NEW VIEW: Julie Potter

By Julie Potter

Julie smiles in headshot
Julie smiles in headshot
Julie Potter / photo by Robert Donald
Meet Julie Potter, the Director of San Francisco’s ODC Theater, who stepped into the role in the fall of 2016. Dancers’ Group has had the privilege of working with Julie as a writer for this publication and in her former role at YBCA. We were delighted to discover more about her many interests and inspirations.

Where is home for you and why?
I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where my dance life started. Now I consider San Francisco my home – the place where I’ve created sustaining rituals, community and culture. I feel lucky to live in the same neighborhood as the ODC Theater, the Mission District, which allows me to closely experience the context in which the organization operates and the proximal publics.

How did you end up in this city?
I moved to San Francisco for love in 2009. Previously, I was living in New York and working at The Juilliard School at Lincoln Center.

What do you find important / special about the Bay Area dance scene?
I admire the generosity of knowledge transmissions and practice sharing among artists here. I think this porousness is particularly strong in the Bay Area. I’m inspired by the density of dance artists in the region and the rich ecosystem of performance sites from DIY salon environments, shared spaces and mid-size organizations to the institutional and academic. And if live gathering is the most essential counterpoint to screen-oriented lives, I feel like the performing artists in the Bay are also on the front lines of embodying the replenishment that expressions of the body bring to our contemporary culture.

How would you like to see the Bay Area dance community evolve in the next year? The next five years?
I think the dance community is really composed of interdependent clusters, pockets and nodes, which keep a generative circulation of ideas, practices and resources moving. Evolving would mean staying in process in a way that is attuned and awake to the moment in which we are living. This is not a time to isolate. Ideally, I would like to see this evolution be characterized by generosity where people are showing up for each other at performances, collaborating and continuing to ask questions.

What are your curatorial objectives for ODC Theater?
I hope to cultivate ways to look, to give attention, to be in community, and to make meaning. As someone passionate about potent experiences of contemporary performance, gathering and exchange, I am committed to nurturing that which is vital and embedded in this live art. Our core programs include a performance season, artist residencies as well as public engagement for amplification and connection.

I approach performance curation with an awareness of how legibility and visibility function, remembering that some aspect of the unknown is important for the field. Performance can offer a locus of possibility into the public imagination. Through this hosting, the theater offers opportunities to be with that which is life-affirming, and also to practice being with difficulty, and perhaps even finding the pleasure in that condition.

Being situated at the region’s largest dance campus, I plan to advocate for and share the vital activity of West Coast artists. In addition to a deep commitment to artists at the ODC Theater, I am also thoughtfully engaged with our publics, seeding both communities of affirmation, those in which we find belonging, as well as communities of dissonance, those in which we encounter difference, new perspectives and zones for discovery. Both are important if we are to contribute to a world in which change is possible.

Finally, I think of this role as continued care giver, approaching living as care and study as care. I host and think together with artists and audiences. About affective vulnerability. About assemblages and ecologies of individual creators and relationships. Mostly about dances.

Imagine you had unlimited resources, time, and money — what would you do at the theater?
Someone from a large foundation asked me a similar question a few years ago. The choices we make as arts professionals and the operations we put in motion are so contingent upon the conditions and times in which we are living.

So, the value in imagining a utopian environment for theater broadly leads one to identify enabling conditions in which a thriving vision of culture can land – one in which publics and influencers value cultural memory, transmission, expressions of the body and empathy. One in which artists have the resources, time and money to manifest a vision and live well. Every program we do at ODC Theater aims to continually help create these more conducive conditions both for performing arts and for artists. So that is how I see the long arc.

More immediately, I find myself inspired by strategies and perspectives offered by artist coach Beth Pickens, with whom I worked at YBCA. Pickens is currently teaching a workshop called “Making Art During Fascism.” Rather than imagining utopian conditions, she encourages looking squarely at our capitalist system, economics and labor in relation to the arts and strategically designing tactics with eyes wide open to a fraught reality.

