Author Archive | Kegan Marling

The Art of Government: Looking Forward in 2013

After a seemingly endless election season, everyone could probably use a break from talking politics. But politics (and policy making) carries on, so here’s a quick run-down on what this election may mean for the arts in the next few years and what we all can do to stay involved.

National
While President Obama has long been a supporter of the arts, we can expect that the focus of any arts-related policies in the next few years will lean towards three areas: fiscal prudence, job creation and education.

Compared to Romney’s threats to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), their staff must be feeling some relief. While it hasn’t always been wonderful under the Obama administration (the NEA has seen a 13% decrease in funding over the past two years), at least there’s a good chance it will be around to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2015.

And Obama has proposed a 5.5% increase in the NEA budget for next year, which if adopted by congress will bring their budget up to $154.3 million. This would increase state and regional arts agencies funding by $2.7 million, and direct funding to non-profits by $4 million.

Other than this proposed increase to the NEA, the Obama administration has been fairly quiet about their arts platform for the upcoming four years. The Democrats as a whole have been more transparent, including a specific Arts & Culture section in their platform:

“[Democrats] are committed to continuing the policies and programs that have already done so much for our creative arts industry and economy. Investment in the arts strengthens our communities and contributes to our nation’s rich cultural heritage. We will continue to support public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for programs providing art and music education in primary and secondary schools. The entire nation prospers when we protect and promote the unique and original artistic and cultural contributions of the women and men who create and preserve our nation’s heritage.”

The arts were not mentioned once in the Republican party platform, which continues an unfortunate shift from just 25 years ago when Republicans considered arts and culture programs national treasures worthy of taxpayer support.

Partly because of this deep divide between the two parties, it’s unlikely we’ll see significant new efforts on behalf of the administration to support the arts in the next couple years, but there are a few promising programs in the works.

The first is a partnership between the NEA and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) to develop nation-wide data on economic activity in the creative arts. The BEA is collecting information on a select group of commercial and non-profit entities, tracking their contributions to the gross domestic product.

Previously, the BEA only broadly reported estimates for the performing arts every five years, sometimes combining it with other areas such as sports and recreation. The new reporting will provide separate data on dance, theater and music; and shares industry details such as employment estimates of arts practitioners and those working in industries that produce goods and services for the arts such as dancewear makers.

Preliminary estimates will be released in 2013, and in 2014 the BEA will publish the findings in The Survey of Current Business, a key publication for leaders in economics and policy.

This project is part of the NEA’s current research agenda of ‘impact analysis’ – looking at how the arts affect various areas of our life including economy, science, education and human development.

Also on the national agenda, Obama has moved forward a new initiative that funds arts education in eight of the nation’s lowest performing schools. Based on research that arts education improves student performance, the Turnaround Arts Initiative from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities selected eight schools to receive $15 million for arts supplies, educator training and arts curricula.

The program is being developed in conjunction with the Department of Education, and will test the hypothesis that “high-quality and integrated arts education boosts academic achievement, motivates student learning and improves school culture in the context of overall school reform.” As this program unfolds, it may become an invaluable case study on arts education impact.

More information on this program, the research study this project is based on, and other arts and humanities initiatives from the Obama administration are available at the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities website (pcah.gov).

One more thought on the national picture for the arts: the big topic after the election was how the shifting demographics played out in this election. Issues of importance to young voters and the increasing Latino population greatly impacted this election. The Bay Area has already been adjusting to demographic shifts for a number of years, but as resources continue to shift from Boomers to Generation X/Y, knowing who your audience might be is just as vital as knowing who they are now.

Local
Due to congressional redistricting, a number of Bay Area residents will have a new representative in congress this year. We’re fortunate to have a history of strong arts advocates – all of the incumbent Bay Area representatives scored an “A” or “A+” according to the Americans for the Arts’ recent congressional score card (there are two new Bay Area representatives in 2013 – Jared Huffman [D] and Eric Swalwell [D]).

With the new congress kicking off in January, it’s not yet possible to tell how redistricting will broadly impact the arts in the Bay Area. We can expect that the Democrat’s supermajority in California will prompt more legislation than usual to move forward, and in general the Democrats have been favorable to maintaining or increasing arts programs, but representatives have already mentioned ballot initiative reform, tax reform, and health care improvements will take priority in 2013.

What will affect many artists indirectly is the passage of the Proposition 30 tax increase. This tax increase is expected to raise $6 billion annually for California’s education system. Without the passage of Prop 30, the state was expected to cut millions of dollars for public schools – notable cuts included eliminating many arts programs at K-12 schools and reductions in arts and humanities courses at the university level. With Prop 30 passing, many of these draconian cuts are now off the table.

To keep these cuts off the table, it continues to be important to demonstrate the impact that art has on our community. In November, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee shared a new study by Americans for the Arts affirming the significant economic impact art has on the local economy.

“The nonprofit arts and culture sector is vital to the character of our City and now we have proof that it is critical to our local economy,” said Mayor Lee.

“Not only are the arts a cornerstone of our tourism industry, but we’ve seen first-hand how investing in the arts can help transform economically depressed neighborhoods and help them attract and sustain new businesses and jobs.”

The study also shows that despite the challenging economic climate, the arts sector continues to deliver billions of dollars into the nation’s economy.

“This is great news for our local arts and culture organizations, because this economic impact study sends a strong message that when we support the arts, we not only enhance our quality of life, but we also invest in the City’s economic well-being,” said Grants for the Arts Director Kary Schulman. To read the entire Americans for the Arts report, visit sfartscommission.org.

