Author Archive | Julie Potter

SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT

THE FIRST TIME I WORKED with the teens of YBCA’s Young Artists at Work program (YAAW), I watched them navigate Keith Hennessey’s Turbulence: A Dance About the Economy after discussing some components of the performance score. Later that season we crawled through the Topham Studio together with Nora Chipaumire, who was visiting for a run of Miriam.

A few years ago the YAAW program shifted its model from an afterschool arts program to a young artists’ residency, making the program a paid, year-long, multidisciplinary arts-as-activism curriculum for Bay Area high school youth. The program is currently under the leadership of Rebeka Rodriguez and Maya Vilaplana, and has developed over the past years with significant contributions from Jova Vargas, Kayla Terreson, Laurel Butler, Jose Navarette and Darren DeLeon.

The performance exchanges I led with the teens were part of an experimental staff participation model, piloted as part of an EMC Arts Innovation Lab for Museums. I primarily work on public programs for adult audiences. The staff engagements with YAAW were significant in how they inspired collaboration with the teens, diversified the curriculum and skills shared, and, more broadly, cultivated intergenerational relationships.

What is a practice of generating, navigating and trusting bodies of knowledge across generations? How can we value personal perspectives and legitimize learning economies outside formal educational institutions? How do young generations drive the future we make and how can we use our creativity across generations as fuel for grand gestures? Laura Carstensen, founder of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, is the author of A Long Bright Future, which analyzes social, biological and systemic implications of living longer lives. She champions intergenerational relationships on the social level as sound components of a healthy contemporary community. On the systemic level, for challenges that will take more than a lifetime to solve, investment and insight from younger generations is crucial.

Aligned with that thinking, as YBCA increasingly works at the intersection of cultural and social responsibility, the teens involved in YAAW play an important role in conversations regarding the future and civic engagement. One such collaboration is taking shape within a program called the Creative Ecosystem, composed of YBCA’s Community Think Tanks.

The Creative Ecosystem, catalyzed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is an experiment in connecting diverse makers, thinkers, activists, professionals and citizens around urgent questions of our time. By participating in a process of inquiry, the participants aim to push the boundaries of what creative contributions look like to affect change. It’s a practice of call and response.

The Community Think Tanks are working groups designing social action through a lens of creativity. Each group works with a question, which is cultivated through a research process spanning months and shaped by artistic provocations. The process manifests as a day of community projects, installations and actions in the public sphere – a variety of creative responses to the initial question.

As this article goes to print, a handful of teens in the YAAW program are putting the final touches on projects and performances to be featured at the culminating research exhibition called the Field of Inquiry (November 7, 2015), in response to the question “What is the future of urban life?” Embedded in the working group was Palo Alto-based Institute For the Future, leading engagements and providing framework for the group. With guidance from Vilaplana, the teens shape their visions with a production manager and visual arts preparators, the same staff which works with seasoned career artists presented at YBCA.

“The youth artists were inspired by the opportunity to exhibit their artwork as part of a multi-generational show at YBCA. They saw this as a chance to branch out of the branding of “youth artists” into the league of professional artists. It is meaningful that we as an organization are integrating the art of our youth into our general programming. It provides exceptional learning opportunities to the YAAWs, and brings challenging and new perspectives to the questions that we are pushing ourselves to focus on. For this
reason, it is not just the insight and wisdom of the YAAWs, but their youth itself which makes their presence in the showcase essential.” Viliplana said.

One project, Future Free, by Jordan Brooks, Michaela Pecot, June Herreria and Keanu Velasquez asks, through performance and media, “What would happen if we knew and felt connection to our ancestry? Where would our society be if we untied the structural and internal oppression that binds us?” Herreria chose to perform her dance solo in a six foot by eight foot rectangle, the size of a prison cell, to illuminate the experience of physical incarceration.

Another project, Unified: A place for Mixed Race is a spoken word performance by Zora Rosenberg and Anjali Eichbaum, for which the artists have hand sewn gifts for the audience. These projects will be exhibited amongst the work of professional chefs, computer scientists, vocalists and even tap sensation Michelle Dorrence.

The third group of YAAW’s to tackle a vision for the future as part of the Field of Inquiry is composed of Imani Salter, Alasia Allah, Ariana Sellers with Rooted. Employing graffiti culture, this work explores notions of ugliness and beauty in a changing city with Bay Area-inspired photography and sculpture.

“As many YAAWs were wrapping up their projects, they felt rushed to finish their work, a challenge which their artist mentors assured them is one that they as professionals face regularly. Some are stretched under the pressure of high school stress: SAT tests looming, the harsh judgement of college admissions, homework, and more.” Viliplana noted. “As we reminded ourselves of the significance of our work, the stress of deadlines and self-imposed expectations faded to the background – making room for the emboldened sparkles in all of our eyes.”

If the teen spirit exhibited by young artists is, in fact, the future of urban life, I am confident in the possibilities that these tenacious bright individuals will manifest in the world. What are the conduits and barriers to intergenerational exchange? What other conditions cultivate intergenerational bodies of knowledge outside of formal educational institutions?

Viliplana reflects, “I am so glad that YBCA has carved out this space for the youth of our city to gather together, to empower themselves through creative and social exposure, to learn from some of the best artists in the nation, and to share their true selves with the world. As we create more space for them to flourish and shine, more hearts and minds will be affected by the messages that these youth have to share, and in that way we will be achieving our collective vision in the truest sense: we will be producing art that moves people.”

Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass Mince Words and Moves

NEWSFLASH: DANCERS can speak and radio hosts can boogie too. But you’ll have to go to the upcoming performance at the Nourse Theatre, Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host, to find out just how This American Life’s Ira Glass, choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and dancer Anna Bass navigate the collision of roles.

image of Ira Glass and two dancers

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Photo by Ebru YILDIZ

According to Glass, the premise of the show is “A mix of two things that really have no business being on stage together at all. Dance is all visuals, no talking. Radio’s all talking, no visuals.” Barnes considers this to be generally accurate in her experience.

“I certainly feel like there are amazing artists, one of my favorites being Joe Goode from San Francisco, who totally deals with words, but the dance that I’ve made hasn’t included language. I haven’t chosen to ever go there, so its accurate in that it’s a generalism, but also in terms of what Ira does on the radio and what I do with my choreography. We’re bringing these two things together that don’t naturally overlap in their mediums.”

The collaboration began with a sort of inversion of roles during an edition of the Talent Show, a series in New York City. The show in which Glass and Barnes participated was based on Dancing With the Stars. Barnes judged and Glass danced.

“I was talking he was dancing. It was an amazing event – actually one of my favorite dance shows I’ve ever seen. The other two judges were David Rakoff, who I started working with at the This American Life Live! show and Eugene Mirman who’s a great comic,” Barnes recalls.

After meeting at the Talent Show, Glass attended an evening of Barnes’s work at The Joyce, which led to their first collaboration.

Glass commissioned two works by Barnes for This American Life Live! – The Invisible Made Visible, filmed in Chicago and streamed at movie theaters all over North America in 2012. Similar in format to San Francisco’s Pop-Up Magazine (minus the recording and streaming), This American Life Live! features a series of short acts of mixed mediums onstage. In The Invisible Made Visible, Glass talks about how seeing the work of Barnes was the impetus for adapting his radio show to share something that just couldn’t be transmitted by sound waves.

“They [Monica Bill Barnes and Company] had this sensibility. With this dance troupe I found myself watching their faces more than I’ve ever watched. They were expressing very ordinary moments and feelings, something relatable expressed through movement…they seemed like regular people who happened to be dancing. There was something about this and our show [This American Life], capturing these daily things.” Glass said in his introduction.

