New View: Carma Zisman

By Dancers' Group

December 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

ODC welcomed Carma Zisman as its new Executive Director in September 2017. Zisman comes from a family of artists in Santa Rosa and has lived throughout the West Coast, but has been rooted in San Francisco since 2000. She remembers her parents bringing her to performances in San Francisco since she was a child and calls the city her “first arts community” and studied at ACT and attended SF State University. Dancers’ Group asked Zisman more about her experiences and inspirations.

What drew you to join the ODC team?

I’ve been drawn to ODC since the first performance I saw in the ODC Theater (Brenda Way’s Scissors, Paper, Stone). I thought Brenda’s work was electrifying. In the sea of multidisciplinary work happening across SF in the early to mid-2000s, I had been searching for performances that would show me a true marriage of concept, skill, technique and a thoughtful interplay between musical and visual elements. I remember being struck in the opening moments of the work by the feeling that I had, finally, found a company that would both challenge and reward me as an audience member. I had also taken my first hip-hop class from Rhythm and Motion in the early 1990s, and discovered a place where I could explore a physical vocabulary that went far beyond the ballet and tap traditions I had originally trained in. When I had a chance to join ODC last year, I jumped at the chance. The mission makes me eager to get up in the morning, and the ODC team embodies much of what inspires me most–a diverse group of people who are passionately committed to getting EVERYone dancing.

What were you doing before joining ODC?

Just before coming to ODC I served as the Director of Advancement for The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio.

Do you have an artistic practice and/or background?

I fell in love with dancing at age four, inspired to beg for classes by the choreography of Michael Smuin back in the SF Ballet days. Hip troubles at age twelve drove me from ballet and tap classes to theater. As an actor, I focused on the development of original work. After seven years of helping create new works for stage and radio across northern California with playwrights, poets, musicians, journalists and authors, San Francisco’s Labor Archives commissioned me and labor folksinger Pat Wynn to showcase their collection of primary source materials, documenting the history of women in the Bay Area trade union movement. The presentation was designed as a single-night performance piece, but we ended up touring the work for two years. Those years opened my eyes to opportunities in producing and arts administration. I left touring and acting to lead the Amador County Arts Council and to co-found Main Street Theater Works which now makes its home in Jackson, CA.

A headshot of Carma Zisman smiling.
Photo by Tanya Anguita

Do you have a favorite performance?

So many works have inspired me! In addition to the first production I saw of Brenda Way’s noted above, Min Kahng’s The Four Immigrants at TheatreWorks SV last year remains a work I think about daily. It woke me to history and perspectives I was only partly aware of. Images from Garrett & Moulton’s Stabat Mattar continue to linger in my mind as do ideas from Sean Dorsey’s Boys in Trouble and ideas AND images from Brenda Way’s riveting Something About a Nightingale. I found the excerpt of Dead Reckoning (choreographed by KT Nelson) which ODC performed in Grace Cathedral for the opening of the Global Climate Action Summit beautiful and terrifyingly urgent. It reminded me again that some things are too important to be said with words–they must be danced.

What programs or activities does ODC have coming up?

I am excited about ODC/School’s offering of Aging Backwards classes. Through this welcoming (and fun!) class I’m re-discovering strength, flexibility and my physical confidence. On stage, I cannot wait to see Kate Weare and Brenda Way’s new collaboration with the old-time music group The Crooked Jades. The work titled World’s On Fire will have its world premiere at YBCA on March 7, 2019.

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

I came to San Francisco because I needed a place that drew impossibly complicated, fantastically diverse people together. It was extraordinary to find myself surrounded by people who invited me to participate in exploring food, arts and nature with them. In the process, we began to work out who we were and what it meant to be community together. I loved the way San Francisco taught me to say “yes” to unexpected intersections – of subjects, disciplines, culture, gender, roles, flavors, seasons. It was prohibitively expensive to be here in 1989 as a theater student, supporting myself. It’s unsustainably expensive now (there’s a challenge waiting for a solution!). The most rewarding part of my work is to play a role in inviting people IN: into classes in the ODC/School which welcome 90+ year-olds and 2 year-olds, and everyone in between to discover and connect 365 days per year; into performances in the ODC/Theater or venues across the City that prompt us to expand instead of contract; into affordable space and nurturing residencies that dance makers across the Bay Area need–sometimes desperately. I’m grateful to be part of ODC’s on-going efforts.

What’s a future goal or dream that you have for ODC?

I dream of a fully funded space endowment for ODC (approximately $9.5M left to go) so that it will be possible to keep our building open to dance and dancers 365 days per year. When so many artists have lost their homes and their ability to stay in SF, maintaining this welcoming creative campus becomes ever-more personally galvanizing for me.

Who is inspiring you right now?

Stacey Abrams (!), my brother Eben fighting a traumatic brain injury, Raean Gadonni and Troy Gassaway at Amador County’s rural Argonaut High for forging a culinary arts training program and a “farm-to-fork” school, as well as Brenda Way, KT Nelson, and Kimi Okada with their appetite for ODC’s work, endless wellspring of creative vision, and guts.

What’s a piece of advice you have been given that you still hold on to today?

Meane weil, speak weil and doe weil (the Urquhart Clan motto as taught by my grandmother, Violet).

What haven’t we asked you that you want people to know?

I’m always working to become more aware of the work of local and regional choreographers. I treasure suggestions for who and what to see next…

This article appeared in the December 2018 edition of In Dance.