September Digest: Katherine Adler and Daniel Charon

Katherine Adler and Daniel Charon hadn’t spoken in a while when they recorded this conversation a couple weeks ago…

K: Hi there!

D: I think I’m recording. So you’re where [these days]?

K: I’m right now in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Which is about an hour and a half away from Boston. And it’s a town that is continuing to struggle with issues such as homelessness, mental health instability and drug use, and at the same time is a very flourishing artistic, social justice-aware community that is able to live simultaneously in all of these worlds.

k head.png

D: So that seems like it suits you really well, doesn’t it?

K: Absolutely, for both what I need to be fed as a human being, and the work that I’m doing as — I even hate calling myself an artist because that feels like it’s my role in this community and in society, versus, “I am a creative individual, etcetera etcetera…”

I’m going to interject before we get too far because something that feels important for me to vocalize is that I am beginning to embrace the non-binary gender that I have always felt and known to be true, and have been able to speak about to some degree, but also hid from myself. I am no longer doing that. [I’m] looking into the possibility of taking testosterone, but not making a complete transition, because I’m not a man and I very much embrace my femininity…

That has been met with a mix of incredible acceptance and care, and personally, in my family, a lot of rejection. So that’s something that’s very much shaping my current situation. And as I reflect back, of course, is changing my views on what I’ve been through.

D: Yeah, it’s an adventure. Is that what you said?

That's great, I am in full support and I imagine that it’s a very emotional time and a big deal for you. And so I think its wonderful that you’re feeling like you can explore and figure it out. I hope that you find strong people that support you because I imagine that must be so important.

K: I’m incredibly lucky to have that. The reason I'm able to embrace this at this time in my life is because I’ve worked hard, and also I’m lucky to have exactly the community that can hold that space and see for me as I really am, and want to encourage me to be my fullest expression of self. And it’s also just normal here too.

D: So, what pronoun now do you prefer?

K: It’s difficult because I’ve just accepted “she” my entire life, I’ve agreed to it. And they/them is something that makes me feel a lot more empowered. And so it’s a preference but I also want to say that I don’t take offense, it doesn’t affect my personage at this point when I am referenced in a different way because that is a part of who I have been and is a part of who I am. Does that make sense?

D: Yeah it totally makes sense, as much as sense as it can make to me.

K: And I also want to hold space to say that I recognize that this is a shift in perception and it takes time for people, and I want to honor that.

D: I think that’s a great attitude and perspective to have because, I find— I am very open and I want people to be who they are and proud of that— but I find that as somebody who’s always used he and she pronouns growing up and into my forties, it’s a challenge and I want to respect it and do it but I don’t remember it all the time. It’s not as intuitive as I want it to be and hope it will be one day. So I think that’s a really good stance for you.

K: Absolutely. I can even speak to, before we get into it —

D: We’re into it Katherine, we’re into it!

K: [Laughter] This past week, last Tuesday, I was speaking with my mother about all of this and, you know, I don’t need to go explicitly into all of that, but her reaction was to take down all of the photographs of me in the house…

D: She didn’t know what to do…

K: Yeah, and so that’s a part of all of this.I have a collaborator, his name is Joe Dulude, he’s a Broadway make-up designer. I’m very fortunate to have him as an equal collaborator for a lot of the collaborative work I do for immersive theater, and then as well we have a project of our own called Mr. Drag & Karl, he is Mr. Drag [bearded drag], I am his sidekick Karl, in the fashion of a silent, earnest and well-meaning but hapless sidekick a la Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton...

karl and mdrag.png

He had photos, beautifully taken by Wheaton Mahoney and they were hung up in the center of town on an old bank that’s being turned into a black box theater. Last Thursday evening they were very violently taken down. There was plexiglass that was ripped off and they were on foam core, and they were ripped to pieces. So this was a very public and violent act.

I primarily work with a group called Eggtooth Productions, and they were really looking for us to make a statement and have a response. Joe was in London at the time, and so we waited until he got back. We decided that as an initial response [we’d do an] all night projection, we have nine high power projectors, and we used two of them project loops of all of the photos on to the bank.

So, thirty foot projections on overnight. I was holding space on the common, throughout the event over a hundred people came and went and continued to hold space with me. It’s become my job as a part of this community acts as a witness, and I draw the energies of that experience on paper, as a record. That’s not nearly like a photograph or words but an emotional record of the human experience as it transpires over this time. So I just did that last night so I haven’t actually slept…

D: Oh wow.

K: I’m fine, and I’m used to doing these durational works at this point this is my life. I basically live multiple lifetimes every day. I also did a four hour photo shoot yesterday morning which was with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in two years. Our first interaction was in front of the camera, he was relinquishing some of his masculinity and embracing his femininity so that I could assume more masculinity in his pretense.

That was one day. Today I am helping out with a theater piece with Miguel Angel Paredes who grew up here and who now lives in Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve been recording his story over the past two weeks and helping install a whole space with artifacts from his life and QR codes set up so people can discover, and listen with headphones, to his story. I’m just involved in a lot of really important work. And I feel very grateful that people trust me to be a part of that and then in my own personal work I am incredibly supported. I have a group of people who recognize that for me it is very much about a spiritual experience that necessitates holding space, having people view it as a public experience. I’m basically a conduit — almost a human tarot card. I go into a deep state of meditation that includes movement and then kind of bring back some information and questions.

D: It feels necessary somehow.

K: Absolutely. I don't really know any other way at this point to be.

D: It almost feels like you curate these experiences. Would you say that the focus is about gender equality, gender awareness that kind of thing?

K: Not at all. Which is kind of fascinating because at this point I am a very public figure in many communities, and including food communities… I’m involved with a lot of people. And I actually don’t make most of my work about that it’s just this natural transformation that’s happening and people really get to know me, the spirit, the me-me, and so the outside becomes superfluous.

But we do live in a world where that perception does matter. And so I’ve had to grapple with that and say where would I feel more comfortable in this world — just an example — I’ve always said I have a very hard time articulating myself. And I feel very inadequate with words and a big part of that is when I speak, my voice does not match the register that I feel inside. And so every time I open my mouth I’m basically dissociating.

D: Do you feel like, and I’m just curious, that it should be lower or higher?

K: Lower, lower.

D: Interesting, so interesting.

K: So, as I accept the fact that I am viewed as body, how am I going to be more comfortable inside of it? Because at the end of the day, I know I’m just this little ball of energy that’s just a piece of fire, or God that everyone has inside of them. Great! Cool we can move on from there, AND, we do live inside the veil of what we see, the reality of what’s in front of us.

D: So, this feels like a natural evolution for you and I feel like — we’ve crossed paths now, for ten years now, let’s say, and so when I met you in 2010?

K: It was 2009, because I was graduating from High School and about to go to college.

D: So you were 18.

K: Exactly, before I went to Utah.

D: That pathway, and so yes, we’ve seen each other many times over the years and I’ve seen you transition through a lot of different spaces.

tub drag.png

K: There’s been so much. I try to weave a clear narrative, but it’s difficult because I have been a shapeshifter. And you and a couple of other people — Scotty Hardwig is another one — have seen me and valued me, but really been with me at drastically different periods.

And I’ve always held you as a marker in some ways. You’ve known different iterations of me and I always feel comfortable that I am being seen and heard and valued.

D: It’s interesting how that type of connection happens because I feel like there are two things that have happened for me. I have these moments where [I think], wow, that was a very isolated lifetime. When I was doing musical theater. that was very isolated. I spent a summer with these people that were very impactful. College is like that, mostly. A few years with them, it was profound and now we move on with our lives. But, there are relationships like ours that I’m learning about the older i get. There are some people that come back into your life over and over again. Even this phone call, it’s an easy conversation. I’m comfortable, I’m not worried or cautious that we haven’t spoken in a while. There are just a few of those relationships in my life, but you happen to be one.

K: Yeah I feel very similarly. I hold you in my heart and my mind, even if I'm not in direct contact. I keep you alive in me and therefore you are in my life…

D: Exactly.

K: You know more and more now I am really able to look at my male role models and see how they have shaped me without me knowing it was okay to have these sorts of role models. And you’ve certainly been one. I remember in college literally writing one of the first papers I had to write, which, I question it’s value now…

D: It had value, you needed to do it then…

K: Sure, it was something like “talk about one of your favorite dancers,” and it was you!

I remember watching you at Jacob’s pillow with Natalie [Desch], I think it was one of your last performances with Doug Varone and the two of you did the Home duet. And just feeling a sense of — I wasn’t seeing a dance, I was seeing communication…

D: Wow, I’m flattered—

K: That spoke to me in a way that nothing else had. And also having worked with you as a choreographer, the way you approached things wasn’t ever about the steps or the moves, but about the experience inside of it. Izzy Heltai, a folk singer/songwriter has this lovely phrase, he says “words are a tool to communicate shared experiences.” And I think that’s absolutely true, but I think they’re by no means the most effective. They’re the easiest in some ways. The language of the body, enables us to speak at a depth we can’t always articulate through words. But rather than focusing on the technique or the editing of choreography, and this is something that speaks to Doug’s work as well, as your own, it’s this innate ability as well to speak the language of humans through the body. Versus “I am choreographer” or “I am a dancer."

D: Yeah. Totally. It’s a different thing.

K: I think through Summer Stages you were one of the first people who opened my eyes to that.

D: That’s amazing. Thank you for that complement. Summer Stages was such an interesting time, I remember that group so well. It was one of the first times that I kind of ventured out of New York and was commissioned to do something. But I remember that group just gelling. I remember there was this one young woman who, maybe her level was a little bit lower than everybody else’s. But everyone just embraced her and took her along for the ride and it was just such a rich, meaningful experience. I learned so much from that one snapshot moment and I remember you as a part of that group.

K: Yeah. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of what has made our orbits continue to collide. That there was this sense of shared experience. I don’t know. Not to get too wrapped up in fate, or those types of words which can get dangerous, but it doesn’t surprise me that having a singular experience that found us in the same way is rare.

D: Summer Stages makes sense and then here I am moving to Utah and oh my God here you are! We keep running into each other and it almost becomes expected like, okay, at some point, we’ll connect again.

K: I loved seeing you on the street in New York before that show because, I went just because I wanted to [Varone’s] work. And to be honest, I don’t know if I knew you were a part of it. But again it just seems very natural to me that I would have run into you [and Natalie] on the street. Of course!

D: I was thinking today, okay, I am going to talk to Katherine, I’m going to conjure some memories and look back –– Wait, so do you still like to go by Katherine? Or what do you prefer?

K: It’s an interesting thing. I have always maintained that I feel comfortable having a name that others feel comfortable with, so I know you’ve always called me Katie, even in the midst of others calling me Katherine and that’s how you know me. And so it has a certain quality in a person’s mouth when they’re comfortable calling me something. A very natural nickname that has developed over time that I have not created but others have ascribed to me is Kat, which does feel very accurate if I am to be dissected into this little name. I just received my German citizenship this year and will eventually be changing my last name back its original which is Schwartzadler, and I’m considering, not legally but colloquially going by Katze, which is German for “cat”. But really anything is fine, and thank you for asking the question.

D: Yeah you’re welcome. I keep thinking about your parents because, in a lot of ways to me — and it was interesting to hear you say that about your mother — I always perceived them as being so supportive because everywhere I was, everywhere we saw each other I pretty much always saw them too. It resonates with me. And of course, I’m looking at it from a surface place and maybe you were all supportive and getting a long and you made it happen, and once this comes out it’s a big shift, I’m sure for a parent to cope with. But that’s something that I was thinking about was, wow, it felt like a really close family to me and I remember your parents so much and feeling friendly with them, and I guess I’m just making that observation, that they feel a part of all of this to me too, in a strange way.

K: Yeah and I really feel that’s a really accurate in some ways and there is light and dark to all of that. They always have been very supportive but in terms of their narrative. They’re very fond of you and they talk about memories that we’ve shared. Like when we went out to lunch when I was considering transferring colleges. There are times when it’s like, oh, it’s less about my connection with you than “oh, well, he has connections and he can make it happen for you. And if Daniel says you can be a professional dancer then we trust that.”

They consider what I do as a hobby and that’s very difficult and upsetting, but, they did pay for my dance education growing up, they paid for these summer workshops and my college... we pay for this product and we expect this outcome. I think if anyone knows me that’s not who I am at all…

D: Did you know that going into it, when you were a freshman in college?

Katie Meehan’s senior piece

Katie Meehan’s senior piece

K: I knew that I didn’t want to be in a repertory company, I knew that pretty solidly. Really working with you at Summer Stages was life-changing because I realized dance could be more than I’d been told it could be. And then when I moved to Salt Lake I had such a difficult time in the department and what really ended up shaping my experience was working with people who were a little bit on the fringes. At first, Sam[uel Hanson] and Katie Meehan were among the first to do crazy experimental dance with me. And then it was about getting involved with Ashley [Anderson] and Mudson and then Kitty Sailer, who was a grad student at the time and doing work that was interactive and beyond what I was told dance could be.

I really reject a lot of what happened to me, but I value what the department is now…

D: You know Natalie just got a job there. We’re so happy, so excited. She’s an assistant professor, she’s tenure track.

K: That makes me so happy, fantastic. My plan B is that I’m just going to say “Fuck it,” go get an MFA at the University of Utah and to make it about what I want it to be about.

D: Maybe that’s like a kind of closing of a chapter that you need one day.

K: I’m thinking about it – really, to work with Natalie and Molly [Heller] would be — I mean— come on!!

D: For sure. Well, one thing about you is, if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, if there’s time for it, the time will kind of present itself and it will find you, I think.

K: You know what? It’s so crazy, a big part of what I’ve worked on over the last three years is that sense of deep listening. Ever since I’ve been back here I’ve really wanted to bring back Dylan Dances. And every time I’ve tried to dip my toes back in the universe has pushed back and I try to listen to that. 

D: That is epic!

I’m involved in this incredible theater [the Shea Theater] about 15 minutes north of me that is doing very important curatorial work in terms of bringing big acts and support local art as well, and some people involved with the theater have asked if I’d be interested in putting up Dylan Dances later in the Spring. 

So now the universe is coming to me and saying this is what we want from you and I am ready to reciprocate and say, yes, I am ready to take on this challenge, versus me trying to plow through with something no one wants at that time.

D: I feel like that’s an evolution for you. Because I feel like at a time you would have done the plow through. I feel like you’ve arrived in a different groundedness I’ve always appreciated your thoughtfulness. You don’t really make decisions like lightly and there are always a lot of things you think about before taking action.

K: Thank you!

Something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and then manifesting is this ongoing project I have called Artifacts of the Ephemeral, and I did a version of this last Spring, this past April. It’s a thirty-hour durational work, each hour is set with a very specific meditation, prayer, score, prompt, whatever you want to call it...

K: Yeah, so I would respond in movement and the artifacts of that ephemeral experience I would also draw, so you could come in at four PM and see what was done at five AM. It was wildly successful. I just got a grant to do a 24-hour version in Northampton in November. And my goal is for next summer, to approach Mass MOCA and Jacob’s Pillow, and just say hey, I’m a local artist, just give me some space, you don’t even have to pay me and I’ll be for twelve hours and I’ll provide your guests with some free work.

D: That’s amazing.

K: I’m never going to get into those arenas by being discovered, because I don’t match a lot of what they’re looking for. But when they actually get to see and experience it and see the response of the audience [I think they’ll respond.]… I will even say, and I try to say this without ego, but just being honest, there’s people who come see my work and have spiritual experiences that they would not otherwise have. Some people who want to connect on that deep energetic level but don’t feel comfortable in religious spaces, the guise of art brings them in to knowing the God within me and therefore themselves. This is all reiteration of feedback and personal conversations I’ve had with people gifting me their experiences. 

D: Wow.

K: What I mean to say is that if I am given this opportunity to have space in those larger venues, I know that I will have those deep connections with those people. And so I’m not going to wait until I’m forty to try to be discovered. If I want to do something, I’m going to find a way to do it and be recognized for the work.

D: Yeah that’s amazing. I’m very proud of you. It seems like you’ve had a great evolution and  I’m sure it’s trying at times, I must imagine that’s true, but it sounds like you’re doing well and I’m very proud to see you at this place in your life. It kind of makes sense in some ways to me. It feels like you’re in the right place at the right time.

K: Thank you. I really appreciate hearing that and value the time you’ve taken to hear that.

August Digest: A Conversation with Brooke Horejsi of UtahPresents

This past week, loveDANCEmore digest editor Samuel Hanson sat down with Brooke Horejsi, Assistant Dean in the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts and Executive Director of UtahPresents. They discussed the subtleties of dance presenting, the future of the arts in Utah, and UtahPresent’s upcoming season. 

Samuel Hanson for loveDANCEmore: Everyone I talk to in the dance community is so excited about UtahPresents bringing Ann Carlson’s Doggie Hamlet

Brooke Horejsi: Me too! It was many years in the making, many years getting to a place where I felt like we could do it and have five people show up. We’ll see how we do!

