Author Archive | Marie Tollon

Bringing the Minkisi Home

It was unexpectedly and on foreign land that Byb Bibene encountered a nkisi nkondi for the first time. During a visit at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, where he was on tour in 2006, the Bay Area-based choreographer was taken by the power of a wooden sacred statue, which he learned was a nkisi nkondi (nkisi is loosely translated as ‘medicine’, nkondi as ‘hunter’) and originated from his native land, the Congo. He had never seen nor heard about it back home.

Carved in wood, minkisi (plural of nkisi) were found in the kingdom of Kongo, which was located in West central Africa, in what is now known as northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the southern part of Gabon. The kingdom was mostly an independent state from the 14th to the 19th century, until it was broken apart by colonial Portugal, France and Belgium. Independence was reinstated in the 1960s, although by that time, years of foreign domination had caused devastating damages throughout the Congolese culture, politics and economics.

In pre-colonial time, minkisi were power figures activated by a nganga or healer at the request of an individual, a family or a community to help with public or private matters such as sealing a contract, resolving a conflict, curing a disease or casting off evil spirits. The nganga would activate the nkisi by placing spiritually charged substances inside its hollows, thereby calling the divine spirits to inhabit it and offer their guidance. Minkisi came in various shapes, mainly anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures, but also vessels or shells. The nkisi nkondi stands out among other minkisi, as one in which the nganga would insert and leave a sharp object – nail, blade, shard – for each request made to the spirits.

Deemed as superstitious ‘fetishes’ by Christian missionaries, minkisi were for the most part destroyed during colonial times. Those that were spared were looted and later reappeared in private collections and museums, primarily in Western Europe and the United States. In addition, by imposing their language and education onto the native populations, colonists systematically eradicated traces of indigenous practices. This is why Bibene, although born and raised in the Republic of the Congo, never knew about minkisi.

An economist by trade – he holds a BA in finance – Bibene only started to pursue dance as a formal study in college: “In Congo dance and music are part of everyday life. I grew up surrounded by traditional ethnic dances, social dances like rumba or ndombolo, as well as American hip-hop. But it was not until I went to college that dance and acting became a big part of my life,” Bibene shared. He started a company in Brazzaville, the country’s capital, and in 2005 it was selected to compete in a dance competition in Paris. He won two prizes and began to travel frequently, mostly in Europe and the United States, where he relocated in 2009.

one male dancer on the floor wearing red dance pants

Encountering the nkisi nkondi in Paris fostered Bibene’s insatiable curiosity and planted the seed for his new work Nkisi Nkondi: Sacred Kongo Sculpture, presented at ODC Theater in May, followed by performances at the Museum of the African Diaspora in June: “I became obsessed and started researching. It took me to revisiting the history and spirituality of my country before colonization.” Bibene began developing the piece two years ago, as part of his thesis for his MFA in Dance at Saint Mary’s College. It started as a duet with Congolese dancer Chris Babingui, before morphing into a quintet. The piece now includes twelve dancers, and live music by Colombian flutist Adriana Rueda as well as music by Bayaka Pygmies and composers Henry Torgue and Serge Houpin.

Featuring text and videos about the creative process and the history of minkisi, the piece recreates some of the dances that might have been used in the process of calling for the divine spirits to inhabit the body of the nkisi nkondi. “I don’t know if there was a specific dance used by the nganga when performing the ritual, but I deducted so because ceremonies always involve dance, music, chanting or clapping. I don’t think that a small matter such as two people sealing a contract with the help of a nganga included dancing, but a larger matter involving the whole community might certainly have,” Bibene commented.

In Nkisi Nkondi, Bibene is not only drawing from the ethnic dances of his country but also from the photos of the minkisi that he came across during his research: “I’m creating from what the minkisi are telling us, from the power emanating from them. In the studio I may ask dancers to choose two of the minkisi’s positions and activate them.” For Bibene this work is an excavation into a cultural heritage that was taken away by colonial powers. “We are remembering history and honoring the spirit of the minkisi. With this piece I’m creating something that is my own internal ritual, connecting with my people’s history, which I didn’t know growing up. There are still a lot of things that I need to learn.”