Bass is a member of the Monica Bill Barnes and Company and has worked with the choreographer for more than ten years. The two see each other almost every day between rehearsing, performing and touring. The process with Glass to create Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host started rigorously in January. “Ira is a wildly committed dancer in his attention to detail and process. There are times I’ll try out material and it looks so different on his body. He’s a foot taller than me so we adjust things.” comments Barnes.

The artists spent two weeks in residence at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) in March to further develop the work. Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host premiered in April at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

Ira Glass dancing with two dancers

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, Photo by Ebru YILDIZ

“Truthfully, in every performance we learn more and are adjusting things. We’ve discovered the heart of the show, but it’s a wonderful ongoing slightly ever-shifting work,” notes Barnes. For her, working with Glass lends a fresh spontaneity to the piece.

“Ira has a script but he’s such a natural charismatic performer that when the audience responds in a different way he’ll go off script. The show feels like a roller coaster as a performer. I’ll be listening for my cue, knowing it may shift, and the audience response may change, so really Anna and I have entered a whole different world as performers… these performances really feel like exciting on-your-toes experiences we are loving with all the unique challenges the show raises on a performance level.”

Since Barnes does not normally work with language, the added element of performing alongside a narrator and storyteller also refreshes her relationship to the audience in that it provides a level of transparency related to the action, which would remain more abstract in a strictly dance concert.

Barnes, a Berkeley native, performed with Joe Goode in New York a decade ago. Her relationship to the Bay Area is personal, having been first exposed to dance in the region where much of her family still lives. “I had an amazing high school dance teacher Jacqueline Burgess and I was in the Bay recently for her retirement celebration… she was an incredible influence on me and had so much to do with shaping my sense of myself as an artist, woman and human being. The high school years are so formative.”

Regarding future work, Barnes still isn’t sold on employing words in her dances. “My husband is an actor and I love acting but have no interest in it or illusion that I’m good at it. Every show I make is unique unto itself. Words are essential to this dance but I hope that the next dance wouldn’t repeat anything directly. I don’t feel like words are going to be the thing I carry away from this show but I do feel like the process is having a profound effect for the work I make after it.”

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host will be performed November 16 and 17 at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco.

Bebe Miller’s A History Reveals the Body as Archive

In advance of her company’s West Coast premiere of A History January 25 and 26 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Bebe Miller made a visit to San Francisco in November, part of Performing Arts Director Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s intent to extend the artist relationship with the local community and presenting institution beyond the performance run. Among the pre-tour activities, Miller taught at San Francisco State University, shot video around town and also caught up with Bay Area collaborator, dance artist and teacher, Kathleen Hermesdorf.

Bebe Miller Company — Courtesy of Valerie Oliverio

Bebe Miller Company — Courtesy of Valerie Oliverio

“I met Kathleen at Bates Dance Festival in the 90s and we hit it off. She’s a fabulous dancer and improviser,” commented Miller. The choreographer says she chooses dancers based on how their personality comes through the movement with awareness that she is forming a community of workers. “I choose dancers who take their performance from their current line of thought.” About half of the artists in A History also make their own work and all of them use improvisation as a strategy.

Since the Bebe Miller Company operates as a virtual company with members living in locations around the United States, new work is developed over a period of years in residencies that bring project collaborators together for creative development and rehearsals. Therefore, Miller prefers to tighten the score of the approach instead of prescribing movement. Rather than memorizing and executing the specifics of an action, the artists develop the skills of what Miller calls “dancing specifically” from a particular nature or line of thought. When reconvening, Miller brings the video from the last rehearsal and the dancers begin by observing.

“Does a company really just show up? In our roles we are witness to being inside a collaborative team. We wanted to reveal that,” notes Miller while discussing A History. The seed of the work surfaced five years ago during a conversation between Miller and her dramaturg Talvin Wilks about privileging the process and studio hours as material. It focuses on the artist relationship between veteran company members Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones over a ten year period. The evening-length duet makes manifest the experience of dance-making and can be seen as both the evidence and performance of artistic creation. To prepare, the company recorded hours of video and audio from rehearsal including conversations, questions, considerations and decision-making. The performers in A History then wear headphones at times to listen to the audio, which captures the nature of the studio. Miller attributes this device to The Wooster Group (also performing at YBCA this spring).

In shifting her archive from artifacts to artwork, Miller acknowledges that her relationship to an archive is distinct from one of an archivist or curator, commenting, “As dancers and makers we have ideas about what should be preserved and presented.” In addition to the archive of materials, performers possess a physical history. “The archive is also the information embedded in their movement,” she adds. Miller keeps journals dating back to the ‘70s and encourages her students to do the same. “It’s good to have a record and always be gathering. At Ohio State University I tell my students to just write everything down. You are your archive. There’s also so much you carry in your own body.”

A History incorporates video by Lily Skove and an accompanying digital media installation of the visual history by Maya Ciarrocchi. Through this work Miller hopes that audiences can experience what dance-making feels like, sounds like and thinks like. Ciarrocchi’s installation was part of a larger exhibition on view August 23-September 30, 2012 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, which included costumes, sets, notation, rehearsal and performance documentation, music, conversations with peers, as well as performed responses to Miller’s work, curated by Jerry Dannemiller, through a project developed at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.

A History arrives on the heels of other body-as-archive oriented performances in San Francisco. Muriel Maffre’s performance as part of Nina Beier’s The Complete Works (December 4 and 11, 2010 at YBCA) charged the retired ballerina to perform all the roles she ever danced during her professional career as she recalls in chronological order. The work, which was also performed last October at the Tate Modern’s new performance space, The Tanks, required the artist to rely on body and memory as archive from which to draw an entire performance. In addition, Morgan Thorson’s Spaceholder Festival, an evening-length work for six performers at the ODC Theater October 5-7, 2012, thrust the audience into the role of archaeologist considering what happens when the artifact is not a fixed object, but a living human body – always in flux, in a continual state of becoming and deterioration.

By noting some of these works, which pry at the accretion of body memory, one may wonder why the string of vulnerable and self-referential interrogation now? All of these works place value on the labor inherent, yet not always visible, in performance. Work-in-process showings are another version of the desire to privilege the dance thinking and development. Bebe Miller Company’s A History will make public a traditionally hidden process, inviting the audience to experience her art as a group of relationships rather than a closed piece.

Bebe Miller Company’s A History will be presented by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, January 25 – 26. ybca.org

Chris Black’s Multigenerational Edition of the Rotunda Dance Series

During her 20 years of creating theatrical and humorous work in the Bay Area, Chris Black describes her shift from creating works for the stage to developing intricate site-specific dance in public space as intentional. This shift has allowed her to guide the audience so they share the mindset of the performers by entering the same environment to participate together. In these unfixed situations she points out how one cannot be passive, but rather selects a relationship to the performance. She hopes to fracture the assumption that performance occurs separately from the audience. As an extension of these ideals, Black increasingly works in spaces where people can happen upon a performance, as in Pastime, which was performed free to the public in multiple locations within the San Francisco Parks system. Black now even rehearses in public, as she did during her 2011 residency at the Academy of Sciences during regular museum hours, creating Extinction Burst.

Pictured: Chris Black Photo by Andy Mogg

Pictured: Chris Black
Photo by Andy Mogg

On December 7 at noon Chris Black takes on the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda for the next edition of the free Rotunda Dance Series with the help of her eight-year-old daughter Tamsin’s third grade class. For the Rotunda, Black worked with the youth to create the dance, while teaching at their school during the weeks leading up to the lunchtime performance. Thematically the work addresses environmentalism. Introducing movement in the classroom, Black may, for example, ask “What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?” and manipulate and direct the resulting actions presented by the youth. While the work will be performed by children, Black maintains that the material is not “kids’ dance,” but rather, artistic and crafted as work she would create with any of her adult artists. They’ll walk and flock and perform postmodern pedestrian movement in the grand city building. Black’s adult dance collaborators will perform as well in the piece created specifically for the City Hall Rotunda. Additionally, Black choreographs with all ages in mind, her hope being that children and seniors alike can access the same dance.