I’ll bring some friends. It’s so much work for you to find the sheep and the location…

Ann does really interesting work, but one thing she also does is stay focused on how as an independent choreographer and art maker she needs to build relationships. Even though she does have an agent, she doesn’t leave it to them to do that work. So, after I arrived here, it didn’t take her long to say, oh, I’ve heard there’s this new thing happening. Immediately she started talking with me about Doggie Hamlet. UtahPresents was so new at the time — I was thinking, this is the kind of work we’ll get to, but we’re not there yet. 

an image of Carson’s work, courtesy of UtahPresents

an image of Carson’s work, courtesy of UtahPresents

So, what was the first season you put together like?

Oh, that’s going to test me. I started in the middle of a season and when I was recruited I was told that the next season was already booked. Turns out it wasn’t.

So, when I got here there was nothing and it was so late in the typical planning cycle, that my first season was honestly just me calling in favors. We worked with a company called Step Afrika which is a dance company based in the stepping tradition that came out of African American fraternal organizations. They do a lot of community impact work and so that was an easy one for me to program quickly that helped demonstrate to people: this is how it’s going to be different.

I think the challenge previously was that [my predecessors] didn’t have a very clear sense of mission, or consistent support from the University. I think it was sort of a chicken-egg conversation. The University wasn’t going to support something that wasn’t clear about what its mission was and how it could relate to a large, flagship campus. At the same time, the organization couldn’t get clear about what its purpose was until it got more support from the University. 

Over the years we’ve grown pretty intentionally. Some of it is who’s available when and how much do they cost. Some of it is who’s our partner and what do they need? But a fair amount is looking across multiple seasons to say, what are we not doing? Where are the gaps? Who are we continuing to serve on a yearly basis? Last year, we had Complexions Contemporary Ballet, because we hadn’t presented a ballet company in a couple of years. It is difficult to present large ballet companies like that because there is a lot of expense and the risk, but also, as has happened with Complexions, there can also be a lot of reward. It was a week of impactful intersections, both on campus and off, and the audience was so energized to see such a stunning company with such diverse dancers.

Do you think now that you’ve been here for a while there are local opportunities to this place that you’ll be able to exploit?

The huge opportunity that still exists here is that Salt Lake is in this phase of maturation that can be likened to the mid- to late- teenage years. It’s starting to really discover stuff — to keep the metaphor going — independent of its parents. 

I think contemporary art of all forms has a window of opportunity here that may not exist to the same extent in other cities because Salt Lake has had this slower maturation because of the dominant cultural background. 

The isolation of this valley protected us, but also kept a lot out. So, yes, I think there’s a ton of opportunity here. Take something as simple as cirque. Cirque is really a genre that’s coming back into its own. Certain companies are starting to explore it more as a form of dance/movement rather than as a form of popular entertainment. So that’s a great opportunity for us to introduce people to companies that aren’t the commercial, more corporate structured, Cirque du Soleil.

I don’t know that world at all! 

Cirque has moved beyond its origins in circus and vaudeville. A lot of the performers now are cross trained in dance and they are introducing a new framework for the shows. There’s certainly spectacle to it, but the scale of the spectacle has become more flexible. More narrative is being introduced instead of the Vaudeville format of “oh, look at this trick…” It’s really developed in Canada and in Australia and New Zealand, geographic hotbeds for contemporary circus.

I also think there’s a lot of opportunity around the interesting people who are choosing to live here. Whether they’re people who grew up here, went away and came back, or people like [my colleague] Liz [Ivkovich] and I who have transplanted here. There are really interesting artistic conversations happening. We are trying to think of how UtahPresents fits into the evolution of the resources here, not just in terms of importing people from other places to show their work but to support work that happens here.  Working with local folks or organizations is a little trickier because we have to think carefully about if we’re presenting a local artists work, what about it makes it the right, unique fit to be included on our season? Why would UtahPresents program it instead of it being done independently?

What are the conversations emerging here now that interest you?

Personally, I’m passionate about representation. I have a big stage — Kingsbury — people know it for many different reasons. I’m trying to create the same awareness around UtahPresents, whether the show happens at Kingsbury or not, and I’m particularly passionate about making sure that when you look at our season you’re not seeing all the same people or styles or one dominant narrative. What you’re seeing is a little bit of everything. So, we’re always having conversations around “where is the gap?” For example, as of right now, we haven’t presented Indigenous artists. We’re working on filling in that space.

I think it’s easy for anyone to say, “Oh, that’s not a good fit for our community,” — or “It’s too big of a risk.” But one of the things that’s interesting about Salt Lake City is that the people here are not necessarily who you’d expect, if you’re really willing to see who is here. 

What are the other spaces you use besides Kingsbury?

We always do some things in Libby Gardener. We actually don’t have as much this season outside of Kingsbury as we’ve had in the past. It sort of ebbs and flows based on the artists and availability and things like that. We’ve used the Marriott Center for Dance. We’ve been at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, we’ve been at the Leo, there’s an event space on top of the Law Building. We actually looked at the Masonic Temple this year for We Shall Overcome, but ultimately the stage needed to be bigger.

One of the challenges, and anyone working in performance in Salt Lake will know this, is that we have very few choices when it comes to the mid-sized performance space.

That was what was so disappointing to many about the Eccles Theatre. But maybe it takes some of the pressure of you to present musicals...

When I got here everyone wanted me to rail against it, because the Broadway content left Kingsbury. But those shows were rentals and the commercial content didn’t serve our mission, so it opened up our calendar and staffing for more of the kinds of work we are passionate about bringing in service to our community. 

The Eccles does what it does for the commercial marketplace. Government buildings —the Eccles is a government owned space — play out the same way in every market. Cities are not in the business of risk, that’s not their job. So that evolved the same way it has in other cities. 

My hope is that the city, the county, or the state can recognize that there’s still a whole community of artists here who have a need that’s larger than a single building.

Like you said, there are so many interesting people here, I just don’t think there are clear paths for them, at least in dance.

I think that’s probably true of theater as well. Dance is the language I love to sit and listen to. Theater is the language that I speak. I look at this theater marketplace and I think, this is ridiculous. We’re a population of this size, and we have this long history of the arts being supported. Why don’t we have more theater companies? We don’t have theater companies that are making work for specific voices. We don't have an African American theater company or an Indigenous theater —

There was an African American company called People Productions. Years ago, I saw them do David Mamet’s play Race at the old City Library.

Yes, but I think it’s gone now. So, what is it about this place that kept this mushrooming of a discipline from happening? I don’t have an answer to that question. Like you said, there need to be incentives for artists to create work here without always having to do it on their own. 

I feel like ten years ago, everyone with ambition who was between twenty-five and forty would leave. I don’t think that’s true anymore, but people still need landmarks or big opportunities to work toward.

Once you step into the mid-section of your life, when you’re trying to start a family or dealing with your aging parents, the limitations around making work can be more about time than money. So, if you don’t develop the habit in your younger years, it’s a lot harder in your middle years.

Everywhere I’ve lived has this challenge. And there are places that seem to have grown more resources so artists have more paths to making work, making a living and not having to leave. The Twin Cities, for example — the difference between the first time I lived there and the last time (right before I came here) –– it’s wholly different. I think Salt Lake’s in a place where that can be a part of the future if people stick around, and invest.

How do we get music and dance audiences together? I think of artists like Holland Andrews, who’s such a fabulous musician and now works so much in dance. Someone ought to do a concert or a series highlighting the musicians who work with dancers here. Nora Price and Emily Snow, Stephen Valdean, Wachira Waigwa-Stone, Tristan Moore, etcetera...

We supported SALT Dance’s The Bridge last year. And that was very much an effort to step over into the music world. They collaborated on the project with Fictionist, a band from Provo that got some national attention. And the hope was all of the Fictionist fans would come. One of the band members was deeply involved with this collaboration with SALT. They had done a workshop of it in Provo and they couldn’t get enough seats so many people came out. So, they took that to mean they needed a bigger space for the finished version here in Salt Lake. And they, well, they didn’t…

I think one of the challenges was honestly the geography of it. 

Some of it’s just comfort zone. When you’re working in contemporary art, you’re asking people to take a risk, not only with the artist, because they might not know the name, but to take a risk with who else might be in the audience. And, the first couple of times, for the average person, that can be much more intimidating than we remember it being. 

I call it the “Pop” test. I call my dad “Pop”. I come from a very blue-collar world, my dad worked in a prison, my mom worked in a hospital setting, nobody played an instrument. I took dance classes when I was young because Ballet was what you did with a girl, but neither of my parents were artistic.

They weren’t expecting that you’d become an arts presenter.

No, and they don’t understand. They have zero idea of what I do. But a lot of times when I look at work, I apply the Pop test. 

What would your dad think of it?

What would my pop think of this experience? And you know, he’s a super affable guy, he’s willing to go to anything, but he also has skepticism. He’ll go with me, and sit through it, but at the end of it he might say, “What the hell was that shit?” and he can be absolutely right to ask!

The thing funny is that the pop character sometimes will look at you and say “Can you explain this?” Often you can’t. You’ve gone because you’re used to being baffled and you actually relish it, and other people assume that there’s some kind of code…

There is no code.

Especially with dance. 

That’s actually why I love dance. That’s why I say dance is the language I love to listen to.

I have two boys, Jack and Kole, and I started taking them to see dance when they were two and three. I certainly wouldn’t have taken them to see theater that wasn’t for young audiences, because theater typically has a dialogue that you have to be able to follow, otherwise you’re not a part of the experience. Dance is the complete opposite. Anybody can be a part of the experience.

The first contemporary company they saw was ARENA DANCES, out of the Twin Cities. Somebody I knew came up to me afterwards and said, “Did your boys get it?” And I said, well, yes, I’m sure they did. It’s whatever they made of it. Do they know the code? No! There is no code.

There is a spectrum. As a multidisciplinary presenter who works in service to a community, our job is to not live in one point on that spectrum all the time. We have something on the more challenging end, like Doggie Hamlet, and then we also have things like the Flip Fabrique, and – I would argue – We Shall Overcome. It’s Gospel, it’s built to talk about a part of our cultural history that people are really familiar with…

We need different places for people to drop in. We’re not serving only one kind of arts patron. 

AXIS Dance, courtesy of UtahPresents

AXIS Dance, courtesy of UtahPresents

That makes sense. I’ve actually never seen AXIS Dance or Guangdong. I know Guangdong only as the place where Shen Wei worked before coming to the US.

It’s a good piece. It’s reflective of how difficult it can be to present international work. We’ve been working on bringing Guangdong for three years. The finances are such that you have to have multiple presenters that are willing to get on board and you have to have a company that has some flexibility around fees — if they don’t they have to make the tour even bigger in order to meet the nut.

So, you find yourself collaborating with presenters in other cities a lot?

We call that block booking. It’s harder for me to do it in Utah, because there aren’t a lot of presenters in Utah. We’re a part of the Rocky Mountain Arts Consortia, and so that’s presenters in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho and occasionally Arizona and New Mexico. 

Guangdong is a great example. Over the last seven or eight years I’ve had a relationship with the Ministry of Culture in China. I’ve been there a number of times to see work, meet artists, and grow relationships.

Honestly, there’s a lot of performance that is stuck in place, or only reflective of certain traditions or topics in countries where the government has control in the way that it does in China.

But there can be a lot of interesting work too and Guangdong’s repertoire is one of those. We got to the studio, it was hot, a number of us were getting on a flight that night and so we were crunched for time. They didn’t have chairs so we just sat on the floor. I think our expectations were really low. They didn’t show us the whole piece, they just showed us snippets, but every single one of us was riveted.

We all stood up right away and said, “This is it! From this trip, this is the company that hasn’t been to the US. We need to make this happen.” But it took a couple of years. 

Guangdong, courtesy of UtahPresents

Guangdong, courtesy of UtahPresents

Once we came back, Denver, Purdue and I turned to our colleagues who do dance and said, who else would do this with us? You maybe didn’t see it, but trust us. That’s part of what we do in the field. Can we work together to save money or efforts? Does the route make sense? If a company is in New York, and then they have a date in LA, what can we string together that makes sense?

It’s a lot about calendars. Right now, I’m actively thinking about the next season. So often when something shows up, it’s because we learned something two seasons ago or more. 

That’s pretty fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing so much of what you do with us. Anything else you want to tell us?

I believe passionately in curiosity. It’s really easy to get stuck in a pattern of what you enjoy or what you’re willing to do, even those of us who are a part of the arts ecosystem. Try things you don’t think are for you or get someone to come with you who doesn’t think it’s for them. 

Get your pop to come! I have a million stories about people who come to something thinking “Oh my God, I have no idea what this is going to be.” But they fall in love with it, and they develop a relationship with that theme or that art form or the person sitting next to them. So be curious, show up, try something. And I’ll be at all of them, so we can talk afterwards to see how that worked out for you...

July Digest: Mary Lyn Graves in conversation with the work of Dat Nguyen

Below is a kind of dance memoir piece from Mary Lyn Graves, who you’ll remember from her six beautiful seasons dancing with Ririe-Woodbury. Mary Lyn recently attended a performance of Dat Nguyen’s work in New York, performed by a cast of Utah dancers whose names often grace the pages of this site. She then interviewed Dat about the process, and how the piece came together in his absence. This is just the kind of experimental dance-writing the digest exists to encourage. 

-SBH, editor

courtesy of the artists

courtesy of the artists

I came to Will the Sheep Come to Be Cleaned simply for the rare treat of watching some friends from far flung Utah dance.  Choreographed by Dat Nguyen, the work was presented as part of the Tank’s Pride celebration in New York City.  Not planning to write about Will The Sheep Come To Be Cleaned, I didn’t watch the dance with an eye particularly focused on detail or structure or craft; rather I just watched the performance.  So as I begin to write, my recollections are mostly fragments.

Nora Lang diligently cleaning up the stage at the start and near end of the piece, effortfully pushing a wadded shirt across the floor.  Brilliant monologues by Emma Sargent, hilarious and unclear, filled with silence and beeped out words and the voice-less telling of what could (or could not) be important information.  Light bouncing off a roll of mylar unfurled like a path for a broad and watery duet which left soft smudges on the silver sheet. The director of a religious dance group’s tirade about why the group would not be studying Gaga. Hysterically delivered by Sargent, the only spoken words in the speech were “Gaga" and “Ohad Naharin,” the rest mouthed silently while the other performers expertly parodied Gaga stereotypes.  Emma Wilson twerking on stage mere feet from their parents, who were supportively stationed in the first row.  The unabashed joy and humor of the six performers lip-syncing and screaming and jazz splitting to “I Need A Hero” by Bonnie Tyler.  Lang’s serene and silent presence against Sargent’s tension in a moment of unison that pushed their disparate movement qualities towards disparate emotional states.  A revelation that the director of the religious dance group was “…you know…”  A morbidly captivating article on how sheep are prepared for slaughter read by Eliza Kitchens clad in a sweater sprinkled with cartoons of the aforementioned victims.  An unusually effective false ending where the performers took bow upon bow without regard for the audience’s clapping stamina. 

I create chaos and in the midst of this chaos I find things, to stitch them together, to guide the performer through this experience so when I see it, it speaks back to me. 

Will the Sheep Come To Be Cleaned relied on rearrangement and redaction.  Nguyen continuously fractured and reassembled movements and narratives, offering neither resolution nor the need for it. A jumble of distinct images whose relation only appears in retrospect, these collected moments might be the best way to remember the performance and the experience of reflecting on the show is more similar to actual memory than to impressions descriptively crafted by critical attention. In truth, I should sit in the audience with this mind set more often.  Things you are meant to take from a performance usually present themselves without much looking.

I don’t think my art is something big. I think my art is one bullshit after another. But the good news is, through this chaos and bullshit and stuff, because we treat it very seriously, because it’s a gateway for us to understand ourselves, so this bullshit becomes very meaningful. 

The performances at the Tank were a restaging of the work, which premiered in November 2018 at Sugar Space (thoughtfully reviewed here) so the dance I saw was itself fractured and reassembled.  The original iteration featured Nguyen and Natalie Gotter, neither of whom performed in New York.  Reworked with new dancers Erica MacLean and Victoria Meyer, a new beginning, and a new end, Nguyen removed entire sections and rearranged roles in the process of revising the work. Practicality shaped some of the decisions.  MacLean lives in New York so was a natural choice for one of the additional performers.  But the distance prevented the full cast from having more than a day’s worth of rehearsal together and even when they did, Nguyen, who recently moved home to Vietnam, couldn’t be at the rehearsal to direct.  The closing section was a walking pattern too complex for a single rehearsal so Nguyen chose to replace it with material from a different work.  

The decision to revamp the beginning was less practically driven though.  Originally opening with a burlesque section, Nguyen felt the moment was Natalie Gotter’s; no one else could embody the opening section as fully as her so since she couldn’t perform in New York, he changed the beginning entirely. 

There was no point in trying to recreate it.