While it’s wonderful that Mayor Lee acknowledges the economic importance of the arts, it’s vital that our community offers concrete ways to engage the arts in all city planning. Mayor Lee cited innovation as one of the three main areas of focus for the 2013 and 2014 budget:

“Cities like San Francisco thrive because of their ability to cultivate innovative ideas. In order to meet the demands of the 21st century, we must all embrace innovation. Innovation in the public sector doesn’t just mean bringing technology into government, it is a different way of thinking, of collaboration, of solving problems, of doing more with less… and building on the incredible talents of both our public employees and the private sector in this City—the most innovative on the planet.”

This focus on innovation is echoed throughout the Bay Area. It’s important that as our local governments focus on this as a tool for economic and cultural development, artists remain visible as an important part in cultivating and sustaining innovation. As Randy Cohen from Americans for the Arts framed it, “We all have to make the case to our government leaders… we need to integrate artists into all aspects of municipal government so no decision is made without artist input (from manhole covers to traffic signal boxes to public garages to tourism).”

Now What?
With the start of a new legislative year, now is the time to make sure that your local and state congressional representatives are informed about the arts and understand their impact.

A personal letter can be a powerful tool for providing information that can be used by representatives when discussing the arts with fellow congressional leaders.
•  First and foremost – thank them for their past support of the arts!
•  Share a personal story about how the arts have changed your life or your community (if there’s anything I’ve learned from meeting with my representatives it’s that politicians love to share constituents’ stories).
•  Share information on issues that are important to you, such as arts education in public schools or tax deductions for charitable giving (see side-box).
•  Direct them to any research being done, such as the Americans for the Arts “Arts & Economic Prosperity Study” or the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities website.

And encourage your friends, family and audiences to write to their congressional leaders. Especially those living in areas whose leaders may not be as informed about the impact the arts have on our cultural and economic growth.

Possible Changes to Tax Deductions for Charitable Contributions
In this fiscal climate, congressional leaders are currently looking for ways to close tax loopholes. One of the “tax loopholes” that has been discussed regularly is the deduction for charitable contributions.

The personal income tax deduction for charitable contributions was originally created as a way to reduce government waste by encouraging individuals to donate directly to organizations that provided government-like services. This includes the non-profit activity of many arts organizations – such as training programs that promote creative thinking and innovation or performance programs that share cultural learning.

As representatives debate how best to address the current fiscal climate, eliminating the charitable deduction may seem like a quick boost to the nation’s tax revenue. That both Republicans and Democrats now see this as a potential way to ‘reduce government’ and raise revenue is problematic, as it undercuts our communities’ ability to provide these invaluable services.

Most arts organizations rely heavily on individual donations to operate – with donations representing between 40-70% of their annual revenue. Multiple studies have shown that charitable giving significantly increases when incentives are provided (specifically through tax-deductions) – and that when the incentive is taken away, donations decreased in size and frequency.

If government wants to continue relying on the non-profit community to provide valuable services, eliminating the charitable tax deduction is not a viable option. Recently, President Obama announced that he will not support a cap on deductions, estimating that such a limit would cost charities at least $10 billion annually. While this is good news from the White House, it’s important that we get congress on the same page so that this doesn’t become a bargaining tool. Contact your elected officials and be sure they are informed about the importance of the personal income tax deduction for charitable contributions.

The Consummate Conversationalist: An Interview with Monique Jenkinson

Conversation comes easy to Monique Jenkinson. We sat down together for dinner at her home in the Mission–to talk about her work–and nearly four laughter-filled hours later I found myself having only just scratched the surface. Of course, it’s exactly this ease with conversation that translates to her ease on stage; I believe it’s what makes Jenkinson’s work resonate with so many.

Jenkinson (and her drag queen persona Fauxnique) is a regular performer at San Francisco’s notorious drag/performance event Trannyshack. She’s a fixture of the city’s nightlife, a multi-faceted entertainer, and GOLDIE winning performing artist. She’s constantly exploring the tensions and connections between art and performance (as she puts it, “Yvonne Rainer said ‘no to spectacle’ so that I could say yes to sequins”) and this month she’s performing in San Francisco’s City Hall, at part of the Rotunda Dance Series.

Kegan Marling: Monique, you have a long history of creating work in unusual performance venues–whether navigating drunk and rowdy audiences in clubs, quirky 4 x 6 foot performance spaces, or museum galleries. What draws you to these spaces and experiences?

Monique Jenkinson: For me, the appeal of these venues has everything to do with the genesis of how I started performing at Trannyshack. I first went to Trannyshack as a fan and I loved the shows–I was truly inspired by what I saw there. It wasn’t just trashy fun; there was artistic rigor in many of those performances.

It occurred to me it would be a fun place to perform. With it being a regular show, I could just sign up a week or two in advance, make something quickly and throw it up there. This came at a point when I was performing and trying to create work within the dance world, but was finding few opportunities to hone my craft on a regular basis. Once I started making work at Trannyshack, these performances started becoming a regular art practice, a true performance practice. So what happened to me, especially in the those earlier years of Trannyshack, is that I was performing regularly and I was building an audience base, which were two things that were elusive to me as a dance maker.

Making all these short, sharp, quick pieces also got me in this mode of making solo work, and honestly out of the model of ‘oh I have to schedule five dancers and negotiate personalities.’ All those things that come with creating group dance work that can be somewhat prohibitive.

They also removed the preciousness. You know, there’s this expectation–you’ve written a proposal, someone has given you space, and then you have to make a piece that’s going to impress them or that will move you to the next level. The stakes at Trannyshack were both low and high: high because the audience is big and vocal, and because I admired everyone onstage and wanted to impress them, but it was also a place that didn’t take itself too seriously. There was a freedom to make something and just see how it lands. And the audience is incredibly receptive… usually. Especially when they’re drunk. (laughs) So you’re not dealing with the same kind of preciousness that sometimes happens in a traditional theater.

On top of all that, it’s a great exercise to make something that’s for a 4 x 6 foot stage. Or for a bench on top of a bar. The kind of work you can make and pull off in those situations is really quite different from what you feel you can put in front of people on a stage environment. Hopefully those little pieces have their integrity–and of course some of them fail–but the creative risk and experimentation is tremendously useful for my craft.