This process of excavation raises ongoing questions: “What would have happened if people had held on to their beliefs and their healing practices? What if people didn’t embrace Christianity? The people whose heritage minkisi are a part of don’t even know about their existence. Considering that I had to pay a museum entrance fee in Paris to see a nkisi for the first time in my life, what is the economy of this cultural heritage? Do we bring back the statues to where they belong or do we ask for compensation?” Bibene asks. A firm believer that the key to Africa’s advancement rests in the acknowledgment of its indigenous knowledge, author Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu advocates for the return of stolen art to Africa, as a first step in restoring a sense of identity to communities whose traditional practices and history have been partly erased: “It is very important to understand that while Africa’s artwork resident in museums across Europe and America hold mostly aesthetic value in the hands of their current owners, the value it holds for Africans are completely the opposite. Africa’s artifacts hold the collective history and memory of several communities that make up the continent. It represents Africa’s pride in her past, the absence of which has robbed the continent of a clear understanding of its present situation and the will to chart a veritable path to her future,” she stated in an interview with the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad.

Dancer in traditional Congo dance attire with outstretched arm

Bibene hopes that his piece encourages audiences to delve into their own history: “I want the audience to realize how important it is to know one’s history. A lot of issues we face in our society come from the fact that people have abandoned practices that were demonized by settlers – different forms of healing or documenting history, for example. I am also hoping to encourage my brothers and sisters in the African American community to connect with their roots.” My conversation with Bibene about Nkisi Nkondi inevitably brings me to consider the colonial history of my own native country. As a white woman originally from France, whose ancestors, and the generations following, if not directly responsible for colonizing Bibene’s land, undisputedly benefited from it, I am confronted with these implications and my own position in regards to the aftermaths of France’s colonial past.

After a two-year hiatus from his bi-annual trips home to complete his MFA, Bibene will return to the Republic of the Congo this summer. He is building a cultural center on the coast, in Pointe-Noire, and continues to oversee the Rue Dance street festival that he co-created in Brazzaville, which is held every two years with international guest artists who come teach and perform. While bridging cultural dialogue through artistic exchange, Bibene hopes to keep on unearthing parts of his people’s heritage and returning them to his community. “For me encountering the nkisi nkondi was the start of a personal revolution, similar to a rebirth. My research and this work have taken me closer to my culture in a way I couldn’t imagine. I started questioning everything, each aspect of my life. It is hard to trace our history, I am only discovering components of it little by little. It will certainly be a lifelong project.”

Finding Center Between East and West: A Conversation with Tara Catherine Pandeya

Photo by Roma Buryak

Photo by Roma Buryak

When Tara Catherine Pandeya first landed in Tajikistan last year, she only planned to spend a month in the country. Almost 11 months later, she lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, and is the first Westerner to be part of the National Ensemble, a group of 30 dancers who practice and perform dances from Central Asia.

Half Indian, half German-American, Pandeya grew up in a multicultural household in Marin County, California. Her mother, Barbara Framm, is a dance artist who has been practicing and performing the classical Indian dances of Bharatanatyam and Odissi for close to 40 years. Pandeya was making up movements and entertaining her family by performing dance routines for as long as she can remember. She has been dancing since she was three, beginning with Indian classical dance, before learning and performing tap dance as an eight-year old. She joined the Middle Eastern dance troupe “Aywah!” as a teenager, and started performing Central Asian dance at age 16, with Ballet Afsaneh.

Central Asia is made up of the five republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, once all part of the former Soviet Union, and situated on the old Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected Asia to Europe. Although dances from these countries vary in styles and forms, they have some overlapping characteristics, such as intricate arm and hand movements, spins and turns, backbends, shoulder isolations and facial expressions. Some include kneeling on the floor and complex footwork.

The dances divide themselves between the classical traditional forms that originated in the courts of Central Asia, and the folk styles, which are specific to each region. “In my opinion, those dances are reflective of the environment they spring from,” shared Pandeya, who was reached by phone from Dushanbe. “For example, in Tajikistan, in the region of Kulyab, dancers wear brightly embroidered tulips and long, [ample] sleeves. They have very expansive movements and that region happens to be very at and expansive. In the Pamirs, the mountains are omnipresent and there are lots of springs and waterfalls, so the movements are slow and very fluid.”