Personally, I also think priorities should be guided by staying focused on the specific assets of the organization and how to do the most good by the instrument. How do you leverage and provide access to those assets? Some of the initiatives I worked on at YBCA with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chinaka Hodge and Amy Vazquez around institutional relationship and access expanded both who was making work and who was coming to see work at the site. At ODC Theater I plan to do a lot of listening to be an effective match-maker in the flow of assets and needs.

Is there anything happening in the local dance ecosystem you feel is not visible enough?
I will take this opportunity to make visible the recent W.A.G.E. Certification of local art spaces including The Lab and SFMOMA. W.A.G.E. stands for Working Artists and the Greater Economy and their broad goal is to work toward the fairer and more equitable distribution of resources in the contemporary art field and in society at large. Spearheaded by Dena Beard and Claudia La Rocco at their respective institutions, W.A.G.E. Certification signals a vital conscientiousness around artist labor.

I think it’s also important to continue make visible how notions of safety and sanctuary translate to various performance sites differently across cultures, legalities and ideologies. If safety is a precondition for receptivity and participation – in performance and in relationship – I want to encourage more inquiry and awareness regarding what this entails for a variety of publics and sites.

Finally, I believe in the body as a site of healing, and want to make visible the life-changing and life-saving modalities of those who work in dance and body-based practices to guide somatic re-patterning. Many practitioners in our local dance ecosystem do amazing work in this area and are still too often met by medical, psychiatry and psychology professionals as being “woo” or “out there.” The incredible multimodal intelligence and sensitivity of dance practitioners has so much to offer in this vein. I hope the rigorous work of people bridging fields such as Besser van der Kolk can shift perceptions of integrated body healing practices closer to the center.

Who is Besser van der Kolk and what’s this work like?
Besser van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts and his findings and interventions are summarized in his writing, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” This work is compelling to me because it recognizes the vital role that embodied practice plays in shaping wellness and how those actions communicate with the nervous system.

What’s coming up at ODC Theater that you can’t wait for people to experience?
I’m excited for people to experience the work in this June’s Walking Distance Dance Festival, which will feature mostly premieres by Bay Area artists: Alex Ketley, Charles Slender-White and Liane Burns, Monique Jenkinson, Maurya Kerr, Joanna Haigood and Laura Ellis. The Kate Weare Company will be at ODC Theater in the fall—a collaboration with visual artist Clifford Ross. I’m also working with artists to develop the 2018 season, which I’m excited about, tracing humor and criticality, creative habitats, grand gestures and modern love.

What is an instance in dance (recent or long ago, local or far away) that you return to for inspiration?
So many live performance moments! Some inspiring and particularly memorable instances onstage that come to mind include Lemi Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body, Taylor Mac’s Comparison is Violence, Aristi?des Vargas’ La Razon Blindada, Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show, Mariano Pensotti’s The Past is a Grotesque Animal, Sarah Michelson’s Devotion and William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar.

I also remember learning phrases from master teachers as a young dancer and the exhilaration of that immersive study. I remember Twyla Tharp teaching retrograde, Donald McKayle teaching Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, Daniel Lewis teaching Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane. I still enjoy taking class and return for inspiration. The value of repetition is a sort of persistence, and I appreciate the cyclical practice and ritual of return.

Give us a shortlist of other inspirations: people, places, artists/artworks, authors/ books, movies, classes, exhibits, shows, anything! (in or out of dance)
Volcanoes are my hobby. I find the geology endlessly fascinating and awe-inspiring. I listen to (and love) the Call Your Girlfriend podcast. I also have a pretty serious book problem and always try to keep some fiction and poetry going. I recently enjoyed The Brain Electric by Malcolm Gay, which is about prosthetics. Alley Cat Books on 24th Street in San Francisco is the best. Joe Veix makes excellent humor projects and takes elements of performance to the internet. You’re Going to Die is a strange and wonderful salon series. Sandra Chinn’s class for ballet. Annie Carpenter’s class for yoga.

Is there anything else you’d like to share as you step into this new role?
I am so grateful to all the artists and colleagues who have been generous in sharing insights and encouragement as I begin my work at ODC Theater. Thank you and see you at the dance!

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.