KM: There seems to be a common assumption that drag is just thrown together.

MJ: Or just people moving their lips to a song they’re not singing, while pretending to be a lady?

KM: Exactly. Do you find there are differences in how you’re received as a drag artist versus as a dance artist?

MJ: You mean, do people assume I’m not serious because I do drag? Well, definitely the more work I do that isn’t necessarily about dance, the more I encounter people who don’t assume I’m a dancer, which I find strange because I believe “once a dancer, always a dancer.” There was a while when I thought maybe I wouldn’t identify as a dancer. And then of course the first time someone neglected to mention it I had to jump up and say, “But I’m a dancer.” (laughs)

So I do have an attachment to that background and that set of values being known, but I’ve never felt like people don’t take me seriously because I do this drag queen thing. I try to make sure there is always rigor in my work–a dancerly rigor. And I think that comes through.

KM: What does rigor mean for you?

MJ: You have to know where you’re going. I’m a big believer in rehearsal, and I have constant shame around not rehearsing enough. I’m always catching up. And then of course I spend a few hours of valuable time in the dance studio lying on the floor writing, and also crying. Crying is important (laughs). But rehearsing is key.

With lip synchs for instance, I’m watching what my mouth is doing and what the eyes are doing. I’m on my bike singing it, trying to understand how the breath has to be, and how that then shapes the face. A lip synch becomes a very complicated series of facial gestures and you have to mimic this thing that already exists, yet invest it with your own being.

KM: With a lip synch, you’re often utilizing references and material from pop icons. What interests you about pop culture?

MJ: I feel it’s absurdly uptight to have resistance to pop culture. There are artists who feel that as long as you’re maintaining a safe, ironic distance to pop culture than it’s fine, it’s smart. But as soon as you start to get intimate with the culture, as soon as you admit that you might actually like Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears or Madonna, then it becomes suspect. I’m interested in that zone of unabashed celebration of these pop icons.

What’s interesting about Trannyshack is that it allowed me to celebrate my pop icons, who weren’t necessarily Britney or Christina, but it was of the post-punk new-wave art-rock bent like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, Bjork, and Bowie. I could make arcane art references like having my clothes cut off in celebration of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, but in a pop context.

KM: How do you find your own balance of entertainment and artistic rigor?

MJ: I try to look at my work from the outside to see if it makes sense to people, to try to make it look and feel like something people want to be experiencing. I’m asking them to give me five to sixty-five minutes of their attention. I’m not interested in producing an eye-roll or a walk-out; I’m interested if it provokes a conversation or question–but not just for the sake of provocation. Don’t get me wrong, that has its place. I guess maybe my work isn’t considered risky if I’m not concerned with that, but I’m okay with that. (laughs)

I’m the kind of artist who does want to entertain. Yes, we have this rigor and we’re revolutionary art producers trying to use philosophies of dismantling the old way, but in the end, do we end up with an experience of pleasure? I’m not necessarily saying I always aim to entertain, but I think I do want to give the audience some sort of experience of pleasure. That may mean it’s a difficult work, it may be emotionally or intellectually challenging and they may not get it at first, but I want somewhere for there to be an entrance that’s about pleasure.

KM: We’ve talked a bit about your work in clubs and such, but I’m also curious to hear about your experiences making work in museums and how you fell into that?

MJ: There are so many things we fall into. I always think everyone is planning their careers and mine is just kind of happening by falling into things!

I was brought in to the deYoung Museum for their Friday night event, which is not the same as being commissioned as an artist. I was asked to be an entertainer for a party. I try to use these opportunities to do something that I would do as a commissioned artist; to converse with the artwork in the museum, to really use the space, and then also keep it fun–it has to be fun for those Friday night museum events, you know, drag queens and four year olds–it’s like a disco birthday party!

One of my favorite moments was when I did a piece at the opening for the Gilbert & George show in 2008. [Gilbert & George are a gay, art-making couple who have been together and making art together since the early 60s.] I wrangled 3 other queens to join me in paying tribute to their famous work: Singing Sculpture. We each stood on a pedestal with our own sound source, these fabulous purses that hold iPods with speakers on the outside. People had to get really close to hear and we all were doing different songs. In the original Gilbert & George piece, they barely move, so my assignment to the queens was that everyone got only four gestures for the whole song, so there was a lot of concentration required.

We were set up right next to the children’s craft table, which I loved, because what we do has so much in common with that–dress up, make-believe artistic play. (Two of my favorite club nights–Tiara Sensation and Some Thing–actually have craft tables!) So there were all of these children ambling up to look at the drag queens and they were just fascinated. I had one of my collage outfits on that night so I probably looked a lot like some of the stuff they were making at the craft table.

And then we got to meet Gilbert & George, which was thrilling because while a lot of their work is radical: sacrilegious, scatological, political–they are also these really sweet, proper old Englishmen in suits; like, literally: “Oh, yes, very well jolly good. Oh, look at your makeup dearie, isn’t it lovely?” It reminded me of how lucky I am to dwell in such a full, rich world, and to have my work experienced in this context and with this community.

KM: And do you have thoughts on what you’re envisioning for the Rotunda Dance Series performance?

MJ: I think we get into this cycle of building a project, get exhausted, quickly recover, and then on to the next project so that you can build off of the momentum. I’m feeling right now for me what’s required is not to try to understand what my next project is, but actually to re-investigate what it is that I’m interested in. It’s time for some new practices. Time to refill the well!

For the Rotunda, I’m really excited about pulling back and focusing in on duration, creating something that allows the viewer to observe from afar or come up close. I also want to play with a relationship to the fascinating architectural flourishes of the Rotunda, and give people time to really witness the space as well as the performance.