Traveling across the globe is not new for Pandeya, who visited over 50 countries as a principal dancer with Cirque du Soleil. For over four years, she played the lead character role of Océane, the goddess of water, in Dralion. She came to Tajikistan to deepen her understanding and practice of the classical Tajik dance form. “I feel at home in this style of dance. When my teachers teach it to me, they are pulling something out of me which is already there, versus putting something into me that is [foreign.] This might partly be because Central Asia is right in the middle of the Eastern and Western parts of the world and, with my cultural heritage, it is where I find my center.”

In the process of documenting and deepening her knowledge of Central Asian dance, Pandeya has to rely on kinesthetic memory as some teachers do not allow video recording. She also draws notations of the different dances with stick figures. “I’m dancing six hours everyday, so it is solidifying my muscle memory. With Cirque, we were doing 10 shows a week but it was the same show and the same character for four and a half years. Here the artistic director is constantly creating new pieces for new events. So I really need to compartmentalize tons of different choreography,” Pandeya explained.

She notices a strong respect for tradition in the forms that she is learning today. The movements are quite similar to those performed 50 years ago, recorded in well-preserved video footage from the Soviet era. Yet, as with any traditional art form that has been taught from one generation to the next, the dances evolve. “Every dancer interprets movements and music differently. The same goes for choreographers. The artistic director of our company is creative and experimental with storytelling, mixing new with old concepts, or mixing folk styles from different regions into one piece to promote pluralism. There was a civil war here [between 1993 and 1998] and a lot of fighting between different regions. Having dances from different regions featured in one piece is an important image to present to the public, to promote mutual appreciation and acceptance.”

Fostering mutual understanding and serving communities are the ultimate goals of art for Pandeya. After a year dancing Océane, she missed the experience of performing in and for the community, with a strong cultural and social emphasis. So she took advantage of the Cirque du Monde’s social project and became their social outreach liaison. In that role, she organized workshops where dancers and clowns taught circus arts to Lebanese and Palestinian refugees’ children in Lebanon, or to children with HIV in South Africa. This more personal interaction with the community within which she was residing for one to two weeks was “much more fulfilling than living in a hotel, going to an arena and not being engaged with the local population,” Pandeya shared.

Photo by Nasiba Karimova

Photo by Nasiba Karimova

She views dance as a bridge between people and a way to cast light on world cultures that are often marginalized. “People in Central Asia, at least in Tajikistan, are some of the most hospitable and generous people that I have ever met in my life. I feel a heightened responsibility to promote positive visibility through the art that I create, because it is unfortunately a region that is often misunderstood, completely unknown, or misrepresented through negative media.”

Pandeya is also passionate and eager to share the rich artistic and cultural diversity that has unknowingly influenced the rest of the world: “The cultures of Central Asia are steeped in performing arts. Dance and music are a huge part of the cultural identity here. Some of the greatest ballet directors are from Central Asia. Robert Joffrey’s father was from Afghanistan. Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring was based on movements he pulled from paintings from Tajikistan. I think ballet, modern and contemporary dance are all beautiful forms but they are given this heightened respect. Central Asian dance is a 2000 year-old tradition and is equally complex, detailed and nuanced and it takes a lifetime to dedicate yourself to. Most people have no clue what it looks like and think it is a folk dance that is easy to pick up. I want to help bring it into the dance world and get it the credit and respect that it deserves.”

Pandeya was recently awarded an Asian Cultural Council grant to research the relationship between Central Asian dances and North Indian classical Kathak. She has been doing some groundwork in Tajikistan and will soon fly to London to work with renowned classical Kathak artist Nahid Siddiqui, who splits her time between Pakistan and England.

For Pandeya, Central Asian dance and classical Indian dance share a lot of similarities, notably in the instrumentation, jewelry and costuming, as well as in the depiction of dancers that appear in the miniatures paintings from the Mogul period. “During that time, most of kings and queens who lived in India were of Central Asian origins. They imported a lot of dancers from Central Asia. Kathak dance is one of the only classical forms in India that has the rapid spinning, like the Sufi spinning, which comes from Central Asia.”