In her dancers, Black values personality and presence, as well as clarity and specificity, which direct the focus of audience members. These elements combined deliver the humor and theatricality for which she is recognized. It’s no surprise that her work The Adventures of Cunning & Guile, was created and performed at The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco in collaboration with Ken James, during which the two playfully bound about the walls and benches of the gallery.

As a 2011 resident artist at the Academy of Sciences, Black explored the disappearance of the great auk, imagining how this extinct species might have moved to conduct her choreographic research. “I want to re-animate kinetic memory of a creature that no longer exists,” commented Black. As a result of rehearsing in the space where the performance would be, she was able to gauge bystanders’ reactions to different sections throughout the development of Extinction Burst. In addition, songs about missing someone like “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” and “It’s Too Late” doubled to comment on animals no longer living, through composer Erik Pearson’s breakup-themed soundtrack. Black hopes to expand her work surrounding extinction during the next couple years with Project Passenger Pigeon in development for 2014. Project Passenger Pigeon illuminates environmental activities and the human impact on the earth. The project will move through different locales potentially in the Midwestern and Eastern United States responding to the study of birds and concepts around flocking. Although her path has been one of dance, Black acknowledges she has always had an interest in science.

Another question Black ponders is “How do you occupy space and move in terms of something you are not?” As a non-baseball player, she created a work, Pastime, about the sport. Now she’s developing a solo based on the boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Her research about where people held boxing fights during the 1880’s and 1890’s informs the selection of locations for this performance. Since getting paid to fight was unlawful, the events would take place secretly on trains or in private lots. As a result, Black hopes to stage her solo on a boat in the San Francisco Bay, as fights took place in the middle of the water as well.

Black teaches a variety of classes in technique, composition, and dance appreciation, recently creating work for students at Iowa State University as well as the University of San Francisco. Her approach to dance appreciation is to create empathy for and transfer the experience of the performer. “I want to capture the sense of joy and visceral aspect of it,” comments Black. In her classes she encourages revealing personality, specificity and clarity – elements she admires in the dancers with whom she collaborates. When asked what recent work she finds particularly exciting, Black names Lizz Roman as a vibrant choreographic voice, with whom she has also worked.

In addition to creating her own work and teaching, Black (along with dance artists Miguel Gutierrez and Amy Seiwert) is contributing to Monique Jenkinson’s new solo Instrument. Black has known Jenkinson for close to two decades. The work premieres at CounterPULSE on November 29 as the final performance of Jenkinson’s de Young Artist Fellows residency. With Instrument Jenkinson hopes to “expose and undermine the roles of dancer as workhorse and choreographer as auteur. The artist’s relationship to authorship is a major theme, as is the dancing body as translator, container of knowledge and preserver of culture.” Gutierrez, Black and Seiwert employ diverse approaches to movement-making and will each choreograph something for Jenkinson’s body. She considers the ‘putting on’ of movement to be aligned with her obsession with clothing and costumes. “The choreographers will use a dictatorial studio practice to create movement on my body. This phrase, ‘on my body’, common in traditional choreographic parlance, evokes the creation of a bespoke garment, but makes the distinction that the movement does not come from the dancer’s body,” remarks Jenkinson in the Instrument press release.

From embodying boxers, baseball players and extinct birds, to creating work for museums and directing third graders in a site-specific dance, Black, with her smart and humorous signature, will host a vivacious lunchtime in the City Hall Rotunda.

Chris Black performs at the free Rotunda Dance Series presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West on Friday, December 7 at noon in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda.

Dancing in the Museum

When you look at a white-walled cube or empty courtyard, do you see a performance space? If you knew the history of every hundred- or thousand-year-old painting, sculpture, and anthropological record in a museum, would you envision bodies in motion, following their own energetic impulses and trajectories, among them? This September, Dance Discourse Project #13, co-produced by Dancers’ Group and CounterPULSE, will address dance in museums in a program at the de Young Museum. Through artistic and curatorial lenses, expert panelists from the visual arts and dance realms will join us in discussing the following:

With more public programs and performances taking place within museum and gallery walls, what are the current priorities for presenting dance in this architecture? How can movement function in a space designed for another kind of art and a different mode of looking? How are museums and galleries selecting dance to activate their spaces, and how does dance change when its context comes artistically charged with a particular point of view? How does dance placed in visual arts environments support the trend of the museum as a public gathering place?

We aren’t the first ones to be talking about what happens when performance crosses into visual arts territory (think back to John Cage in the 1950s, or to Futurist performance in the early twentieth century, or perhaps further). But neither is the case closed on what to make of it.

In fact, “Dancing in the museum isn’t new, but…” could have comprised a subsection of the Making Time symposium presented by UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center this April. Discussions over the weekend questioned how dance is produced and received on museum premises. We’ll be attending related events and reflecting on selected texts as we consider the topics for September’s Dance Discourse Project.

Making Time gathered curators and scholars from across the country at the Berkeley Art Museum. One of the panels, Dancing in the Museum, involved speakers Jonah Bokaer, Judy Hussie-Taylor and Mark Franko (with response by Ralph Lemon, the panel was moderated by Kate Mattingly) discussing the implications of performance at visual arts institutions. The discussion provided a platform for leaders in contemporary dance and scholarship to address, one voice at a time, the slippery slope of mixing mediums and crossing borders.

Throughout much of the conversation, panelists considered how Western concert dance could be shaped differently for a museum than for a proscenium stage. Franko, professor of dance and chair of the theater arts department at UC Santa Cruz, asked, “Has there been such a thing as museum dance?”–versus dance placed in a museum. Instead of an answer to fill the silence that followed, another question surfaced: “What shock, tremor or displacement of force does dance communicate to a museum?” Franko’s assigning dance as a powerful, perhaps menacing, force acting upon a solid structure met prepared responses.

Bokaer, a choreographer, media artist, and dancer, described his collaborative work with visual artist Daniel Arsham. One of their efforts, Replica, which premiered in 2009, features a fractured white cube–a structure acted upon by dance, much the way Franko described. Some of the dance, performed Bokaer and Judith Sanchez Ruiz, moves through the cube, which has been punctured onstage by Ashram. Bokaer noted that performing Replica in open, public spaces disrupted the dance and the reception of the sculpture in unintended ways. For instance, during a performance outside of one museum, audience members took liberties to move out of the intended viewing space, thus configuring their own points of view onto the sculpture and dancing. Hussie-Taylor, executive director of Danspace Project, remarked, “Conscious displacement of a work of art, live or otherwise, brings the opportunity to challenge perception,” allowing a viewer truly to see differently.

“Where the work is encountered informs how it is framed and ultimately processed,” Hussie-Taylor said. Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, which premiered in 1970 in and around 80 Wooster Street in New York City, puts on meanings and discards others in a 2008 performance outside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Hussie-Taylor showed footage of the more recent performance to encourage listeners to consider how differently an audience might respond to the same work in different contexts.

Expectations also seed divergent reactions to dance in a museum as experienced by a dance audience versus a visual arts one. Dance viewers are more accustomed to watching a work beginning to end, whereas visual arts patrons more commonly assume autonomy during their museum experience. Hussie-Taylor pointed to this phenomenon as evidenced by an interview with Sarah Michelson by Trajal Herrel this year in Movement Research Performance Journal 40. There, the choreographer recalls the reception of her work at the Whitney Museum, noting that dance and visual arts audiences demonstrated different levels of endurance in their attention.