KM: I’ve always appreciated the amount of investigation and research in your work. I feel I can easily see you cataloging things, arming yourself with a vocabulary of information. If I flipped open a book of your work, I imagine there would be a whole library of footnotes.

MJ: I guess that is another point of artistic rigor for me. You know, I’m interested in work that has the detail in the research so that one person’s experience might be “That’s fierce!” and someone else might catch the manifold layers and connections. Each are important.

And I hope those details are present enough in the work to let it become a good conversation with the audience. You know, some of the pinnacles of my life have been conversations with people about things we’re mutually interested in. Or sometimes you get that same feeling from a book–I remember when I read Diana Vreeland’s biography and I felt like I was sitting with her and she’s telling me all these hilarious stories about her life. For me a good writer somehow treats the experience not as an exposition, but rather, ‘I’m passionate about this thing and I want you to know about it’.

That’s what I take into my performances–my passion, my curiosity, my investigations–I invite people in and share my experiences. It’s all with the aim of having a rich conversation.

In addition to her Rotunda Dance Series performance, Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique will be performing:

April 7, 7pm
Gallery 16, 501 3rd St., SF
In conjunction with visual artist Deborah Oropallo’s new show, Tale Spin. Discussion with Oropallo and professor Glen Helfand.
gallery16.com

April 21-May 22
The Lily’s Revenge
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Building D, SF
magictheatre.org

Kegan Marling is sometimes a dancer. He’s performing his new work “jump ship mid way” at CounterPULSE March 31-April 3.

New Book: Site Dance

Review by Kegan Marling

SITE DANCE: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces
Edited by Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik

Site-specific dance has a long and complex history, and I’ve eagerly anticipated someone capturing its glory in writing. While Kloetzel and Pavlik’s book Site Dance misses an opportunity to unravel some of the bigger picture and genealogy of the form, it succeeds in revealing the complexities of making site specific work and the diversity of perspectives and approaches.

Put together primarily as a collection of interviews and essays by 14 practitioners (mostly east coast based, but including locals Joanna Haigood and Jo Kreiter), Site Dance doesn’t always offer much on the background of each artist. But it makes up for that in the depth and richness of its examples – exploring concepts behind some great contemporary site works and the practical issues that abound from working in non-traditional spaces. Joanna Haigood talks about permitting issues for the airspace above the NYPD’s vehicle evidence lot, Eiko & Koma explain their process for choosing the perfect river, and Tamar Rogoff looks at how to guide an audience through a mass gravesite. Among the many works discussed are Meredith Monk’s multi-location, multi-performance epic on Joan-of-Arc (Vessel: An Opera Epic); Olive Bieringa’s BodyCartography Project; and Jo Kreiter’s Sparrow’s End.

Kloetzel & Pavlik group the artists by the way they primarily approach site work: historical connections, relationship to space, excavating beauty, and civic interaction. Sectioned in this way, the book is useful not just in unpacking site work, but in examining the creative process in general. Required reading for anyone wanting to explore site specific work, Site Dance also stands as a useful tool for those just looking to experience the many ways a choreographer approaches material.

Riding the Panel Process

The panel-based selection process frequently used by arts funders, residency programs and award committees has always felt on par with how dodge ball teams were picked in PE class—elitist, superficial and incorrigibly human. I get a little ruffled thinking about the career-affecting decisions made by small groups of people who may or may not be familiar with my work. Who wants a few panel experts (translation: opinionated people) determining the worth of an artistic venture?

In developing my own artistic practice, I’ve had to question how I can make work that compels me, while finding resources—whether grants or residencies—without completely conforming to guidelines and structures laid out by funders and supporters.

In the past few years, I’ve witnessed the panel process from many angles. As an artist, I’ve struggled to create language that translates my creative process and interests into “grant speak.” I listened to panelists at the San Francisco Arts Commission tear into my application, and I’ve sat on that same panel and struggled to properly understand the dozens of proposals in front of me. I’ve viewed dance work for residency panels and award committees; and helped build the panel process for Dancers’ Group’s Lighting Artist in Dance Award.

Within these experiences, there’s plenty to critique about panels on modern dance work (I say modern dance work because I’m sure that outside of my own experiences there are different issues and challenges that affect panels on other forms of dance or art). It seems like every time I mention a panel to someone, there is the obligatory eye roll followed by “I hate it, but you have to play the game.” That sentiment is one of the quirks of the system; we feel we have to play a game (and be in competition with other artists) in order to earn recognition and resources, but we don’t have a belief that the system used to judge us is fair or accurate. What friction!

What follows is my personal investigation into the panel decision process as I try to better understand its limitations and benefits, and how it can support my artistic work.

First are the five flaws that seem most challenging:

Assumed expertise. I deeply believe most panelists aim to be as unbiased in their decision-making as humanly possible. However, what often seems overlooked is how a panelist’s body of expertise impacts the questions they ask and the choices they make. Of course a contact improvisation artist is going to have different opinions than someone from a ballet or flamenco background. And of course sometimes those can have profound impact on the choices they make. I for one would rather not have a classical musician evaluating the strengths of my proposal; I want someone who understands the development process of a dance/theatre production and who can watch a 3-minute clip of work without asking when we’re going to start really dancing.

Since we have no control over who is on the panel, the best one can do is to research the composition of the panel and then tailor the application to fit that audience. But panel organizers should also take responsibility to encourage panelists to think about how their history and interests impact the choices they make—not because they should make different choices, but to acknowledge their depth of experience and reveal potential gaps that could be supported by questioning those with a deeper understanding of the particular nuances of that field.

Videos. They just never do justice to live performance. Period. And unless you’re making work specifically for the camera, one of the last things you are thinking about when putting together a production is how to best document it for grant and residency applications. Some panelists forget this fact when watching all those work samples, so it falls on the artist to start prioritizing video documentation if we want to be competitive.