When I spoke with Pandeya, the National Ensemble of which she is a part of was preparing to perform during the national celebrations of the day of Tajik Independence, on September 9. After that, Pandeya will bid farewell to Tajikistan to travel to London and study with Siddiqui, before returning to the States, where she foresees her research culminating in a collaborative piece utilizing Central Asian and Kathak dances. Once back home, she will continue to share the artistic wealth these practices bring forth, bridging the gap between East and West one dance at a time.

Turn Around to See What’s Coming Next: A Conversation with Brenda Way about ODC’s 45th Anniversary

DURING A RESIDENCY at the American Academy in Rome, ODC’s Founder and Artistic Director Brenda Way remarked on the way early Romans conceived of the future, not by looking forward but by facing the past. Way noted “in Latin we see the turn of phrase: ‘Turn around to see what’s coming next.’ I have always thought of artists as being the vivid front edge of the past. Now I am moved to consider, which way are we looking?”

The question that Way raised in 2009 finds a particular echo this year, as ODC celebrates its 45th Anniversary. Fueled by the collaborative and inquiry-based spirit that permeated the sixties and seventies, ODC started as a collective at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1971. In 1976, attracted by the sense of possibility and invention that San Francisco offered, the group boarded a yellow bus and left Oberlin. In those 45 years of making and expanding, ODC has maintained its intense commitment to community, artistic sharing and civic consciousness. Way and I sat down to discuss ODC’s history and how its future might take shape.


Marie Tollon: What count as some of ODC’s most significant moments in these last 45 years?
Brenda Way: There are so many. I would say leaving Oberlin and coming to the Bay Area in 1976 and a few years later getting a mortgage from Wells Fargo in Walnut Creek to buy the corner building in 1980 after being evicted from our first studio on Mariposa Street. An emblematic moment was opening night at this new space [the New Performance Gallery, ODC Theater’s former name]. We only had half the doors down and the jazz tap ensemble performed on it. We had porta potties on the empty lot, Christmas lights strung up over the floor and chairs on the dirt… the whole thing embodied the spirit of the group: we were doing it ourselves and no matter what happened, we would forge ahead. The review naturally talked about the porta potties.

There have been a series of artistic projects that were important. When my son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I worked with the dancers on Investigating Grace while I struggled with the question of “why bother to make dance?” The deep relationship of the dancers to the material and the creative process really reaffirmed the value of artistic enterprise for the sustenance of the human spirit. On a lighter note, producing Toe to Toe with Warren Hellman was a big deal, and his spirit was a gift. Choreographing with student athletes from Cal [Berkeley] was fresh. Their capacities were deeply focused and very extreme. It was also inspiring how many people could connect to dance through their appreciation of sports. Of course, working in collaboration with KT, as well as with Andy Goldsworthy, Zoe Keating and RJ Muna on Boulders and Bone was an inspiring and invigorating process.

woman dancer jumps

Photo by RJ Muna

On the touring front, the company selection by BAM to be one of the first companies for the State Department DanceMotion tour of South East Asia was thrilling. We were in Burma before the borders were opened. Although you read about the meaning of art in repressive cultures, it’s very different when you’re there and you see the profound [effect] that dance can have as a diplomatic connector. People who were afraid to be seen at our concert came by the hundreds, slipping in with their heads bowed. Our month-long tour in Russia in 1989 was also a high point due to the strength of dance and its place in the Russian culture.

The opening of the Commons was memorable. So many people participated in the celebration, performing their work all over the building. It was a profoundly generous and exciting event. And when we opened, Rick Coughlin and his crew of health practitioners launched the dancers’ clinic there, which was a fantastic statement of caring for the people in our profession and something I had never imagined. The subsequent collaboration with Rhythm and Motion stands as another critical turning point in ODC’s life and embodied our sixties philosophy that everybody could and should dance. Their spirit fills the Commons with energy on a daily basis.

Seeing the quality of dancers who are willing to put their artistry on the line is a constant source of amazement and delight.

One of the things that has been the most surprising to me as I look back over all of these years is that when we first came to town we wrote an ambitious grant to the San Francisco Foundation. It basically laid out everything we are now—the school, the company, the theater—in tiny form. I never would have guessed it would expand to such a magnitude. There is intense pleasure in seeing organic growth. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom. You have a child who is growing up but you don’t have any idea of the form or future of her life. To be able to accommodate and help nurture new artistic generations has been a profound pleasure. And I do think it is connected to ODC being women artist led. There is always a consciousness about the human culture, not just the work. Not that men can’t think that way but I suspect our organizational culture may be tied to a deeper sense of family.

