Walking Distance Dance Festival: An Interview With ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke | By Julie Potter

In anticipation of the WDDF-SF May 31 and June 1, I spoke with Christy Bolingbroke to discuss the dance on the program, emergent themes and process. Here’s our conversation from May 21:

Julie Potter: It’s the second year of the WDDF. Can you share your vision going into this year?

Christy Bolingbroke: Well the first year was auspicious because it was right around when the national field was in San Francisco for the Dance/USA conference, so there was a tremendous opportunity to highlight our local artists and it was also the ten year anniversary of the resident artist program at ODC and of SCUBA our national touring consortium. Therefore it was an alignment of planets for us to highlight several of our resident artists in our sized space, and to not just make it a local showcase, but to also provide context against some of our visiting artists from Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Seattle and we even had guest artist from Singapore last year.

This year was somewhat of a blank slate. We had the structure set up but didn’t need to be as broad. Because we did 16 performances over three days, we learned a lot about the format. This year we decided to do 12 performances over two days, really providing the opportunity to go deeper with what constitutes contemporary dance today.

I was really interested in artists who struck me because they have a clear and compelling voice sharing a specific point of view or inviting the audience in a way to also place themselves in the work, whether that’s empathizing with one of the individuals who is speaking or to really see the emotion and passion in a particular partnering sequence. Part of the 2013 curation was the idea of storytelling and all of these artists do tell stories – some solely through dance, some in nonlinear narratives, some incorporating spoken word or song and movement – and that’s what they all have in common.

JP: How do you think seeing the work in a festival structure influences the experience?

CB: I am one of those people who when you go out to brunch or dinner I want to know what everyone else is ordering because I don’t want to commit to just one entrée. I think there’s something similar in the festival. You don’t have to say “I’m just going to see hip-hop dance theater” but that you can see something else that complements it as well. Specifically the programs are built in short installments, 30-minute performances so you’re not committing to an entire evening with a single artist. The hope is that you’ll see one artist who pulled you in while getting exposed to another.

Having the three programs affords us the opportunity to do twelve performances. It’s feasible for the audience member, if they really want, to do a deep dive like going to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass or Coachella music festival that you can go in, be part of your experience and that’s your weekend. I would love WDDF-SF to be that for dance lovers and future dance lovers,  that they know they can go and invest themselves year after year.

JP: You mentioned storytelling as a theme for this year’s ODC Theater season. What other threads do you see when you take all the WDDF artists together?

CB: It’s not like the works are all fairy tales or straightforward stories with a moral lesson.  It’s more like a ‘choose your own adventure.’ Your path really depends on what you bring into that experience – your “baggage” or your predisposed expectations. If you come in during a particular moment in time when you’re very aware of your identity or sense of self and you see People Like You with Rachael [Lincoln] and Leslie [Seiters]… they’re definitely asking the questions – How do you look in other people’s eyes?  How are you in relation to someone else? – raising that kind of awareness through the process of performance.  The experience can certainly inform and speak to the thread of identity in the same way that Nicole Klaymoon in House of Matter talks of the figurative house we create for ourselves; to live in the space we create for ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically.

Compare that with casebolt and smith who talk right to the audience and are very matter of fact about who they are as a duet company. There are no bones about their identity – its challenges, its stereotypes – and I appreciate the freshness and honesty behind that. Each artist is tackling identity in a different way but if you came in with these questions of self and that’s part of your ongoing practice, that’s going to influence your experience with these works.

JP: How do you think about your audience when you’re selecting artists? What responsibilities do you feel to them? What is your desired outcome for their experience at the festival?

CB: I am conscious that I should be a good hostess. That can include everything from the format of the festival – not putting anyone in an uncomfortable situation where they’re going to be in a place two hours without an intermission, to how they can find their way in between the spaces.

Then there’s the selection of the artists, particularly how we format the programs. We have three visiting artists: Brian Brooks from New York, Kate Weare from New York and casebolt and smith from Los Angeles. I tried to spread them out among the programs so there’s exposure in each one and there’s a local artist on each program to anchor it.