Even if performers, space, movement remain constant, restaging a work is a process in and of itself. You inevitably grapple with the passage of time and how that has changed the performers, physically or otherwise.  If new performers are brought in, the shifts become even more pronounced, rippling through the dance in often unpredictable ways. Transferring movement from the original performer, with all of their experiences and tendencies to a whole other body with its own unique mixture of memory, habit, and desire makes a sort of alchemy happen.  That particular role, whether it remains intact or is reconfigured, becomes a third entity, existing both amongst and entirely separate from the performers. With the distance from personality this can provide, the heart of the dance sometimes appears.  It’s a complicated thing to experience as a performer, both when entering a work and exiting it.  

I know this material and I’m performing it and I know exactly what the story is about.  You watch this being told and you can feel it but at the same time you are not allowed to experience that physical catharsis.

You disappear from the dance and simultaneously become more deeply rooted in its DNA.  Your contributions are thrown into relief by the shift and it affects everything else in the work. You are forced to make new decisions. What do we have to keep?  What do we want to keep?  What do we want to change?  What do we have to change?

The dancers on their way to rehearsal

The dancers on their way to rehearsal

The practice of revisiting heightens the historical aspect of dance more than anything else.  You don’t just dance with the people in the room, you dance with the people in the life of the creation and as you perform, your body enacts that history in real time.  I saw Will the Sheep Come to Be Cleaned the day before another performative enactment of history, New York’s Pride March.  With this year being the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, questions of history and inclusion saturated the parade, which is perhaps so far removed from its radical origins that it has forgotten what or who those origins even are.

But watching Dat Nguyen’s work, I was witnessing a different, infinitely more nuanced enactment of queer experience, history, and spectacle.  Celebration was there, just like in the parade. And so was silence and separation. And so was chaos and joyful indefinability.  For me, the relationship between the two Emmas, Sargent and Wilson, embodied this encompassing indefinability more than anything else.  A quiet thread throughout the evening, you knew the events of the relationship but you didn't know the timeline of these events, much less the relationship’s boundaries.  The depth of the Emmas’ intimacy was apparent and unclear. Though there was a lot of information, it was contradictory and unmoored.  But I don’t think clarity was the point, rather a willingness to hold multiplicity with others and with oneself.  Through its refusal (or inability) to define itself, Will the Sheep Come to Be Cleaned sought and found a way to embody more than just one thing.

Sometimes in the midst of exhaustion our body can no longer lie. Our bodies become too tired to try to be something else so our body is there to be itself in all its honesty and vulnerability.

Mary Lyn Graves is Brooklyn based dancer who has a deep love for Utah and roots in Oklahoma.  From 2012-2018 she lived in SLC where she performed and revisited many dances with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, as well as Molly Heller and other Salt Lake makers.  She is currently in process with Megan Williams and spends the rest of her time manning front desks, sitting very still for artists, and dreaming about the San Rafael Swell. 

June Digest: Kate Mattingly on NOW-ID and questions of site

NOW-ID’s Rite of Spring: Taking Place

Last month, on May 21, more than 300 people rallied at the Capitol to protest the growing numbers of bans on abortions. A large banner, held by three people at the top of the stairs inside the rotunda, stated “Stop the War on Women.” 

So far this year, states have passed 16 abortion restrictions or bans, including two in Utah. Representative Angela Romero was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune about her opposition to the ban: “We have no business making that decision for them."

One way to define “patriarchy” is to say it’s a system where men make decisions for women, and in spite of decades of marches, court cases, and elections (127 women now in Congress), women’s rights seem neither secure nor protected. 

This makes the decision to present another version of The Rite of Spring, a story of a woman being sacrificed, either timely or insane. Then again, staging this version on June 22, about a mile from the same Capitol where protesters gathered on May 21, could be an opportunity to change the narrative from a story of patriarchy and tribalism to an event that offers a different perspective and perhaps a less violent outcome. 

Like a protest, a performance that activates a site leaves its imprints in the environment. 

Our surroundings hold traces of events, in such a way that entering a certain building or crossing a certain street can recall a memorable experience that occurred years before. This is one of many reasons why there has been heightened attention brought to the term “site-specific art” over the last decade. Every location contains layers of histories, and artists have a choice to engage or ignore them. In her seminal book on site-specific art, One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon writes about “site specificity as the cultural mediation of broader social, economic, and political processes that organize urban life and urban space." Kwon is interested in “new site-oriented practices” that “accommodate and/or trouble the construction and commodification of urban identities.” In other words there is no such thing as “empty space,” and every environment is a negotiation between power and resources.

photo by David Newkirk

photo by David Newkirk

The Site of Rite

In some ways, the Rite of Spring has been a “site-specific” project since the early twentieth century when Igor Stravinsky was writing much of the score from a pension in Clarens, Switzerland. The view from his window presented majestic mountains that contributed to his vision of prehistoric rites.

When NOW-ID, based in Salt Lake City, presents its version of Rite this month, there will be no mountain views. Instead, the production takes place in the midst of industrial buildings, an overpass, and a landscape dominated by concrete and asphalt. The “stage” will be outdoors, on 500 West, below the 600 North overpass.

Even though there are marked contrasts in their settings, the two versions share similarities: the 1913 production featured music by Stravinsky and was produced collaboratively with painter Nicholas Roerich, who contributed to the synopsis and designed the costumes and sets, plus choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy, and the dancers of the Ballets Russes. NOW-ID defines itself as a “multi-disciplinary” company and collaborators on this production include choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen, architect Nathan Webster, and lighting designer Cole Adams. 

Since 2013, NOW-ID projects have occupied distinct sites, from The Wedding (2013) at the Masonic Temple, Feast (2014) at Saltair, and It’s Not cracker (2016) at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Last year, within the Great Hall of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, NOW-ID presented A Tonal Caress, a multi-layered event that showcased the brilliant performance of Deaf poet Walter Kadiki in collaboration with dancers Jo Blake, Liz Ivkovich, and Sydney Petitt. These same three dancers will perform NOW-ID’s Rite of Spring and will be joined by Tara McArthur. Each of these NOW-ID projects seems distinct, but their through-lines are multi-disciplinary collaboration and site-specific work. 

Next month however, the site is not an existing building or destination, but a “raw and off the radar space,” in the words of Charlotte Boye-Christensen: “It was so obviously right as a setting for our interpretation of the work. We loved the industrial yet sensory nature of the space: the patina, the sounds of the trains, traffic, neighboring businesses, the rhythmic structure above and the historical references.”

Like any urban landscape, the industrial scene that’s now visible stands on top of long-gone communities and activities. Less than a mile from the site of the performance, and dating back centuries, hot springs offered respite and rejuvenation to Shoshones, Utes and Paiutes. In the twentieth century, Wasatch Springs Plunge was a popular spot for decades, with water piped in from surrounding hot springs, until the building closed due to lack of attendance in 1976. 

Today, as real estate prices in Salt Lake City have increased 11.5% since last year, the site for Rite seems to be a rare place in Salt Lake City that feels more deserted than oversaturated. According to Zillow, the median home value in the city is now $397,600, and there seem to be fewer and fewer undeveloped plots. Perhaps this is what Charlotte sees as “raw.” It also raises questions about who can afford to live in Salt Lake City and who is being displaced by development.

Nathan Webster and Charlotte Boye-Christensen, photo by David Newkirk

Nathan Webster and Charlotte Boye-Christensen, photo by David Newkirk

Rival Tribes

Re-envisioning a production that has, historically, pitted tribes against one another and selected a woman to sacrifice, invites questions about relevance. 

Asked why another version of the Rite seemed necessary, Charlotte replied, “I have always wanted to choreograph another unique Rite of Spring. I created and staged my first version on Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 2004 but never felt that that one fully captured the savage, complex and even violent qualities of the score and I felt I could build on the relentless dynamism as well. In the Fall of 2017 I started talking to conductor Philip Mann, Head of Orchestral studies at Texas Tech University, about wanting to do a Rite of Spring in an industrial environment in Texas with a full orchestra and the majority of our students in the Dance program at Texas Tech University. Those conversations sparked a renewed interest in the score and a desire to create this new choreography on NOW-ID as well.”

Instead of a model of site-specific work where artists spend months if not years getting to know a location, this Rite is more akin to what Ashley Anderson has theorized as “site non-specific dance.” In Anderson’s words, “dances which are compositionally realized, performed well, and for lack of a better term, ‘complete’, can ‘move’ from site to site and retain a sense of coherence.” This kind of adaptability is required for a company that relies on commissions, and NOW-ID’s Rite will travel from Salt Lake City this month to Texas in October. A variation of the work will be presented in Richmond, Virginia in November. This is a model that’s different from artists who research the distinct attributes of a site and its communities. This kind of site-specific performance is rare, but also unforgettable. Joanna Haigood’s Invisible Wings stands out as an example. 

Why are environmental issues important to the Rite of Spring? At the core of the Rite is a story of survival: a community must make a sacrifice to ensure a new season. This tethering of a woman’s death to environmental sustainability may sound barbaric today, but around the globe, people live in places where pollution reaches deadly levels and clean water is non-existent. How often do we consider the ways our consumption and behaviors contribute to these inequities? Perhaps the siting of the Rite of Spring in a place that is typically overlooked or neglected could remind us of the complicit and complicated relationships we have with environmental sustainability. 

In the month leading up to the dinner and performance by NOW-ID, Liz Ivkovich and I have been writing weekly posts for NOW-ID’s “Dispatch” that attend to histories, issues, and questions embedded in the Rite. In her own research, Liz analyzes how race, class, and gender influence the distribution of environmental goods and bads, and why these issues are among the most pressing concerns. We both see this version of the Rite as a rich site to investigate questions about the patriarchy, reconstruction, critical sustainability, and environmental justice.

Kate Mattingly is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Utah. She has a doctoral degree in performance studies from UC Berkeley, and has had writing published in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Dance Research Journal, Dance Magazine, and Pointe Magazine, among others.

May Digest: Karin Fenn on Trauma and Choreography

What lies below is a reflection on creative process by Salt Lake choreographer Karin Fenn. Karin’s new work Girl Child, will be performed May 16, 17 and 18 at the Salt Lake Arts Academy Black Box. Tickets are $15 at the door or online. Girl Child is a dance/theatre production created by Karin Fenn in collaboration with Emily Haygeman, Ai Fujii Nelson, Corinne Penka, and Eileen Rojas with original music by Wachira Waigwa Stone. Fenn writes, “the diverse cast unravels stereotypes of femininity to create more nuanced and authentic reflections of womanhood.” The project is fiscally sponsored by loveDANCEmore.

The nexus for Girl Child arose from submerged trauma, and a desire to unshackle my physical and emotional being from its grip. As I reflected upon my experiences and the anger I still harbored, I was curious to discover in what ways other women’s experiences ran parallel to or diverged from my own. I wanted to create work that might validate and give voice to the challenges and joys of surviving womanhood. I was also hopeful that the creative and performative processes might give the performers, the audience, and myself another path to embrace and dissolve the past.

Rehearsal for  Girl Child

Rehearsal for Girl Child

I was unsure how to create a piece that married movement with dynamic emotion without becoming self indulgent or trite. I initially imagined a process that paralleled my own work as a performer in which I mined my own experiences to imbue abstract movement with meaning. I poured over Pina Bausch’s choreography. I read Pina Bausch by Royd Climenhaga which analyzed her work and provided templates through which movement and relationship could be created. I also recollected engaging with Stephen Koester’s choreographic process when creating his Bausch-inspired piece What the Flesh Remembers. My experience in his work was that he somehow mined my deepest thoughts without asking questions. He created juxtapositions of movement and text that were disarmingly poignant. I wanted to create work that was similarly evocative.

Eileen Rojas rehearsing  Girl Child

Eileen Rojas rehearsing Girl Child

I explored a variety of ways to access movement and layer it with text. As I mapped out different ideas to explore, I often first guided the dancers to write about a personal experience, or memory. From this place, key words or concepts were parsed out of a longer text and used to suggest feeling states from which movement arose. I worked collaboratively with the dancers to find the physical manifestation of an emotion or memory.  At other times, the dancers and I created a dialogue of text written next to a spatial map that indicated where they were to travel. Both the words and map were used to generate movement. Yet another approach was to identify traumatic events and create a feeling state to which the dancers responded. Some of the prompts: imagine you are numb, or imagine you are in a very small confined space. Through a guided improvisation in these feeling states movement material arose that suggested the emotional content without being overstated. I also experimented with repetition of physical activity that had a strong visceral impact upon the dancers.

a map from the rehearsal process for  Girl Child

a map from the rehearsal process for Girl Child

The creative process has been informative and also at times painful as old trauma was triggered through physical action. I have learned a great deal about the delicacy of wading through memory and trauma. I have welcomed the direction and at times admonition from the dancers. In the end, movement does not lie. When and if the performers allow themselves to be fully transparent and vulnerable in the moment of each movement, the potential to unleash authentic experience seems unlimited. Then it is left to create a choreographic structure that allows the authentic experience to emerge. To be honest, as I prepare for the performance in May, I am not sure how successful that structure is nor how it will impact the audience. I will not know until the first performance. But I am grateful to the dancers for their willingness to engage in a process that has been powerfully informative, painful and healing.

April Digest: Kathy Adams talks with Nick Palmquist, NY-based guest of SALT

Kathy Adams has been a dance reporter for two daily newspapers over a cumulative twenty years. She tells us “there have been few opportunities to write in depth about jazz or theater dance.” So after discovering Nick Palmquist’s class work on Instagram and later watching his rehearsal with SALT Contemporary Dance, she was thrilled to pick his brain about the current state of jazz, theater dance and Broadway. 

No one can take credit for inventing the fusion of jazz dance and hip-hop. But choreographer Nick Palmquist can lay claim to marrying classic jazz idioms with a street aesthetic and flipping the script on preconceptions about the art form.

The choreographer and in-demand teacher at New York’s famed Steps On Broadway studio is in Utah to create a new work on SALT Contemporary Dance, opening next week at The Marriott Center for Dance on the University of Utah campus (April 12 and 18-20). Palmquist hopes people will leave their expectations at the door because he says, “jazz dance for the concert stage is probably not what they think it is going to be.”

photo by James Jin, courtesy of Nick Palmquist

photo by James Jin, courtesy of Nick Palmquist

Pamlquist holds such innovators as Bob Fosse in high admiration, and his passion for the genre is intricately wound in its history. In addition to recent jobs on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, and the male ensemble in The Rockettes’ New York Spectacular, Palmquist was a cast member of The American Dance Machine (for the Twenty-first Century), a living archive established in 1978 to preserve original Broadway choreography. Learning and performing the work of Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Mia Michaels helped fine-tune his attention to stylistic detail and hone his backstage sensibilities. It’s part of what sets Palmquist apart from the commercial dance crowd (a term he bristles at). So do his attitudes on gender normative dance roles, the democracy of Instagram, and the diminishing role of the dance ensemble on Broadway.

Palmquist’s interest in dance began with the familiar story of the small-town boy who follows his sister to class and ends up following his dreams to New York. He was first drawn to the raw athleticism of martial arts and gymnastics, but said it all clicked “the day I saw guys dancing to music.” He graduated with honors in dance performance from Oklahoma City University and headed for New York. It wasn’t an easy transition since OCU didn’t have the networking opportunities offered by many colleges today that function as talent agents for students launching performance careers. 

At first, Palmquist’s headshot alone drew enough attention to get bookings — “choreographers seemed to like the color of my hair, which is sometimes just how it goes.” Yet he began to find Broadway shows to be less interested in creating choreography and casting dancers for the ensemble, and more interested in triple threats or performers who can be tracked into multiple slots at the will of the producers.

“American Dance Machine was all the best numbers from the best shows on Broadway, and it inspired my love of narrative and story telling,” Palmquist said. “It gave me insight into the spirit of what a Broadway show used to be built with.” 

Kathy Adams: What do you aspire to as a performer and as a choreographer?

Nick Palmquist: As a performer, I love the ensemble experience. I want to feel really valuable to a show — as if you didn’t watch me in the show you would have missed some important information. When I choreograph for the concert stage, each dancer is integral to the arc of the narrative. What I look for in a Broadway show is a reason for the dancers to be dancing in the story — not just a break from the dialogue.

What is the career path for becoming a Broadway choreographer? 

There isn’t a blueprint for that. Assistant choreographers are not credited for their work, so until you’re the head choreographer there is no record of what you’ve contributed. Michael Bennett danced in the 1961 touring company of West Side Story under Jerome Robbins and began assisting in choreography on Broadway after that. But you don’t hear much about him until 1976 when he wins a Tony for A Chorus Line.

Jazz companies as a concept have disappeared, why?

Everything has become fusion — both dancers and choreographers are so versatile. But I think it’s about finding the value in pop music as jazz — Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” is jazz.

How do you think jazz is best adapted for the concert stage?

Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly With Me works well because it has a narrative arc, yet the show is completely centered on dance. It has interludes that set up the dancing so you don’t have the start and stop of a concert or a “recital” where the connection is either non-existent or arbitrary. Most dance pieces are too long and especially if you’re going to use pop music as jazz often does, a four-minute song hooks you in.

Palmquist teaching in Utah, courtesy of SALT and Lexie Corbett

Palmquist teaching in Utah, courtesy of SALT and Lexie Corbett

In the transition from film to stage, Newsies lost the charming boy-energy and ended up with acrobatics. What happened?

Budgets? Broadway is a place for tourists so the goal is to be commercially successful. 

Wasn’t Broadway always for tourists? The 1970s cerebral-concept-musicals like A Chorus Line sold tickets.

Audience expectations have changed — sets, costumes, technological-generated effects all compete for attention. Paradoxically, budgets are smaller and casts are smaller and it seems dance is at the bottom of the priority list because even really strong dancers can’t book a job unless they’re a triple threat or willing to get tracked into numerous spots on any given night.

Is that what you meant about ensemble choreography?

When Robbins, Fosse and Bennett were creating work, they choreographed distinctive characters. Now everything has to be reproducible so you can move it or tour it.

What is it about Fosse in particular that you admire?

There are lots of dancers and choreographers who carry on the Fosse legacy, but that sometimes means his cannon of steps. I’ve always been struck by his use of stillness — the emotional content continued to flow through his movement, even when there was none. 

I’m also drawn to the unisex nature of his ideas — not just specific movements but the ideas. In his work, Fosse showed a spectrum of people — their wants, their needs, their commonalities and differences — not because they were men and women but because they were people.

courtesy of Nick Palmquist

courtesy of Nick Palmquist

Let’s talk about SALT.

What I’ve loved about working with SALT is the artistry. My definition of art is refining your perspective as a choreographer, and conveying that clearly to the dancers who communicate it to every member of the audience. It has really meant a lot to me to create art with this company — it’s a luxury to go into the studio one day and come back the next to see if it still holds up. 

You are an advocate for the democratization of art through Instagram but at the same time seem really embarrassed about it.

Yeah, well it’s a little embarrassing to self-promote — you can post your show, your picture and even a review of yourself all on your own page. But I have followers from all over the world — lots of moms, kids, people who don’t dance at all, but they all weigh in with their opinions. When I post video of my class, people often comment on aspects of a dancer that I’m not asking for — beautiful feet, great extension. But I think viewers are actually responding to confidence and musicality, which is harder to describe. Instagram viewers are making that dancer into a star without the pre-approval of a producer or a critic — they’re reaching that conclusion on their own.

As a retired critic, I don’t get very excited by the current Tony Award winning choreographers Susan Stroman, Christopher Gattelli, Andy Blankenbuehler.  Blankenbuehler seems to be the go-to guy for Broadway.

They are very good stylists. And working within someone else’s vision is tough.

I know you feel strongly about the way women are defined on stage.

I think that as a culture we’ve agreed on certain things about how women are portrayed on stage. Women are allowed to be sexy — although it‘s circumscribed by what men think is sexy about women instead of finding out what women think they do that is exciting. And men are not allowed to be sexy. The stage direction is always guys get off the stage — okay girls hit it!

Who, other than Fosse, choreographs empowering movement for women in movies or stage shows? 

Michael Bennett and Kenny Ortega offer a spirit, a sense of freedom, and authenticity without being overtly sexual. The balcony scene in Ortega’s Dirty Dancing is hands-down the sexiest in any movie ever. 

Free and uninhibited movement builds confidence and shows you love what you’re doing. I want the men and women I choreograph for in class or on stage to feel that they don’t have to be “perfect” when looking in the mirror because it’s the dancing that has brought out the perfect creature in them.

courtesy of SALT and Lexie Corbett

courtesy of SALT and Lexie Corbett

March Digest: A Conversation with Lincoln Lysager

Lincoln Lysager is a talented artist who works in various media and maintains a vast library and record collection at his home in Salt Lake City. He’s one of the most thoughtful people I know in every sense of the word. Since the beginning of my time as editor, I’ve been looking for an excuse to get him involved in this publication, of which he himself has been an early fan.

What follows is a conversation between Lincoln and Linda Frank, a Philly-based performance and body artist with Utah roots. Linda recently asked Lincoln to curate Flesh + Mesh, a multiplatform exhibition for The Space Program, a series Linda created with Lilly Ramirez a little more than a year ago. The show runs March 20 through March 31 at the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia.

Particularly timely within all this is Linda and Lincoln’s discussion of the work of Carolee Schneeman, who died just a few days ago on March 6. Known to the larger world perhaps best for her seminal Meat Joy at the Judson Church, Schneeman was a revolutionary feminist artist whose voice will be sorely missed in many circles. Lincoln and Linda also mention her Site, which references Manet’s Olympia. For another look at Manet’s Olympia, check out our December digest...

The images below were created by Linda, the first one right below here is a portrait of Lincoln, the others are the other artists Lincoln is working with. Enjoy!

— Samuel Hanson, editor

Lincoln Lysager himself, all artwork by Linda Frank

Lincoln Lysager himself, all artwork by Linda Frank

Linda Frank: In viewing the plans for Flesh + Mesh I am reminded of 9 evenings: theatre & engineering, a series of performances developed between technology and art in 1966, initiated by, among others, Robert Rauchenberg. 9 Evenings spanned October 13 through 23 of that year, so roughly the same amount of proposed time as the intended duration for Flesh + Mesh. I am curious how this pairing of theatre and engineering might be reflected in the concept for this show: flesh and mesh.

Lincoln Lysager: Well as far as the positioning of flesh and mesh within theatre and engineering, it made me think of — here I go on the spot — the time span of theatre is kind of enclosed within itself so you have this durational aspect of certain time frames, and then that space has been carefully engineered so it has very specific parameters. So flesh and mesh is more abstract in the sense of a theme.

You have an idea of the flesh, the corporeal, and the mesh — obviously there’s a time element there as well, but how that can actually operate within the space will be changing, and instead of one evening or nine evenings we’ve got two weeks, so there’s a connection in the amount of time and then the engineering element of course, being something that’s largely in place before the show but then set into play throughout the actual show itself.

Abdel Al-Kubaisi

Abdel Al-Kubaisi

[In 1966, they were] addressing technology and art and theatre and engineering, which at the time I think was still largely developing in the popular sense of the term, like the passive experience of theatre from the spectators part was like, oh, I’m going to see the show, and this is the point where the elements behind all of that and the elements that are included in the presentation are asking the viewer to take that into account, and so there’s a point where people are asked to engage and acknowledge things outside of the passive elements of spectatorship, and I think that that’s definitely something that Flesh + Mesh will address. It’s going to incorporate any visitor into that larger interaction of the technical elements [at play]. I think the passivity part is going to be challenged. Which is a big part of my own personal subjective as far as trying to position things in such a way that they interact so that the visitor will be made aware of the body in that space.

Repeat that, please. Position things...

I’d like to have a situation where the works on offer will be relating in ways that overlap and that space will be moving through it all in such a way that they’re made aware of themselves in that space and in relationship to a number of different pieces.

Austin Eterno

Austin Eterno

So there’s a growing bodily awareness...

The [usual] passive element of “I’m going to stand in front of this and then on to the next”, won’t be so straightforward. The piece that you’re presenting uses this large scrim or screen. Finding a way into that will require an element of participation, breaking down that barrier between passively looking and engaging.

Reduced passivity, basically, and activation of bodily awareness, in sort of unsuspecting ways as you walk through or travel through the show?

Sure, and with the variety of programming we’ve got going on, with different types of performances, different bodily senses will be triggered, which may mean that at the same time that someone is engaging with one piece they may be made aware of other things going around them. And so you’ll sort of be pulled in different directions. Even as you’re trying to focus on one thing. Which makes you more aware of your own body and how you’re interacting with other bodies.


Bailey Roper and Elliot Arrick

Bailey Roper and Elliot Arrick

I think in a lot of Space Program shows we’ve really been interested in moving away from the walls and activating the space itself. Being between a time-based project and performance but being seen within the realm of visual art. And I think that what you’ve described is being engaged simultaneously by all of your senses, in this arena where we’re trying to pull away from the white walls and white cube space, where there are different lighting moments that can maybe speak to the activation of structure within structure, bodies within space...

And bodies within bodies. Because the way that you’ve presented your work and what I’ve gathered from other proposals is this notion of simultaneously trying to figure out who you are and what you are through issues of identity, but also addressing the larger context of the space. You’re presenting work that is going to be changing over the space of time that the show is up, and you have the photographic elements [what you’re calling] “Set in Stone” that is gathering these images over time. If you try to say, what’s going on with this show, it’s a series of processes, and someone can enter at a particular moment, but it’s happening on a number of different levels. Hopefully those involved, both the artists and those visiting, will be aware of that, or made aware of it once they enter the space, and that should change the way that they interact with the work. Once again it’s the difference between passively engaging and realizing that for the duration of your time in that space you’re a participant.

Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas

I think we’re also abstracting structures that are used alongside our bodies now: these screens that we’re constantly looking at, these devices. But screens are acting as different planes within the show and I think perhaps we’re using some literal mesh or fabric to constitute what is mechanical and unfamiliar but has taken the place of what might be more familiar about fabric than device.

What is used to adorn? I’ve thought a lot about clothing as the most, one of the most apparent forms of mesh that we use everyday. To present ourselves or to protect ourselves. You have flesh within the mesh of what is worn…

To protect and present ourselves.

Yeah, and so the mesh element is open to so many interpretations. It’s made me more aware of just how many times we utilize mesh for different reasons: the element of containment. Also the porous nature of it, you know. So there’s the utilitarian aspect of mesh, but also the issue of choosing what type of mesh and how that allows for the flesh to perform in certain ways. When we’re thinking of ourselves we have to face bodily awareness, but then the mesh that we choose to interface in, in the screen-way of technology, gadgets and communication. We’re making all of these collective choices about how we’re presenting within that, but then there’s the baseline of the flesh within it. We are often less conscious of that than we are other things. I think that’s an interesting interface, there’s the flesh and then there’s the mesh, the larger interaction with the world. How we’re made aware of bodily functions is often lost in the larger mesh.

In terms of what you’re saying about our interactions with the larger world, it’s worth mentioning scale. How do we scale these structures within this giant space? Also how do we make them more personal, relating to the body as an architectural structure? What do these forms signify in history? A lot of these structures are actually taken from theatrical uses. In developing these structures we’ve discussed the oval, and potentially having a second story to the oval and even having the screens move up to the second story, once that iteration takes form, it might be mimicking Shakespearean theatre in which you would look down on a performance from a balcony and be within an arena. Thinking about how performance might activate that space or how the structures inform what is contained, and how the work itself informs the structure and if that relationship is symbiotic.

Jillian McManemin

Jillian McManemin

A lot of times that depends on how that relationship is formed, once again the idea of theatre, whether theatre in the round or these square presentations we’re more accustomed to nowadays. You enter that space and suddenly you’re more aware of your role as a participant. Performing or observing, and if you blur the lines then you realize, oh, I’m in this space as a participant, am I performing myself within the space as a part of this so-called art experience? Which is made further explicit once you’re aware of yourself being documented by a camera. That element will be there in this case as well. The architecture of the space makes you aware of that historical tradition of, oh, this feels like a stage set, and so that further complicates the use of these spaces. There is an interesting dynamic there as far as the intent I may have as a curator or what the performers or the artists have in trying to negate the white cube. Or from the institutional structure, it begs the question, where are we going? Are we trying to get out of a narrative or how much of this organized social experience is inescapable? And any time you have event in a kind of public arena there’s an expectation of what is happening in that space. Being made aware of ourselves as participants in these kinds of structures might make us more aware of what it is that we’re doing there and what it is that we expect of these things. And we have to learn from that. Once again, I think that has to start within acknowledging your own autonomy or lack thereof within a space. Which goes back to the idea, are you passive or not? Are you just going to passively absorb, or actively be aware of what it is that you’re doing there.

Keiron De Nobriga

Keiron De Nobriga

That takes me back to learning how to develop these structures with our structural engineer, Keiron De Nobriga. We talked about making a little model to scale so that we could look at what your proposed plan was and talk about how the objects would look with each other. But what you’re saying of your interactions with the larger world outside of the Icebox, outside of that space, is about the interactions that come from everything being scaled down. We are bodies that are relating to these structures in this space but what about this dollhouse, what about the model of this space that is made to give us an indication of what it’s going to look like or how to build it? And then we looked into the history of dollhouses and originally they were meant to display your wealth. The original doll houses were called cabinet houses and they were developed mainly in Germany and Holland in the seventeenth century, and they were meant to display your wealth on a smaller scale, and show everything as it was. They were made for adults.

Made for dolls or adults? [Laughter.]

Adults. Which translate to Nuremberg kitchens, which were made for young girls of privilege to take charge in their homes as the lady of the house and learn how to order the servants around. In the show we have this kitchen scene, with me and Tess’ performance we will be interacting with participants, interpreting and projecting and opening up to interpretation what is happening to your senses. What is arising from the performances contained in and out of the participants view? How can we engage in interpretation without becoming “sensorially absented”.

That’s interesting, the idea of the dollhouse and also the invitation to play with what happens in that kind of space. There’s a difference between the dollhouse and the theatre. You’re performing different roles. In the theatre it’s made more explicit through the use of a script or a score of course that’s developed and changed over time as well. It also reminds me of the tradition of the cabinets of curiosity, which once again were a status symbol. Who’s privileged to have the dollhouse in which to practice becoming the master? Now that’s an interesting arena. I think that’s also a good space to envision your own awareness of what it is you’re viewing as a participant in this realm in our contemporary culture. What are you doing when you have the opportunity to engineer a space? What are you going to include? What are you going to exclude? What’s the nature of the relationship between the engineer and the people that are going to be interacting with what it is you’ve engineered?

Lilly Ramirez

Lilly Ramirez

Quite often you enter all these different spaces all day long, and within the realm of architecture and quite often people aren’t even aware of the motives behind everything they take for granted.

You’re just in a building. It’s warm, it’s comfortable, or it may be comfortable, it may not be. But when you’re put into a situation where you’re passing through a very exclusively engineered space, you might become more aware of that process. You make this model or miniature and then what happens to that? You know the model is that first stage of “how does this look?” We imagine the finished space by making a model of it. So that’s part of an ongoing process. Even when you have the finished space, if you’re engineering it, you start to see what you might have done differently or you’re surprised by how something works especially well. That’s the result of actually getting to work on something built to scale: starting to see what works and what doesn’t, we’re constantly finding that what we had imagined to be successful or worthwhile might need to be altered or changed according to circumstance. Or we find things that we’ve taken for granted that might have a different new use. I guess I say some of that in relationship to the idea of the white cube and getting away from the white walls and that process. You have to acknowledge also what was the original value of having that space and what is it that we’re trying to escape. Escape the walls. The wall is still a perimeter. It’s still there. [Laughter.] It’s just how we envision ourselves in relationship to that.

Linda Frank herself

Linda Frank herself

When I think about these things as far as being a curator or whatever — in preparing for the interview — I keep coming back to multiple meanings of words. “Model” comes up, there’s the scale model of something you’re building and then there’s the idea of modeling something you want to become, role models, all these different multiplicities, and then there’s the problem of language...

Yes, the problem of language it’s a big one.

That seems to be a big part of what’s contemporary in art. All these proposals coming in and a lot of them have to do with questions of identity or definitions. I think that’s where you get a lot of possibility but a lot problems as well, because identity is quite often larger in its function and its lived experience than the definitions. Those are the spaces that people seem to be preoccupied with currently.

Between identifying and defining...

Acknowledging the dynamic range at play there. You can only define something as long as it remains definable. I think we’ve been in a process of redefining ourselves in the world, as far as we mean identity politics, as far as gender goes, or in terms of understanding ourselves as participants in nation states. Who are we in our own personal bodies? Who are we when we interact with the internet, computer or phones? It seems like people are in a process of constantly working within definitions that become more unstable. For a lot of people that creates a kind of anxiety. Some are comfortable with it and and some don’t want to acknowledge it at all, but it does seem to be a very relevant aspect of the nature of the show that we’re putting out there. The flesh and all that it entails and then the larger mesh of our interactions with objects, our interactions with ourselves and with each other, and becoming more aware of what that all really is.

Lu Barnes

Lu Barnes

In establishing muses to situate the viewer within Flesh + Mesh, there’s an associated instagram account that I started for the show and it’s based on a model named Victorine Meurant, Olympia from Manet’s famous painting of that name. Thinking about how this model was used in numerous paintings, but not really recognized as an artist herself, I suppose my question revolves around whether Flesh + Mesh draws from any historical references like the work Site performed by Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann. Victorine Meurant is known as one art-historical Olympia, and Carolee Schneemann and Robert Morris did a performance where Morris obscured and revealed Schneemann, who was lounging naked as Olympia herself. Morris wears a white mask and white clothing. The performance is in front of a curtain. It takes place at Judson Memorial Church in the early sixties, which makes it very much site specific.