Conflict of interest. Favoritism is the scary beast that many fear, but when it comes to panelists, less involvement in the dance community translates to less understanding of the community. Certainly it’s unfortunate to have the person with probably the most valuable insight silenced. But the deeper problem with conflicts of interest happens when panels use a scoring process where the person with the conflict skips out on scoring. This might seem fair enough at first glance—if someone is potentially biased, they don’t get to vote—except what often happens is the scoring then becomes skewed. It lends greater weight to the opinions of a smaller group, which emphasizes unspoken or unacknowledged biases.

Compromise. In order to have consensus, compromise is a necessity. The ugly downside with compromise is that it tends to be risk-averse. Unknowns and questionable aspects of an application make consensus difficult, sinking an otherwise potentially brilliant proposal. It’s too bad that a great deal of inspired ideas never see fulfillment because not enough people are willing to go out on a limb.

Applications. Bound up in guidelines and restrictions, the application is an attempt to take a snapshot of an artist and convey the most essential points to the panel. Applications attempt to create a sense of trust for the panelist that an artist knows what they are doing. Of course, that’s assuming an artist can draw a clear picture of the work they’re thinking of presenting in 12 months. This process is a bit strange when you think about what artistic works would never have happened if every artist had to plan out in advance what they were doing.

And while writing a proposal can help clarify and solidify a project, it can also indirectly shape the work in ways that might not best support the creative process. What happens when you receive a grant but are no longer interested in the topic? Or something more relevant and timely has come up? What if you need more time to develop the project than the grant period? Funders can often be a little lenient about grant restrictions, but I wonder how often an artist even questions these things?

And what happens if you want to rework an old piece? Many funders either explicitly don’t allow that or focus their funding on “innovative” or “cutting-edge” work, which translates to no old stuff please. But how are we supposed to develop our craft and our language if we are never examining our past work? Receiving a grant or residency can certainly be a boost to the ego and help provide validation, but we have to decide if the particular grant/residency is actually going to support the work we want to me making.

Despite all the flaws, frustrations and bullshit, I’ve grown to appreciate panels as a useful way to review art. The thing is, panels or other, there is no perfect method. Every system for evaluating art is going to be terribly flawed. Ideally, decision makers would come to my show, grab tea with me and have a nice long conversation about my work. But with dozens of performances happening each weekend and probably well over 500 dance companies in the Bay Area, that’s just frankly impossible. So considering funders generally have limited information, finite resources and a wealth of applicants, I think an informed panel can help make insightful decisions when comparing artists.

While recently sitting on an artist residency panel, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling novel on decision making, blink. It opens with a great story of the Getty Museum’s purchase of a 6th century BCE marble statue. Fourteen months were spent analyzing the statue before purchase, including mineral tests by geologists and authentication of the historical documents. But when viewed by art historians and Greek sculpture experts, nearly every person had an immediate intuitive repulsion. These experts were able to understand more about the statue in a few moments than the Getty had figured out in 14 months. Turns out the experts were right, it was a fraud.

Gladwell goes on to discuss that we are often able to fully utilize our knowledge of a subject in making immediate decisions based on very limited information. In essence, our gut reactions are often quite right if we have a great deal of knowledge in the particular area. Not so much when we don’t. And the challenge is in understanding when we can rely on our instincts, and when to search out more information.

In this surprisingly successful panel, two things helped us reach a satisfying consensus: 1) Each panelist was a working artist familiar with most of the dance forms represented by the applicants. 2) We didn’t read any applications, we just watched videos. In many ways, this process began to address some of my concerns about the panel process.

Since this particular residency did not require produced work as the final result, there was no need to read about what the artist proposed to do. This meant we didn’t make judgments based on the writing style of the artist, or their ability to translate ideas onto paper, or how well they balance a budget. Instead we relied on the information that was most relevant to making the best decision for this panel – the dancing.

While it was struggling to see so many poor quality video samples, I could pull from my experience to try to see the video in the best light. And from hearing the other panelists comments and questions, it was clear this was the case for them. Since all of the panelists have years of seeing various forms of modern dance, extensive training in quite a few forms, and a sense of the history of the modern dance community, we didn’t need much more than a minute of video. When I felt the style of work was too far outside my realm I could chat with others to flesh out my understanding of the artist. And the results at the end of the day made sense and the artists selected felt like the strongest fit with that particular residency.

I’m not suggesting this method would work for other panels, but what struck me was that the residency program director knew what types of artists the program wanted to bring in and tailored their application process to eliminate information that was irrelevant to the decision process. It’s similar to when orchestras started having musicians sit behind screens during auditions so that conductors focused on the sound of the music being played and not the race, gender, and physical traits of the musician.

So yes, panels can work, particularly when the process is tailored to emphasize relevant information and panelists are able to utilize their knowledge, have awareness of their biases, and feel supported in taking risks. Artists will still roll their eyes (myself included) at all the limitations that sometimes feel unfair. But by better understanding the panel process, we strengthen our ability to seek out appropriate sources of support and craft compelling applications. And by examining how grants and residencies impact our artistic choices, we might discover there are other resources available that can help us make the art we want to make.

My advice: every artist should take time to serve on an arts panel. Experience the inherit complications of trying to select the most appropriate artist(s) to receive those limited resources. Contact funders, residencies and awards panels to find out if you can participate in the process. Putting yourself on both sides will give you a good look at your own ideas of the successes and flaws of the panel process.

One Sunday at a Time

To describe 2nd Sundays, I often use our tag line: A free salon where artists share work and dialogue with the audience and fellow artists. After watching the program grow over the past 4 years, I’ve realized this statement doesn’t capture that 2nd Sundays is so much more than a conversation.

The brainchild of Wayne Hazzard and Jessica Robinson Love, over 100 artists have presented work for 2nd Sundays since the first season began in September 2006. From the onset, 2nd Sundays has provided choreographers a space for constructive feedback on snippets of new or reworked dances. And while audience sizes for this free program can ebb and flow, the conversation consistently remains deeply invested.