JP: With five of the seven artists based in California, I was hoping you could share what you think is distinct about Left Coast voices. You’ve lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, the cities in which the WDDF artists are working. Do you have any instinct about ethos based on geography and where the artists are speaking from?

I don’t see it as, “Oh they’re only making this kind of work in the Pacific Northwest and this other kind of work in New York.” Artists as a whole tackle a lot of the same universal topics. Their approach and process and editing is what’s very different. For example in San Francisco, Scott [Wells] has been here for 20 years. He very much embraces investigation, finding how things will flow, how to work with gravity and against it, and build off of that. There is an embrace of contact improvisation, but it’s very much structured and he is very aware and interested in “How is the audience going to watch this? How is that going to be set up?”

If the Bay is about investigation and sometimes the process is the product, I think southern California is more interested in product. Certainly that ethos speaks to the more commercial film and television industry. Although casebolt and smith are not by any means commercial, they put on a good show and they’re very entertaining. They’ve thought it through and in many ways choose to use the direct approach of entertainment to demystify what it is to be in concert dance – how they generate movement and keep it fresh for themselves.

I wouldn’t say New York has a more cultural audience or atmosphere, but there are that many more institutions and there’s a larger population there, so by extension there’s a greater percentage of people seeing work out there. It’s an interesting combination of the entertainment or cultural offerings and consumption that happens. In some ways, when artists like Brian [Brooks] and Kate [Weare] do the investigation, it’s usually quicker and they’re much more succinct and rigorous about they’re editing. They go in and it’s very tight. Brian’s solo has this frenzied energy that is so tightly controlled, and quintessentially representative of New York City.

Then Kate [Weare], who’s originally from the Bay Area, was greatly influenced by seeing the works of Brenda [Way] and KT [Nelson] and Sara Shelton Mann when she was growing up. You can find that as a thread in her partner work and her approach, although she is still very much controlling it in a way aligned with East Coast aesthetics. She really gets in there and says, “I want it this way, this high… let’s fit that together…” She’s really judicious in terms of how she crafts the movement on the dancers.

That’s the other thing about the West Coast, particularly with groups like ODC Dance, Scott Wells and Dancers and Nicole Klaymoon. With their work the choreographers give a prompt to their dancers: What does that look like? How does that organize? Then they’ll edit, shape it and allow the work to reveal itself. You hear sculptors talk about the clay revealing something. I think the Bay Area tends to operate more from that perspective. There’s a great sense of  empowerment with the dancers and performers in terms of how much they’re bringing to the process. It’s not exclusive to the West Coast, but definitely something that seems prevalent among the generation of makers in the Bay Area right now.

Program Notes: Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF | By Julie Potter

ODC Dance performs Cut-Out Guy

ODC Dance performs Cut-Out Guy

The festival context for performance serves as a pressure cooker containing the flavors of several artists concentrated in time and space to offer intersections, associations and juxtapositions, which would otherwise be diffused if the works were to be experienced separately. Therefore, WDDF-SF mixes a stew of individual dances that altogether result in a certain flavor, specifically one of reclamation as it relates to the contemporary consciousness.

WDDF is largely Western, and appropriately so, occurring at the biggest dance campus on the West Coast, ODC. Five of the seven works are created and performed by California-based companies, making WDDF a distinctly investigative Left Coast voice of dance. In addition to the California-based groups in the festival, New York-based Kate Weare possesses Oakland roots and collaborated in 2013 with Brenda Way and KT Nelson on ODC Dance’s Triangulating Euclid. Through this collaboration and presence in WDDF Weare returns to a dance community, which shaped her development as an artist.

Scott Wells and Dancers

Scott Wells and Dancers

Another return to environment emerges in Scott Wells’ Parkour Deux. The work implements elements of parkour, a highly physical and acrobatic practice usually performed in urban landscapes as a means to reclaim what it means to be a human being. Parkour “Teaches us to touch the world and interact with it, instead of being sheltered by it” (Parkour North America).   How relevant to experience a physical reclamation of urban space through parkour in performance at a time when the Occupy movement and urban playground live games (such as those in San Francisco’s week-long Come Out and Play festival) call upon citizens to reclaim the “third place” – that space which exists between home and work; the public sphere and civic realm, usually diminished to commuting, shopping and having a coffee.

