From show pigs to Prokofiev: Bobby Wesner gets inventive to support Neos Dance Theatre
One of the biggest challenges most artists face is funding. A person might be one of the most talented people in their field but without the right funding opportunities, that potential will never be fully realized. Some artists get creative, devising any number of methods to cobble together the cash to make their passion projects profitable (or, at the very least, sustainable).
Bobby Wesner is that kind of artist. Raised on a farm in northern Ohio, as a child Wesner would “perform” for his father’s barnyard animals, long before he had any kind of professional training. Later one of these animals won the title of Grand Champion Market Hog in the Ashland County Fair, and with the money Wesner received from that he was able to afford an audition tour, which led to a job with Ballet Arizona. Wesner has traveled and performed with companies all over the United States and Italy. He now lives with his wife and four children in Ashland and is heavily involved in the dance scene in North Central Ohio, choreographing original works for Verb Ballets, Ashland Regional Ballet, Dancing Wheels, Ballet Theatre of Ohio, and his own company Neos Dance Theatre, which he founded with his wife Brooke in 2004.
Neos Dance Theatre is based in northern Ohio and much of what they do is in Akron, though Wesner says a large part of their mission is to “spread their arms” across northern Ohio. They target other organizations as well as individual performers that they feel they might be able to work with and have grown organically by doing so. “We have kind of grown naturally through a lot of different communities and through collaborative efforts,” says Wesner. Right now Neos is collaborating with the University of Akron‘s dance program and several musicians to produce Snow White and the Magic Mirror. “The [broader purpose of the] production itself is to integrate the community and different organizations to heighten everyone’s visibility and to increase cultural and educational opportunities in the area.”
Neos has also worked with a private school in Branson that was looking to integrate dance programs into gym classes, focusing on the physical elements on dance with pilates, yoga, and stretching. The company has also worked with Oberlin College & Conservatory and different schools in Findlay, where there was already an audience for dance and it allowed them to increase their visibility. By fostering relationships with less-obvious partners like private schools and colleges, Neos has been able to continue growing in the 10 years since it was formed. “We’ve really been able to double productivity and visibility because of that,” Wesner says. “It’s nice to see a company like ours can start growing wings and flying around in northern Ohio. A lot of it is personal networking and productivity. We’re really expanding our connections and networking through people I know, really growing through the family of dance. The board [members] all recognize that. It has this real Midwestern heart to it, like everyone sitting around a table eating dinner together.”
Neos Dance Theatre was under the umbrella of Renaissance Performing Arts in Mansfield for several years, but over the last 18 months Neos has been able to become its own independent organization with its own board. Part of this independence was made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation, which is allowing Neos to really expand its focus to other communities and also increase their repertoire, acquiring new works by contemporary choreographers, and expanded their marketing capacity. Key support for Neos over the years has come from different foundations like the Akron Community Foundation, individual grants, and corporate sponsorships, and in the meantime their own annual campaigns have continued to grow, increasing more than 125 percent over last year. “That’s really a sign that we’re ready to go out on our own.”
As Artistic Director of the company, Wesner must wear both the artistic and the administrative hats. While he still creates choreography – like last year’s Halloween production of Count…The Legend of Dracula, an innovative adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula held in an unconventional space with rock, pop, and industrial music paired with video imaging – Wesner is also responsible for seeking out partnerships and funding. “I don’t feel like I get beaten down or bogged down by the administrative side because it always seems to open the door to a new person who is in awe of how much it takes to sustain this little child and let it grow,” he says. “The ultimate joy though is to really see that we are really able to increase the quality of our repertoire – the shows we produce, the choreographer’s work, the dancers grow. As I see that develop [I know] we’re doing things correctly.”
The community of dance supporters in northern Ohio also continues to grow along with them. “We’re really just scratching the surface. Our audience size and support system has grown. The awareness of our increased presence has grown. The culture that we’re bringing to the community is growing.”
While the methods by which Wesner seeks support are quite a bit more traditional than how he initially got his start, that tenacity he displayed at a young age – to make his art possible by any means necessary and doing it creatively and successfully – has proven to be one of his most valuable assets as an artist and as an arts advocate.