MT: What is in store for the celebration of ODC’s 45th anniversary?
BW: There are a few things that stand out as celebratory. It is the rst time we are hav- ing a piece created by another artist, Kate Weare. It’s a co-commission by White Bird in Oregon and ODC. It celebrates the begin- ning of a new chapter. KT is making a piece for Private Freeman who has returned after his 8-year walkabout, and certainly that is a celebration of the long artistic relationship one can have with dancers. I’m sure that piece will resonate with a lot of his ODC his- tory but also with what he has accumulated from his artistic life elsewhere. For my part, I am once again working with Paul Dresher after a hiatus of perhaps a decade or more. This is also a celebration of our history. It’s bringing the players that really helped form the aesthetics of ODC to the table again. Looking back to go forward.

MT: You have said: “Individuals have built this organization and individuals will carry it forward.”
BW: There have been some key board members for over 30 years—Lynn Feintech, Sako Fisher—who have been helping keep the business rigorous and entrepreneurial. That’s a huge part of how you can carry on in this world. That and loyalty.

MT: Thinking about loyalty, having the dancers on a 42-week contract is rare in today’s dance community.
BW: That coherent ensemble was very central to my interest in being a choreographer. I’m not sure today’s dancers even want the same thing anymore, but I think a steady work environment can engender commitment and it’s been very important for us to provide that. When somebody chooses to move on, they often come back to teach, to mount repertory, to help work with the Dance Jam. We try to find longterm connections, because their movements, their bodies are still in our repertory, even though they are not there anymore, so I feel loyalty to that, too.

MT: How do you see ODC’s role in the current context of artists and arts organizations being pushed out of the city because of the rising cost of living?
BW: I hope we can work with interested developers, philanthropists or city agencies on the issue of artist housing. I think San Francisco is at risk of losing its deep artistic culture. I hope we will participate in some way in addressing this.

Photo by RJ Muna

Photo by RJ Muna

MT: What are the ways that you want to move forward?
BW: I want to try to endow these dance facilities, the ODC Theater and the Commons. I never thought about such long-term things in the past because contemporary art is really about today and I think we feel the need to invest all our energy into that. But now I think I have to make sure that this campus remains viable. If we can raise an endowment that pays the facility overhead, then succeeding generations, both artistic and administrative, can focus on what they want to do programmatically and not be swamped by the hungry demands of overhead. They can focus more on responding to the changes that will come.

Succession is on the horizon, too, although somewhat in the distance. We have enjoyed the stimulation, the give and take of more than one choreographer so we are exploring how that might look in the future.

Anything that we do going forward, I would hope we will remember that there will always be limited resources and that our core mission is built around making work, helping people make work and presenting it. I hope what goes forward as we move on are the values that we built this organization around. New generations will find different forms but I hope the communitarian values, the values of nurturing art and artists, will hold true.


ODC/Dance: Mar 12-27. YBCA Theater, SF.

 

Navigating the Storm: A Conversation with KT Nelson About Dead Reckoning

Pictured Corey Brady and Josie Garthwaite Sadan

Photo by RJ Muna

Dominating recent headlines, the scientific world is now in unanimous agreement that 2014 was the warmest year on record, thus bringing back to the table the burning issues—no pun intended—of the inevitability of global warming. Environmental experts welcome the efforts of institutions such as the United Nations to work toward a universal agreement to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet they warn that it might not be possible to stall temperatures from increasing by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. “According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding — events that could harm the world’s population and economy,” writes journalist Coral Davenport. “While a breach of the 3.6 degree threshold appears inevitable, scientists say that United Nations negotiators should not give up on their efforts to cut emissions. At stake now, they say, is the difference between a newly unpleasant world and an uninhabitable one.”

