Merián Soto, Photo by Bill Hebert
In October and November 2019, I saw the work of three remarkable New York-based artists: Adia Whitaker, Miguel Gutierrez, and Tere O’Connor. Although O’Connor is arguably the most well-known of the group, or at least the most well-established, at least in contemporary western concert dance circles nationally and internationally, the houses on the nights I attended did not reflect this. Whitaker’s ODC Theater shows were sold out, and Gutierrez fans covered every inch of space at the Latinx Research Center in Berkeley, but O’Connor’s show was, though well-attended, not the jam-packed event I’d expected. (I don’t usually make people feel bad for missing performances—I miss them all the time—but if you missed Long Run, well, you missed something special. Heck, if you missed any of these events, well, I’m sad for you.)
I think the main reason for the disparity in audience turnout is that both Whitaker and Gutierrez spent several formative dancing years in the Bay Area—they have people here. When Gutierrez saw the turnout for his talk “Does Abstraction Belong to White People?” he said, “This is like, This is Your Life, Miguel!” Friends and family of both the blood and dance kind showed up to support the talk and engage with its ideas. Whitaker, who said she was encouraged to “get her people” to the theater, appeared to have no trouble doing so. But O’Connor, who hadn’t shown work in San Francisco for at least a decade, didn’t have the same pull. Whose responsibility is it to pack the house? The artist? The PR team? The press? The artist’s mom? It’s probably some combination of sources and forces but one thing seems clear to me: the Bay Area likes its local and prodigal artists best.
Margaret Jenkins, San Francisco native and prodigal daughter herself, has invited two dance artists who are largely unfamiliar to and with the Bay Area dance scene for two week-long residencies at the Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab in February and March. Vicky Shick (Budapest/New York) and Merián Soto (Puerto Rico/Philadelphia) will offer performances, classes, and workshops as part of Encounters Over 60, a project that aims to “amplify the visibility of elder dance artists.” Given Jenkins’ commitment to intergenerational, multiethnic, cross-disciplinary, and international dance dialogue, there will also be ample space provided for reflection and discussion.
Jenkins and I met in her Polk Street office to talk about the challenges of bringing “outsiders” to the Bay, the rewards of CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange), now in its 15th year, the future of older dancers, and the extraordinary (Jenkins likes that word, you’ll see) vitality of the Bay Area dance community.
Sima Belmar: Let’s get right to it. Tell me about the project.
Margaret Jenkins: The seed for Encounters Over 60 really begins with CHIME. CHIME has kept me in conversation with artists and their work in ways I might not have had the opportunity, if not for this program. One of the things about CHIME that has continually surprised me is the degree of camaraderie that the people involved in it have discovered, the degree to which it diminished their sense of isolation. In each iteration of CHIME, the artists involved would get together four times a year to talk about what they were discovering in their mentorship relationships. I thought that the artists would find these burdensome, but their reports said otherwise. They were deeply appreciative.
SB: Because the four meetings were required?
MJ: Yes. But consistently, every year, each artist said it was the highlight of the year because they had the opportunity to really be in dialogue with one another in a way they never get a chance to in their daily working lives. It’s always hard to find the time to stop and really talk to one another. Just surviving takes time. These conversations during CHIME led me to think about how I could get more of those happening, particularly between generations, where so much can be gained from one another’s experiences. This curiosity evolved into Encounters.
SB: How do you see your role in Encounters Over 60?
MJ: Being way over 60, I can see that we are now in a very different art environment from when I started CHIME, and we are certainly in a very different arts culture from when I first returned to the Bay Area in 1970. There were a few of us making work then. Literally a few. So it wasn’t just a euphemism. There were 2 or 3 of us making work. [Laughs] There are now 100s of us making work. And that’s the great news.
SB: You’re talking about concert dance, right? Because I’m sure other dance must have been happening in the Bay Area in the 1970s but perhaps not in that historical legacy.
MJ: Yes and no, but to name just a few: there was Shela Xoregos, Pacific Ballet, Carlos Carvajal (Dance Spectrum), San Francisco Ballet, and Anna Halprin in Marin who had one might call more formal structures or groups. There were individual artists at work like Theresa Dickerson, Ann Woodhead, Helen Dannenberg. People reading this will rightfully know of others. And there was nowhere to show the work being made. There wasn’t a Cowell Theater, there wasn’t an 848, which turned into lots of other things. There wasn’t yet a Theater Artaud or now Z Space. There certainly wasn’t an ODC; they weren’t here until 1976. There wasn’t even my Bryant Street studio (1974) that turned into a performance space. There wasn’t a YBCA. There wasn’t, there wasn’t, there wasn’t.