Thoughtfully facilitated by Jesse Hewit, the discussion that springs from watching these “works-in progress” is a blast. There’s always a range of audience perspectives – often contradictory – which keeps the conversation focused on possibilities, rather than “answers”. And while some viewers might not have a full understanding of the nuances of a dance (often the case when there are multiple genres presented on the same afternoon), everyone is there to support the creative process.

As I’ve watched the program evolve each season, 2nd Sundays has also become a space to view the struggles and challenges that choreographers wrangle with. The questions and responses from fellow choreographers are quite illuminating, and there’s something really wonderful about having that choreographic dialogue in the public arena.

As Jesse puts it, “we make work to be experienced by others, and yet there seems to be a sacredness…or maybe elusive quality to the way we then discuss it as a community. Often things are filed as successful or unsuccessful, and it’s kind of a dead end for the conversations that could be taking place. There’s something massively useful and subjectifying about having a room of people talk thoughtfully and in a structured way about what you make. It’s not like reviews. It’s not like critical feedback from your mentors. It’s not like praise from your friends. It’s public, and as a discussion, it doesn’t have an agenda other than to look closely and respond. Which is rare.”

This month we’re closing the season with three wonderful artists: Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, Iu-Hui Chua, and Megan Finlay (Rapid Descent Physical Performance Company). With Kathak, experimental dance/theatre and Shakespeare on the plate, I’m eager to see where the next conversation will lead.

Sunday, May 9
CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St., SF
FREE

The next deadline to apply for the 2nd Sundays program is May 31, 2010. Proposals are for the Fall Series 2010 (Sep-Dec).

Getting it Out There: Smart Mobs, Improv Everywhere and Engaging Dance Audiences

A few weeks ago, a good friend told me I needed to check out a YouTube video she had come across—The Sound of Music at Central Station in Antwerp. Google it. Watch it. Admire how current technology has enabled a Belgian commercial to be viewed nearly 5 million times. While YouTube and social networking sites can be great for killing time, these mainstream technologies are now being better utilized by artists as a means for engaging audiences. And as our tools for communication expand, so too can our sphere of impact—we just need to make the connections.

In a recent meeting for the latest round of the ONSITE program at Dancers’ Group, Patrick Makuakne started talking about guerilla style hula. At once I knew this could be the appropriate time to get over my disdain for the way-too-trendy Twitter and tap into my Facebook addiction to see what might support the project.

My interest with the ONSITE program has always been its focus on engaging a community that might not otherwise see or be interested in concert dance. We definitely catch quite a few “accidentals” by choosing high-traffic locations—when Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre performed The Shifting Cornerstone last year as our first ONSITE project, over 39,000 people witnessed the performances at the corner of 3rd Street and Mission. This time we’re shaking things up a bit by piling Patrick’s company, N Lei Hulu I Ka Wkiu, onto a bus and traveling to multiple popular spots throughout San Francisco. But we all still felt it needed some guerilla communication (wiki this term). Enter: the smart mob.

A concept introduced by Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, a smart mob is a self-structuring social gathering that uses technology to function as an efficient singularity, creating a type of collective intelligence. Smart mobs utilize wireless networking, GPS integration, and interactive whiteboards among other technologies, to carry out activities ranging from pillow fights to political protest. I’ve recently participated in two different smart mobs in San Francisco—both falling more along the lines of pillow fighting.

The Mobile Club

My first smart mob experience was mobile clubbing at the Van Ness Muni Station. Also known as a silent disco, mobile clubbing is an event where people meet at a specified time and location to dance to their own music using an mp3 player with headphones. Public locations such as train stations and malls are often selected to encourage spontaneous participation. Although the lack of audible music can often be jarring for people passing by, it helps prevent run-ins with the authorities. And if the event does get closed down by the police, groups often simply move to a new location.

Mobile clubbing often encourages unique and expressive dancing because of its emphasis on use of large spaces and each individuals’ ability to select their own music. Locations selected usually offer participants more space than that found in a club, allowing for the dancing to be more expansive—participants have been known to dance on benches, dumpsters, statues and any other surface that can be found nearby.

Improv Everywhere

Around the same time as my first experience with mobile clubbing, I heard about the comedic performance art group Improv Everywhere (based in New York) and their MP3 Experiment at Dolores Park. The group carries out public missions that cause scenes of “chaos and joy.” Some of the group’s missions use hundreds of performers and are similar to flash mobs (an expediated form of the smart mob), while others utilize only a handful of performers. They have organized and carried out over 80 missions, including the No-Pants Subway Ride (with over 1200 participants), staging a “spontaneous” musical in a Los Angeles food court, and synchronized stillness at the Grand Central Station (another YouTube video to admire—it’s received more than 17 million views).

For the Dolores Park MP3 Experiment, those aware of Improv Everywhere were invited to download an audio file onto their mp3 player and instructed not to listen to it in advance. We then synchronized our watches to an atomic clock on the website before heading out to the park. At the predetermined time (2pm), we all pressed play. The audio file was a mix of voice instructions, games, and music. Participants followed the ridiculous instructions delivered thru their headphones while folks passing through Dolores Park tried to figure out why a mass of people were all silently jumping around in unison.

The MP3 Experiment is sometimes confused with mobile clubbing, but the key difference is that everyone is actually listening to the exact same thing. While mobile clubbing allows everyone to move with their own style and rhythm, the MP3 Experiment required that participants follow group choreography and work in unison with those around them. It was a startling contrast in experiences.

There’s great potential in the smart mob as a model for engaging audiences, and this form is being strengthened as more people tap into Facebook, Twitter and similar social networks. At the time of writing this, we are still two months away from Hit & Run Hula and while we haven’t figured out all the details, there will certainly be some smart mob activity (and probably a download or two). If you want to catch the action, connect to the Dancers’ Group twitter feed or join our Facebook group. We’ll be updating our network—letting our community know how to join the hula party, where the Hula Bus will be and how you can get involved.