In receiving art, whether an action in a museum or an object, can we consider why the work was made and how it functions? “To curate time-based work is to query the viewer’s expectations and assumptions about place–where they are–and time–how long they expect to be there,” Hussie-Taylor said. “To present dance out of place is to take into account the viewer’s expectations and then upend them. This is the most challenging and the most exciting aspect of dance in museums, at least in my mind,” she added.

In developing this discourse for DDP #13, we will look at dance in some of its possible places and at art that moves. We’ll look at performance that disrupts space and spatial configurations that disrupt performance. Additionally, we’ll consider actions as art objects that can be collected and presented as visual art, and the body as archive. As we refine talking points of the panel discussion, we’ll explore previous instances of dance presented in the museum, audience reactions to it, and where both might be heading.

Save the date: Dance Discourse Project #13 takes place at the de Young Museum on Saturday, September 15 from 2-4pm. This event is hosted in conjunction with Monique Jenkinson’s 2012 Artist Fellowship at the de Young.

Visit ArtPerformanceNow.wordpress.com for further reading, consideration and response to the topic by DDP#13 organizers Emily Hite and Julie Potter. We’ll be posting about other provocative dances and articles, writing our own commentary, and inviting guest bloggers to contribute to the conversation.

Postcards From Africa: Artists Working Here and Far

Shuttling from the Bay Area to disparate regions of Africa, dance professionals Janice Garrett, Byb Bibene Chanel, Kristine Elliott and Joti Singh use the art form to power exchange. Their trips with four distinct missions all share the thread of reciprocal learning and the body as a channel for communication and empowerment.

Janice Garrett, Co-Director, Garrett + Moulton Productions: Uganda
“We had a real interest in forms that facilitate people working very closely together and dancing is that at its best. Dance is something where people are capable of feeling each other and working together in a tight ensemble.”

The serendipitous impact of seeing War Dance a documentary about the trauma of children who live in a refugee camp and their healing through music and dance, reading about civil strife in countries bordering Uganda and connecting with a friend who started the Stand Tall Primary School on the outskirts of Kampala compelled Janice Garrett to work with ninety students at that junior high. Garrett visited for a month in October with composer and musician Christopher Benstead employing an approach which emerged from The Ball Passing Project: a community art form that demonstrates how cooperation creates a complex and interdependent structure. The Ball Passing Project stems from a dance created by Charles Moulton, during which performers arranged on tiered platforms pass colored Nerf balls in intricate patterns. At the Stand Tall Primary School, the idea was to explore what the kids could do with movement and music to facilitate learning how to work cooperatively and see themselves as interdependent and connected with one another.

“Ball passing and the movement choir are designed to be done when people are attuned and working as a team. Therefore, we shared these forms with the kids to engender a sense of working as a collective, as a community together, to establish a connection with one another,” says Garrett, adding “The idea that things can be ordered, precise, predictable, repeatable, and that there’s a reason to build upon that order in a group together is really affecting a part of their social consciousness in certain ways.” In addition to ball passing and movement choir approaches, the group worked in a circle and participated in rhythm and movement exercises to create something themselves, thus encouraging individual voices. A baseline beginning and structured games provided the starting points for making.

“To see the children and the light in their eyes–these are kids who are thrilled to be in school. They do not take this for granted at all. They know how precious it is to receive an education. There’s a fantastic sense of appreciation for what’s being offered and that was incredibly moving to me. These children recognize the gift that they are receiving. They are hungry for that experience,” Garrett comments. She found that at the end of the school day, the students did not want to go home and would walk back at the last possible moment, just as night fell. Because many families in Uganda are unable to pay for the books and uniforms that the schools require, numerous children go without education. It’s a few hundred dollars, which for many, amounts to a high percentage of the family income.

Moving forward, Garrett hopes to continue a process with the school to develop a sponsorship program for the first class of 20 graduates to attend highschool. “The feeling I have is that the work in Uganda showed up on the path of my life,” saya Garrett. “I want to encourage others to reach out in the world; to really respond to what may come along. To want to be touched by people and circumstances–we have a lot to give. We all have these opportunities.”

Byb Chanel Bibene,
Artistic Director, Kiandanda Dance Theater:
Democratic Republic of Congo

“Notice how we write with the body by creating a vocabulary. There is a way in the Congo for this writing. I invite people to come with me and inspire our way of trying to expand the vocabulary. That’s what the program is about.”

Last time Byb Chanel Bibene visited his native Democratic of Congo, he developed a dance film called Devil in the Hills. For this project, Bibene worked with dancers and conducted interviews to capture the life experiences of those living with a delicate political situation and corruption. In this context, Bibene sees dance as a way to move toward a more open dialogue. He returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo on a regular basis eager to research the contemporary social issues and encourage communication through the body. “What is African dance? Is it Africans dancing? What is Congolese dance? Each tribe has a very different style,” Bibene comments.

“We don’t have dance schools, we have parties for dancing. It’s something we learn from our elders. It happens on the streets, in public places, the neighborhood. The dance is different for each tribe. I came to dance through the tribe and popular dance. That’s our main training,” says Bibene. “We also got the American influence of hip hop. There was Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Madonna, and also also vogueing.” Before concentrating on dance, Bibene studied acting in highschool. Later he studied contemporary, classical and modern dance at academy schools in Europe and now invites choreographers to Congo to teach workshops for his program and research initiative, De la Programme. He hopes to eventually have a dedicated space for dance, and continues to fundraise. While he does invite people to his country to work as professional dancers, he acknowledges that where he is from dance is meshed into daily life–it serves as a ritual and has meaning.

Kristine Elliott,
Dance Professor, Stanford University:
South Africa

“It’s kind of an irony and an interesting look to see how ballet bridges cultures. It’s a universal language that around the world you place your left hand on the bar and do grande plies in first position.”

Since 2004 Kristine Elliott has been teaching ballet in Atlan, a township of South Africa beginning simply in a classroom with a cassette player, and growing her team each year with artists from LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals). “The thing that strikes me is the way that classical ballet training is important. It makes those kids stand up with a sense of pride. They have to take care of their bodies. It’s a good idea to care about what they eat and have self pride, and it translates into a lust for life, for being alive,” said Elliott, adding “Its’ a pretty tough place to survive. They don’t really look to the future in terms of living a long life. The more pride that they feel about themselves the more they feel that life is precious and to get that from their community and it comes from standing up as a dancer.”

Elliott’s has made a huge impact, opening eyes and horizons. “I am just one person and sometimes I get overwhelmed with so much hardship and poverty and the effect of AIDS, disease and the living conditions. I still believe that one by one we can help,” she says. In addition to teaching skills transferrable to life, students of hers blossomed into professional dancers working with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, The Lion King and Ballet Rambert. “What’s marvelous of the program is that those kids have somewhere to go everyday where excellence is demanded of them and where they’re expected to show up and have discipline and be on time.”

This past year, Elliott brought Amy Seiwert’s choreography to her students in South Africa. “I set the ballet on the music with the exact intention of Amy’s work. When it was finished I looked at it and said ‘This is new!’ It had an African energy that changed the art–adding and giving its own voice. It’s a wonderful exchange,” comments Elliott, referencing the fierce bright attack of the movement. At Stanford, Elliott encourages her students to take their skills and dancing and to help the world. She concludes “It’s important to know life is precious and it’s worthwhile to stand up; that there are dreams that can come true and dance can help in that.”

Joti Singh,
Artistic Director, Duniya Dance and Drum Company:
Guinea

“The community living really left an impression on me–how much time the people spent together and outside, how much time they don’t spend by themselves.”