I know that she was invited to participate in what was going on with Judson and was invited to interact with this Morris, which is interesting in the context of her then being obscured by the mask and then becoming the model within this collaboration with Morris. And of course the piece people remember now, also done at Judson, is Meat Joy. I found this interesting quote from her about Meat Joy:

Meat Joy has the character of an erotic rite: excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material, raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, rope, brushes, paper scraps. It’s propulsion is toward the ecstatic shifting and turning toward tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon: qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent. Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic and imagistic intensity by the energy complement of the audience. (They were seated on the floor as close to the performance as possible, encircling, resonating.) Our proximity heightened between performer and audience.”

Michael Ventura

Michael Ventura

And how is that relevant? I found that in a talk she was giving in which she was talking about her own history as an artist within a larger establishment, you know, as a result of her bodily works and the confusion of what was pornopgrahic and what wasn’t. The larger establishment didn’t even want anything to do with her. They didn’t want to acknowledge her larger body of work or her paintings or any of these other things and she was kind of ostracized as a result of that until fairly recently. People in positions of power have decided, okay, well we’re going to rearrange our understanding of history and include Schneemann now...

Nyeree Boyadjian, Taj Rauch and collaborators

Nyeree Boyadjian, Taj Rauch and collaborators

That says a lot about who is in a position to have the final say over some of these things, and how much that is a part of a larger script that has been literally written by art historians and the academy and everything else and the ongoing situation in that world. In the world of the museums, the schools, etcetera. Who gets to curate things, and how that affects everything else in terms of how things are situated...

Situated in establishing standards….

Also, what is lost. For me when you made the invitation to curate the show. I was simply reminded of the original definition of the curator and by extension the word curae, and the curate of course being a cleric, assisting a lector or a victor, and the other definition being a cleric in charge of a parish. And so, going back to a religious kind of worldview or way of being… As we’ve moved across time into more secular arenas, art has suddenly started to become a replacement for organized religion or a way to experience the sublime. So going back to the Schneemann quote, “Meat Joy having a character of the erotic...”

Tess Kind

Tess Kind

Erotic light?

Erotic rite.  A ritual, you know aiming towards the ecstatic. By enacting some kind of rite maybe you can go to the end of her quote in which she talks about transgressing the polarity between performer and audience. So everyone then becomes a part of this experience. Which transcends everything else. And that’s the moment where you can kind of escape all of these things that we try to hard to define once it’s all over. So a part of my role in Flesh + Mesh is trying to leave space open. When you asked me to curate I said, oh dear, I thought, in what capacity? There’s so many ways of curating something. One of the things I really liked about the invitation was that you had a theme already in mind that I got to participate in.

Vanessa Thrill

Vanessa Thrill

February Digest: Heart Score One

In honor of the season, as well as local choreographer Molly Heller’s recent interest in the heart, I asked Diana Crum to share with us a “heart score” she’s been developing through the last few years. She’s used versions of it in classes and a performance process surrounding the organ and it’s cultural significance. I’ve performed and practiced it myself several times and I wanted to return to the simple power that it points to.

I also wanted all you out there on the internet to see that I’m serious when I say we’re looking for all kinds of writing and media related to dance. Don’t be daunted by submitting something to this publication, we want don’t just want long interviews (like I tend to write) and essays, we want thoughts and ephemera about dance in any state or of any size in which they might come. Email me at

-Samuel Hanson, editor

Heart Score One, written November 28, 2016, revised 2017

Pay attention you heart.

Really, I mean it. Send your attention to that muscle.

See if you can notice the heart beating. You may have to relax a little. Loosen up. Calm your breath. Chill out.

Now notice your heart.

Picture where it is inside your body.

Sense or if you can’t sense, don’t worry, It’s still beating.

You can just imagine it's pulsing

simply the blood throughout your body.

Picture the heart's size. It's shape

Imagine It's weight. It's volume

And the texture of its walls.

The feeling of it's surfaces

Is it smooth? Striated?

Slimy? Wet.




Consider it. Consider the heart.

I’ve heard it's a muscle.

I've also heard it's an organ.

Some say it is a door to the spirits.

I like to imagine that if I relax,

if I let my heart fall into it's resting place,

If I release the tissues around it

it will also fall into its role as a door

(Lights raise)

I imagine that it's boundaries will become more porous

That it will settle into a translucence

Like ghosts in movies

I imagine it having fluid boundaries

And then I imagine the walls inside my body softening

Each boundary becoming more porous

I image my body itself becoming more porous

The boundary of my skin

Expanding and dissipating

My cells blending with the air around me

Diana Crum is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, dancer, teacher, administrator and advocate. The roles overlap and inform one another. Her choreography has been presented in New York, Atlanta, France, Austria, Germany, and Mexico, among other places. In New York, presenters include Danspace Project, Movement Research at the Judson Church, Dixon Place, CPR-Center for Performance Research, Roulette, and 92nd Street Y, among others. Her work considers both context and community. She has made site-specific work, commissioned by loveDANCEmore and chashama. She received her MFA in Dance from Hollins University and BA in Dance from Columbia University.

January Digest: Brandin Steffensen on Contact Improvisation and the Underscore

A few days ago I took a drive around Salt Lake City with Brandin Steffensen, who was in town for the fourth iteration of a project called Glimpse (reviewed here), which he co-produced with Leah Nelson DelPorto. We enjoyed catching up on each others lives and mutual interests within the dance world. I first met Brandin when I was still in high school and he was a star of Ririe-Woodbury. Since then he’s spent time dancing in New York and Seattle (where he earned a master’s) and is now living in Oklahoma with his wife Leslie Kraus (also a dancer and teacher) and their son Otto.

We’re interested in learning more about how Contact Improvisation and other improvisational forms are evolving here in Utah. I’ve learned from Nate Dryden, that a regular jam happens on Fridays from 6:00 - 8:00pm at Performing Dance Center – 3310 S 2700 E, SLC, UT, 84109. “The jam is always open to newcomers with a facilitator willing to guide folks into the practice. The facilitation rotates between several teacher/practitioners in the community. Cost is $5. (Scheduled Jams: 1/4, 1/11. 1/18, 2/1, 2/8, 2/15, 3/1, 3/8, 3/17, 3/29.) There are often also CI classes before Ecstatic Dance on Wednesday evenings 6-7pm and Sunday mornings 11am - noon… more information at Ecstatic Dance SLC group page on facebook.”

If you know of another jam that I don’t know about please let me know at!

Samuel Hanson, editor

All photos below are of Glimpse 4, unless otherwise noted. These photos are by Christopher Staser. Cast listed below.

All photos below are of Glimpse 4, unless otherwise noted. These photos are by Christopher Staser. Cast listed below.

Sam: Before I turned on the tape recorder we were chatting about our circuitous paths to Contact. I always credit the incredible Jess Humphrey as the person who introduced me to the form. But tell us a little about this project that brought you out here.

Brandin Steffensen: Glimpse has a long story. The first Glimpse was in 2012 in San Francisco. Ronja Ver and Jen Chien are both Bay Area dancers. Ronja’s in our group now and Jen Chien was going to be a part of this but had to leave, regrettably for us and for her because she really wanted to be a part of this project. So, Jen and Ronja organized for over a year with Nancy to create this workshop that would end with a retreat and then a performance of the Underscore. Glimpse has changed a little bit since that first iteration. Nancy asked them to reach out to me because she knew that I was interested in the peculiar notion of performing the Underscore. Because the Underscore is this thing that’s practice but that’s not witnessed. It’s not a show.

The idea of unveiling the practice of the Underscore was something that Nancy and I had discussed. And so Nancy had Jen and Ronja reach out to me and then invited me out and I joined the group after the workshop and their retreat. I helped Nancy, among other people craft the program and think about how to frame the Underscore for an audience. Certain things about how the space is dressed, that make it a performance installation…

This is the fourth iteration of Glimpse. The second one was in New York just on the heels of the first. I started organizing with the directors of the 92nd street Y to do Glimpse 2. We brought Nancy out for a workshop in February and later in May we did the Underscore as a performance installation at the Y in May 2014, and then Glimpse 3 was in 2016 in Seattle. Katherine Cook came to me and asked me how I could bring Nancy to Seattle. I said, I know exactly how you could bring Nancy to Seattle, and I gave her the Glimpse drive – all that information. And I said if you produce a Glimpse, Nancy will come.

So they did a Glimpse! And the structure is pretty simple now. Usually Nancy likes to do a workshop, and then there’s a community Underscore which starts a retreat. And then there’s a residency and a space to install it. Then usually it’s been two or three performances. And then there a closing community Underscore and some time for the participants to process. So, it’s a two week event. It’s really about investigating the Underscore, it’s compositional potential, how you perform a practice. How do you just practice, do your thing while people are watching you. The Underscore is a very rich dance form. And I’d love you to come to a talk through and do it some time. In the future, it could be years from now. It’s very fun, it’s usually a three or four hour event. For the performance installations we do two hours.

Sam: You instigated a practice of the Underscore in New York. Is that still ongoing?

Brandin: Yes! Jessie Johnson was holding regular Underscores in NYC. They weren’t quite regular, maybe every month. I went to her and I said if this were regular it would be more attendable. We had those conversations and I eventually collaborated with her to create Underscore NYC which is just a platform where people can organize around Underscore. Tamar Kipness and Lucy Meg Mahler are the two people I left that with. And they’ve continued that monthly practice at Eden’s Expressway, through Movement Research. That’s another thing Jessie did — Movement Research was about to take the opportunity to practice the Underscore away from us and she said wait, wait, wait, what we’re doing is completely confluent with Movement Research’s mission, and I think it was Cat Galasso who spoke with her and recognized, oh, we really do have a gem here, so they went on to embrace Underscore as part of their programing which was a big deal because we weren’t just happening casually in the space any more, we were on Movement Research’s website, the Underscore has a description there and people can find exposure to the talk through and the practice through MR and that’s a big thing. And so as far as I know there’s been a monthly practice since 2009 when Jessie and I initiated it, and even before Jessie had been doing things less regularly.

Brandin himself taking a ride on a partner during Glimpse 4.

Brandin himself taking a ride on a partner during Glimpse 4.

And then there’s the Global Underscore too, which Jessie had a hand in hosting, and the Global Underscore is another event which happens once a year, sites around the planet coordinate to do the Underscore at the same time across time zones. That’s been happening annually since 2000. Underscore is a global phenomenon, which is why I think its a particularly interesting aspect of dance culture, and in the lineage of CI and it’s a substantial evolution.

There are a lot of people in Seattle, [Karen Nelson’s] tuning scores – a lot of people doing things. But this one had such a reach. People hold their own practices, facilitate their own practices. It’s been a beautiful movement of culture one might say.

Sam: So, you’re in Seattle now?

Brandin: No, Leslie [Kraus] and I did our MFAs in Seattle. We were there for three years together. We have a child. She got a job at Oklahoma University and we moved there in August. So I live in Norman, Oklahoma now. and there’s no CI there.

Sam: Are you trying to start a contact community there?

Brandin: Not now, but I wonder about it.

Sam: Do you teach other things there?

Brandin: I had a really great summer teaching in Bellingham at Western Washington University. But I haven’t taught since we moved there. I don’t have any real hope of getting a job at OU. I may do some adjunct work at universities around there. I almost got a job at a performing arts high school that was starting up but that was too much. We just moved there, we have a two year old child. Luckily we can survive on Leslie’s single income. When Otto’s a little older I might start to do more. I miss teaching…

This has been an important project for me because it reengages me with what I love to do.

Sam: It was in the round? At the Performing Dance Center?

contact 3.jpg

Brandin: There was one empty wall, so it wasn’t quite in the round but it felt that way. [Performing Dance Center has] been a nice studio for us. We did it at Velocity in Seattle. That venue supported a more theatrical performance because its a black box with lights and seating. This felt more like doing a studio showing. As much as we dressed the space, it’s just a little more casual. Every space and every Glimpse are different.

Let’s see if I can remember everyone in this one. Ronja Ver, is from San Francisco, Anne Cooper is from Vancouver, Katherine Cook is from Seattle, I’m coming from Norman, Scott Davis, Rachael Lincoln, Elise Knudson…

Sam: I took her class once, she’s been teaching contact for MR in New York.

Brandin: That makes sense, she’s a great teacher. Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot is from London, originally from France. Leah DelPorto lives here. Funny thing, we did an Underscore together in New York, years ago, just before we switched cities, and I saw her at SFADI and that helped me to know she’d be interested in this. She is really the reason this is happening. She is really the producer on the ground here. She really has brought it in making this happen as a co-producer and it’s her first time doing Glimpse. So she’s been doing the Underscore for a long time and has found this very invigorating. That’s part of the hope for Glimpse is that it can be invigorating to a CI community like this one. I think that Underscore really complements a community that has a regular jam. It’s a kind of focussed jam. It’s an alternative to the free for all…

Sam: When I was in school Jess Humphrey had a jam, about half people from the U and some really interesting older people, including this older woman, I wish I could remember her name, [maybe some reader here will comment] but she was from somewhere in New England and had moved here to ski. She was wonderful to dance with and you could tell she’d been doing the form for thirty or more years. {On 1/15/19 she wrote to me and gave me the following info and corrections:

“That “older woman” was me, Marjean McKenna. (now ten years older)… I refer to those rich years of a weekly jam a short walk from my home as “the Jess years.” Leah’s husband, Chris, was at the U. then and a regular participant… he kept those jams going for a year or so after Jess had left.

Contact entered my life in 1976; my “origin story” is that I “defected to Utah from Colorado” in 1970 to be a ski bum. For the first ten years I was “the contact” here in Utah. Since then my local participation has waxed and waned, but CI continues to inform everything I am and do.”]

What’s your impression of what’s going on here?

Brandin: I got here on November 30 and I really haven’t gotten the chance to participate as much as I’d have liked. My impression is it seems a little disparate but still active. Often in CI there’s no central organizing. It seems like people do practice it but I wonder how many opportunities they really have. One thing I loved about New York City… you can go to a jam any night of the week.

A jam lead by Amy Frietas, photo courtesy of Frietas, 2015.

A jam lead by Amy Frietas, photo courtesy of Frietas, 2015.

Sam: When I was here last summer I jammed up at Amy Frietas’ house. In New York I used to love to go to the jam by Judson Church, at the Children’s Aid Society. It was wild, hardly a contact jam exactly.

Brandin: It was an open improv jam and the longest running in the country until it ended…

Sam: So sad… it was the descendant of Open Movement at PS 122 in the East Village. It was a huge space, you could always find someone who wanted to do serious contact but you could also do whatever you wanted.

Brandin: You could, you could just go and people were co-existing. I loved that. That was one of the reasons I moved to New York. You went there often?

Sam: The first year I lived in New York, I would go to Judson almost every Monday and then go over there afterwards. Somehow I don’t make it to the one at Eden’s Expressway or the one at 100 Grand which are more orthodox CI spaces. I like having those and the crazy, freer spaces too…

Brandin: Underscore is maybe a little too focused for some people. The fact that you can’t come and go but a lot of people think it’s worth it. Myself included.

Sam: Contact seems to be at an interesting moment now, in terms of coming to terms with its history…

Brandin: Me too, and the issue of consent…

Sam: Yeah, I just heard about the Karl Frost thing in San Francisco. And also the racial politics of who’s included and who’s not…

Brandin: No, I think it’s worth me commenting that this was a very difficult Glimpse for us. Nancy was not involved for the first time, for reasons I’d prefer not to go in to. She had a personal emergency and had to step out of the project. All of us involved had to decide if we wanted to stay on or not and we did lose some participants. We lost a man from Singapore, we lost him immediately and then we lost Jen Chien, who’s an Asian-American from San Francisco, and, it left us with one person of color in the group. And that became something that was very much a struggle for us as a group and for him as an individual and he decided to leave the project and that was not easy for us to figure out how do deal with. And it was something we really chewed on in this process. And it made this Glimpse markedly different. In the past, the racial diversity of the Glimpse dancers has been – I mean, I have to say, the people who do contact improvisation are substantially white, and that’s something that’s true in Northampton, [Massachusetts] where Nancy does the Underscore. And yes, there are people of color who practice with her there. But they’re very much in the minority. So, these things are being discussed with the practitioners and they’re on our minds. And I think you’re absolutely right, CI is reckoning with this.

Sam: Keith Hennessy just came out with a short zine on race and contact, a kind of collection of people’s questions about how to move forward.

Brandin: We had discussions about how to really create — it’s difficult because not all of us teach, not all of us hold jams. But there are some members who do and they were sharing ideas about how to make sure they were truly creating inclusive spaces. Trying to reanalyze invisible habits that support white supremacy. And that’s not to call any of these coordinators white supremacists. But that white supremacy – we live among it, it’s the air we breathe. Unless we try to go against it, we’re facilitating it. And I think there’s a new level of owning up to collective responsibility from many white people in that way. I feel like that’s new in this era, the Trump era.

