I more or less quit dancing five years ago. Like many of us, I came into arts administration as a dancer needing to pay the bills. But after a few years, the work of running an organization took center stage, and I quietly stopped taking classes. For a while, I regretted not being onstage. I resented supporting other people’s work, while not creating any of my own, and I wondered how I would find artistic fulfillment. Then, something interesting happened. I realized that my talent lay not in creating work onstage, but in crafting the environment for that work. Instead of choreographing gestures, I choreograph relationships, connecting artists and ideas with a community who can support, enjoy, and be transformed by their work. This month, my artistic vision and over two years of steady work come to fruition in Performing Diaspora.
Over almost a decade in this community, I’ve noticed a pattern: practitioners of traditional performance receive support and opportunities (although never enough), to practice and preserve their craft, however, many of these venues discourage experimentation. On the other hand, presenters of contemporary performance are making more and more efforts to include traditional and culturally-specific work in their seasons, but it’s often devoid of the context and community that would allow that work to be fully understood. What about the artists who are both deeply rooted in a traditional form, AND want to experiment with that tradition? They’ve been coming to CounterPULSE.
In 2004, I designed our current Artist in Residence program. I wanted to give artists an opportunity to create new work with as much freedom and support as humanly possible, and to do it not in an isolated studio, but in community. In recent years, we had seen more and more traditional artists applying to and participating in our programs. I began thinking about how we could support these artists. How could we use the success of our Artist in Residence program to create opportunities and advance a conversation among artists who were innovating with traditional forms?
I’m not an expert in any form of traditional performance, so I knew I would need help. I gathered three of the most thoughtful people I knew to serve as curators for the program—Sherwood Chen, Laura Elaine Ellis, and Debbie Smith. We dreamed together over a series of dinners, and our dreams quickly evolved into a two-year initiative. It combined both festival and symposium, with residency, mentorship and commissioning components, to create a program that’s as comprehensive and supportive as we could possibly make it. Performing Diaspora had emerged as an idea—now all I needed was the money to make it happen.
I didn’t get the first grant I wrote for the program and was incredibly disappointed. “It’s a great idea,” I reasoned, “How could they not GET it!” I asked the funder for feedback, took that advice to heart, and it paid off immensely. After that, gathering support for the program became easy, even fun! The more I talked about the need for Performing Diaspora, the more I discovered that this was a conversation worth having—not just with artists, but with grantmakers as well. There’s nothing more exciting than advancing an idea whose time has so clearly come.
The day after we released the application, we had received over 100 phone calls and emails. I was blown away by the range and quality of the proposals that came from all over California. The demand for this support, and the eagerness of artists to engage in this dialogue was so much bigger than I had even imagined. Clearly, we were onto something!
As the program began, I had lots of questions. I knew our Artist in Residence program worked beautifully for two artists at a time (every single participant has dubbed CounterPULSE the best residency they’ve ever experienced), but how would it work for thirteen artists across the state? To my knowledge, we were the first organization to offer a “virtual residency” program, and I knew that our technology would need to evolve in order to create community across geographic and cultural barriers. I wondered about the Critical Response Process, Liz Lerman’s feedback method which we use exclusively at CounterPULSE. How would the process work for traditional artists? Could we use the tools of a postmodern developmental process to support the work of traditional artists without imposing aesthetic or cultural values? (That last question is an article in itself!)
So far, the journey has been incredible. There were tears at our first work-in-progress showing, as artists discovered what it was like to have the support and freedom to innovate—something that they had previously been punished for; shared challenges and passions were discovered. The community we imagined is coming to fruition, and our blog is brimming with thoughtful and honest insights into the complex nature of this work. Performing Diaspora has also galvanized our organization—the CounterPULSE staff amazes me daily as they each find new ways to realize this ambitious project on our small budget. Our interns organized a fundraiser almost entirely by themselves, and the board has risen to the challenge of unexpected growth.
I still have more questions than answers. How will audiences respond to these performances? How can we let the work speak for itself, and still give viewers the tools to better understand a culture that isn’t their own? Will audiences recognize innovation if they aren’t familiar with the traditions involved? And what happens next? We’ve received nationwide attention for Performing Diaspora, and I’d like to expand it to include national, and even international, artists.
But for now, I’m reveling in the art. Watching Sri Susilowati perform in sweatpants startles me into experiencing Indonesian dance in a whole new way. Adia Whitaker has got me thinking about the concepts of home and identity, her conflicting experiences yielding complex rhythms that I can’t get out of my head. Prumsodun Ok’s haunting portrayal of queer love through an ancient Cambodian myth follows me into my dreams. In fact, each Performing Diaspora artist is changing how I think about the world and the work that I do.
Not only is Performing Diaspora enabling these artists to realize a very bold vision, but in doing so, I believe it is actually expanding the field itself. We’re changing what’s possible. Through this process, I have seen my own artist’s vision realized… not just onstage, but in the dialogues that occur, the relationships that are forged, and the possibility that is created.
Now that’s fulfilling.