In December, for the second time, Joti Singh led students and artists to Guinea to better understand the art tradition in context. There, the group participated in a few busy weeks of dance and drum classes and with a heavy dose of Guinean culture. Singh visited the country for the first time in 2003 with a college dance teacher and her current trips are about meeting people there, life in the community and the culture. “We see it as an exchange. People are generally really changed by the experience, because of how different life is over there. They realize how little the people have materially but how rich they are culturally.”

Singh is looking to purchase land and start a community center. She envisions a hub of resources where people can help themselves even after Singh’s group has gone, hoping for a place for people can stay, take class, learn an instrument, a language or financial literacy. A computer center there would also allow visitors to learn additional skills and push ahead. “People are really motivated and smart and there’s just no economy there. It’s really hard. There are trained medical doctors who work for cell phone companies, people go to school and there are no jobs.”

Speaking to the role of dance in this society, Singh notes that when Guinea became an independent country from the French in 1958, the first president created a national ballet and traditional arts were cultivated. Every neighborhood has a ballet or dance group for performances at ceremonies or weddings. “People aren’t shy about dancing in the same way they are here. They do it from a young age. If you go to a party or a club, everyone is dancing. There are some families that don’t want their kids to go into dance and recommend what they see as more serious subject like law or engineering. There are others who decide to dance to get out of the country and come to the U.S. or Europe. It has become this ticket out in a way.”

One on One: For Christy Funsch One is Never a Lonely Number

Rarely do audiences experience a dance performance more than once, however Christy Funsch gives dance-goers a second chance with the ephemeral, time-based, and fleeting art form in her upcoming retrospective Funsch Solos: One On One, at Z Space, March 8-11, 2012. As a grantee of Dancers’ Groups’ New Stages for Dance program, One On One features five premieres and 13 repertory solos offered in two iterations: during the first act through one-on-one viewings in curtained rooms, and then again in the second act with the audience as a group seated in the round, allowing each audience member to see the dances twice.

“I wonder what it’s like to see a solo on your own and then fifteen minutes later you see that same piece but you’re sitting in this large group. Then what do you see? What’s evocative for you? What do you remember from that one experience and how is that reinforced or threatened by the presence of the large group? I’m curious about that,” Funsch muses. She hopes the experience will stimulate discussion and conversation. Groups rotating around the perimeter of Z Space for the one on one, and then the solos repeated in the more conventional setting provide comparative experiences from both the performer and audience’s point of view.

The One On One Experience
For One on One, Funsch will perform several of her selected solos, from as far back as the 90s. She’s also gathered a fresh crop of Bay Area performers to perform repertory works as well as several new solos. “The one on one experience is an experiment, and it has been as much a performer gift as it is a way of shaking up the viewer/doer exchange so I’m curious what its going to be like from the performing side of it. There will be a lot of repetition and intimacy and shedding this moment that is shared with one other person that no one else will know about, so I think it will be really rich and different” explained Funsch. She adds, “I expect that there’s something about watching when you’re by yourself that may bring you into a slower state of observation, maybe a place of empathy, wherein a group setting, the exchange is really different.” (During November in New York, Funsch was working with dance artist Julie Mayo on The Wrecking Project, an undertaking in which artists get to edit and re-imagine each other’s work and then perform the original and “wrecked” versions side by side.)

Going Solo
Funsch has created more than 30 solos during the past 30 years. She comments, “I think we’re all in it on our own and we have to make sense of the world and arrive as an individual with a decision, so that’s why the solo point of views come strongly to me.” Her preference as a viewer also tends toward solo work more than group performance. “I like design and appreciate those who do that kind of work really well, but I also feel like it can lead to what Tere O’Connor calls the ‘pencils in an earthquake’ kind of work where it’s a lot of pyrotechnics and flash which doesn’t necessarily ground you in an experience.”

With much work to choose from, Funsch selected repertory she could physically remember performing or rehearsing, or work about which she could recall vivid memories and thoughts from the making of the piece. “The important things are the same. The way that the embodiment of how movement is striking me and coming forth is the same” said Funsch. “The movement is the hook. The visceral experience is the hook for me more than a concept or political statement. It’s the experience in the soft tissue, how that inspires the whole structure of the piece, the mood of the piece, the costuming—all that stuff comes from a visceral place still as it did long time ago.”

On Our Own Together
Observation fuels Funsch’s creative process. She is keen to the dynamics and interactions of those she watches outside the studio in places like cafes, the street and Muni. “I do observe best when I’m on my own and that true observation takes some time, so that time to yourself, to know your point of view and be able to articulate your world view, and make answers of things, the way you decide how you’re going to treat other people—all those things. Yes, you’re influenced by your family, your upbringing, friends and context, but it’s that time by yourself that really is going to let you figure your own individual choices around those issues” she maintains.

In addition to observation, Funsch enjoys regular exchanges with colleagues in both the performing and visual arts to develop different ways of seeing space and shape. “As much as I feel that my movement history is my own, and my outlook and answers to big questions are my own, I know I am the puree of all the teachers and family and friends and strangers that have marked me,” said Funsch, adding, “As much as we act, we are also reacting. I think this is what is often for me the unexpected effect of solo work, the seeing of many others in one person’s experience, or the way one experience can amplify and refer to countless other people and other ways of seeing.” Time alone in the studio, as well as improvisation, are also the staples of her work’s development. “The biggest thing is the daily execution of it, the doing of it, the thinking and conceptualizing is important but for me it’s such an immediately physical practice so it’s that time spent,” said Funsch.

Finally transferring the solos onto the artists with whom she is working allows Funsch a satisfying distance from her work, which communicates to her the movements’ strengths and where to push. She notes how the process has helped her to read and parse out her personality from what’s actually in the piece of work she created. “I’ve gotten into this place where I’m less about my own physical preferences and improvisational determination of pieces and more about colleagues and wanting to celebrate them and bring out things I cherish about them in their dancing with works I’ve made for them. I think it happens naturally with people you’ve known for so long, the exchange and translation becomes easy because you have a shared movement history together.”

Having lived in the Bay Area for sixteen years, Funsch is awed by the depth and brilliance of dance activity in the region. “There are so many people pursuing paths of creativity that a lot of times intersect with politics and activism that’s so vital to keep putting out there in a way that is time-based where we attend the performance and share that durational experience together. Where it’s not a prerecorded bravado hit on YouTube. All that stuff is great but I’m for being there in the moment.”

Dynamic Adaptability: Change Management, Design Thinking, Failure, Power and the Participatory Ghetto

However in museums working with artists, the assumption that no one should understand the artist is frowned upon and therefore a different attitude about how to build the engagement.

With technology accelerating change in cultural participation, arts professionals packed the Marines Memorial Theater October 24 for a beacon to navigate the shifting landscape. “A revolution is happening across the arts sector as the walls between professional and amateur, audience and artist, curator and spectator start to crumble,” wrote Kary Schulman of Grants for the Arts (GFTA) and Tere Romo of the San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) introducing the day-long Beyond Dyanamic Adaptability conference. The conference concluded activities of a four-year funding partnership of TSFF and GFTA supported by the Wallace Foundation to “encourage systemic and sustainable structural change in the relationships of Bay Area arts organizations to their audiences.”

As a speaker on what Flynn Center Artistic Director John Killacky declared his “dream panel” about “The Changing Nature of Cultural Participation” Josephine Ramirez of The James Irvine Foundation discussed the occurring shift, from a sit-back-and-be-told culture utilizing broadcasted one-way communication, to a making and doing culture requiring conversational two-way communication. This change exists at the heart of Getting in on the Act, Understanding Participatory Arts Practice, a new study commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation, conducted by WolfBrown. The consumption model is going away and the study mines “How can arts institutions adapt to this new environment? Is participatory practice contradictory to, or complementary to, a business model that relies on professional production and consumption? How can arts organizations enter this new territory without compromising their values or artistic ideals?” Ramirez revealed how the nature and extent of the audience involvement can be seen along a spectrum, stretching from receptive at one end to participatory at the other–from audience as spectator to audience as artist.

