SPACES FOR DANCE: A Range of Responses To A Timeless Challenge

By Kate Mattingly

October 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

WHEN WORDS LIKE “radical,” “unprecedented” and “cornerstone” are brought into a conversation about new spaces for dance, it points to both how dire and how timeless the questions about buildings and artists may be. These words emerged during a multifaceted discussion entitled Re-Imagining Our Cultural Commons: Making Spaces for Dance, that gathered performers, mappers and urban planners in a make-shift building at the corner of Market and 6th street on August 12, 2014. The evening was organized by the Dance Discourse Project and panelists included Ilana Lipsett of [freespace], two members of the SALTA collective, Julie Phelps of CounterPulse, and Kay Cheng and Tina Chang of The Market Street Prototyping Festival. This eclectic group shed light on pervasive dilemmas as well as unique approaches to supporting and sustaining artists’ needs in a rapidly changing city. As far ranging as their ideas and projects were, some essential questions about non-urban settings and artists’ retreats were left out of the conversation. Two places that foster residencies and rethink interactions between city and rural settings are included in the conclusion of this article.

The August 12th conversation was moderated by Michelle Lynch Reynolds of Dancers’ Group who offered several questions that gracefully aligned and differentiated the panelists’ perspectives. Just after the panelists described their projects—descriptions that included phrases like “fostering neighborhood interaction” (Prototyping Festival), “radically inclusive” (SALTA), “contemporary community spaces” ([freespace]) and “a cornerstone for community” (CounterPulse)—Reynolds began the Q&A session with an inquiry about “collaboration,” asking, “could a common thread between the panelists’ endeavors, visible not only between people but also between artistic and civic organizations, be ‘collaboration’?” Each panelist responded in the affirmative, yet their responses revealed the stark differences in both the scales and intentions of their projects.

For Lipsett, [freespace] “couldn’t be possible without collaboration.” Her project “activates” vacant real estate in cities around the world, turning empty buildings into temporary community centers. The August 12th meeting of the Dance Discourse Project was held in one of [freespace]’s buildings that during the summer had become a home to classes, workshops and art projects. Lipsett says there are 26 cities around the world now turning underutilized spaces into generative environments. She said during the discussion that [freespace] “inspires people to find nooks and to use them to transform the space, providing eyeopening opportunities to use environments in alternative ways.”

Her ideas about temporary interventions, transformation and creative re-envisioning were another through-line between panelists’ projects. The SALTA collective says their project is an experiment that emerged “in the wake of a stable sense of what it means to be a dancer.” Their envisioning of different platforms and structures of support places attention on modes of production and dismantling traditional monetary exchanges. At one point during the discussion they described the collective as “Marxist feminist.” SALTA began two years ago with mobile performances occurring each month in different Oakland spaces: galleries, homes, cafés, dance studios. This summer they signed a lease to join a “collective of collectives” that will occupy The Omni, a 22,000 square foot building that used to function as a social club and then, in the 1980s, was a venue for rock concerts. Nine women (SALTA’s seven-member collective plus Abby Crain and Margit Galanter) will coordinate the multifaceted uses of their Omni space, namely “presenting, research and artistin-residences.” They describe the project as a response to the scarcity of venues for experimental dance in Oakland. SALTA will maintain its mobile monthly showings, and with The Omni foster more intentional ways of supporting creative processes. Some of the other organizations working in the building include Timeless Infinite Light book publisher and The Bay Area Public School, an educational center for adults. SALTA members view this co-habitation of organizations as a way to “cross-pollinate and expand our practices.”

Although The Market Street Prototyping Festival also places emphasis on fostering community and connections, their methods for supporting artists are markedly different. Funded with a $225,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, this endeavor is a collaboration between the San Francisco Planning Department and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Their goal is to “transform Market Street into a public platform showcasing up to 50 of the most exceptional ideas for improving San Francisco’s main thoroughfare.” At the August 12th discussion Cheng and Chang described the city of San Francisco as 25% streets, sparking the idea to encourage the use of these streets “beyond the movement of cars.” By inviting artists to submit proposals that “foster neighborhood interaction” and “encourage pedestrian safety” the festival aims to honor Market Street as a “vibrant public space, a civic backbone, and a place for public discourse.” In 2015, the 50 projects selected for the festival (each project receives $2,000) will be presented during a three-day period, April 9, 10 and 11th.

Market Street is a busy, multi-use corridor in the city: words like “vibrant” sometimes mask the fact that all sorts of transactions occur on a regular basis, some legal and others illegal. Asking artists to “improve” or “better” the landscape hints at creating spaces for certain populations of people while leaving those who are homeless or soliciting services illegally out of the “creative re-envisioning.” As Cheng and Chang described their goals and intentions, questions about assessment and efficacy emerged: how are projects evaluated? What questions drive their ideas about “interaction”? Which groups or demographics are prioritized? Are artists’ projects becoming instrumentalized to solve civic problems?