How can we expect to navigate a “newly unpleasant world”? In one sequence of KT Nelson’s last piece Dead Reckoning, dancers storm across the stage, looking up to the sky as if searching for an answer to their disorientation and the loss of their hold on their surroundings. The ominous feeling their movements convey is heightened by the menacing undertone of the violins playing in composer Joan Jeanrenaud’s score. At one point the audio is torn apart by the screeching sound of trees falling and the shattering of bark echoing throughout the room. Touching upon
the exploitative relationship between humans and their natural environment, Dead Reckoning is a piece for 10 dancers which stemmed out of Nelson’s sabbatical in Death Valley in the late fall of 2013. Nelson and I sat down to talk about the piece.

Marie Tollon: During Unplugged, a work-in-progress showing last November, you mentioned that one of the stronger images that arose from your time in Death Valley was the magnitude of the landscape.

KT Nelson: In Death Valley, you really experience the magnitude of the towering mountain ranges against the below sea level valley. Because there is minimal or almost no plant life the rock formations are unsparingly exposed. You get a glimpse of what forces went into creating these formations. There you are, below sea level, at the bottom of this valley and you just see magnitude. Literally, people look like these little ants walking around. This was the spirit in which the piece was made.

MT: Can you talk more about the title of the piece?

KN: I first read about this term from naturalist Kathleen Moore, a philosophy teacher at Oregon State. She had a chapter called Dead Reckoning, [where she recounted] sailing with her daughter in cloud cover. She began experiencing anxiety about their situation. Apparently dead reckoning is a term when you navigate without the stars. Stars are highly predictable and dependable reference points. Without them you use intuition and less dependable reference points. When you do this, your navigation is subject to accumulative error. I applied this concept to the implications of
navigating climate change.

MT: A cascade of paper confetti, representing snowfall, plays an important role in the piece. In one scene, the floor is covered with it, and when the dancers move across the stage, it flutters around, reminiscent of celebration and playfulness.

KN: There is joy when we engage in nature. But how far we take it, is fairly unthoughtful. At the rate we play in it now, we will change the quality of what it is. What we know now will most likely not exist in the future. Nature will never stop being, but the relationship we have had with it is going to change because we are changing it. We have been brought up so thoroughly immersed in convenience that we really have no sense of the implications of convenience. I don’t heat my house. I have a compost toilet, storm water, grey water and solar energy serving my home. I’m trying to live the walk, because if I can find pleasure in it, then there is a way through this. If there can be artistry, pleasure and depth in living differently, in a way that is not so harmful, then I think we have a chance.

MT: In the closing section of the piece, we see two dancers walking casually on another dancer.

KN: Yes, as we carry on with our lives, we often walk on and over something, indifferently, without noticing what we have done. It’s not dramatic but it is real. It is done without knowing. This lack of awareness although relatively mundane, in the long run may be deadly. As I said during Unplugged, I’m not mad at people, but I’m perplexed by the fact that we continue to be so unaware. It’s like we are under a spell. Why do we remain so unaware, even though we know better? The section after the male and female duets is about youthfulness, how we all go into nature and play around in it, and yet incrementally destroy it, whether it’s ski lifts, ropes, spikes left in rocks or bike trails. We love it, but we are affecting it deeply and unconsciously. My message really resides at the two ends of the piece. And the middle is a journey of the ways we are—like nature and how we engage with each other and with nature.

MT: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned the work of your mother who was an environmental activist.

KN: My mother was so upset – by how we treated the natural world, in 1970’s, she said: “It’s going to be gone!” She couldn’t believe the greed that was destroying the diverse landscape of Southern California. She believed in bioregions, open space, public access and the sacred sites of the Native Americans. When the visitor center opened for the Santa Monica Mountains Park and Seashore Recreation Area in Los Angeles, she was identified as the primary grass roots force behind this National Park. Both my parents loved nature but her values were deeply embedded in me.

MT: At several moments, one of the dancers willfully puts his hands of a fellow dancer’s head and turns it in another direction, to face the audience or forward. Is it a hint that for you, the purpose of art is to shift the focus back to what humanity should really be looking at?

KN: Yes, in the beginning, Dennis is the one who dances while [the other dancers] are watching him. He is the one that is beginning to notice. That’s the beginning of awareness.

MT: Is this your first collaboration with composer Joan Jeanrenaud?