Change Management
Also on the panel, Ben Cameron highlighted the paradigm shift from engagement to cultural participation. He noted how arts participation is exploding while audiences are diminishing, specifically with pro-am activity. Cameron challenged attendees, “Must we have a professional artist to intermediate a creative spiritual experience?” Dante Di Loreto, Glee Executive Producer, indicates that the professional artist is not a must, pointing to the “Gleek” video creating community as a model of participation. “Every single teenager’s bedroom is now a television studio,” notes Di Loreto.

Technology allowed a massive redistribution of knowledge with newspapers becoming multimedia companies, and with the multiplication of content creation from both traditional media as well as participating citizens. Cameron’s advice to the field: change management. He calls for arts organizations to put resources toward incremental change in order to innovate, and to deeply consider how they examine their institution’s practices. As a dramaturg, Cameron was taught to analyze, question and respond quickly and specifically, so he invites arts leaders to put on the institutional dramaturg hat in order to rethink current practices.

Design Thinking
Responding quickly is also a trademark of Executive Director Nina Simon’s leadership at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. “How can we change the timescales for implementation?” she asks. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History employs a suggestion board with Post-It notes. Ideas gleaned through the ongoing open call from visitors are then implemented in as little as 72 hours. Simon attributes the ability to be nimble in order to pilot something new immediately to have a large role in revitalizing the institution. Then decisions are made to either keep the program, tweak it or ditch it based on evaluation of impact. This process of identifying problems, piloting and user-testing reflects human-centered “design-thinking” made popular by IDEO’s Tim Brown.

“The explicit placing of the audience in the center is the shift we are seeing,” Simon said. She confidently states that serving the audience is her top priority, even before her allegiance to the artists.

During a later “Lightning Presentation” Beth Kanter, author of The Networked Nonprofit said “Get past your blind spot and listen. Have an open call. What is the expectation of the people formerly known as the audience?” Her presentation showcased “backseat tweets” as an example of giving people a voice, as well as Moms Rising, a group that doesn’t begin by broadcasting their own messages, but rather calls out to members for input. (It is worth noting that a recent panel at The Foundation Center, The Bold Italic’s Jennifer Maerz similarly discussed using public pitches to get expertise and ideas from outside the organization. They work regularly with IDEO to implement design thinking at their media company, successfully mixing online content with offline live events and engagement.) Asking better questions, really listening and actually implementing ideas from the audience ensures greater value and relevance in programs. Design, social media and user engagement strategy weave together the unique social architecture of the institution.

Failure
Experiments big and small come with failure, also part of incremental innovation, making crucial a good relationship with failure. Sean San Jose of Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo understands. He comments how at Intersection for the Arts, engagement is the job, so the creators utilize an open process to make dialogue the intention from the start of planning. “Its all a failure because you’re trying to engage the whole world in real issues,” said San Jose at an afternoon fishbowl discussion titled “How can we invite audiences to become active collaborators?” For him, failure serves as a point of reference to go for more.

Power and the Participatory Ghetto
Regarding the difference between collaborating and participating with audiences, Simon asks where in the institution’s process collaboration is useful and how the audience can become a co-creator. It’s about giving power to the folks who aren’t necessarily the trained experts and offering a clarity and cohesion in the message to collaborate. San Jose maintains that people want to be seen and heard. He asks how professionals can make the gap thinner and thinner between who is performing and spectating. Sabrina Merlo from Maker Faire discussed how her event is truly built around getting audiences to change behavior. As an open source program, the DIY festival allows anyone to create their own Maker Faire by giving over the power, so people can take the idea and leverage it. “Makers aren’t coming at it with the egos the artists do,” said Merlo about giving power to the audience.

“How can we create an opportunity where its about a visitor inviting someone else?” asks Simon, whose museum built an advice booth in which anyone could become the advice giver or seeker. She challenges arts workers to be comfortable separating the distribution of power from those with expertise. Simon also noted how in science museums, the assumption about the scientist is that no one understands what the scientist did and the museum has to translate their work through exhibition content and design. However in museums working with artists, the assumption that no one should understand the artist is frowned upon and therefore a different attitude about how to build the engagement.

Finally with the discussion of power comes the participatory ghetto. If you are asking the audience to participate, particularly in the case of the museum, “Get it on the real wall,” asserted Simon. For the audience to be a collaborator, visibility and street cred matter and become the currency of value.

Synthesizing many of these ideas, a meaty centerpiece of the conference was WolfBrown’s new report, Making Sense of Audience Engagement presented by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin, which defines engagement as “A unifying philosophy bringing together marketing, education and artistic programming in common service of maximizing the impact on audience.” Through designing the before, during and after of the performance experience with interpretive assistance and curatorial insight, the presentation communicated that an institutions goal before the performance is to get people to a high level of anticipation, and after, to help audiences remember and memorialize experiences. Some of the discussed strategies included live introductions from stage, interactive interpretive activities, real-time interpretive assistance via digital devices, lightly facilitated post-performance discussions for processing and meaning making, scaling audience feedback and nurturing the citizen critic. The study also asks how one’s institution programs engagement for “the big middle”–the majority of audiences who want a little more than program notes. Re-imagining engagement for this major group will determine the success and relevance of the work.

Read more about the Irvine Foundation’s Getting in on the Act report in Shelly Gilbride’s recap on page 10 of the December issue of In Dance.

Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit: An Interview

While they’ve never collaborated to make a work together, Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit shared the stage as resident artists at CounterPULSE, currently work with Keith Hennessey, hold hands when they tell a shared story and spend a lot of time talking to each other on the phone. During the busy weeks prior to The Dog Show, a shared evening at Z Space composed of Arrington’s Wag and Hewit’s Freedom December 8-11, supported by Dancers’ Group’s New Stages for Dance, the duo talks about working and living parallel.

What’s it like to be working together for this evening at Z Space?

Laura Arrington: The cool thing is that Jesse and I under any other circumstance would be directly in competition with each other. We’re in the same place, we have a similar aesthetic, we’re interested in the same ideas and approaches to making work; so when we first met each other we decided it will be more interesting for both of us if we act as friends and colleagues and also mentors and dramaturges, and help each other as opposed to doing the set-up-your-own-company-camp sort of thing. It’s interesting to see our work rub up against each other. When we were resident artists at CounterPULSE we saw everything the other was working on, but this time, I’ve seen almost nothing he’s working on and he’s seen almost nothing I’m working on. Even so, many people at our most recent showing said there’s so much commonality. We’ve never collaborated with each other.

Jesse Hewit: We’re emerging and we can combine our audiences. We have a safety thing to rely on the other. We know with our powers combined it’s more interesting. Every person’s work is a discourse, and our work in the last few years has been dancing around the same discourse. That has been awesome for contextualizing not only the work itself, but the moment around the work, the community around the work and where the work fits here together…working with a peer is great, like growing up with someone.

Can you talk about the ideas and approaches you share?

LA: We don’t work or make things together, but one of the things that is true about Jesse and myself, and a lot of our peer group, is that we actually do work together because the modes of production are really important regarding how things get made: meetings and workshops and time spent together and alternative ways of getting people to make work. So not always being in the mode of “lets make a show and have rehearsal.”