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How to Start a Smart Mob:

Step 1: Have an Appealing Idea
Smart mobs rely on group participation and they aren’t terribly fun if no one shows up. Formulating something compelling is harder than you think and you shouldn’t under estimate its importance. Strong ideas will help those in the know kick it off, and encourage random folks passing by to join in. A good foundation for an appealing idea might include absurd behavior (cardboard tube fighting), deviance (Critical Mass), costumed rampaging (Santarchy, Zombie Mob) or benign disruption (spontaneous applause in a library). Participants also expect the event to be free of corporations, free of hierarchy, and free of charge.

While smart mobs tend towards the humorous, the potential for serious activity like feeding the homeless or picking up trash is also an option. It just might not have quite the same turnout.

Step 2: Timing and Location
Is the event at 2am on a Wednesday night? Will I need a car to get there? You might want to reconsider your event, since these are not ideal scenarios. Ease and convenience are key to good flash mobs. For activities that require little preparation from the participant, a popular time to begin is the end of the workday, around 5-6pm; and for whatever reason, Thursdays seem to be most effective. For elaborate events requiring costumes or props, try heavily populated shopping or tourist areas on Saturday afternoons.

Step 3: Get the Word Out
Participation. Participation. Participation.

The two most common methods for smart mob instigation are anonymous emailing and discussion group postings. You can easily create an anonymous email account to send notices to random people in your address book. Ask them to send it along to another 20 people. Sometimes it helps to write the email from the anonymous account to your personal account, and then forward it on to your friends. That makes it look like you didn’t start the whole thing. Follow up with online postings at sites like Craigslist, Laughing Squid, The Urban Prankster Network or Yelp.

Step 4: Enjoy
You provided the idea, the timing and the marketing. Now step back. Resist the urge to control. With a compelling idea, your mob will self organize and create something more than you could have ever conceived. So recede into the background, capture the whole thing on video and upload that baby onto YouTube.

Vantage Points

“When you’re watching a performer of any art, don’t you find yourself constantly wondering about the ‘real’ person behind the art? I do, all the time. My dance reveals that ‘real’ me; and its truth, I hope, speaks to the audience.”
Min Tanaka, butoh artist

I must confess that I have fallen in love with Anna Halprin. When we met in person last fall, I could tell she was someone who embodied many of the good things in life: generosity and compassion, optimism, laughter, tenderness and honesty. I say this to acknowledge both my bias for the work, as well as the impact that getting to know Anna personally has had on my understanding of her work. I wonder sometimes if, in our goal of wanting dance to be seen by more people and in larger venues, we sometimes lose the intimacy and connection that comes from having a relationship with the artist.

When I went to my first rehearsal for Anna Halprin’s Stern Grove project, I expected to take on the duties similar to that of a production manager: fetching a blanket for Larry if it was cold, gathering the necessary permits, collecting information and getting it to the publicist, etc. It soon blossomed into some interesting side jobs (such as researching the position of the sun in the sky) and eventually I found myself mostly just sitting next to Anna taking notes or wandering around the space hoping to capture the work in photographs. I witnessed rehearsals in all manners of weather and spent hours listening to Anna’s delightfully frank and endearing voice. This is what I’ve experienced:

I’m standing behind a young sycamore tree in Stern Grove park, trying to hide from the group sitting on stage by aligning myself with the trunk—like when Scooby Doo somehow manages to disappear behind a lamp shade. I’m close enough to the dancers to overhear their “backstage” chatter and I’m noticing a theme in their questions. What are we doing out here? How is this going to take shape? What happens next? And yet no one actually seems concerned. It’s one of the great skills we learn from dance: the capacity to live in the unknown. We commit to projects without a script, spend a majority of the rehearsal time trying to fathom what is being created, always trusting that those guiding the process will eventually take us out of the mystery. Maybe it’s what compels a dancer to work for a particular choreographer – the belief that they can eventually guide us out of the unknown. And all of Anna’s dancers certainly trusted her to guide them out.

An alternate title for the work being created at Stern Grove could have been “Perspectives.” What do we see, what don’t we see, and can we see something from another’s perspective? These questions have all come up time and again in the work and Anna is particularly adept at letting these play out in rehearsal.

It’s seen clearly in the creation process, where Anna has set for herself the task of weaving multiple perspectives into something that can be shared with the audience. Of course there is her own viewpoint, but then she has added in feedback from the space itself, the voices of the cast, plus those of us who happen to be watching from the sides, the neighborhood residents, and of course, her husband Larry, who has perhaps the most vocal opinion of them all. While Anna may have brought many of the initial ideas to the table, it’s the collective responses to those ideas that have shaped the work. As Anna put it, “Every idea I have when I start a project always ends up looking terrible. I plan something, and it turns out unimaginative. It’s when I start responding to the environment that things come together. The ideas come by sitting and watching and listening.” And of course, to prove the point, a short while later in the midst of a long slow procession, a creamy white dog bolted across the space injecting it with energy, and she just smiled and called everyone together and proceeded to reshape the section with this new information the environment had just given her.

But the work isn’t just about a collection of perspectives and the struggle to pull them together. It’s also about shaping and highlighting our own perspective of the space. In preparation for the upcoming Dance Discourse Project discussion focusing on site-specific dance, Anna joined the moderators, other panelists, and I over lunch. During the meeting, Anna asked us, “What is the difference between raising one’s arms up in a dance studio versus outside?” It’s that different experience of relationship to space that Anna is searching for in the work at Stern Grove—how the performer can bring perspective to the space.