In addition to reclaiming environment, emphasis on human connection urgently rises from the heart of this festival, demonstrated by the many duets in WDDF. The relationships of live bodies, including casebolt and smith, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiter and the partnering sequences of KT Nelson’s Cut-Out Guy and Weare’s Drop Down, express the potency of connection, and the relief of communication. Live human exchanges – to be seen and heard by another – gain power and meaning in a world tinged with the sort of global loneliness resulting from increasingly digital lives.

Kate Weare Company in Drop Down

Kate Weare Company in Drop Down

Reclaiming voice, the festival contains a vein of self-reflexivity, moments in the performance when the performer can refer to him/herself from inside and provide commentary on the work.  Lincoln/Seiter’s People Like Us and casebolt and smith in O(h), both employ the self-reflexive, speaking directly to the audience and address meaning making and the content of the dance from inside the performance. To hear a performer think out loud onstage offers a node of connection to deepen the relationship between the performer and the audience. It’s a direct address. The use of performance as critique, appearing in WDDF and beyond with the current work of contemporary performance artists such as Jack Ferver and Jeanine Durning, speaks to the human desire to make meaning.

Embodiment Project in House of Matter

Embodiment Project in House of Matter

Finally the reclamation of identity links the WDDF works of Nelson, Brian Brooks, Nicole Klaymoon and Lincoln/Seiters. The range of normative to performative identities, represented in these dances, indicate the vast choice we possess in how we explore, choose and reveal often hybrid and complex identities. Klaymoon’s House of Matter employs spoken word, individual dance sequences in a cypher-like area and solos that conjure vogueing (a stylized performance of identity that evolved out of the in the 1980s). Cut-Out Guy explores the nuanced physicality of fierceness and fragility among an all-male cast, while Lincoln and Seiters address motherhood and femininity through text, gesture and props. Brooks mediates identity in I’m Going to Explode, ultimately reclaiming his image as a conforming professional businessman in a suit. Each in their own way, the works raise awareness of our constructed and expressed identities.

Taken together, the works of the WDDF, curated by ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke, provide a rich architecture to revisit our environment, relationships, expression and identity.  Bolingbroke correlates the thread of reclamation with “The value in live performance to remind us of our humanity. If artists creating work is about investigating these times in which we live, these artists are trying to get back in touch with something. Back in touch, for example, with a son’s teenage wrestling years and the innocence, support and potential wrapped up in that time. Revisiting and fully realizing a moment isn’t necessarily unique to these artists or this festival, but this festival is an example of why live performance reminds us what it is to be human, have presence and emerge from the daily grind.”

Confronting the Yay-Bay! | By Julie Potter

Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Telstar Logistics

Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Telstar Logistics

I have to thank Stuart Bousel for voicing his frustrations about what he calls “the Yay-Bay” in his post Please Continue Your Conversation at Home. The Yay-Bay is a general attitude and the resulting behavior Bousel describes as:

“Basically the idea being that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam) not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.”

So is the Bay Area a vanguard or an outlier? Consider the definitions:

vanguard – a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas; a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas: “in the vanguard of technical development”

outlier – a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system; a person or thing excluded from a group; an outsider

Being a vanguard implies being a pioneer. Being a vanguard means that one’s work or ideas ripple outward and influence a larger population. I think San Francisco’s ego wants it to be a vanguard, however in many ways the region operates as an outlier, enabled by a degree of Yay Bay behavior.

For example, liberal thinking is not the same as independent thinking. If the majority of people around you are liberal in their views and you are a liberal thinker, then you are not necessarily being independent unless you explore your own criticality and point of view. Independent thinkers do have boundaries, which they set for themselves. Bousel points to a certain flock mentality of Yay Bay, adding “I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.” In tandem, Chicago Tribute film editor Michael Phillips reinforces how the mixed review is indeed the most challenging to write because it requires criticality, independent thinking and collecting evidence, an opinion he shared when I worked with him in 2011.