Sam: But also even before and after, it’s such a long trajectory we’re talking about. Did you know Nate Dryden? He’s someone who’s been organizing things out here and who I know also thinks about these issues from the perspective of a white organizer.

Brandin: Yeah, he came to the first Underscore and he came to the jam. I dance with him a little bit he’s really cool.

Sam: I also think it’s interesting to think about these issues – and this relates to modern or postmodern dance as well as contact — the issue of how we’ve survived the last thirty or forty years, arguably by colonizing the university, and the liberal arts college maybe in particular. And how that has served us and not served us in various ways…

Brandin: I think in a way it had to colonize the university because it was being demolished elsewhere.

Sam: Do you feel like what I am talking about applies to CI?

Brandin: No, I think it’s different. I think the problem we’ve had in this country, is a lack of understanding of how the arts are public. It requires public funding just like the fire department, the post office, the police. I think the arts is for the public, it’s not for an exclusive group of elites who can afford to pay for it, it’s not for the market to set the parameters under which art is made. Art is for people and it has to be subsidized by and for people and that has been lost on us entirely. Most of the population feel like “why should my tax dollars go to fund any artist’s experiment?” And I think that is just so sad.

Sam: That’s the effect of propaganda from the eighties and well before…

Brandin: And erosion. But CI has always been self organizing. Steve Paxton said the reason CI spread the way it did is because you need a partner to do it. And so it’s been this kind of anarchistic survival. CI is rhizomatic. All you need is a little kernel and you have this whole root system. It grows around these institutional obstructions.

It is related to postmodern dance. Steve Paxton experiments came from postmodernism…

Sam: Just yesterday I was in New York watching the Stephen Petronio company perform this piece Steve Paxton did in Stockholm in 1964, Jag Vill Gärna Telefonera (I Would Like to Make a Phone Call), which I’d never seen before. I really see Trisha’s work in this piece, the sets and costumes were done by Robert Rauschenberg who also worked a lot with her. And it just makes you further question where all of this stuff comes from. The larger show at MoMA also has all these videos of Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, her Huddle, which I’ve done, is an example of proto-Contact. Anyway, I just think Contact is such a wonderful thing to have access to once you learn it. And of course it’s hard to overstate the importance of Lisa Nelson, Nina Little and of course Nancy…

Brandin: To have it in your life is meaningful. And in different ways throughout your life.

Sam: Who have you studied with? Who got you connected with the form?

Brandin: Nancy is definitely my dance mom. But the funny thing is, I love Nancy and her ability as a teacher is amazing — she is my mentor in that way but I really haven’t studied under Nancy very much. I have a collision of interests with her that landed me some opportunities to work on the Underscore with her. But I have never formally studied with Nancy. I was her assistant at Bates one summer which was very meaningful to me in 2009. I helped her teach her beginning contact classes. I came away from that experience very confident facilitating Underscores., which had been my intention. The Underscore was my interest. And I found that from friends who had studied with her. But I learned CI as an undergrad, through grad students and Keith Johnson…

Sam: Just like me!

Brandin: Yes! Grad students who were sort of — not knowing if they should but felt compelled to teach. because teaching CI in university setting is difficult.

Sam: More so now I think. We’re both lucky we had those grad students in our lives.

Brandin: Absolutely.

December Digest: Michael Watkiss and Ishmael Houston-Jones

A few months ago, I sat down with Michael Watkiss and loveDANCEmore board president Ishmael Houston-Jones to talk about their separate lives as artist-teachers and their recent collaboration on the revival of Ishmael’s seminal 1986 piece Them at Performance Space New York. Them is one of the most important works of performance of the last few decades in New York. I’ve been keeping this interview on the back burner but now seemed as good a time as any to send it out as Them has just been named one of the top works of the year by the NY Times and Dance Magazine. Congratulations Ishmael and Mike!

Michael Watkiss and Alvaro Gonzalez in Ishmael Houston-Jones’  Them.

Michael Watkiss and Alvaro Gonzalez in Ishmael Houston-Jones’ Them.

Samuel Hanson for loveDANCEmore: Thank you both for sitting down with me. Michael, what is it like for you to insert yourself into the history that Them represents? You were born in the eighties…

Michael Watkiss: I was born in the eighties in Salt Lake City, so literally culturally and geographically worlds away. Also, I am in this cast one of a minority of straight people, and so my own distance from the material is pretty significant. There is a quality for me which is very much about how the world shapes individual identity –– how where you are and what you’re dealing with shapes who you are. But I also think one of the great things about this piece is that although it was created in a very specific time and place, the themes are very universal, despite the fact that I’m different in many ways and my own experience is further away from where this piece comes from. Themes of alienation –– a desire and failure to connect, themes of sadness and fear particularly about death are very much universal. And so I didn’t have any personal trouble connecting to those –– some of the nuances of, for example, understanding [gay street] cruising… the first time I did the piece in 2011, that was a concept that I wasn’t very familiar with, that was just a cultural difference. And so it required for me to understand that I was going to be listening a lot, to Chris [Cochrane, the composer] and Dennis [Cooper, who wrote the text] and Ishmael and the other cast mates and not to try to mediate their experiences through my own, but just be really open and receptive to them, if that makes some sense. And I think I did that with varying degrees of success over the years with different concepts in the piece. It’s easier this time also because I’m revisiting it.

Watkiss, Hentyle Yapp, and Alvaro Gonzalez

Watkiss, Hentyle Yapp, and Alvaro Gonzalez

Sam: Ishmael, we were talking the other day about casting and how different people can upset or support the entire cast. How does Mike fit into this cast?

Ishmael Houston-Jones: It was funny, I first called Mike in 2011 in a panic because literally of the seven people, only three could do it. We got this gig right after the American Realness festival which Ben Pryor puts together. This presenter from the Netherlands said I want this piece and our festival is in three months. I had to find four people who could fit into this thing. And this piece is really intimate and involves a lot of vulnerability among the performers. Logistically it would have been much easier to find all people from New York, but I really needed a specific chemistry between the seven. 

I chose Mike because I’d worked with him at ADF, he’d taken my class. He’d come to all the improv jams that I moderated, we had talked a lot together and I felt that he would understand it. And also Greg Holt who was from Philly, which was less of a logistical risk because Philly is closer, but still challenging. And then Steve May was from New York as was Ben Van Buren who danced alongside Felix Cruz, Niall Jones and Jeremy Pheiffer who were in all the tours from 2011 - 2014.

So, I really wanted Mike Watkiss, I just had this great memory of him at the American Dance Festival. I called him up and the first thing he said was, “but Ishmael, I’m straight,” and I said, “but Mike, it's a performance…”

Mike: Forgive my naiveté… [Laughter.]

Ishmael: I didn’t even understand the comment actually. It turns out he really works well in the role, that my instincts about Mike were really right on. I think he’s grown a lot in his knowledge understanding and the coloring of the work.

Even in that first one in 2011… which was really wonky because four of the people were literally brand new and put together in a couple of weeks of rehearsal which is just not the way this piece works, you need to get into each other’s heads and emotions, and without language and without set choreography, it is a really challenging piece to perform actually. But I was really right about Mike.

Sam: How did you approach casting this time?

Ishmael: I asked everyone who was in the original 2010 revival if they could do it and only Jeremy Pfieffer didn’t have other things, was living in the city and wasn’t injured. And I was really glad he could.

Alvaro Gonzalez, Michael Parmalee and Watkiss

Alvaro Gonzalez, Michael Parmalee and Watkiss

And I really wanted someone else who’d been involved in the process because actually four weeks is a very short amount of time to put this thing together because there’s no set choreography and so much language and so you have really learn to improvise together in a very specific way. And in very different ways throughout the piece. And so I called Mike and all the 2010 guys of whom Jeremy was the only one who could do it. Mike had done it twice in Europe in Portier, France and in the Netherlands and over time too and I could see how he’d grown with the work.

Mike: Ishmael, you have just been lauded by one of the most legendarily nasty dance critics in the world [NY Times’ Alastair Macauley] as having created “one of the most powerful pieces of dance theater of our time.” What’s next?

Ishmael: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I want to make something new, it’s interesting the piece I mentioned earlier today that I made with Miguel Gutierrez, Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and Other Works by John Bernd, the world’s longest title…

Mike: Still pretty a good one…

Ishmael: It’s a reimagining of the work of the choreographer John Bernd who died in 1988 of AIDS complications at age 35. I’d worked with him and been in three of his major pieces and a few other shorter ones. And the piece Miguel and I made was a mash up of his work, taking the last seven pieces he made in his life between 1981 and 1988, and putting them together…

I know that I want to get out of the eighties. I know the next thing that I do I really want not to be AIDS-related or eighties-related, just because I’ve done that really intensively for the the last few years with the Bernd piece and the various Them revivals, besides the one other new thing that I’ve made which was 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot, a duet with Emily Wexler.

I’ve begun working on a concept, I actually started thinking about it years ago, my fascination with the Black maid in Manet painting Olympia and my search for who the model was. I sort of queered the image of the nude white woman being presented flowers by the dressed black maid behind her by having both models be male and having the black male be the reclining nude and having the white male be the one with the flowers.

Orlando Hunter takes the place of the white model in Ishmael’s reimagining of Manet.

Orlando Hunter takes the place of the white model in Ishmael’s reimagining of Manet.

I paired it with Nina Simone’s cover of “Pirate Jenny” from Three Penny Opera, and I went online and found images of maids from movies and television –– from Gone with the Wind, to The Jeffersons to The Help and Imitation of Life. And when I started the search… I mean there are hundreds… I mean, it’s a part of American culture this image of the Black maid. Sometimes they’re sassy, sometimes subservient, sometimes the helper, but anyway it’s such a trope. And I’m wondering what happens if you queer that trope, what happens if they’re male, what happens if they’re Asian, what happens if they’re Trans?

Mike: How does that change the perception…

Ishmael: Yeah, so I am thinking it might not be a performance. It might be an installation, maybe in a museum. I’m gonna keep working on it this year…

Mike: I think it’s also worth mentioning that Ishmael just published his first book FAT and other stories…

Ishmael: Yeah. A lot of it is just old writing that’s been on my hard drive for a really long time. There is sort of a theme of sex and so I though it would be fun to just get it all out. I want to write about dance and improvisation and minorities and people of color and how those worlds intersect. But I’ve actually never put a book together and so I thought this might be easier to start with since most of the writing was pre-existing and just needed a lot of editing.

I worked with Ben Van Buren who’d been a student of mine at the New School but he also did a couple of versions of Them abroad. And he’s now set up a publishing company called Yonkers International Press. So, I asked him if he would help me get this out and he was really helpful and it looks really good.

Mike: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

Ishmael: So, I think I have a handle now on how to get a book together and so I want to write about dance teaching, performing and improvisation. And how improvisation as I know it, the forms I know, intersect with people of color. [Ishmael was just down in Florida at the Robert Rauschenberg Residency working on this…]

Mike: It seems like both in your writing and your choreographic career you’ve had this view into the past and somehow you’ve managed to get past it, expel it. And now you’re looking toward the future…

Sam: And you Michael?

Mike: I don’t know. I recently founded a dance theater, specifically Butoh company with some friends of mine in Salt Lake City. I’m not sure if I am going to continue to work in that frame. I hope to do so. I’m also just beginning to experiment with playwriting so I hope to do a great deal more with that.

During this process, I’ve been thinking very much about flexible theatrical structures, in the way that Them is a very well constructed theatrical structure. It’s a series of scores that are very well constructed and considered, assembled to perform a certain action. I am wondering if there are possibilities involving more theatrical elements. You could have a play, for example, that involved two characters but their relationship could change every night depending on –– I was thinking of doing something as straight random as a game of chance or a roll of the dice, but maybe there's a monologue that one of the characters has to deliver before the end of the first scene, or a conversation that takes place in the second scene that is written but the performers have to improvise their way to that somehow and they do that perhaps angrily one night depending on the game of chance or lovingly the next night, something like that which does what the structures that you’ve created do but uses slightly different elements. And of course I am still very interested in choreographing so it will definitely have movement in it, but i am very interested in how to use improvisational techniques more broadly, applying them more broadly. 

Sam: I think of both of you as teachers of improvisation working outside of the mainstream of dance, what are your teaching strategies and how are they evolving?

Mike: I’ll go first because I probably have a lot less to say as I’ve been teaching a lot less, for many fewer years than Ishmael. I think one of the things that makes Ishmael such a good teacher is that he is never interested in leading you to something particular, at least in my experience, he has never said “do it this way,” or “don’t do this.” He limits the options you have but he never proscribes what the answer is. And in a way he’s just constantly asking you questions. He has an amazing way of making you feel safe, safe enough to really go deep within your self to answer those questions.

I think that quality of honest is what I identify with his work –– literary, choreographic –– and incidentally I think that’s why this piece has been so well received. That quality of honesty is very resonant. And so in my own teaching, which I have not done that much of, I think I try and emulate that to a degree. I try to ask questions which are open-ended when I think maybe people are reasoning in a direction which is going to be less constructive or lead them into dead ends…

At the same time, I try not to be proscriptive. I try not to tell people what to do, because that’s very limiting. I think we’ve all had teachers who try to tell you the right answer and you don’t –– at least I don’t –– retain it will if I’m just told the answer. If I’m encouraged to find the answer in the right way, in which I can apply my own answer, that sticks with me much more. 

Ishmael: That’s true; you articulated my vision better than I can probably. 

I like setting up situations. I like entertaining myself. I like making people do things that I like watching or being involved in. I very rarely plan my classes, I usually walk into a room and feel what’s there. I mean I usually have some vague idea of the material I want to get through. For example, at a university, by the end of the semester there are points that I want to have covered, but there’s sort of, not an order to that. I try to be informed by the people in the room with me. 

At the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the last time I was there in the fall I was teaching two classes back to back of the same material, which was really difficult for me because the first class I would just come in and do it and then with the second class I felt like I had to repeat myself and sometimes I would just not do it because they were different people, different times of day, coming from different places, different interpersonal dynamics. So it was really hard to teach that second class because it really went against my feeling. I really felt like I was expected to teach the same material to both sections and it didn’t click til later that that was the problem. That was what made my teaching in the second class fall flat.

THEM2018 IHJ.jpg

I'm not proscriptive, I like setting up situations, I like surprising students and I like — in terms of improvisation — having them watch each other and being able to critique, not nasty critique, but just really articulate what they see and how to begin to find language around that. And some of them make shit up but some really find language around it, this actually helps them form how they approach improvisation.

It’s interesting that as I’ve aged I dance less in my classes. I had a medical issue in 2013 so when I went to ADF that year I took an assistant who did all of my demonstrations because I’d just had surgery and I wasn’t supposed to lift. And that changed thing, I don’t necessarily think for the better…

I noticed at the beginning of working on Them this last time –– in the warm-up –– I didn’t dance with people so much. But in the performance weeks because I had to dance at the beginning, I actually did warm up with people and it felt better and I think it did shift something in the performance of the other dancer actually.

Mike: I agree, not that I think that I could tell you exactly what that was.

Ishmael: It was something different about me being there for the half hour before the performance, Chris playing, me out there with you guys, and doing contact.

Mike: And Dennis out there improvising language for us to work with!

Sam: Did he really improvise language for rehearsal?

Mike: Yes, definitely for the warm up, yes, sometimes it was just collages of song lyrics or –– it was amazing, fantastic…

Ishmael, Kensaku Shinohara (blindfolded), Jeremy Pheiffer

Ishmael, Kensaku Shinohara (blindfolded), Jeremy Pheiffer

Ishmael, Can I ask just a slight follow up question? This is just based on a conversation I had when I had just arrived here in New York for this rehearsal process. You said to me that you didn’t imagine yourself being a teacher when you began or that that was not the central aim…

Ishmael: When I was in Philly with Terry Fox, who was one of my mentors, we taught but we didn’t make any money off of it. People would show up in Terry’s loft in Old City and we would just sort of jam around –– her boyfriend at the time Jeff Caine was a musician –– and do some exercises. 

But when I moved to New York and realized that I didn’t want to do restaurant work anymore, I did start teaching. I think I always enjoyed it but I had the idea that I was only doing it for the money. And its been recent actually that there's been a turning and it might just be a maturing in me, that this is something that I really do that is essentially a part of what I do as an artist –– I teach, I mentor, its important and I should focus on it. I mean –– A. I don’t make that much money doing it––


A little bit but not a lot. I’m a constant adjunct at places like the University of the Arts, NYU, the New School. I realize that I actually do like imparting this, molding this, especially around dance because there’s a lot of bad improv and teaching that I’m critical of going around… and I really like exposing younger dancers to a different way of improvising…

Mike: You’ve created quite a legacy for yourself and I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that you’ve really changed the way we think about how dance is made and what it can be.