For her, two men conversing on a rock create a spatial relationship with the towering trees behind them. A passing dog walker brings attention to the horizontal pathways. Everything that passes through has an intimate relationship with the architecture of the space. And those moments are just as important to the work as the actions the dancers are performing. In fact, I think Anna would be disappointed if the audience watched the dancers the entire time.

I believe Anna’s hope for the work is that we each take a moment to experience, witness and appreciate the space we live in and realize our intimate connection to that space. Anna acknowledges the audience won’t have the same perspective she has of the work. We each approach art with our own way of seeing and being in a place. I love that. I love that a group of people can sit together and watch the same thing—and because we each have our own life experiences and interests—we walk away with entirely different ideas of the work. This transformative impact of experience reminds me that art-making isn’t just about how many people see the work, it’s also what kind of experience each person has. Not only is it about the work we create, but it’s also about the relationships we forge with each other and with our community.

I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t spent this time with Anna, I probably would have seen the performance as a group of hippy dancers communing with nature in a pretty stunning environment. Instead, I see a group navigating each other’s quirks, searching for guidance while enjoying peanut butter, cheese and apple slices. I see a space that breathes and lives by the people (and birds!) that inhabit it. And most deeply, I see a healer who passionately loves her husband.

Leave a Message, I’m on Vacation

To describe my relationship with dance as “love-hate” would be a gross understatement. In the years since I first spun barefoot across the rec-center multi-purpose room at Olinder Elementary, I’ve fallen into and out of love with dance a number of times. The first falling out was over gender identity. I was a teenage ballet dancer about to start classes at an all-boys school. Being an awkward, scrawny red-head wasn’t going to win many friends and ballet wasn’t going to help. So I quit.

Dance courted me back in college and the following ten years would be filled with varying degrees of passion, abuse and neglect including countless injuries, self-inflicted torment and woefully tragic costumes.

By last winter my body was tired and struggling to recover from a rib injury. I wanted to save money for the future (which dance couldn’t provide), I felt uncreative and was craving some semblance of a social life. It seemed I was due for another vacation from dance.

I have some theories about dancers, one of which is that we don’t know when to stop. It can be seen in barely edited choreography and in dancers unaware of the strength in stillness. While most athletes have an off season, dancers move from one project to the next, often overlapping multiple projects.

But we don’t take vacations. We have periods of time that are a bit slower—which often get promptly filled with part-time work. We occasionally stop for short periods because an injury is so intense that to do otherwise would imperil our career. But to willingly take time away from dancing just doesn’t seem to make sense to most artists. And I think there are some problems with that.

Breaking from dance can be horrible. For all the reasons that made it clear I should take a break, I created just as many reasons why I needed to keep dancing. I worried I would be forgotten or replaced. That the break would halt my career and I would be unable to get it back on track. My fitness level would decline. I’d lose the respect of my peers. And what I feared most deeply was losing my sense of identity as an artist.

Some of those concerns are legitimate. My health did decline a bit—or rather my belly decided to have a growth spurt. And the career concerns are a reality—when you pass over a dance job there are 600 others waiting in line to take it. That’s the problem with a profession that has hordes of practitioners and a handful of positions. In fact, one of the hardest (and also most freeing) things I’ve done this year has been to watch younger, stronger and stunningly talented dancers take on parts that I once performed. The reality is that as dancers, we are replaceable.

But the hardest challenge for me was the forthcoming identity crisis. In elementary school, I knew my career would involve dolphins, electronics and lego. In my teens, career planning resulted in spells of indecisiveness (the same kind that strikes me every time I look over a dinner menu). In college, I found myself drifting between subjects and my family quickly learned to avoid bringing it up at holidays. But eventually I realized dance was the one constant in my life—and it was easy to let it prioritize things: dance, food, income, social life, sleep.

So the real pain of the break was acknowledging the things I had put on the back burner: discarded relationships, a non-existent social life and a slew of hobbies that had been shelved to make room for dance.

This is where we can make the most of our careers—in the breaks and transitions. Saying no to dance—no to classes, no to rehearsals, no to performing—brings some amazing results.

It brings perspective. As performers, we have an internal sense of the work we do and I often wonder what a piece must look like to the audience. Taking that break from dance was like stepping off the stage and standing in the audience. It brought me perspective on the changes I want to make in my career. Before my dance vacation, I thought performing nonstop was what I wanted most in my life. I’ve since realized that one worthwhile project a year satisfies my craving for dance, and still offers the time and freedom for a social life.

Breaks also allow for recovery and recuperation. For example, vacations have been shown to reduce the likelihood of coronary heart disease and heart attacks by 20-30 percent (though dance isn’t a profession often associated with heart problems). For me it certainly allowed time for my rib to heal and muscles to mend, as well as time for my body to rest. In the same way our bodies need 8 hours of sleep to properly repair cellular damage from the previous day, we need vacations to repair the major injuries and exhaustions that build up over the course of a year.

And vacations allow time for other things to come into focus. Like failing miserably at learning the guitar. Or going to Mexico for 10 days with friends and pretending you never have to come back.

Finding the time for creating a life outside of dance was hard. Considering the intimacy dancers have with each other in rehearsal, it makes sense that we enjoy the company of other dancers when we’re out socializing. It’s a necessary support group in a profession that can feel misunderstood by the greater community. But it’s also isolating, like new couples blissfully unaware of the rest of the universe—wanting to spend their time with those that understand them the most. But breaking from your peer group brings with it new communities and new experiences—and studies show that when we experience new things, you stimulate production of the same brain chemicals involved in romantic love. Reason enough to try new things!

So I encourage you to stop for a moment. Say no to dance. You’ve earned the vacation.

As I enter the 11th month of vacation, I look at all the wonderful things I’ve learned: rehearsals don’t need to keep me from a good nights sleep, hiking and painting can be as important to my creative growth as dance classes—and the wonderful part of this vacation is that I’m falling in love with dance again.

44 Gough St, Suite 201
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