KN: Yes. I have used her music before when I have done guest choreography. So I know her music well. [Joan and I] would meet once a week and spend a few hours together. I knew which music of hers I really love. So I told her: “I love the fragility of this, or the pulse of this.” She would pull some things off the computer, and asked me what I liked about those things. We would deconstruct and break things down. I sent her some of the photographs of my trip. I talked to her about my opening and closing images and she built the music for those two [scenes] since they were very clear. That’s how we proceeded. And then she came to rehearsal and said “Ok, now I get it.” Then she went back to the studio and
worked on it some more.

MT: What are some of the tasks you gave to the dancers to generate material?

KN: I used the concept of “implications” to develop problems for the dancers to generate movement. In our first exercise, I asked the dancers to close their eyes, and listen to the sounds around the room. They worked in pairs. One would listen and the other would video the one listening. As the one dancer listened, they were to move in response to the volume and quality of the sound they heard. After watching the video of their movement responses, they collected the movement that was interesting to them and made a solo phrase. My interest in “implication” is that
we rarely recognize the implications of things. The impact, the response, the reaction to our actions were the material that I was interested in. This exploration of hearing came from meditating in the desert. I would sit and realize how much sound there actually was. [Another exercise] came from standing on this huge dune in a field of sand dunes. You are 12 stories up. You look down and it looks so soft, you could just tumble and fall, and be fine. In rehearsal, we folded paper airplanes and sent them off the balcony at ODC into the street. The dancers video their plane’s path and then created a movement phrase from that. In this exercise I really wanted them to rigorously follow the phrasing of the plane. I did not want that phrasing to be aestheticized. So we followed the plane’s path and in the dance the dancers who are falling are being caught, because when standing on that dune in the desert it felt that nature would catch you.

Dead Reckoning will premiere as part of ODC/Dance’s “Dance Downtown,” Mar 12-22 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. ybca.org
An earlier version of this interview appeared on the Triple Dog Dare blog in November 2014.

 

Community Engagement: An Interview with Julie Potter, Writer in Residence at ODC

Photo by Robert Donald

Pictured: Julie Potter
Photo by Robert Donald

For the artist Marcel Duchamp, “a work of art is a rendez-vous,” a time and space where artists and viewers come together. At times, a third party can be present, acting as a facilitator or interpreter. Known as art critics and scholars, this third party helps bridge the gap between audience and artists by providing a critical context from which to view the work. Traditionally, this research and discourse on art were primarily reserved to publications and academia, but arts organizations are now using them in more versatile ways in order to enhance the experience of their audience and reach a larger spectrum. The recent addition of a writing residency to ODC/Dance’s programming is a testimony of this current phenomenon. Julie Potter talks about her work and projects as the first resident writer at ODC.

Marie Tollon: Julie, what does your work at ODC entail?
Julie Potter: As the Writer in Residence, I consider the people, processes and performances at the Dance Commons as catalysts and informants for conversations about the potency of dance and how we frame the craft in relation to the Bay Area, arts across the nation, and, perhaps most importantly, to our globalized society and the questions of our time. I also think of inquiry and interrogation as guiding factors for the conversations to be had online and offline in this role. In short, the work entails being a fierce noticer, open listener and creative storyteller. More specifically, [it] entails writing and producing content for the blog, Triple Dog Dare, the primary platform for my writer in residence activities. In addition, the scope of work planned for the year includes think tank potlucks, interviews and research tracking the Bay Area arts ecosystem and locating it in relation to current events as well as the national art scene, attending rehearsals during new work development and providing feedback and requested dramaturgical support to artists, contributing program notes, presentations to the ODC staff and discussions with audience members.

MT: In an article about Bebe Miller’s A History, you noted the ‘desire to privilege the dance thinking and development’ in many recent artistic works. Do you see the position of Writer in Residence as a continuation of this trend?
JP: Absolutely. I think an ongoing practice of critical response and development of contextual materials for dance is on the rise with resident writers currently embedded at organizations like New York Live Arts and Danspace. This writing and discourse place value on the research and development of work – where the majority of the artist’s time is spent. Hope Mohr recently wrote on her blog “Most of the dancing life is about process.” I think “dance thinking” (a term I attribute to Mary Armentrout) begins artist centered and can offer generous insight to audiences.

