Who Are We?

By Bonner Odell

October 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The creators of the Talking Dance Project, a new series of discussions co-hosted by CounterPULSE and Dancers’ Group, are taking a step back to ask themselves—and their community— “Bay Area Dance: Who Are We?” That fundamental question will frame the conversation at the series’ first installment, which takes place October 8 at CounterPULSE, and features four local dance artists chosen by curator Mary Armentrout from across the stylistic and generational spectrum. Keith Hennessy, Jez Kuono’ono Lee, Denise Pate and paige starling sorvillo will show short video samples of work they feel represents what’s happening now in Bay Area dance, followed by a discussion. “The idea is to integrate critical dialogue and art-making,” says Armentrout. “Too much of the time dance theory and criticism is confined to the universities, while artists themselves are so busy working multiple jobs to make ends meet that they don’t have the time or energy to meet and talk with other artists about work. Your best critics are going to be people in your field—not teachers, not audiences, and not presenters. They’re going to be fellow artists.”

The idea for the Project was partly inspired by the artist-driven model for peer critique used by the Movement Research community in Manhattan. A friend of Armentrout’s, Movement Research Journal editor Trajal Harrell first invited her to co-curate an evening of Bay Area dance at the famed Judson Church in October 2006. Among the participating artists were Alma Esperanza Cunningham, Debby Kajiyama, Jose Navarrette, and Armentrout. In June of 2007, she returned with another group including Keith Hennessy, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Eric Kupers, Scott Wells, and sorvillo for a performance at Danspace Project curated by Jonah Bokaer. The goal of these trips was to give New York artists and audiences a taste of what’s happening in Bay Area dance, and to start a conversation that Armentrout, Harrell, and Bokaer hoped would evolve into a longer-term exchange between New York and San Francisco artists. Out of the experience came conviction among several in the group that the Bay Area needs more opportunities for artists to come together and discuss work, and to explore the area’s unique contribution to the larger dance field. “There’s innovative stuff happening here,” says Armentrout. “But too often we’re not aware of our impact, or we don’t own it.”

It’s an observation that squares with the Bay Area’s reputation as a haven for carving out one’s own dance sensibilities, away from the product-driven, hierarchical dance world that can dominate other urban centers. As Armentrout sees it, “the downtown scene in New York tends to function like an intricate round robin—new work is often a clever response to a clever response. It can be extremely exclusive and
self-referential, but the upside is that every one knows what everyone else is doing. They have to or how are they going to respond to it?” In contrast, she points out, the Bay Area has always been the place to come to find your own voice. “It’s mellow, spacious. People aren’t smashed up against each other, and there’s not nearly as much competition for big grants the way there is in New York. The result is that there’s less ‘heat’ around the work. This can be incredibly liberating, but the downside is that there’s really no center.” Armentrout hopes the Talking Dance Project will help create dialogue, combating the isolation that can result from the more independent nature of art-making in the Bay Area.

Contributing artist Keith Hennessy echoes the desire for more community engagement around topics affecting the field. Among them he lists the need for subsidized studio and theater rental fees, more residency programs, more community-based choreography classes, and always more critical exchange. “We need more peer zines, journals, and salons for dancers to discuss aesthetics, to wrestle with conceptual issues and responses, and to critique work,” he says. “I got involved in the SF-goes-to-NY group show because I saw it as an attempt to spark conversation, observation, theorizing, strategizing, community. I’d like to see more support and training for experimental dance and performance that is in dialogue with what’s happening in New York and internationally. I’d like to see more ways to develop a critical language for local choreographers that would improve the rigor, quality, and integrity of local dance.”

A recent graduate of the MFA program in Choreography at UC Davis, Hennessy also sees more potential for local universities to support and engage the dance community. “I’m hesitant to offend specific people, especially hard-working dance teachers,” he says, “but until very recently our local schools have been seriously out-of-touch with the more innovative aspects of Bay Area and international dance. Is there a single tenured faculty position in the wider Bay Area held by someone whose primary practice is Contact Improvisation? The Bay Area is globally recognized for being a primary site for Contact and Contact-influenced forms. Other universities across the country have prioritized ‘release’ techniques, CI, and improvisation when looking for faculty. Why not here?”

Hennessy hopes to see the Talking Dance Project serve as a forum for addressing such issues. Though topics for future installments have yet to be finalized, an evening devoted to deepening the connection between Bay Area college dance departments and the local dance scene seems an appropriate fit. Among other ideas Armentrout and CounterPULSE Director Jessica Robinson are considering are west coast contact improvisation—it’s unique flavor and contribution, technology and dance west-coast style, sex and dance, race and ethnicity in dance from the Bay Area perspective, and the European/San Francisco connection. “Ultimately the goal is to know ourselves better,” Armentrout concludes. “To encourage each other towards becoming deeper, stronger artists.” Doubtless, those who attend will leave more prepared to offer in-depth responses to questions around Bay Area dance, posed by outsiders and insiders alike.

This article appeared in the October 2007 issue of In Dance.