JH: We derive our work not from going to class. None of us go to class and haven’t for a long time. We derive material more from anthropological methods, from street methods, activist methods, social methods. We’re interested in physical states, extreme situations, mastery in movement, conversation and parties–all these things. We derive material from that expression of being together versus learning technique and moving. When we get the chance, we definitely do like to learn from people who are smarter, but a lot of the material is derived from the experiential within a community context, economy, social group and age.

Who are some of the people guiding your art practice right now?

JH: We were in Vienna, Berlin and Scholtenhagen this summer. We’re working on a piece with Keith Hennessey’s Circo Zero Performance.

LA: Keith is my mentor not just because I love his work and ideas, but because he also has a really big focus on social functions and straight up politics. He is also one of those people who is always doing shit. There are so many artists that have these little satellites of themselves, like these weird institutions, and Keith is someone always reaching out and down and doing.

JH: He’s also always destabilizing himself. We’re both about 30 and the older you get in this kind of craft that we do there’s no such thing as financial viability and success. It’s not real and at this point we’ve met all these people at the top of their game and it really shifts your priorities about how you want to create your life as an artist. Keith’s been really great for me because he is essentially quite brave, always destabilizing his beliefs and reality, whereas most folks at his stage are ready to settle down to make meaning and conquer, and he doesn’t do that. In a sense art practice is life practice, so he’s great to be around, to have someone who redefines my instincts about my art practice by watching his life practice; constant curiosity, constantly asking questions, always wanting to learn new forms and finding ways to be wrong. Looking for ways to be wrong and looking for catastrophe is a way to re-inject the necessary tremble if you’re actually going to make things that are interesting.

LA: He is sticking to the edges and walking the unstable ground in front of him. I think if you’re going to do this, his way is the most interesting in terms of getting there. He’s always pushing himself to experience. Dance can be such drudgery and stupid b.s. of grants, and we do it over and over, and it so boring and doesn’t make you a better artist. Much of the way it’s been constructed for art makers is inhibiting because we spend all our time talking about ourselves in the third person, creating solid identity-based rhetoric so there’s a static reality to it that totally gets in the way; the scripted gets in the way of change.
Can you give us a preview of your current work that will be performed at Z Space?

LA: I’m pushing my ways of production and approaches. I’m working with systems and difficulty, duty and obedience, and so I’ve been really playing with how. At The Sandbox Series (ODC’s program promoting artistic exploration by providing choreographers with exploratory studio sessions not specifically tied to performance) it was tons of that–looking at how you communicate with the people in the room with you, how you give instructions, how they get received, if there are rules and scores going on, what is your relationship to those rules, what does it mean; so I’ve been looking at how my creative structures and rules get directed and how that shows up on different bodies…

For Wag we are looking at how the material, in terms of structure and systems, works on the immaterial, so exhausting the body, exhausting the emotional body, exhausting the relationship, so thematic ways material structures work on the emotional body or more metaphysical things. Obedience is duty and that’s my piece. I start every rehearsal with Jess, Micah and Rachel running as fast as we can for 20-30 minutes and then jumping until we can’t jump any more.

They get really hard physical scores where they have a system and are only allowed to do certain types of movement. They have to be counting and keeping track and it’s all within a text rhythm, which they’re not allowed to say out loud but they have to keep saying in their heads. They have specific rules of how they relate to each other…it’s hard to keep track, and then as they understand the system of rules, they adapt to it and edit what they choose and the point is always to push against what the rules are and figure out new ways to work within the structure, ultimately not to get used to anything and comfortable. The moments when we think, “Oh we’re getting stronger,” that means we’ll jump higher or add combat boots.

JH: My piece is called Freedom. I have a few personal narratives about knowing or being associated with really big events in U.S. history over the last ten years that have painted really big, monster narratives of people. Growing up, my best friend was the guy who shot and killed everybody at Columbine and this is a thing that happened in my life and it was weird and really rocked me and probably formed certain sensitivities in the way I look at the world. I also had an intense first hand experience of 9/11 and this is all really blown out exploitative narrative shit, but it stuck to my ribs in a way and I haven’t explicitly made work about it, but have this almost aggressively defensive thing about the media and/or propaganda creating narratives of people that are completely demonizing and uncurious and un-interrogative about why and who they really are. This extends to things like sexuality and ethnicity and all these sorts of other identity components that people make sweeping judgments about or create that are inaccurate or may be one-sided. So I’m making a piece called Freedom about new rights about construction of identity, and being understood or misunderstood. I think I feel personally inspired because of the way my friend Eric growing up was totally written off and misunderstood, and I got re-ignited when Osama bin Laden was killed this passed year and the way that sparked this collective national identity. So I am seeking to queer subvert these narratives of people.

Can you describe what is means to queer subvert?

JH: Everyone believes that Osama bin Laden was just this soulless fucking brown freak living somewhere in the Middle East that wreaked havoc on our motherfucking home turf soil. That’s the dominant narrative right? That he’s a demon, he’s a monster, he’s totally unspeakable and should die like a dog. But to subvert or queer that narrative is to suggest there is a person there who people engage in relationships with. He has breath, he has tears, he has genitals, orgasms, he has family, weak points, pleasure, vacation, he has favorite foods right? It’s not a new trope to suggest that very famous people have real sides to them; for me there’s something to debunk the idea that there is an innate evil in anyone. I think there’s a larger political project in my consciousness, but right now it’s really personal and so I’m figuring out how to create these extremely grotesque and over the top physical images that go further and further beyond what we can imagine to initially disgust us and ostracize the audience, and then actually go even further to promote curiosity and tenderness around the narrative that was previously like “fuck no that’s just disgusting and terrible.”…The overall umbrella theme is to really question and be suggestive about what our freedom actually is in terms of being understood and identities. Our freedom is a myth that’s just outside of the body. It’s not an actual embodied reality.

What do you do outside the rehearsal studio that feeds your work?

LA: There is a strong group of peers that Jesse and I run with and we do lots of things. I organize lots of little informal workshops that aren’t like regular workshops where you pay money and stuff. Keith and I were doing some Occupy SF/Occupy Oakland performance interventions. Jesse is doing the This Is What I Want project, which is part of the Queer Arts Festival and has been very successful. Lots of salons, weird little things like that that aren’t formal, you wouldn’t put an ad in the paper for, but are about like minded people coming together and constantly sharing ideas and information.

JH: I do film projects (and I’ve never talked about this in my dance performance community) but I do film projects with this director who works in San Francisco and Berlin and they’re new genre projects that are narratives. It’s this new genre called Mumblecore and its not documentary, but it’s moving footage in real time about sexuality and its basically trying to break open this idea that real non-simulated sex only happens in pornography. So I work with him and it satiates my continued theoretical interests in sexuality and it’s all horizontal with the dance and performance work.

Also I’m a waiter and its really been on my mind lately especially with the Occupy stuff really vilifying [social] class and making me question what my identity is. Being in Europe last summer I met people who live on a distinctly European system of social welfare we don’t have here, so here being working-class and working a service job becomes a central conflict in the work I make. Class identity is interesting. I’ve been thinking about my role as a citizen in the service world and that continues to be something I pull from.

Then This is What I Want is a mini festival I’ve curated a couple of years and it’s dance and performance work that asks the artist to stage the question “What do you want? Sexually what do you want?”

How do you find yourselves watching performance? What’s exciting or intriguing to you at the moment?

LA: Ivo Dimchev. I highly recommend his YouTube channel. We were at ImPulseTanz this summer and we were like these little American chipmunks already excited, and there are an array of people we ogled at. A lot of the pieces will be at American Realness. For us acknowledging the performance is important, with the performer as larger-than-life. Active performance is something that activates.

JH: That’s why we don’t do so well in the dance world.

LA: A lot of times in dance it’s about this internal experience made public and I’m actually interested in the external.

