OFTEN WHEN THERE ISN’T an ideal opportunity at hand, you have to create one for yourself. In that vein, FACT/SF founder and Artistic Director Charles Slender has recently created a new commissioning program, JuMP (short for Just Make a Piece), that will provide the resources for an artist to—like the name suggests—simply make a piece.
As a certified Countertechnique teacher, a UC Berkeley English Literature/Dance graduate and an ambitious and thoughtful choreographer, Slender understands how balance works. It makes sense, then, that his approach to dance seeks lasting support in a climate in which many see only instability.
He explains, “One of the priorities in starting FACT/SF was to design a company that I would be happy to dance for and to create an environment for dancers that would be fulfilling, rewarding, nourishing and healthy. Not that it wasn’t about making work, that part is obvious, of course a choreographer starts a company to make their own work. But, how can you create a company that places the value of the individuals alongside the value of work— and not as a secondary priority?”
Having recently celebrated FACT/SF’s five year anniversary, Slender—while still as dedicated to creating equitable work environments and rigorous creative processes as ever—is taking the time to slow things down a bit. He remarks, “I’m realizing that the trajectory of a company is more like running a marathon than a 100 meter dash. I’m now curious about how we can do fewer things and do them better.”
In planning for the next five years, Slender and Operations Manager Jeanne Pfeffer began brainstorming ways to expand the company’s artistic exchange in a sustainable and enriching way. Slender explains, “We thought about what the Bay Area community had, and what it needed. We thought about what we would benefit from now, and what we would have benefitted from just a few years ago. What emerged was the rather basic idea to utilize our company structure to support one choreographer in the creation of one new work.”
Thus the idea for JuMP was conceived to provide the resources, time, space and exchange for an artist to make a new work. The selected artist’s piece (performed by FACT/SF) will be presented alongside a new work by Slender in November 2014 at ODC Theater. Planning to repeat JuMP every year, Slender hopes to make the program a stable fixture in the local dance community.
This year the application process for the inaugural round of JuMP will open January 6 and close February 7. A small group of finalists will be invited for interviews and given the opportunity (and a small stipend) to work with the FACT/SF dancers for a few hours to get a feel for the environment they would be stepping into. Out of that smaller pool of artists, one choreographer will be selected by February 28 to work with the FACT/SF dancers over a 10-week period (Sep-Nov 2014).
Employing an RFP/application, Slender and Pfeffer hope to learn about artists previously unknown to them and hear how various, potentially under the radar, choreographers are articulating their approaches to making work. Slender explains, “This is an alternative to just inviting someone we already know and like…it seemed more democratic, more interesting and more comprehensive.”
Having submitted numerous applications himself, and often feeling frustrated by having to argue for peripheral aspects of a project that seem unrelated to the actual work, Slender aims to make the application process as relevant as possible. In addition to sending in a work sample, the JuMP application will simply ask about the work that the artist makes, the work they want to make, and what they think they would get out of the program.
The program will give priority to local artists who haven’t had substantial opportunity or funding in the past. Slender is open to all kinds of aesthetics. He explains, “I’d love it if their work was completely different than what we make. That would provide a really interesting exchange and a great discussion about different ways to approach the creative process.” However, Slender wants an applicant whose craft is rooted in dance/movement research, real-time body-based work and who is intellectually curious and thoughtful. Moreover, he wants someone with a clear understanding of the necessity of fostering a positive working environment.
Thanks to support from a variety of sources, including a recent grant from the Rainin Opportunity Fund that will underwrite approximately half of the venue-related production expenses, FACT/SF will pay all of the project-related expenses for the selected JuMP artist, including a generous stipend for the choreographer, covering the cost of the dancers, the venue, costumes, props, designers, technicians, insurance, marketing, etc. “The whole point is to create a space and a program in which a choreographer of promise, who has not yet received great opportunity, can ‘just make a piece,’” explains Slender.
Yet Slender makes it clear that the company isn’t allocating unlimited resources—after all, everyone’s cash is limited—but rather leveraging what little resources they do have. Slender explains, “It’s not like FACT/SF is sitting on a pile of gold. We just figured that if we have the capacity to produce our own show and we’re going through all of those steps anyway, we could expand the production budget by 20% and offer something even more interesting and valuable, both for another artist and for us.”
By limiting the number of hoops a choreographer has to jump through to show their work and in reducing the number of resources they have to obtain in order to present their work, Slender hopes that JuMP will in its own small way provide a new, unique and dependable program in San Francisco.
Having performed at The Garage numerous times, presented commissioned work at CounterPULSE, participated in ODC’s Pilot Program and recently worked as a mentee with Elizabeth Streb in Margaret Jenkins’ CHIME Across Borders, Slender is beyond impressed and inspired by all that the key figures in the community have offered him and other artists. Still, there is a need for more programs. “I believe contributing to a rich environment is important for the continued development of that environment,” says Slender.
He goes on to explain, “I think the community is doing a tremendous job of supporting new artists, mid-career artists and established artists. So many people are doing their best and are making a really good and valuable effort. I’ve benefited from those things a lot since being here in the Bay. Yet still, an opportunity like JuMP doesn’t really exist.”
What makes JuMP unique is the way in which it seeks to fully support one artist. Many programs either support investigation and experimentation or focus on creating a work in a short amount of time. Few support both investigation and the creation of a new work. Slender feels that many programs get an artist halfway there, but due to limited resources fall short in providing all of the necessary time, space and support an artist needs to make a work.
Slender remarks, “I think the challenge is always balancing breadth and depth—they’re often at odds with each other. We’re hoping to make a significant impact for one choreographer and hope that by focusing our attention and resources we’re able to provide a comprehensive and holistic experience—that’s really important to me. I worry that building a program that serves one choreographer sounds myopic—that it doesn’t serve the larger community. But how many people do you have to serve before you’re serving the community? Is it one person? Is it 50 people?” Slender is consciously choosing to support one choreographer fully rather than a few partially.
JuMP will include the larger community by having a series of open work-in-progress showings. These presentations will aid the artistic growth of both the performers and choreographer, and give audience members a chance to be a part of the process. In addition, JuMP will include a series of peer counsel round table discussions that will give the selected JuMP choreographer a chance to sit down with Slender, Pfeffer and three to four choreographers from the community in an intimate and informal setting to discuss their artistic processes. The discussion may be podcast for the larger community to listen in, but the aim is to have a very focused discussion with a small group of artists. Slender explains, “With more and more people, the conversation often broadens. This can be great, but can also make it a lot harder to really get to the core of something.”
As artists, as much as we talk about supporting the larger dance community, or what that community has or doesn’t have to offer, in the end, we have to be willing to do the necessary and specific work. Slender asserts, “If there aren’t opportunities, then it becomes one’s obligation to create those opportunities. If you identify a problem and there’s something you can do about it, then you have to do something about it.” Ultimately, you have to create the meaningful exchange you want to see.
This article appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of In Dance.