Sam: It’s interesting to talk the two of you, because you [Ishmael} came up in an era when –– I mean you did go to [the] Gallatin [independent study division of NYU] and you did go to to Gannon [College in Erie, PA], was there any dance at Gannon…

Ishmael: There was no dance, we did a little street theater, I did student pieces in theater where I was cast because I could dance…

Sam: It seems like in Philly you weren’t taking much formal class.

Ishmael: That’s not exactly true. When I moved to Philadelphia when I got back from a year travelling in Europe, I was taking a lot of class at Temple, a lot! I never enrolled, but back then because I was a man they just let me audit unofficially.

Sam: And you even didn’t have to pay.

Ishmael: No, and I studied with Helmut Gottschild and Eva Gholson, I took one semester of ballet. There was the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble where I took Afro-Carribean and Joan Kerr who had been in the Horton company, and Contact with John Gamble… so, yeah, I took class!

Sam: I imagined you taking class in New York and maybe that’s one of those things about my generation is that we romanticize the idea of taking class in New York as apposed to at University. Whereas Mike and I went to the U…

Ishmael: I was never in a dance department. I was taking classes at Temple but also taking classes at Group Motion which is the only company I’ve ever danced in, and I was traveling around…

Sam: I guess what I am trying to get at is this. Are the two of you optimistic about American dance is happening in terms of training and its evolving relationship to the university?

Ishmael: It’s weird because I think, talking specifically about Them, and looking at the audition videos, dancers’ physical facility is many times greater than it was in the eighties. Then people were interesting dancers and movers and were probably closer to the raw emotionality of the piece but what dancers in this version can do is really outstanding. Particularly Hentyle Yapp and Johnnie Cruise Mercer…

Hentyle Yapp being lifted by Johnnie Cruise Mercer

Hentyle Yapp being lifted by Johnnie Cruise Mercer

Mike: Both physically and emotionally just unbelievable dancers…

Ishmael: Yeah and that came through university training. They do things that I could never have done, even at their age, so there’s that positive. The emotionality in the work that I’m interested in both making and seeing doesn’t have to do with that. But it’s great to have dancers with that facility as long as they can also get there. And at a lot of dance programs, what ever that intangible otherness is, it isn’t taught or valued, so you get these people with incredible facility –– at the audition for example half of the people could have done the stuff physically…

Mike: If not sixty or seventy percent, clearly…

Ishmael: But to tap into that emotional vulnerability and openness, it would have taken a year to beat it out of them.

Mike: My perspective is much more limited. I’ve only attended one dance department and I teach in the theater department [at the University of Utah]. I think I would echo a lot what Ishmael just said. I think technical facility in any art form is invaluable in that it increases the range of things that can be expressed. There are certain things only be expressed by putting your leg up at a ninety degree angle, so the ability to use that as a tool… but, and this is the limited critique I will give of the U[’s dance program], if you are not ever taught to investigate your own aesthetics or develop your own curiosity or your own ability to think about what you’re seeing and the world at large and how you synthesize ideas into art that is honest and dynamic, then all of that technical ability goes to waste. You can say a lot, but you have nothing to say.

That’s what’s so amazing about all three of the original artists of Them. That’s what’s so amazing about Dennis and Chris and Ishmael, is that you guys all have this incredible innate understanding of your own aesthetic and a desire to express it and your creative vision in a way that is ground breaking. I think it’s fair to say that you three do things with your chosen media that I have just not really seen. I don’t know if you guys think that’s fair…

Sam: I certainly agree with that. 

November Digest: A Conversation with Efren Corado

Below is a conversation with Efren Corado, local choreographer and dancer who's performed with RDT for the last six years.

photo by Sharon Kain

photo by Sharon Kain

loveDANCEmore: We’ve heard that you're leaving RDT at the end of the season. What are your future plans?

Efren Corado: Yes, that is true. After an incredible six years with Repertory Dance Theater, I have decided to move on. I am undoubtedly nervous, excited and eager to uncover a new future. What's next? I have no idea. I need a break from the past six years. I want to find a new perspective regarding my role in the world.

Making this decision took over a year of processing experiences, the good and the bad. I asked myself to assess everything and figure out what I wanted for myself. I made my decision last spring. I knew that I wanted to give myself time to track this huge life change. I wanted to have one more season where I could savor the cumulative experiences of past years, while building new ones. 

RDT always acted as a catalyst for new adventures on stage and in my personal life. Working as a full-time artist is not easy. At the end of the day I wanted to find a way to live a more simple life. It sounds silly, but I want to invest more in my friends and my dog and to allow room for more adventures. 

What's going on this last season that you're excited about?

Diversity. We are presenting a season celebrating diversity.  It makes me happy to be dancing the work of racially diverse choreographers. In addition, we have the opportunity to work with the legendary Bebe Miller. I have been anticipating working with Miller all year. All year!

What have been your favorite experiences dancing with the company through the last six years?

I have many and I'll try to be short by giving you a few that were pivotal. 

Performing Rainwood by Ze'eva Cohen. It was a dream! Rainwood turned out to be my favorite dance for years. I wore my first unitard performing this dance. One never forgets wearing their first unitard.

Energizer and Desert Sea by Molisa Fenley. These two dances made me feel like I was an astute and educated dancer. The complexity in each work, the head space necessary to execute these dances taught me to think, to ask of myself to be better. 

Dancing historical work has brought me immense joy. Historical work is a beautiful, decadent and unforgiving creature. It demands determination and a will to fight, because most of it was made for robots and otherworldly creatures bound to gravity. Dancing my first Ted Shawn solo felt like I was a part of history. Missa Brevis by Jose Limon was my Moby Dick. One does not often get to run on stage as a lonesome soldier to a parting sea of dancers, while accompanied by a live choir of over forty singers. I felt validated and made to feel like a magical creature. I was asked to grow up, think and process information differently.

Corado lifts a fellow performer in  Tin Tal,  photo by Sharon Kain

Corado lifts a fellow performer in Tin Tal, photo by Sharon Kain

Tin Tal by Bill Evans encouraged me to find the sensuality and strength in my body. To feel the coil churning my core, whispering all thru my body all while in sync with my partners’ heartbeat and breath. At the end of every run, I felt I had had a fully lived experience. 

There are so many! I should stop by saying just this. I loved making mistakes, and having failed, meeting myself again thru my interaction with all of my coworkers. The women taught me to listen to intuition, held my hand when I needed it. Zvi Gothiener always made me feel like an artist. These are but seconds inside six years of memories.

What else have you been working on outside of RDT, either in terms of dance or otherwise?

I have started a new work. Come May I will be presenting it through RDT’s Link Series. I couldn't be more excited!

What has recently inspired you artistically in these dark times?

A tough question.

In my mind, I cling to the prospect that change will bring less chaotic and emotionally exhausting times. In the studio, being present in my body. Knowing it's my last year has me enjoying the varying processes embedded in our daily schedule. As a choreographer, public dialogue about representation. For many years, I danced the stories of other people. I want to see a Guatemalan dance. I've seen enough white dance, Japanese and black dance. Wanting to have a seat at the table makes me feel ignited to tell my story, a Guatemalan story. 

Corado with Lauren Curley in Donald McKayle’s  Rainbow Round My Shoulder,  photo by Sharon Kain

Corado with Lauren Curley in Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder, photo by Sharon Kain

October Digest: Photography by Jessie Young and Molly Heller

Jessie Young is a tremendous dancer and photographer who lived in SLC for several years before moving to Seattle, Chicago and most recently NYC. She’s coming back to town this fall to present some work with Molly Heller and possibly do some teaching, at which she excels. She’ll be in SLC November 25 through December 1, and she and Molly are planning a house show tentatively scheduled on Friday November 30. Don’t miss her! In celebration of her imminent arrival in Utah, I asked Jessie to share some previously unseen images from her ongoing collaboration with Molly, remember this /. She writes, “remember this / is an ongoing project exploring personal folklore and archival myths through photo portraiture and collage with a kind of analogue approach (what does that even mean? but yes). I worked with Molly in her backyard at night sometime around June or July 2014.” Without further ado…

—SBH, editor

Jessie Molly 1.JPG
Jessie Molly 3.JPG
Jessie Molly 4.JPG
Jessie Molly 5.JPG
Jessie Molly 6.JPG

September Digest: A Postcard from Europe

For September, I decided to post my own reflections on some work I've seen while traveling. Perhaps you'll be inspired to share something in the same vein.

—Samuel Hanson, editor

I have been traveling in Europe for the last month, I started out by visiting friends and artistic collaborators in Berlin and Copenhagen, as well as spending time with my sister who has been studying art history here for the last few months. The two of us are now in Cornwall in the UK where we’ve been joined by the rest of our family. I’ve seen a lot of art and dance while in Europe and since submissions for the journal have been very quiet this summer, I thought I’d take some time to share with you all some impressions from my travels. 

Dajana Lothert/Tanz im August

Dajana Lothert/Tanz im August

In Berlin, I wanted to take advantage of Tanz Im August, a huge annual dance festival, but I was only able to get a ticket to one event, Isabelle Schad’s Inside Out, which I attended with my old friend and formerly Utah-based choreographer Lindsey Drury. As we entered a vast concrete room and joined the crowd sitting on the floor, a canvas bag writhed of its own accord in the gigantic void inscribed by the audience. Anyone who has ever practiced setting limits on their own movement to hone their improv skills would have appreciated the way this human puppet explored perambulation. Sometimes it was a plastic bag blown from a beleaguered city tree, a wry bear (the mascot of Berlin), even an anthropomorphized insect with a sense of humor that flauting Kafkaesque expectations. Then after what felt like about sixteen minutes, a naked woman was unceremoniously helped out of the sack by a few attendants dressed in black who soon joined a Greek chorus of about twenty similarly dressed dancers in their twenties and thirties. 

The large group of dancers, dressed in black dance garb each went through a prescribed series of tasks involving exploration of the ways in which their arms might move with or without the resistance provided by what they were wearing. It reminded me of that Merce Cunningham piece making fun of Graham where he dances with a sweater with no head hole – if that solo had been subjected to a minimalist explosion into a forty minute piece. It was strange and lovely. 

After that, we went upstairs, to a series of galleries where smaller groups danced looped material in pairs and trios. Three women traded a scarf back and forth while executing a series of precise steps that might have been translated from a book of bee dances. A pair of scantily clad men wrestled, interwove limbs, calmly unknotted themselves and seemed to consider their own capacities for symmetry and entanglement. 

The obvious comparison for me as an American, especially downstairs, was to another European choreographer who’s work I hadn’t been able to get a ticket to at Tanz im August, Anna Teresa de Keersmaker. But the comparison I found myself making upstairs was to the visual artist Paul Chan’s brilliant work with balloons, of the kind you see at used car dealerships. Chan is able to make these bags of air and plastic into moving evocations of humanness denoted by empty space. Here the was Chan’s work in reverse, the very present bodies of the dancers somehow reduced, made empty, mysterious. 

Berliner Kindl brewery turned art center

Berliner Kindl brewery turned art center

I’m still not sure what to make of Schad’s work. I will say that the performance took place in one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s the old Berliner Kindl brewery building which has been converted into the Zentrum for zeitgenössische Kunst, which I think is just German for “Center for Contemporary Art”. Here is a picture.

In London, I went to the Tate Britain to see Anthea Hamilton’s installation “The Squash”. It’s another big budget dance piece that I’m not sure what to make of. It claims to be based on a photograph of Erick Hawkins doing some kind of imitation of a Hopi dance, which the artist found and then lost. 

In both towns, I was honestly more wowed by the art museums more than anything else and by how strangely quiet these cities both are at night. I spent a lot of time in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum and one of the state museums that had a lot of 15th and 16th century alter pieces — those German Marys that are covered in hair from head to toe and the like. And some Caravaggios that were amazing. The Bahnhof had a bunch of Joseph Beuys stuff and a really interesting exhibit about a small town in Armenia where an old Soviet factory was trying to turn itself into a contemporary art center as well as an exhibit about West African sculpture as the origin of European modernism. Its important to make time for work outside of your own wheelhouse. 


August Digest: Kate Mattingly on Criticism

As a contribution to your August reading list, loveDANCEmore is pleased to offer this thought-provoking piece on dance criticism by U professor and former NYTimes writer Kate Mattingly. At a time when so many of the structures of our world seem to be falling apart, the questions asked here about how we engage critically with dance and represent its importance in our world are critical ones for all of us to be asking right now. This is productive summer reading...

My sister recently moved to Guatemala to teach middle school students and told me a story about one of her first faculty meetings. A long-time teacher at the school stood up and said, “Our students aren’t motivated,” to which my sister, not exactly making friends quickly, responded, “Maybe our classes aren’t motivating?”

For me, this anecdote speaks to the harder aspects of self-reflection and self-critique, and applies to the practices of dance critics and criticism readers.

When I hear someone say, “Dance criticism is useless,” or “I don’t like the way critics write,” I often ask, “Why do you think criticism exists?” 

If we look at the history of criticism, from articles published in the late 1920s to today’s platforms like loveDANCEmore, we notice clear changes in forms and functions of dance writing. When I was writing for the New York Times in the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, I was intrigued by criticism’s ability to access far more “audiences” than a dance concert. For instance, even if 10% of Sunday’s “Arts & Leisure” readers looked at the Dance section, that was 100,000 people. Very few theaters for dance accommodate this many attendees, especially as the artists I was writing about were working in 100- to 300-seat venues. 

As someone who teaches courses in dance criticism, I have developed my own theory (which is also my dissertation project, now becoming a book) that dance criticism is not a stable or consistent practice, but rather a constitutive force that shapes and influences the performances we see. For many people, dance criticism is equated with dance reviews and valued for its evaluative and archival properties. I counter this definition by pointing to the multiple ways that critics have policed and circumscribed certain approaches to performance, as well championed and validated others. 

It’s essential to remember that every era in dance – from the modern choreography of Martha Graham to the postmodern performances of Yvonne Rainer – had a critic who framed its tenets: John Martin for Martha Graham (in fact he coined the label, “modern dance”) and Jill Johnston for Rainer and other Judson Dance Theater artists. Each “successful” choreographer (George Balanchine, Mark Morris, and Sarah Michelson, for instance) had a critic (Edwin Denby, Joan Acocella, and Gia Kourlas, respectively) who documented and promoted their ideas. Because dancing is kinetic and kinesthetic, bypassing verbal language in its presentation of concepts, writers have played a crucial role in contextualizing, recording, and circulating choreographers’ performance.

If we recognize how critics’ writing has changed, we can also notice how the 21st century and its digital technologies radically alter the criteria that critics employ. Three years ago when The Atlantic published “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” not a single website or blog was mentioned even though the majority of dance reviews read today are accessed online. This oversight speaks to the antiquated nature of today’s dance writers who established their reputations in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’s two full-time dance critics, Alastair Macaulay and Sarah Kaufman, possess some of the most uninformed perspectives on new work. On May 20, 2018, when Macaulay wrote a review of Giselle, he chastised Isabella Boylston: “A fraction more eye makeup and greater use of dynamic contrasts might make her project twice as powerfully.” His writing is eerily similar to the critic Théophile Gautier who commented on women’s bodies, writing about Fanny Cerrito in 1846 that, “she has blue eyes which are very soft and tender, a gracious smile despite its perhaps too frequent appearance.” What does this say about Macaulay’s writing if it bears such similarities to a critic who has been dead since 1872?

Critics like Macaulay and Kaufman hold as ideal today’s more conservative choreographers and cover events at the largest venues (primarily Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center). Due to their lack of knowledge about current approaches to dance-making, artists who are exploring new methods or working with ideas that move beyond “modern” and “postmodern” dance often go unrecognized and can’t access the wider readership-audiences that mainstream critics reach. 

Historically, each generation of choreographers creating new movement vocabularies had a writer who understood and connected with their ideas. As Miguel Gutierrez wrote in his manifesto “The Perfect Dance Critic,” “The perfect dance critic gets excited when she sees something that’s different, unusual, challenging, or thought provoking, rocks her world, and writes about it with accompanying vigor. The perfect dance critic writes in a way that is contemporaneous with the time we are living in. The perfect dance critic knows when it’s time to quit, change careers or retire.”

In the four sections below, I suggest different ways of creating and engaging with dance criticism, drawing from historic and current examples. My intention is that this piece sparks dialogue, which is a crucial and fundamental aspect of any kind of arts criticism. 

1. Kinesthesia

While some people may define dancing as expressing feelings or illustrating music or narrative, I tend to notice what makes dancing different from other disciplines: it communicates kinetically and kinesthetically. This is because kinesthesia, or the sensations that are transferred to observers through watching dancers, distinguishes dance as an art form from senses that are prioritized in disciplines of music, theatre, and visual arts. I am most interested in choreography that develops a particular movement vocabulary and generates images and ideas kinesthetically. This is especially important to me as someone invested in higher education because students who major and minor in dance spend numerous hours every week in technique courses. 

