To work with a mentor, to be in the presence of “a wise and trusted counselor,” sounds like an advantage reserved only for royalty. As an artist, to have the opportunity to work closely with a mentor can be a kind of deliverance from the often lonely and isolating experience of making one’s own work. To work with someone who has dealt with being creatively blocked as well as creatively on fire, someone who has developed a clear sense of how they work best, someone who is still taking risks, someone who can speak about their own mistakes, someone who cares about how you make your work, can speak about how they make theirs, and someone who is committed to sharing with you their insights and experience is like getting all the perks of having a big brother or a big sister without any of the sibling rivalry.
Being mentored does not eliminate all of the challenges that accompany making work, of course, but offers dialogue around them and the company of someone who has experience beyond one’s own and who can help illuminate the darkness, reframe questions and invigorate one’s practice.
Beginning July 1, the guidelines for the 2013 CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange) programs become available and choreographers in the Bay Area and Southern California will be asking themselves if they wish to enter into a 12-month mentorship experience. Some may already know whom they wish to work with while others will contemplate what kind of chemistry is necessary for such a relationship to be meaningful. Even the very process of selecting a mentor or being selected requires a bit of soul-searching, not to mention the process of putting together a mutually important plan for those months.
Founded by Margaret Jenkins and administered by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (which notably enters its 40th season in 2013), CHIME has involved over 90 artists since its inception in 2004 and now includes three distinct programs: CHIME in the San Francisco Bay Area and CHIME in Southern California both for self-selected mentor/mentee pairs, and CHIME Across Borders in which choreographer-mentors of renown come to San Francisco to work with three local dance-makers over the course of one year.
“I think the thing that is the most powerful about all of these programs is that they genuinely break down this sense of isolation articulated by so many artists and brings people directly into dialogue about making work and keeping on,” says Jenkins. “I think that’s all we can really ask of one another. CHIME is about process. Whether or not a work gets made is not the point of CHIME.”
Even after four decades of making her own work, maintaining a company, touring globally and collaborating cross-culturally, Jenkins herself points to the value of reaching beyond one’s own process. “CHIME challenges me to facilitate new ways of being in dialogue with other artists and CHIME Across Borders allows me to be a witness and through that process be mentored myself. One of the extraordinary things about making work is that each time one begins, one begins anew; the lessons learned are relearned every time, over and over, even after 40 years.”
The programs of CHIME are intended to help minimize that sense of isolation felt even by successfully working choreographers.
For CHIME Across Borders, master choreographers from outside the Bay Area, provocative individuals with substantial bodies of work, serve as program chairs for one year working in close connection with local choreographers both in the studio and beyond. Other participants in the room are members of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and each mentee has the opportunity to invite one of their associates as a guest dancer.
To date, the CHIME Across Borders chairs have been David Gordon (2010), Ralph Lemon (2011) and Elizabeth Streb (2012)–each undeniably heavy-hitters in the dance world. “These are significant thinkers who have made a serious impact on how we perceive what is movement, what is a move, what is an idea, what is dance,” says Jenkins.
Assuming the role of Chair for 2013 is choreographer and educator Tere O’Connor. Artistic director of the New York-based Tere O’Connor Dance since 1982 and a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he resides for the spring semester, O’Connor has been an active choreographer, educator, mentor, writer, and curator of dance and performance for over 30 years.
What drew him to CHIME Across Borders? “I really love the program,” he says. “Making my work is inextricably woven with my teaching and mentoring. I have to have those two things going on simultaneously. ”
He adds, “The fact that the people in [CHIME Across Borders] work together for a while and that we can create together a shared experience has such an elliptical benefit–me to them and them to me. A series of locating questions of the artists means I have to ask questions of myself. It keeps me open in my process. I admire anyone who is open to inquiry.”
Selecting a CHIME Across Borders Chair is a challenging task, notes Jenkins, who looks for individuals older than potential applicants, with a significant enough volume of work beyond those who might apply, and someone who is familiar with the process of mentoring. “Tere is very available, aesthetically and emotionally,” she says. “The way in which he frames the act of thinking and making will be wonderfully challenging and provocative for all the artists involved.”
A self-described autodidact, O’Connor says he came to dancing late and never took a composition class. Nonetheless, very early on he discovered the intrigue of examining his own process, exploring why and how he made the things he did. The process of untangling his own creative intentions and refining his own systems for making work has been at the heart of his practice ever since.
“In lieu of any rulebook for making dances, I kept track of what kind of systems I used. I wrote a lot,” he reflects. “When I was young I initially analyzed my work by looking at the structure of my phrase-making to ask why I made such complex, convoluted systems. I tried to glean information that pointed me back to the world of ideas.
He explains that he would begin to make the work with some small source idea, get quickly sick of that and start something different. This would repeat until he had several different pieces and realized that the inquiry was about discovering context for these dissimilarities. “It created a whole politic for why I am making dances,” he says. “It’s not about finding a singularity of meaning; it’s about seeking a more expansive form of meaning.”
Now as a professor of dance, developing and refining curriculum within the highly structured environment of academia is an essential part of his function as an educator. How does the autodidact reconcile with the academic? “We’re making it possible for the students to participate in the process more,” he explains. “Our interest is in dismantling the hierarchies of learning. As the artist I’m helping them to listen.”
When asked how he intends to shape CHIME Across Borders in 2013, O’Connor describes an environment of collaboration and exchange where ideas and inspirations are shared. He says, “I also want to personalize the time with each artist so that I get to just listen to them. A really important part of mentorship is listening.”
He insists that in no way does he want people to take on his aesthetic, rather that the process be all about theirs. O’Connor describes his aesthetic as being possessed of irreconcilability, changeability and temporality.
While chairing CHIME Across Borders next year O’Connor will be working on a major project of his own for which he is making three distinct works to be performed at various venues then converging them together for major performances at the Krannert Center in Urbana-Champaign and in New York in 2013. “It’s going to be a very long witnessing process,” he remarks.
Mary Carbonara is a teacher, choreographer, publicist, arts administrator based in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com.