A similar matrix of questions is needed when considering CounterPulse’s relocation of their administrative offices and theatrical venue to 80 Turk Street in San Francisco. This is a project made possible through collaboration between the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), the Northern California Community Loan Fund and the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development. CounterPulse will acquire its own building and keep paying the same rent for seven years, which Phelps described as “a screaming deal in this city.” Although Phelps described the plan as “a dream,” and “a model that has no precedent in the United States,” it appears that CounterPulse is becoming part of a long list of venues that are used to transform neglected parts of urban landscapes. More than 10 years ago the City of New York gave close to $10 million to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre so the company and school could build their own headquarters in Manhattan, and this is one of several partnerships between money, cities and dance: The Joyce Theater, now an internationally-known center for performances, opened in 1982 through a collaboration between patron LuEsther T. Mertz and choreographer Eliot Feld, (like CounterPulses’s new venue it used to be an “adult theater” called the Elgin); the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which initially struggled to convince patrons to attend seasons in a borough outside of Manhattan, is now part of a thriving neighborhood that attracts artists and patrons; and The New 42nd Street is an independent, nonprofit organization that oversees theaters and which influenced the closure of all adult entertainment places in the 42nd Street area in the mid-1990s. Instead of labeling the financial structure supporting CounterPulse’s new home as unprecedented, it may be more apt to view this collaboration of civic, private and non-profit organizations as the newest choreography between architecture, dollars and artists.

Issues raised by Reynolds during the August 12th discussion—“the thorniness of access to space and the seeming loss of space for organizations and artists”—are topics that are ongoing and uniquely addressed in various contexts. Panelists’ descriptions of shifts between temporary and permanent solutions to space needs indicated that there are multiple ways to address and satisfy requirements for performances as well as needs for rehearsal studios and creative process residences. In other words it is nearly impossible to draw a line between temporary and permanent solutions since every landscape shifts and evolves at different tempos.

Conclusion: a couple spaces for dance beyond a city’s borders.

Although much of the August 12th conversation focused on urban environments, it is equally important to acknowledge symbiotic relationships occurring between urban and rural settings. The Bay Area has a long history of sites like Anna Halprin’s dance deck and Headlands Center for the Arts that provide idyllic settings for choreographers and performers. Considering a few of these sites reveals how interdependent cities and more remote locations can be: respites that remove the pace and structures of urban life may encourage less confined thinking about exploration and relationships.

In Marin, Headlands Center for the Arts has fostered artists’ creative processes and presentations for more than three decades. It is a multidisciplinary center that supports writers, visual artists, filmmakers, choreographers and musicians. A similar oasis for creative exploration is currently being built to the north in Fairfield, California and called Sky Ranch Dance. Whereas Headlands offers residences to many different disciplines and artistic pursuits, Sky Ranch proposes to focus primarily on nurturing dancers.

Sky Ranch Dance is an initiative of Richard Siegal, Dr. Steven Siegal and Hillary Goidell. Inspired by one of the best known dance venues in the world, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Dr. Steven Siegal, who graduated from The Juilliard School and is currently a Board Certifi ed Orthopedic Surgeon, purchased a property in the Suisun Valley that includes majestic vistas. Richard Siegal, Dr. Siegal’s brother, is an internationallyacclaimed artist who founded The Bakery, his own company, after performing as a soloist with Ballett Frankfurt from 1997 to 2004, and then working as a guest with The Forsythe Company, where he is an “Associated Artist.” Now based in Paris and California, he is teaching and creating work for companies around the world. Goidell is a long-time collaborator of Richard Siegal’s, working as a photographer/documentarian as well as contributing to the design and production of his interactive installations. With Sky Ranch Dance, Goidell handles the creative direction, and together they describe the project as “a flexion point,” a retreat in a stunningly gorgeous landscape, and incubator for future and established artists. It is a center that will embrace educational, creative and presenting capacities, one that hosts classes and workshops as well as invites audiences to view performances and rehearsal processes. Richard Siegal describes the development Sky Ranch Dance as a type of “grafting,” using a surgical term for transplanting and fostering growth of a new part in an existing body. In this instance a center for highly skilled and innovative dancers will both nurture artists’ creative processes and provide workshops for students while simultaneously enhancing the cultural offerings of Solano County.

For Richard Siegal, collaboration has been a catalyst for expanding artistic practices. As a choreographer he has developed work with architects Didier Faustino and François Roche as well as industrial designer Konstantin Grcic. Describing one of his choreographic works to a reporter in 2014, Siegal said a statement that could also apply to building a dance center, “A prerequisite of real research is not knowing and that is part of my practice. Choreographic method and collaboration are both essentially concerned with the relationship between things.”

An important difference between Headlands and Sky Ranch Dance is Dr. Siegal’s goal for integrating community members at Sky Ranch and hosting classes for people who may not have access to studying dance. Both centers highlight the importance of environments on artists’ processes: both are retreats from the hustle of cities that emphasize collaboration between people and our environs.

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of In Dance.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.