MT: In ‘Love on the Run’, a video piece by ODC Artistic Director and Founder Brenda Way, some pedestrians were randomly asked to say a few words about modern dance. Some could not answer, as they had no relationship to this form of dance. How might your work act as a platform to raise awareness and appreciation for dance and contemporary arts?
JP: The language used to describe artistic disciplines can be problematic in the expectations and associations it creates. Although words provide markers for people, to label something dance or modern or contemporary can limit, alienate and even mislead. I think there are a lot of opportunities to invite the recognition of performance outside of a dance historical definition of modern dance and the recognized canon of staged works. I love Liz Lerman’s provocations articulately outlined in her book Hiking the Horizontal to investigate the why and to pull the thread beyond liking or disliking something. Experiencing dance is an exercise in paying attention and being present. While I can’t make people appreciate dance, I hope this work helps people deepen their experiences and find value in time spent with dance. What I can do is invite inquiry and catalyze curiosity by framing, linking and being generous with the information I’m privy to from this embedded role.

MT: What is your background and how might it inform your work at ODC?
JP: After training in Pittsburgh, PA, I attended Butler University double majoring in dance and arts administration with a minor in journalism. I worked as a communications administrator at The Juilliard School. That multidisciplinary environment of music, dance and drama as well as work with artists, faculty and New York arts writers was really influential. Then in San Francisco YBCA has been a rich environment in which I’ve continued my art learning, supporting programs in contemporary visual art, film and performance. Finally, this year studying at Wesleyan University’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) has further stretched my thinking into new territory and exposed me to a lot of avant garde and experimental performance, visual art performance, new genres, social practice and devised theater work.

MT: What brought you to writing? Can you share a decisive moment in your career so far?
JP: When I got to San Francisco, writing was my way of researching and essentially crash-coursing into a new and, at the time, foreign dance community. A critical turn around moment for me was the opportunity to participate in the 2010 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Dance at the American Dance Festival. Suzanne Carbonneau led the program and is truly a dance writing fairy godmother. Writers including Roslyn Sulcas and Deborah Jowitt workshopped our reviews. Doug McLennan created a laboratory for new forms of critical response for which we worked closely with Eiko and Koma. Artists such as John Jasperse and Martha Clarke visited class. These people probably influenced my writing more in 3 weeks than development during the years since. Also, Sasha Anawalt, who directed the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater, which I attended in 2011, shifted the way I think about arts journalism moving into more of an embedded community engagement role.

MT: Can you tell me about some art works, individuals, or conversations that have inspired you recently?
JP: The list is long. I’m omnivorous seeing art everywhere I go and festivals such as American Realness and Under the Radar in New York and the Time Based Art festival in Portland have inspired me this year, not just in the work presented, but in the artistic communities gathered. I’m always adding to my reading list and spending too much money at Modern Times Bookstore and Alley Cat Books. Recently I was captivated by Maggie Nelson’s analysis in The Art of Cruelty. Additionally, Claudia La Rocco is my advisor for the work I’m doing at ICPP and our conversations have been really inspiring in considering the critic as artist and discussing social sculpture for developing communities of practice responding to performance. [Founder of Culturebot] Andy Horwitz has also impacted the way I approach performance and consider critical response a parallel and open process with the art.

MT: Is there a writing project that is particularly important to you?
JP: Moving from New York I am aware of how nationally under-recognized Bay Area dance and artists are. I’m concerned by the amount of smart and rigorous work taking place here that flies under the radar. Therefore, giving voice to Bay Area dance and artists is particularly important to me. I’ve recently done a lot of research and writing about Contraband and the influential diaspora of artists who worked together in that collaborative group, as well as the local performance maker community and DIY circuits of exchange for experimental work. Finally with the new tech boom underway, I’m interested in investigating how this environment and proximity to the Silicon Valley is affecting dance making in the region.

Venturing into artistic territories that are in the making or newly produced, Potter not only relentlessly questions and exposes the creative process but also offers viewers the tools to reflect on what it is to make and see dance. Through her writing and community engagement programs at ODC,  Potter thereby contributes to make the  “rendez-vous” between artists and audience more compelling and intimate.

Read Julie Potter’s writing as ODC Theater Writer in Residence at TheTripleDogDare.wordpress.com

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