JH: Thinking about performativity, there’s a pretty explicit obsession we both have; this idea that you’re performing and in front of people so what the fuck are you really doing? What are you doing there? Conscious of? Pretending to be conscious or not conscious of? And obviously there is a major body politics in the world – how are you presenting? So we’re always conscious of the dynamic “I see you, but I don’t see you, but I see you…” – we both do a lot with that. Theoretical performativity is something we’re always playing with. I wouldn’t say I’ve landed anywhere in particular, but being conscious of the audience affects the visual landscape and aesthetic.

LA: We have an acceptance of the performative state. I think in dance there’s often this facade where it’s about the internalized experience to be expressed.

JH: Because we’re criticizing assumptions in performance it’s painful for me to see work where the performance pretends like I’m not there or not seeing it. I know it’s a way of working but in general it’s not where I’m at. I know you can do these really deep investigations of technique and form and all these really amazing mechanics within that formalist work, but being that my aesthetics are what they are, it’s not going be what my work looks like.

Grants for the Arts, On A Mission

When Theatre Flamenco, Hawaiian dance company Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, and Beach Blanket Babylon descend on City Hall October 7 for a festive installment of the Rotunda Dance Series, they’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the City’s Grants for the Arts (GFTA), a program of the Hotel Tax Fund, which uses tourism tax dollars to support arts organizations that attract visitors to San Francisco. “We really consider ourselves an economic investment in the City’s ability to attract visitors and put the widest variety of cultural activities in front of them when we get them here, and we expect a return on that investment. We get an extraordinary return in the form of so many different kinds of activities reaching so many people, and it shows in San Francisco’s national and worldwide reputation,” says GFTA Director Kary Schulman. The Rotunda Dance Series in particular showcases the region’s rich diversity and creativity through free public performances presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, in partnership with San Francisco Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall.

50 Years of San Francisco Arts and Tourism
When asked about the program’s long history, which pre-dates the National Endowment for the Arts, Schulman adds, “We just show up everyday and do what we do.” She has been showing up for 30 years leading GFTA and after the confetti of the 50th anniversary settles, she and the GFTA staff continue their mission. “Any changes at GFTA are slow, organic and integral. We have more organizations now than we used to, we have refined our funding strategy as a progressive relationship to the organizations budget. It’s been a matter of refinement of the mission but continuing that mission to be an ongoing dependable source of long-term funding.”

“People think of us as being an arts funder primarily, and while that is our activity, that’s not really the mission of this agency,” says Khan Wong, Senior Program Manager who is guiding the October 7 festivities. With the tagline, “Promoting the city by supporting the arts,” GFTA’s main mission, boosting tourism, is driven when the groups they fund leverage grant support to employ people and inject dollars into the local economy. Tourism is San Francisco’s number one industry. The celebration on October 7 will convey the richness of what GFTA has done over the years and share the culture that has been enhanced with the space and resources to thrive. The noontime performance on October 7 in the City Hall Rotunda will be followed by a public reception.

Crunching the numbers of the 2010-11 fiscal year, general operating support grants totaling $9,348,129 were distributed to 217 organizations in the areas of dance, civic activities, literary arts, media, multi-arts, parades, theater and visual arts from GTFA. That general operating support was leveraged by grantees to support 6,112 jobs and economic activity totaling $453,887,437. GFTA resists moving in new directions because feedback from the constituency reflects the value of ongoing general operating support that is consistent, stable and dependable. By providing operating support, GFTA aims to make it possible for the widest variety of arts organizations to flourish, which attracts visitors to the city. San Francisco consistently ranks among the top three cities for cultural tourists (meaning that arts and culture were the primary reasons for destination choice), and those who live here know that San Francisco boasts a much richer arts scene than other larger cities. With a population similar to Indianapolis, the per capita amount of cultural activity in San Francisco far surpasses other places in the U.S.

“We provide this incredible banquet of activity and then its up to the visitor to choose. Many visitors don’t go to any arts activities at all, particularly the first time visitor who might go to Golden Gate Park, ride cable cars and go to Alcatraz. Then the next time they come back they need to do something else…so we make it attractive for people to keep returning to San Francisco because there’s always something going on,” explains Schulman.

The Ethnic Dance Festival, the largest event of its kind in North America, was actually created by Grants for the Arts. During the 70’s certain cultural dance companies embedded in San Francisco communities did not give many public performances or have 501c3s, so GFTA sought to support these talented groups that were not a part of the regular granting process. The city had acquired several cultural centers–the Mission Cultural Center, the Chinese Cultural Center and the center now called the African American Art and Culture Complex. Beginning in 1978, these served as venues for the events. The festival eventually shifted to proscenium spaces because most cultural centers weren’t equipped for large scale, professionally produced activity. In 1982, following an RFP process, the contract to produce the festival was awarded to World Arts West, then known as City Celebration, so the festival would no longer be produced out of a government office.

Changing Times, An Enduring Mission
“In 1961 we got more of the collection [of the hotel tax], but with the hotel tax over the years, more and more city entities have gotten a slice of the pie,” says Schulman, adding “With the economic downturn, the general fund has been more needy and the city’s other needs have taken precedent.” Even so, while many cities have a hotel tax, its unusual for the tax to support the arts, and among those funds that do go to the arts, general operating support is very rare. While there hasn’t been a change in GFTA’s mission, Wong notes, “One thing that’s changed related to the budget is that back when we had more money we’d be able to take a gamble on new emergent companies and that’s less true now. It’s difficult because we’ve seen some really strong up-and-coming groups.”

Renee Hayes, GFTA Associate Director, stresses the importance of maintaining the agency’s core mission and being as transparent as possible to keep the field informed of resources available, especially in times of diminished budgets. Her advice to arts organizations: “Seek diverse sources of income to make sure you have a good ratio of earned and contributed revenue, cultivate individual donors as well as city funding, and perhaps foundation funding. The more diverse the income streams are the healthier the organization is bound to be.”

“Resist mission drift, resist the temptation to change your programming and do something that’s not really integral to the mission of your organization solely for the purpose of attracting a grant. Being really grounded and aware of what the mission is and sticking to it, is really important,” adds Wong. Schulman also encourages arts organizations to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies to get the word out and support one’s activities.

Additionally, the leadership at Grants for the Arts notes how the boundaries have become permeable between the nonprofit arts and commercial arts. “San Francisco is a real mecca for people doing new and different kinds of arts forms and not adopting the 501c3 model. That’s something I’d like us to think about more in the future, how we can support those kinds of activities. Young people coming along are not saying ‘Oh, I want to create a 501c3 nonprofit…'” Schulman notes. GFTA works with some fiscally sponsored groups, but acknowledges there is no perfect fiscal sponsor model that really serves the sponsored organization and allows the sponsor to be accountable for the organization.

Connecting with the Community
“Every year we have two public meetings with the arts community,” Hayes says. “I’ve been here fourteen years and never cease to be amazed at the continuing passion and creativity of the people in San Francisco arts.” Schulman agrees that the meeting is a service that gets a lot of people in the same room talking not only to GFTA and the advisory committee, but really talking to one another. She notes how matches and collaborations have emerged from the gathering and how after a couple of years weathering the economic downturn, the arts community is pulling out of the doldrums. “The most recent meeting was so enlivening. It was as if people said, ‘Ok this is the new normal, but we’re not defeated, we’re moving forward.'” And GFTA shares that forward motion, promoting the city by supporting the arts. Onward.

Celebrating the City’s Grants for the Arts 50th anniversary, a free performance in the City Hall Rotunda featuring Theatre Flamenco, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, and cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon will be held at noon on Friday, October 7, followed by a public reception in the North Light Court.

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