi-sport tournament ALA Meistarsacīkstes. Several of us who had helped organize Meistarsacīkstes were now working on the song festival, and the memories came rushing back: All day every day for several months we had been glued to our phones, attempting (and repeatedly failing at) what should have been a simple task: booking some venues. It’s the type of thing that seems straightforward and easy until you try it; you call and ask for availability and wave some cash, the venue says yes or no, and boom, you’re booked. Simple, right? Oh no, not even close. Where event venues are concerned, nothing is ever simple.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that the organizing committee could not be more thrilled with the festival’s venues, from the grand hotels that provide impressive views of Baltimore Harbor to the intimate Baltimore Soundstage, just a six-minute walk away and host of the festival’s first party. Indeed, one of the main reasons we selected Baltimore as the host city was because we knew it has excellent theaters, arenas, clubs, hotels, churches, and restaurants, and we’re confident that you’ll agree once you experience them. But that doesn’t mean that getting all of the pieces aligned has been easy.

The very first challenge regarding pinning down event venues was timing. Arguably the single greatest obstacle we’ve faced as an organizing committee has been having just 20 months to plan the entire festival. That may seem like a long time, but many venues get booked much earlier. One major theater was already reserved for a touring Broadway show. A hotel that we had visited and seemed promising as the festival’s home base got snagged by another group in the couple weeks between our first and second visits. Even earlier, when we were considering in which city to host the festival, towns like Boston were immediately scrapped due to venue unavailability (see Part 2 in this series).

Ironically, the surprisingly more common timing dilemma was that venues often wouldn’t know their availability that far in advance, and we found ourselves making inquiries too early rather than too late. The issue mostly came up as we searched for locations for smaller events, like the play (Ceļā uz mājām, presented by the Latvian National Theatre Company) and smaller concerts. Baltimore has a handful of very cool little theaters, which seemed promising at first, but at the time when we approached them, most didn’t yet know their rental availability for 2017. In many cases their own company’s season needed to be set. Or construction projects got in the way. A world-renowned music conservatory with a plethora of potential stages told us to check back at the start of the school year, which we did, only to be met with: “Turns out we’re renovating. Check back in the spring.” Considering that we were hoping to start selling tickets in the fall and were budgeting for and expecting thousands of attendees, checking back was not an option. And so it continued. Each venue had a different sweet spot in terms of timeline; catching them at just the right time proved to be difficult.

The second major challenge regarding pinning down venues for our shows was budget constraints. Letting our imaginations run wild and disregarding financial limitations, we explored all sorts of inventive scenarios, from a dance party among the dinosaurs of the science museum to jaundejas at the open-air pavilion on the waterfront. But these wish-list ideas ran up against one hard truth: Our largest events require seating for a couple thousand people and stage space for several hundred. This audience-performer ratio is not too common, and it most certainly does not come cheap. The only two ways we could have made these larger events break even on their own would have been to double their ticket prices (don’t worry, we wouldn’t do that to you folks) or to double our audience size (please bring friends!). And so, with the larger venues uncompromisingly eating up big chunks of the festival budget, finding affordable options for the other events so that they could help subsidize the main events was crucial. Unfortunately, the search for modestly priced smaller venues turned up less-than-ideal solutions, as nearby options (such as local high schools) failed to meet the professional standard of the event, and more appropriate options were too far away.

Luckily, we were saved by two perfect sources that served as financially responsible options. First, our trusty hotels came to the rescue, offering up fantastic spaces for most of the evening events, the art and fashion exhibits, and even the theater performance. And a local Latvian led us to a hidden gem of a church so beautiful and ideal that we probably would have jammed every event into it if we could have (in the end, we went with just two concerts).

Timeline and budget are obviously the main factors in venue selection, and in theory, the story should end right there. But even once you are on a venue’s calendar, things can go wrong. You can never really rest until the contract is signed and countersigned. And waiting on the finalization of the contract can be frustrating, since even in today’s modern world communication is rarely instant. Our seemingly monumental festival is small potatoes to our largest and priciest venue, and so while we got a base price estimate right away, getting a final estimate that included correct audio/video and staffing costs (which had the potential to more than quadruple our expenses) took weeks. Considering that this venue’s rent and all of its non-negotiable ancillary costs constitute the festival’s single greatest expense, we were understandably anxious to receive an estimate so that we could figure out if the rest of the festival was financially possible. It was the very epitome of catch-22 timing: we had to book right away to reserve our slot, but wouldn’t know for months whether or not we could afford it. We also needed to advertise the festival far in advance so that potential attendees would keep their busy summer schedules open, but we wouldn’t know if the festival was financially viable until after we had announced that it was taking place.

Our single greatest venue-booking frustration came in June, mere weeks before hotel and flight reservations would become available: one of our venues went MIA. A major one. One that had been on the books as a safe bet from the very beginning. All that remained was to sign the contract and send our deposit. But no contract came. Several members of our team called and emailed repeatedly over a several-week period. Nothing. Radio silence. To this day, we still have not received an explanation, though we gather that, despite assurances in the winter that logistics would not be an issue, they likely backed out due to the headache of assembling choral risers with a short turnaround time.

Thankfully, we found a solution when we discovered that one of the city’s most beautiful large concert halls was available — and not only available, but, as it turned out, perfect for its intended event. While some (myself included) might initially envision a doomsday scenario when such potential setbacks reveal themselves, this situation proves that, with careful attention and planning, you can find a solution or workaround for virtually anything.

And now, I end with a confession: this article was originally intended to come out months ago, because we had fully expected to have all of our venues, big and small, completely finalized by the end of the summer. Alas, though we almost made it — we opened the ticket store in October– one venue-less orphan event was responsible for the delay.

That event, surprisingly, was the chamber music concert. At first glance it should have been easy to procure a location: musicians can set up pretty much anywhere, right? Baltimore’s own symphony orchestra recently performed a pop-up concert at nearby Penn Station. And audience capacity shouldn’t have been an obstacle: we only needed seating for a couple hundred (instead of the couple thousand expected for larger events). Dozens of venues in Baltimore fit the bill, but almost all had issues with scheduling or were too far from the hotels. But the real obstacle was the flīģelis (a word I’d never heard before and had to repeatedly look up because I thought our music director had pulled it from a Dr. Seuss book just to mess with me). Few places (including our otherwise-convenient church venue) have a grand piano nowadays, and there are considerable additional costs associated with bringing one in from the outside. With all traditional venues crossed off the list, our quest for a grand piano, or for a nearby space where we could afford to bring in a grand piano, forced us to look outside the box again.

We fell in love with one of these unconventional spaces as soon as we saw it: a whiskey warehouse turned outsider-art gallery, the American Visionary Art Museum is walkable, affordable, and just plain cool. But could we manage the cost and logistics of bringing in a flīģelis? It turns our we didn’t need to worry about it. “Well, sure – we could probably get a grand piano up to the third floor by tilting it on its side in the elevator,” explained the rental manager, “but…  we can also use the baby grand that’s already on that floor.” Sometimes providence truly saves the best for last.

For full descriptions, photos, and maps of festival sites, check out the festival website’s “Event Venues” and “Location” pages. And, of course, you’ll have the opportunity to experience all these amazing venues for yourself this summer in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit www.latviansongfest2017.com or write to info@latviansongfest2017.com.