Community Engagement: An Interview with Julie Potter, Writer in Residence at ODC

By Marie Tollon

Photo by Robert Donald
Pictured: Julie Potter
Photo by Robert Donald

For the artist Marcel Duchamp, “a work of art is a rendez-vous,” a time and space where artists and viewers come together. At times, a third party can be present, acting as a facilitator or interpreter. Known as art critics and scholars, this third party helps bridge the gap between audience and artists by providing a critical context from which to view the work. Traditionally, this research and discourse on art were primarily reserved to publications and academia, but arts organizations are now using them in more versatile ways in order to enhance the experience of their audience and reach a larger spectrum. The recent addition of a writing residency to ODC/Dance’s programming is a testimony of this current phenomenon. Julie Potter talks about her work and projects as the first resident writer at ODC.

Marie Tollon: Julie, what does your work at ODC entail?
Julie Potter: As the Writer in Residence, I consider the people, processes and performances at the Dance Commons as catalysts and informants for conversations about the potency of dance and how we frame the craft in relation to the Bay Area, arts across the nation, and, perhaps most importantly, to our globalized society and the questions of our time. I also think of inquiry and interrogation as guiding factors for the conversations to be had online and offline in this role. In short, the work entails being a fierce noticer, open listener and creative storyteller. More specifically, [it] entails writing and producing content for the blog, Triple Dog Dare, the primary platform for my writer in residence activities. In addition, the scope of work planned for the year includes think tank potlucks, interviews and research tracking the Bay Area arts ecosystem and locating it in relation to current events as well as the national art scene, attending rehearsals during new work development and providing feedback and requested dramaturgical support to artists, contributing program notes, presentations to the ODC staff and discussions with audience members.

MT: In an article about Bebe Miller’s A History, you noted the ‘desire to privilege the dance thinking and development’ in many recent artistic works. Do you see the position of Writer in Residence as a continuation of this trend?
JP: Absolutely. I think an ongoing practice of critical response and development of contextual materials for dance is on the rise with resident writers currently embedded at organizations like New York Live Arts and Danspace. This writing and discourse place value on the research and development of work – where the majority of the artist’s time is spent. Hope Mohr recently wrote on her blog “Most of the dancing life is about process.” I think “dance thinking” (a term I attribute to Mary Armentrout) begins artist centered and can offer generous insight to audiences.

MT: In ‘Love on the Run’, a video piece by ODC Artistic Director and Founder Brenda Way, some pedestrians were randomly asked to say a few words about modern dance. Some could not answer, as they had no relationship to this form of dance. How might your work act as a platform to raise awareness and appreciation for dance and contemporary arts?
JP: The language used to describe artistic disciplines can be problematic in the expectations and associations it creates. Although words provide markers for people, to label something dance or modern or contemporary can limit, alienate and even mislead. I think there are a lot of opportunities to invite the recognition of performance outside of a dance historical definition of modern dance and the recognized canon of staged works. I love Liz Lerman’s provocations articulately outlined in her book Hiking the Horizontal to investigate the why and to pull the thread beyond liking or disliking something. Experiencing dance is an exercise in paying attention and being present. While I can’t make people appreciate dance, I hope this work helps people deepen their experiences and find value in time spent with dance. What I can do is invite inquiry and catalyze curiosity by framing, linking and being generous with the information I’m privy to from this embedded role.

MT: What is your background and how might it inform your work at ODC?
JP: After training in Pittsburgh, PA, I attended Butler University double majoring in dance and arts administration with a minor in journalism. I worked as a communications administrator at The Juilliard School. That multidisciplinary environment of music, dance and drama as well as work with artists, faculty and New York arts writers was really influential. Then in San Francisco YBCA has been a rich environment in which I’ve continued my art learning, supporting programs in contemporary visual art, film and performance. Finally, this year studying at Wesleyan University’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) has further stretched my thinking into new territory and exposed me to a lot of avant garde and experimental performance, visual art performance, new genres, social practice and devised theater work.

MT: What brought you to writing? Can you share a decisive moment in your career so far?
JP: When I got to San Francisco, writing was my way of researching and essentially crash-coursing into a new and, at the time, foreign dance community. A critical turn around moment for me was the opportunity to participate in the 2010 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Dance at the American Dance Festival. Suzanne Carbonneau led the program and is truly a dance writing fairy godmother. Writers including Roslyn Sulcas and Deborah Jowitt workshopped our reviews. Doug McLennan created a laboratory for new forms of critical response for which we worked closely with Eiko and Koma. Artists such as John Jasperse and Martha Clarke visited class. These people probably influenced my writing more in 3 weeks than development during the years since. Also, Sasha Anawalt, who directed the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater, which I attended in 2011, shifted the way I think about arts journalism moving into more of an embedded community engagement role.

MT: Can you tell me about some art works, individuals, or conversations that have inspired you recently?
JP: The list is long. I’m omnivorous seeing art everywhere I go and festivals such as American Realness and Under the Radar in New York and the Time Based Art festival in Portland have inspired me this year, not just in the work presented, but in the artistic communities gathered. I’m always adding to my reading list and spending too much money at Modern Times Bookstore and Alley Cat Books. Recently I was captivated by Maggie Nelson’s analysis in The Art of Cruelty. Additionally, Claudia La Rocco is my advisor for the work I’m doing at ICPP and our conversations have been really inspiring in considering the critic as artist and discussing social sculpture for developing communities of practice responding to performance. [Founder of Culturebot] Andy Horwitz has also impacted the way I approach performance and consider critical response a parallel and open process with the art.

MT: Is there a writing project that is particularly important to you?
JP: Moving from New York I am aware of how nationally under-recognized Bay Area dance and artists are. I’m concerned by the amount of smart and rigorous work taking place here that flies under the radar. Therefore, giving voice to Bay Area dance and artists is particularly important to me. I’ve recently done a lot of research and writing about Contraband and the influential diaspora of artists who worked together in that collaborative group, as well as the local performance maker community and DIY circuits of exchange for experimental work. Finally with the new tech boom underway, I’m interested in investigating how this environment and proximity to the Silicon Valley is affecting dance making in the region.

Venturing into artistic territories that are in the making or newly produced, Potter not only relentlessly questions and exposes the creative process but also offers viewers the tools to reflect on what it is to make and see dance. Through her writing and community engagement programs at ODC,  Potter thereby contributes to make the  “rendez-vous” between artists and audience more compelling and intimate.

Read Julie Potter’s writing as ODC Theater Writer in Residence at

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of In Dance.

Marie Tollon is the current ODC Theater Writer in Residence and Programming Associate.