There were some wonderful people here who were underground, trying to be seen, to find ways to share their work, but from 1970 to now there are literally 100s of people making and showing work in different ways, in different places, venues alternative and traditional. There are of course not enough places but there are quadruple the number of places to share what you’re doing than there were. You don’t leave San Francisco anymore because you can’t get good training, you can’t see enough, there aren’t enough variety of activities or points of view about dance-making. You leave for other reasons, more often now because you can’t afford to live here. Before you came today, I was making a list of artists I know well who have left, and there are at least ten who’ve left in the last few months.
SB: In the last few months?!
MJ: Yes. My roundabout point is that the wonderful news over these decades is the wealth and breadth and quality of dance-making that’s going on—it’s stupendous. But the thing that’s complicated is that although there are many foundations trying to figure out or “refresh” how to support the wealth of activity—including diversity in styles and ethnicity—the question of how to support this volume remains a huge question. The people of my generation are now in a position of having to ask whether or not it’s time for us to step out of the way to make room for a new generation of thinking, new ideas that are at work trying to find a voice. Personally, I don’t think that’s the solution.
SB: I don’t know exactly what that would look like—
MJ: But I do think it’s an important question. If you are an artist, age is not a defining characteristic. Making work is “of necessity.” I still have a burning desire to continue to grow and be present and to share what I know. There is no alternative but to continue.
SB: Is that what you’re foregrounding with Encounters Over 60? That drive?
MJ: Yes. I wanted to find a way to create a program that highlights the necessity of continuing regardless of age. How can you make room for artists who are 60 and who are still performing, who are still at work, who have a lot to share and an eagerness to gather as well? There tends in be an emphasis on the new in our field and I think it’s important to honor and celebrate our elders.
SB: How did you choose the artists for the project?
MJ: Some of the prerequisites were that the artists are still performing, that they are women, that they were performers, and that when they are here, each for a week, they be interested in doing something with members of this community. We’ve worked with the artists to help identify local communities they are attracted to working closely with—one will be focusing on making work with dancers over 60, and the other with the rich community of skilled improvisers in the Bay Area. This aspect was very important, so it wasn’t just that they land, do something and leave, but they interact and get immersed here. We want to find ways that the artist can both encounter our community and encounter themselves, perhaps in new ways within our community. There will be daily classes, workshops, and the performances by the artists and the work they develop with the local dance community while here, all of which is pay-what-you-can with no one turned away, so these opportunities can be available to as many people as possible. We want to fill the room with conversations and provocations.
SB: I remember seeing Nederlands Dans Theater III when I was in my twenties and was like, Whoa! Dancers over 40! I’m 48 now, but even then, I found myself drawn to these dancers, less interested in glossy, 20-something virtuosity. There’s nothing like witnessing someone who has been deep down into their work for a long time. I’m interested in what artists over 60 have to say about what it’s like to move now, what’s changed. I know some dancers in their 70s who are pissed that they can’t do what they used to be able to do, and others who continually deepen their practice.
MJ: The number of people in the Bay Area who are actively still working who are over 60 is really quite voluminous and many have been at the forefront of how the Bay Area has become such a rich landscape of diverse activity. Before making the choice of these particular women, I did a lot of talking to people around the country because there are so many wonderful women over 60 who are still at work and performing as well, about whom I knew so little. I was interested in bringing people who I felt embraced where they are with their bodies at 60 or older. I too want to talk with these artists and those we gather about how they continue to deepen their practice and challenge their assumptions.
We also wanted to choose two artists who’ve never been seen in the Bay Area. Merián had been recommended by a number of people that I knew, and I will admit that I didn’t know very much about her and what a treat to broaden my landscape with getting to know her. Then in talking with her I discovered she knew very little about the breadth of what goes on in the Bay Area and I thought what a great opportunity for her as well. When I said there are 100s of people working here and the issue of finding people to come to her workshops would not be difficult, she was delighted and surprised. Vicky was connected to enough people in the Bay to know that it was a vital center of activity and was overjoyed at the invitation, having never been here. So, their residencies will be generative in multiple ways: we will meet two artists who have not been here with their work before and in turn they will learn about the wealth of artists at work here and share what they learn in their home cities as well.
