After three years of running his own dance company, Bradley Michaud took a good, hard look at his accomplishments and asked himself a question. “Have I found my voice or am I stuck? I realized there was no way I could determine that on my own,” he recalls.
Michaud, a 30-year-old Los Angeles-based choreographer, decided to apply for a slot in the one-year Southern California pilot of the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange program (CHIME), conceived, developed and administered by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. With choreographer Rosanna Gamson as his mentor, he numbers among three self-selected pairs of dance-artists, all from the Los Angeles area, who have each been awarded $10,000 in grant money and over 100 hours of cost-free studio time. In addition to coupling up as mentor and mentee and working a minimum of 40 hours in the studio along with other activities, the six participants meet four times during the year to collectively discuss the process and other issues pertinent to being a working artist. At the end of the year there will be a series of informal showings called “CHIME Live” where the mentorship pairs show and discuss their findings.
Having participated in the program since January, Michaud has found the experience to be invaluable “but also humbling. I think a lot of choreographers in Los Angeles, myself included, get caught up in how prolific we can be or how many awards we can win,” he says. “I’m realizing that I don’t have to race to put out my next piece and that’s one reason why CHIME appealed to me. It allows you to investigate your choreography without the pressure of having to show something at the end of the year.”
While most recently a boon to Southern California choreographers, CHIME began in 2004 as a mentorship program specifically for Bay Area dance-makers. Margaret Jenkins, who formed her San Francisco-based company in 1973, had long felt frustrated at “not being able to give sustained feedback to people interested. How could I create an atmosphere for an in-depth exchange? I wanted to help generate a forum, which would diminish the isolation among people making work and allow them to more fully explore their own necessity, share their perceptions with one another and offer solutions for working more deeply,” she says.
With support from the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a number of smaller foundations, CHIME has already supported over 30 Bay Area choreographers. Although “I am loathe to say that someone’s work got better because of CHIME, since I feel that the concept of how to evaluate ‘improve’ is very tricky and mercurial, I am, however, able to chart a form of success based on what artists have said,” Jenkins observes. “They feel they have new techniques, ways to look at and evaluate their work, or improved strategies of working with their dancers; or maybe there is some subtle way an actual work did improve.”
In the quest to expand the program beyond the Bay Area, both Jenkins and the Irvine Foundation agreed that launching CHIME in Southern California this year seemed like the next logical step and extended the application process to choreographers in both Los Angeles and Orange counties. “I was very interested in how the program might alter its structure to meet the needs of a different community,” says Jenkins.
Though chock full of universities with dance programs, Southern California can be a daunting place for a choreographer, who must contend with sprawling geography, a limited number of producing dance venues and lack of other resources to facilitate choreographic process outside educational settings. “It’s always had a difficult time being a community,” says Jenkins, who attended UCLA “millions of years ago” and remembers how far she had to travel on weekends to study with dance icon Bella Lewitsky. “Also, it was fascinating to me, that when we had the first two gathering of artists in Los Angeles—there were 26 artists in each group—to explore how CHIME might best meet the needs of that community, a number of them had never met one another.”
“LA is still a really hard city to meet people and create formal mentoring relationships,” says David Roussève, a 48-year-old choreographer who moved from New York in 1996 to teach at UCLA. “I think it’s difficult to create these relationships in general but in Los Angeles, it can be especially hard, so a program like CHIME can have a crucial impact on the work by up and coming choreographers.”
Internationally acclaimed for dance-theater works that meld movement, spoken word, personal history and broader socio-political issues, Roussève agreed to mentor Olivier Tarpaga, a 29-year-old native of Burkina Faso who co-founded the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project with his wife Esther in 2004. In general, “I think it’s important to give back to the field,” says Roussève. “Mentoring is a solid way to do that and when it’s the right relationship, it can be incredibly fulfilling.”
Roussève appreciates that CHIME allows for choreographers to pair up on their own accord. As a UCLA choreography professor, he already does “a lot of mentoring and while that certainly has its rewards, it can sometimes be more of a forced marriage. With Olivier, I feel very strongly about his work and potential to contribute to the field,” he says.
A member of Roussève’s REALITY dance company, Tarpaga began his career as a traditional West African dancer and drummer. He went on to study contemporary dance with a number of European choreographers and his work, according to Roussève, frequently grapples with “how world dance forms fit in post-modern structures. I’m also very interested in working with some of these issues and this is where mentoring can work well,” he adds. “Because even though you’re mentoring someone, you’re also learning how someone else structures their work and you become part of their process. Personally, this feeds me.”
Since the program started, Roussève and Tarpaga have met several times to watch DVDs of Tarpaga’s work and discuss dance-making in general. “I appreciate that CHIME allows you to take a meandering route and that a product at the end is not necessary,” says Roussève.
“We talk about everything,” says Tarpaga. “He doesn’t just tell me whether something is boring or interesting but has a way of making me understand how I need to go further without it hurting. Also, David is never boring and we’re always laughing like crazy.”
Tarpaga is currently creating the text for an autobiographical solo dance-theater piece about the seemingly disparate facets of his identity, which includes his birth into a Muslim family, conversion to Christianity, marriage to a Jewish woman and life as an African immigrant. After creating the text with Roussève’s input, Tarpaga will work in the studio on integrating the words with movements. “Once I have something that looks like a section, I’ll call David so he can work with me,” he says.
Roussève feels he will succeed as a mentor if he can “point things out in Olivier’s work that are powerful and things that structurally remain a challenge. Hopefully, I will be giving him tools to sharpen his work in general, which in turn will lead to a sharper solo,” he says.