Of course, the conundrum with writing about this criteria is clear: kinesthetic engagement is felt rather than communicated through words. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as a response, in part, to the evaluative style that deemed some performances “good” and others “bad,” critics like Deborah Jowitt turned to a descriptive style that focused on “capturing” dancers’ movements. While this approach was valuable as a type of document or snapshot of a performance, it often left readers without a sense of whether the show was engaging, captivating, or accomplished whatever intent it set out to explore.

When we look at the history of criticism we see pendulum swings between critics that describe and critics that judge. For example, Clive Barnes began a review of Judson Dance Theater in 1966 with, “Disaster struck the Judson Church in Washington Square last night. Correction: total nothingness struck the Judson Church in Washington Square last night, struck it with the squelchy ignominy of a tomato against a pointless target…”  

Criticism by Jowitt can be seen as a response to this more dismissive or authoritarian style, but it’s equally important to remember that description itself is subjective because we see our world through the filters of our own biases and preferences. In dance criticism, there are writers who notice certain of these elements – movement, music, sets, costume, lighting, performers – more than others. Equally important, performances that communicate kinetically and kinesthetically open themselves to multiple impressions and interpretations. When a critic prioritizes description they tend to replace these diverse responses with one “reading” or record of an event. 

2. Positionality

This brings me to a second point, also from Miguel’s manifesto on “The Perfect Critic”: “The perfect dance critic discusses the implications of the different cultural representations of gender, race, sexual orientation or class in the work. The perfect dance critic acknowledges his own cultural position when addressing these issues, and how that cultural position may shape his feelings or responses.” I find it far more interesting to read reviews that account for the frames through which an event is seen, rather than to read writing that pretends the writer’s point of view is a “universal” one (see earlier examples by Macaulay, Gautier, and Barnes).  

Many critics belong to older generations that were not educated in critical race theory and intersectionality in the same way that today’s college-aged and graduate students are. This is unfortunate because performances are political events that can reinforce and/or resist dominant systems. Attending to the ways that artistic events influence political, economic, and social decisions is a fascinating endeavor. Unfortunately, many dance critics still subscribe to Arlene Croce’s idea that, “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for… overweight dancers, old dancers, dancers with sickled feet… dissed blacks, abused women, or disenfranchised homosexuals.” Critics like Croce see their role as policing and safeguarding the borders of dance, which, for them, should remain predictable and escapist. 

3. Dialogic Criticism

For decades, dance critics have approached their role as experts who know better than the artists how to define and contextualize their creations. Sally Banes said in 1989 at a Dance Critics Association convening, “…as critics we remain – and I would argue should remain – distant observers. Who wants to coauthor their review with the choreographer?” 

My answer is “I would.” I am deeply interested in the ideas and processes that generate an artist’s work and I think more knowledge about forces that shape events is useful to readers and audience members. Recently attending Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival, I heard from choreographer Jennifer Archibald that the dancers of Cincinnati Ballet were challenged by Salt Lake City’s altitude, and this anecdote made its way into my review. Part of Banes’s issue with “coauthoring” may be that she thinks a critic’s integrity is compromised or the review is more of a press release than a critical document.

I think criticality is an act of generosity, a form of evaluation that sharpens our ways of articulating ideas and offers frameworks for evaluating the impact of an event. For those of us who value dance as an art form and have seen how it can shift assumptions and inspire new ways of thinking, we bring expectations with us. Personally, I’m drawn to events that include a sense of dissensus or disruption, that defy my expectations. I am also drawn to movement vocabularies that have been carefully developed and articulated. 

4. Digital Technologies

Today’s websites are gems for dance writing. Unlike The Atlantic writer, Madison Mainwaring, who refuses to acknowledge websites as platforms for dance discourse, I see digital technologies as life-boats for dance. In contrast to many critics, like Elizabeth Zimmer, who has written, “The current collapse of print media is disastrous for the arts, especially experimental, low-budget work,” it’s blogs and platforms like loveDANCEmore that keep current artists’ ideas afloat, visible, and circulating through our conversations. At a time when newspapers’ critics lack the tools to see and write about new work, and when papers like The Salt Lake Tribune are letting go of numerous employees, websites are the places where conversations percolate. I think time is better spent investing in these platforms than rallying for limited print coverage or for writing by antiquated critics.

Moreover, the dialogic nature of platforms and social media, where people can comment, agree with, and challenge points of view, creates a more multi-vocal and representative arena for criticism. One of the best definitions of criticism that I’ve read comes from Rebecca Solnit, who advocates for a “counter-criticism” that “seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit.” This “being seen fully” keeps me writing because I keep searching for ways that words can inspire us to see dance with more curious, inquisitive, and appreciative eyes, minds, and hearts.

June Digest: A Conversation with Kathy Adams

Kathy Adams, who has written dance criticism for the Salt Lake Tribune and Dance Magazine among other publications picked up the phone a few days ago to call me (Samuel Hanson, editor of this digest) in Brooklyn. We chatted about dance in Utah, New York and elsewhere past, present and future.

Kathy Adams visiting San Francisco to see the work of Justin Peck

Kathy Adams visiting San Francisco to see the work of Justin Peck

Sam: Kathy, I’ve missed your voice for the last couple of months at the Tribune. You were my prime source for keeping up with dance in my hometown. I understand from talking to you just now that what happened to you was anything but personal. But I'm still struggling to understand what's going on.

[Since the time of this conversation, the Tribune laid-off 34 staff members, including Arts section editor Anna Cekola, and the only arts staff reporter Ellen Fagg Weist. Prior to these cuts, the freelance staff had been eliminated as a cost-saving measure to spare staff positions, a plan that obviously did not work.]

Kathy: I think it is well worth anyone’s time to listen to the May 15, 2018 podcast of Radio West for a deeper analysis of why the Tribune and newspapers across the country in smaller markets are either sinking or swimming.

Sam: I will check that out. I know that newspapers in general are having a rough go of it. I’ve thought the Trib was doing a pretty good job with “hard news”. I’ve followed their coverage of the Bears’ Ears debacle. But I and others have missed your writing on dance.

Kathy: Thank you. I think investigative reporting is the lifeblood of a civil society. But young people need to learn to pay for news. Just because you can read it for free doesn't mean you should – someone wrote, edited, re-edited, designed and did the layout for every article. They all need to be paid.

Sam: I agree. So are you writing for any other local or national publications? I know you’ve done a lot at Dance Magazine in the past...

Kathy: I do have a query into Dance Magazine right now after receiving a call from them for pitches on a particular subject. But I've become somewhat involved in local politics. I'm the vice president of my neighborhood League of Women Voters, and am a delegate for Utah State District Two. Both positions are only because I failed to step back off the line quickly enough and was left standing as the volunteer.

Sam: Good for you! Are there things going on in dance that excite you that I might not know about?

Kathy: I've been paying a little more attention to what is going on in LA, because it’s closer and since my daughter moved from NY to LA. I bought tickets for her to see LA Dance Project (next best thing to being there) at The Wallis. Her report back was very positive. Last year I wanted to see what all the fuss was about regarding Justin Peck so I flew to San Francisco to see SFBallet perform his work and found all the fuss was about his immense talent.

I check out things I come across such as New York Live Arts online – I recently watched some of Rashaad Newsome's work.

Regionally, SALT Contemporary Dance out of Lehi has made positive strides in the last two years. They commissioned several works by the NY-based choreographer Brendan Duggan, who is refreshingly creative, and recently hired Nick Palmquist to teach and create a new work. I ran across Palmquist on Instagram, he teaches at Broadway Dance Center and danced with American Dance Machine, the company that reconstructs Broadway choreography for the concert stage, so his work reflects the historical elements of jazz and adds a new flavor.

What are you seeing that interests you?

Sam: I would love to learn a little more about what’s going on in LA. It’s interesting though that you bring up Palmquist or Newsome because I often have this experience where I ask friends of mine outside New York what they’re interested in and they bring up things that are happening here that are just outside of my orbit. NYLA (formerly Dance Theater Workshop) is a space I make it to sometimes but it’s not really on the circuit of places I’m visiting almost every weekend. Even within the so-called “downtown” scene (although most of us don’t live in downtown Manhattan anymore) there are these little cliques you find yourself in. The last time I was talking to Liz Ivkovich, another Utah choreographer and performer, she brought up another show at NYLA which I had no idea about. I did see Bebe Miller’s show (with Susan Rethorst) there recently which I loved.

Kathy: I first saw her work in Ohio. I think she was one of a generation of artists who toured to NPN sites in the late eighties, before the national funding for dance really started to dry up. I was also fortunate to see Bill T. Jones, Creach/Koester, Stephen Petronio, Doug Varone at that time when their careers were first launching into the national spotlight. But whose work are you interested in now in NYC?

Jessie Young, NY-based choreographer who trained in Utah

Jessie Young, NY-based choreographer who trained in Utah

Sam: Jessie Young, who went to school with me at the U, has arrived here by way of Seattle, Chicago and lately the Urbana-Champaign grad program. She went to school with a woman named Jess Pretty who did a beautiful solo I saw a few nights ago. Jonathan González’s show at Danspace took some pretty incredible risks; Jasmine Hearn, who’s also an incredible singer; the beguiling Emily Wexler; and Adrienne Truscott and Mariana Valencia, two powerful women who use a lot of text in creative ways. Heather Kravas, a Seattle-based artist who I think is doing what people think Beth Gill’s work is doing, taking formal tools of choreography and stretching them to their limits to put the performers under a certain pressure. Do you know Charles Atlas’ work? I loved his video show at the Kitchen recently, so much history. I could go on and on. It included a video about Merce Cunningham that I think was the first time I ever saw modern dance, long before I was ever in a dance class when my dad used to take me to the Utah Film and Video Center which is where UMOCA is now. It was a wonderful space destroyed by the Olympics.

Kathy: I know Charles Atlas’ work...

As you go about your so-called circuit in New York, you should keep a little journal of things you see along the way. I remember just walking home from the train one night and as I passed a vacant gravel lot, there were several Butoh dancers slowly sliding down ropes with spotlights on them. It turned out to be Sankai Juku. That’s part of what makes New York special.

Sam: I really should start doing that.

Kathy: Do you ever run in to Laja Field in New York? She and her husband have a new company called LajaMartin...

Sam: Maybe I should start by going to Laja’s show. I actually ran into them at the airport recently when we were both coming back from Salt Lake. They just had a show at the Westbeth building where Merce Cunningham used to live. A slight digression: As you know I don’t get to the ballet much, but circling back to Justin Peck I did hear a very lively discussion about his work on Reid and Jack Ferver’s podcast, “What’s Going on with Dance and Stuff”. Bartelme is an interesting person, one of those people on the edge of the ballet world but also “downtown” dance. It’s important to get out of one’s little niche world and see what else is going on in the place where you live, that’s part of what I loved about Atlas’ show, it was all of this history, from Merce to Michael Clark to Ishmael Houston-Jones to Dancenoise and points between mixed with images from CNN and the Iraq War. But it was almost like he hadn’t edited anything out. Often in history we get the hagiographic, canonized version. In my circles it’s the eighties now and also Judson, Judson gets canonized a certain way. The irony being most of these people are still alive. But there are things left out, like African-American choreographer Dianne McIntyre’s work with jazz musicians and dance improvisation that was happening at the same time just in a different part of the city.

Kathy: I think it would be great if more people recognized Dianne McIntyre as a groundbreaker – she is from Ohio like me (haha). I just subscribed to “What’s Going On With Dance And Stuff” – thanks for the suggestion.

Sam: Are you fed by artistic or cultural interests outside of or related to the dance world?

Kathy: I’m very interested in visual art, yet I don’t find it necessary to integrate dance with visual art. Except in places where it occurs naturally, combining mediums is often clumsy. Wherever I travel, I seek out live performance and art exhibits. Art is the most telling aspect of any city or place.

Earlier this year I went to a 35-year retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art. Since that time, the Obama portraits by two other African American artists caused quite a stir so I was glad I’d seen Marshall’s work up close in a gallery setting and could make an informed opinion about the aesthetics of the Obama portraits. I think Marshall’s work is more mature and complex than Amy Sherald's painting of Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama captured his essence and the iconography will be explored and analyzed throughout the ages. Wiley is accomplished at portraiture, but Sherald’s lack of experience in portraiture was apparent to me. I understand all the sociological implications of choosing Sherald – it still looks like a piece of commercial art to me.

I also went to an installation in LA at the 14th Factory curated by artist Simon Birch, it was a self-guided immersive experience. I’ll send a couple photos to you Sam.

At the 14th Factory in LA, photo by Kathy Adams

At the 14th Factory in LA, photo by Kathy Adams

I spent a couple weeks in Hawai’i this winter and went to the Honolulu Museum of Art – I saw David Hockney’s L'Enfant et les sortilèges, a permanent exhibit at the Spalding House. Then I went to the main HMA that houses the largest collection of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultural artifacts in the world. It also has a nice collection of contemporary art, the Doris Duke Theater, and when I was there a tour of Shangri La, Duke’s home in Honolulu.

Sam: What else inspires you these days?

Kathy: I’m inspired by Eric Handman who consistently produces intelligent work. Most choreographers describe their process as collaborative now-a-days – but when Eric’s work goes up on stage it reflects the people that were there in the room.

I was also emotionally inspired when Doug Varone came to Utah recently and performed at the Marriott Center for Dance. The symbiosis of the U dance students with the professional RW dancers and Varone’s exceptionally skilled dancers (including our very own Brad Beakes) coming together in a performance felt very personal and emotionally rich for me. How better to inform the audience about the value and potential of dance than by experiencing our community on stage.

When Doug Varone and Dancers performed in Cincinnati in 1987 on what I believe was his first company tour, it coincided with the very beginning of my writing career. As an audience member last month at the Marriott, I had the sense of watching an entire career evolve from a seat in the front row.

Sam: Varone certainly has had an influence on this community through the years. Through his work and others connected to him. I wonder about the sustainability of even those sorts of lineages though. Lately when I come home to Salt Lake it looks different. There are more new condominiums and the endless sprucing up of downtown seems to just be getting more intense. I have friends – not so much dancers off the top of my head, but painters, musicians –who have long viewed the city as a kind of haven where they could make their work in seclusion and not have to worry too much. I feel like it’s a place where such marginal lifestyle can now not so easily be indulged. Do you feel that change in the dance world in the last three years?

Kathy: Honestly Salt Lake is still so much cheaper than any other major city. There’s more work now that doesn’t announce itself. You have to watch it and put together the clues to figure out where the artist is going.

A few young SLC dancers who I’m watching are Eliza Tappan, Breanne Saxton, and Katherine Adler, who now lives in Massachusetts. I've always wanted to do an article on how one builds a dance career as a freelancer in a small market. It would be about the positives (freedom to choose projects) and the negatives (scheduling, budgeting, stress). I envisioned the three dancers mentioned above as good interviews. Maybe you can write that story Sam!

Sam: Another person I might add to that list is Emma Wilson, who I interviewed last month. She reminds me a little bit of Adrienne Truscott who I mentioned above – who I worked with in Liz Ivkovich and Alysia Ramos’ piece about Terry Tempest Williams last year. Alysia’s soon headed to Brazil I think, she was at Oberlin, but Liz is still in town and very talented, I hope they reprise their collaboration. Anyway when I was last visiting my folks I saw Emma Wilson at 12 Minutes Max doing a solo about the perils of love and imaginary friends. I used to love Amy Freitas’ work and I admire her ability to organize people into regular gatherings, I don’t know what she’s up to now.

In the foreground, Adams' mother dancing with RDT dancer Ursula Perry in an improvisation workshop for aging populations in 2016 lead by St. Louis-based RDT alum David Marchant. (Marchant's workshop was separate from Claudio's work referenced below.)

In the foreground, Adams' mother dancing with RDT dancer Ursula Perry in an improvisation workshop for aging populations in 2016 lead by St. Louis-based RDT alum David Marchant. (Marchant's workshop was separate from Claudio's work referenced below.)

Kathy: I spent the past year researching and writing an article on Juan Carlos Claudio’s organization Grey Matters, because I think it is at least as important for movement to be relevant in marginalized communities as it is for those seeking out daring and adventurous forms of contemporary dance.  

I’m also excited to see Omar Karrum who’s coming to Salt Dance Fest, he’s someone I know nothing about from a scene I know little about...

Sam: It seems like there’s a lot going on in Mexico these days, but I’m also uninformed about the larger situation for dance there, outside of Performática, a wonderful festival in the state of Puebla that I’ve been to twice. A lot of people I met there now live up here in NYC and Europe. Did you happen to go to Hilary Carrier’s last Dance Company concert at West High? I was sort of moved when I found out that it was happening last night as I was performing a solo in Queens. Natosha Washington is taking over as they have long discussed.

Kathy: No! Hilary is the most practical yet creative person in the world – and she never encourages me to come to her shows. Natosha Washington’s show at the Tanner Center about two years ago was also tremendous in terms of movement invention and continuity.

Sam: No one could replace Hilary but I think Natosha will be amazing in that role that has historically fostered the beginnings for so many dancers that are now spread out all over the world.