SB: What are some of the qualities that drew you to Vicky and Merián in particular?
MJ: They are two very different women dynamically, who have been involved in the field for decades and committed to very rigorous practices in very different ways, who have an absolute dedication to their practice. They care about the world, they care about human interaction, they care about how people are treated, they care about the state of the environment, they care about the state of the human body, and they care about the impact that their work and the body can have on the health of the human spirit. There are lots of people in the Bay Area who are teaching and making work that also care about these things. It’s not that all of sudden we’re bringing people to the Bay Area who are going to enliven the Bay Area in a way that it hasn’t been enlivened before. I don’t have that presumption. I just think it’s another lens and another spice to add to an already rich meal that’s here.
Vicky Shick has been involved with the New York dance community since the late 70s, performing, teaching, and making dances. She worked for a number of years with the Trisha Brown Company, and has made many dances in collaboration with visual artist Barbara Kilpatrick and sound designer Elise Kermani. She’s an electric performer and commands the stage or room now even more than she did as a young performer.
Merián Soto is known for creating her aesthetic-somatic dance practices, her Modal Practice, and her experiments with Salsa. Her meditative movement practice, Branch Dance Series, has garnered wonderful attention and includes dozens of performances on stage, in galleries, in nature, as well as video installations and year-long seasonal projects. She was a central figure in the 80s and 90s Latina Arts, Equity, and Community Arts movements, and she developed numerous projects featuring works by emerging Latinx dance and performance artists, including producing the Rompeforma festival in Puerto Rico for seven years. She uses film and live performance to embrace who she is now and takes her audience and her performers on a journey that brings everyone together.
SB: Do you think any 60 plus artists are going to be grumpy about not being the lead artists in this project?
MJ: Kegan [Marling] and I were talking about that. I hope not. I think many of us who run programs in San Francisco bring people here with excitement to share new ways of thinking but to also share the vitality of the area and to broaden what we know. To stay insular doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I travel to other places in the world as often as possible. That’s why I try to get people from as many different places as possible to come here and be in dialogue with my company or in CHIME. When I did CHIME Across Borders for five years that was the reason I brought David Gordon, Ralph Lemon, Dana Reitz, Tere O’Connor, Elizabeth Streb—not because they are better than anybody here, but they had other experiences to share and offered different ways of seeing, about art-making. Elizabeth made everyone think outside the box, There isn’t anybody who thinks like she thinks.
SB: Well that’s for sure.
MJ: My hope is that Vicky and Merián will do the same. The people that I know in the Bay Area that are over sixty, dozens, some of them really good friends and fascinating artists, will welcome the challenge or the otherness of these artists, I think. And, also an ongoing question is what can I do to keep myself as an artist at attention and interested? How great to be able to curate a program and to continue to make work. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.
SB: It goes back to the question of whether older established artists need to step aside. If you have the power to provide platforms for other artists, that’s much more important than stepping aside or out of the realm. If you’re still in the funding cycle but it’s in order to foster other artists, then that seems like a better idea. There will always be grumpy artists in a culture that doesn’t support the arts enough.
MJ: Well, I don’t think it should be either/or. I am interested in curating. I am interested in being a working artist. I think it’s extraordinary what we get to do with our lives. More often than not, getting to go into the studio and work with the people I get to work with is a breathtaking and great privilege, and that every so often you get to step outside of yourself and think about what you can do to spark the learning curve for yourself and others in some way. One of the things that’s very complicated about being an older body is that you can’t do it the way you used to, but you can do it differently. How glorious. One of the things I love about still performing with Rinde Eckert is that I get to do it differently. I have no desire to do it the way I used to do it. I don’t bemoan that loss.
There’s a kind of energy you can’t put into your work if it’s spent on the litany of complaints around the things you didn’t get, don’t get, or can no longer do. Maybe spend 10 minutes there, then move on. It really is a decision about what to focus on and how to spend one’s limited resources and energy.
At some point, when I was 13 and it seemed like everybody really hated me when I was in school, my father said to me: “You know, if you’re any kind of a person, half the world’s going to hate you and half the world’s going to love you. Figure out what you believe in and move forward. The rest will follow.”
Encounters Over 60, Vicky Shick, Feb 7-12 and Merián Soto, Feb 29-Mar 30, schedule of activities and performances at mjdc.org/encounters