Giving Momentum to Community: Artistic Residency Programs in San Francisco

By Eboni Hawkins

September 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Choreographers are not alone in the search for space and time to work on their craft.The unique challenge for dancers, however, becomes finding organizations that “get it”—the creative process of movement-based artists and the technical requirements of working intensively with the physical body. In April 2011, The Alliance for Artists Communities, a national and international association of artists’ communities and residencies, published “Mind the Gap: Artist Residencies and Dance,” an in-depth look at the infrastructure of support for dance-based artists. In addition to assessing dancers’ “awareness” of different residency opportunities, the report highlighted several San Francisco-based organizations stepping up to support dancers and the creation of new work.

Locally, the list is robust with many long-running programs. Shotwell Studios, The Garage, Counterpulse, ODC, all support dance artists at various stages in their careers. Smaller organizations such as The Luggage Store/Tenderloin National Forest, Meridian Gallery and The Red Poppy Art House, work with choreographers one-on-one to customize residencies that make the best use of non-traditional spaces. Larger presenting organizations, such as Z Space and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, arrange residencies for established artists that need additional production support. For the choreographer looking to secure a residency, it is important to identify if one’s professional trajectory and artistic vision is a match for the support an organization is willing to give.

Amara Tabor-Smith, Artistic Director of Deep Waters Dance Theater, found a perfect match in CounterPULSE’s Artist Residency program. In the initial time of applying for the program, Tabor-Smith was “at a creative low point and thought seriously about giving up as a choreographer.” But delving into the residency she found “CounterPULSE [to be] hugely supportive and committed to artists in a way that is genuine and consistent;” she “credit[s] the residency for re-sparking [her] inspiration to continue making work.” Says Tabor-Smith, “my residency at CounterPULSE encouraged me to push myself as an artist in a way that I had great fear and trepidation. To feel like I had this relentless support from the CounterPULSE staff, gave me a network of support that I had never experienced before and for which, I am deeply grateful.“

Tabor-Smith’s experience is echoed in the passion that Mary Alice Fry has for supporting artists who participate in one of Shotwell Studios’ two residency programs: Women on The Way (WOW) Festival and Artist-in-Motion (AIM). Artistic/Executive Director Fry finds that “the most attractive applicants are women who have the potential to take the information and resources we give them to do it on their own.” Acceptance into WOW carries with it access to space and publicity for female choreographers who “have a piece that has been tooled and speaks to an audience.” The Artist-in-Motion (AIM) program at Shotwell Studios is a more traditional residency program that gives both male and female dancers a chance to explore. Most importantly, choreographers are given “mentoring on how to self-produce.” Fry describes AIM as a way to “really help the choreographer see what they have—a way for them not to loose any money and get discouraged. We’re trying to create that entrance, [give] free resources, [offer] audience building. They’re encouraged by people who like their work or don’t like their work and re-tool. Some people find out that they don’t really want to be a modern dancer. [AIM] gives them some momentum. We help them make up their mind.”

Shotwell Studios shares a close relationship with The Garage, which serves as rental space for some of the performances in the Women on the Way Festival and offers it’s own opportunities for artists in residence through RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) and AIRspace (Artist in Residence Space). Both programs feature a very open selection process with AIRspace specifically supporting queer-identified artists. Joe Landini, director at The Garage, emphasizes that decisions around resident artists are not necessarily based on artistic excellence but rather on the notion of community. Some of the questions that come up for Landini include: How involved in the community are they? Are people interested in seeing this work? Are they able to work autonomously? The last question is a strong part of the equation. The Garage provides rehearsal and performance space, plus technical and administrative support for AIRspace and a strong professional background becomes integral to a choreographer’s ability to “follow their internal deadlines and have realistic expectations for being produced.”

A residency at The Garage can be a strategic step in a dancer’s trajectory. Landini paints a picture of RAW and AIRspace as “feeder program[s] for other organizations, which we like. Our pieces usually go to ODC, Dance Mission, the SF Fringe Festival, The National Queer Arts Festival (NQAF), CounterPULSE and the San Francisco International Arts Festival.”