Like Roussève and Tarpaga, Simone Forti and Rae Shao-Lan Blum had developed personal and professional ties, which preceded their participation in CHIME. Blum asking Forti to be her CHIME mentor felt natural since “we’ve had an informal mentoring relationship since I’ve been in LA,” she says.
Blum, now 29, had relocated to LA from New York in 2005 after dancing for Susan Marshall, Janis Brenner and several other choreographers and companies. She first met Forti, now 73 and a pioneering figure in post-modern and improvisational dance, at a contact improvisation jam. “She walked into the jam, put down her bag and came right into contact with me,” she recalls. “We’re not identical but there’s a shared aesthetic we inhabit when we’re dancing.”
So far, Blum and Forti have met over dinner for informal discussions. In July, they plan to spend two weeks at Mad Brook Farm in Vermont, a commune frequented by artists since the late 1960s. Blum has been pursuing several projects, including further developing a collaborative work examining the human relationship to nature and natural resources.
“I’m much more interested in social change than making beautiful art that gets critically acclaimed,” says Blum. “There’s an activist element in my work but I’m also interested in how movement affects the senses and channels sensation.”
Blum has also been working on integrating movement with written and spoken language and considers Forti a role model. Having first made a name for herself in the 1960s as a member of the Judson Dance Theater, Forti went on to create a choreographic method for moving and speaking in tandem, called “Logomotion.” She has also published several collections of experimental writing.
As a mentor, “Simone offers me a lot of space to help me find my own path,” says Blum. “At the same time, she pushes me to be more honest. She’ll really tell me what’s on her mind.”
For Forti, seeing her influence in Blum’s embrace of text and spoken word helps her shed further insight into her own artistic process. “Her work is quite different than mine,” she says of Blum. But “seeing an aspect of my work transformed makes me understand more about its nature and potential. And having a young artist make use of aspects of my work keeps it relevant to the times and part of the ongoing artistic discourse.”
Initially struck by “Rae’s informal yet purely focused presence” as a performer, Forti welcomed the opportunity to “take advantage” of a program like CHIME. “It will demand rigorous clarity…my engaging Rae in thoughtful analysis and critique of her working process,” she says.
While both Forti and Roussève seem cognizant of possibilities for how their legacies might perpetuate through the process of mentoring, Rosanna Gamson has no qualms admitting that her reasons for becoming a mentor have very little to do with legacy or giving back. “I would say I’m motivated less by altruism and more by selfish greediness because the better that dance gets in LA, the better it is for me,” she says. Gamson moved to LA from New York in 1996 and her company, Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, has forged a reputation for both ambitious cross-cultural collaborations and conceptually-driven, multi-media works. Her most recent dance, called Ravish, based on the lives of the Bronte sisters, melded virtuosic yet theatrical movement with text, video and an interactive floor, which generated images by tracking the dancers’ motions. She also makes it a priority to see “just about everything coming out of LA and I don’t see enough good work. Maybe that’s because we’re geographically isolated or manipulated by the [film and television] industry but all I know is that I want to work hard at changing this,” she says.
Before applying for the CHIME grant, Gamson only knew Michaud personally from his participation in a project she sponsored, which invited artists of different disciplines to get feedback on their work before presenting it in a public performance back in 2006.
“I thought he was quite smart and interesting and when he approached me about being his mentor, I was glad we didn’t have much of a personal relationship,” says Gamson. “I felt the less I knew about him personally, the better I could mentor him.”
With his Method Contemporary Dance company, Michaud has developed a body of work characterized by an extreme, high-speed physical vocabulary, an eschewing of multi-media elements and a relentless quest to kinetically depict raw, truthful emotion. His influences include Irish step dancing, Ashtanga yoga and “the topsy-turviness of break dancing. I was never the type to say, ‘hey, I think I’m going to insert this Robert Frost poem into my dance because I think it says something,’’’ he says.
When Michaud participated in Gamson’s project, “I was blown away by her feedback on my piece. Her work is very different than mine but she’s incisive without being judgmental,” he says. “It was the first time I said, ‘oh, I can actually use this feedback.’’’
Since the beginning of the year, Gamson and Michaud have attended a number of dance performances, engaging in discussions about works by other choreographers. Gamson also observed several rehearsals of a new work that Michaud recently premiered at an annual LA dance event for emerging choreographers.
“Rosanna coming into rehearsals and asking me questions has both reminded me of the skill set I have and given me other options,” he says. “It’s like having a paid friend. I have other choreographer friends who can give me feedback but there can also be this unspoken sense of competition. I don’t feel this with Rosanna.”
Gamson loves that Michaud “has strong taste, an established aesthetic and can be incredibly opinionated. I’m not trying to have an acolyte,” she says. “I don’t want to change his voice or corrupt his process. The hope is that I accelerate his process so that he can make two pieces instead of four pieces to get where he needs to go next.”
Though it remains to be seen how a program like CHIME might affect the careers of the three Southern California mentees, Tarpaga, who had seen an earlier version of Michaud’s latest dance, recently viewed it for a second time because his company performed at the same annual dance event. “I really saw a change in Bradley’s work,” he says. “It’s not that Rosanna told him to change everything and he did, but it seemed to me that he found something new and that gave his work new spice.”
Optimistic that the Southern California pilot will result in continued funding, Jenkins hopes that no matter what transpires, the relationships between choreographers will continue beyond the parameters of CHIME. “Because it’s not just mentor giving to mentee, it’s a cross conversation about the making of work,” she says. “Everyone gains.”
Whatever the future might hold, Michaud has no doubt that his participation in CHIME has paved the way for more lasting interaction. “A program like this, at the very least, offers the chance for camaraderie,” he says. “I’m certainly not going to stop talking to Rosanna when the program is over.”