Pilot, House Special, and the Artist in Residence programs at ODC stand as three of the more competitive and most visible residency programs for the Bay Area’s aspiring choreographers. As such, it is important to understand how the programs relate to each other and how they reflect the position ODC holds in the presenting landscape. While Pilot is “truly an open call,” former Theater Director Rob Bailis shares, “Pilot focuses on mentorship and cooperative presentation among colleagues—we pick a balance of skills and talents that will work well together as team for each cycle. Because it is less determined by proven choreographic talent, and more so by desire and craft of intent, Pilot has consistently introduced us to artists we continue to engage.”

ODC’s other two residency programs, House Special and the Artist in Residence program demonstrate a longer commitment between ODC and an emerging choreographer and as such are by invitation only. These invitations are generally the result of sustained visibility in the performing arts community and a willingness on the part of the choreographer to fully expose the mechanics and heart behind their craft. Bailis explains, “House Special is about opening up the creative process so we can get a more intimate look at how an artist creates, what interests an artist, how they make use of time and space in their process—these are critical elements for us in determining if we have the right fit with an artist—if we are compatible as a presenter/incubator with the artists goals.”

The last tier of ODC’s residency offerings is the Artist in Residence program and, encompassing “three full years” represents the deepest level of investment for ODC. Says Bailis, “These artists and their projects become the central element of the Theater’s public face, it’s curation, and its expression of cultural values for the term of their residency, so it is a serious relationship and commitment from both sides. Because we work with between five and ten artists in residency at a time, and they come in as a class who will share three years together, there is a serious deep dive into curatorial strategy, project positioning, long term thinking about how to time and position the creation and the presentation of each work, and how to bring context to that work through the curation of national and international work that will share a season with our residents…We embrace creative talent, investigation, and the effort to leverage risk as a means of deepening capacity. This means we can’t always know what we are going to get out of a residency, and that is exactly the point. When we engage a resident artist, it is for the long haul, and our objectives are focused on that career, not only the hot project. So residency with us has a lot of liberty, but it also has a lot of demands.”

Bailis, as the long-time Theater Director, pulls out to look at the intersection of supporting an artist and preparing them for reality, “If there is one thing that helps an artist leap from thread to thread, it is fearlessness of investigation of artistic process and out put, rigorous, even tireless use of materials in the creative process, true presence in our community combined with an eye towards other markets, specificity of artistic inquiry and openness to critical feedback, and finally a huge dose of self agency. Our residents are preparing to go into a career that will be a mixture of self-presenting, co-presenting, being produced, and being commissioned and presented. To survive in a dance career as a creative in this era, you simply need to be able to do all of that. In our residency we work with artists who are interested in realizing a career as well as a body of work. It has to be both for the long-term relationship to have traction.

More than opportunities for time and space, residencies are relationships that acknowledge the essentials of the profession and craft of choreography. Tabor-Smith reflects, “in retrospect, I became painfully aware as an artist and more specifically as a working class artist of color that I have mostly experienced my art making from a place of severe deprivation—making work without adequate financial support, much needed rest, space to work or opportunities to present. Suddenly having these things in the form [of a residency] made me realize not only how hungry for this kind of support I was/I am but how stressful the conditions are that so many working class artists deal with as a consistent reality.”

As we muddle through this recession and rally against cuts to arts funding from all sides, it’s important to pause and re-imagine our work/life balance, and account for all the multiple needs of dancemakers. Taking the time out to write from Salvador, Bahia where she is in residence with Sherwood Chen for their collaboration “Headmistress,” Tabor-Smith offers her personal ideas of re-framing: “Ultimately I believe that having time, space and support—both economic and moral—provided by artistic residencies is vital for artists to continue to make work. The once-romantic notion of the deprived and struggling artist is not something we should reinforce in any way.”


Eboni Senai Hawkins is the director of see. think. dance., a boutique performing arts organization which identifies artists and communities in urban settings and narrows the divide between them. see. think. dance. has curated work for The Red Poppy Art House and UC-Berkeley and created the DANCEfirst! series at The Museum of the African Diaspora. Eboni serves on the Planning Committee for the Black Choreographers’ Festival, contributing as Social Media Liaison and programmer for the REFLECT film series. A featured blogger for the Emerging Arts Professionals 2011 Blog Salon, Eboni will be a co-curator at the Changing Cultural Participation Conference hosted by the San Francisco Foundation and the Wallace Foundation in October 2011.

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