While the imagination in our city fosters extraordinary artistic achievements from the Beats and the San Francisco Mime Troupe to Anna Halprin’s work as an artist, teacher and healer, comedian Anna Seregina’s performance at SFMOMA, which referenced San Francisco as a “city of misfits” hit home, in describing how rosy universal acceptance in the Bay can lead to a lack of critical thought and reasoning. Acceptance shouldn’t leave you dull in your openness and just feeling the warmies. Perhaps the Yay-Bay effect resulting from a “misfits unite” attitude is the downside to a town influenced by radical acceptance and utopian visions preached by hundreds of Burners.

During a mapping initiative of contemporary performance ecosystems in select American cities spearheaded by Culturebot’s Communities of Practice project, writer Robert Avila and I discussed some pros and cons of what Bousel considers the Yay-Bay effect. On the generative side, experimentation requires a degree of tolerance (amply available here) in order for new work to refresh and innovate contemporary performance. The Bay Area is known as a supportive place for choreographers to produce and grow through creative residencies.

Joe Landini, owner and director of The Garage especially champions emerging artists, facilitating for many a first production experience in the intimate and raw performance space. He rarely prohibits interested artists from performing in his space, and therefore, many Bay Area choreographers have grown from the feedback of a live audience at The Garage. Remember, it’s the quality and honesty of the feedback that matters, which seems to be the issue here. Another example is ODC’s Sandbox Series, which is all process and time in the studio for a choreographer with no charge of production. Sandbox encourages new generation and experimentation without the pressure of editing to make something “good” or “finished” or “performance –ready.”

Eventually, in order to be intentional as an artist and realize a vision, comes the rigor, self-discipline and the importance of editing at some phase in development. There are many wonderful programs fostering these qualities among artists in the Bay as well. Both elements are important. You wouldn’t want the rigor without artistic imagination. Finally, if a showing of experimental research will be performed, call it as such to manage expectations, as Movement Research or the Center for Performance Research would speak about process-oriented performances.

In a conversation about the mapping project, organizer Andy Horowitz recalled Bay Area artist and writer Cara Rose deFabio mentioning that in New York people are afraid to fail and in San Francisco, you really can’t fail. (Of course, the reason being the Yay-Bay.) According to some artists, the ethos has not always been as accepting. Speaking of the 80s and 90s, Amara Tabor Smith comments “Audiences were not as nice and it was real.” So is the Yay-Bay a more recent development?

Additionally, Bousel writes “The Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable”, but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” While the way in which one views the culture results from personal perception and experience, Bousel’s comment does illuminate a particular vibe of the city. Finally, to the frequent snobby comment, “This would never fly in New York,” I have to say that if the art is here in San Francisco, then the Bay is the context for the work and New York doesn’t matter (unless you are touring to New York, in which case you should consider the cultural context and ask “why here, why now?”)

To dig us out of the Yay-Bay issue (and I think we should get digging), we have to develop and exercise independent, critical thought and conversation. We have to do it on our own and trust experience and the brain. Don’t just like something (yay!), but ask why again and again. There’s room to disagree. Independent thinking is not for the lazy or the overly-polite flockers, but we don’t want to be that, do we? Bay Area art will be better with our brains at work.

In Real Life | By Julie Potter

ODC Dance Company in "Transit"

ODC Dance Company in “Transit”

“Making dance is a continuous process interrupted periodically by performance.” comments choreographer Janice Garrett. At a panel discussion for soon-to-graduate Western Michigan University dance majors, Garrett, with Joe Goode and Brenda Way imparted experiences and advice to the young crop of students. The panel was part of the class’s  “dance immersion trip” to explore the scene in San Francisco, entailing an impressive week-long curriculum of performances, visits and regional dance exploration.

Janice Garrett

Janice Garrett

Goode, Garrett and Way established themselves as dance leaders through major contributions extending well beyond the Bay Area, where they’ve been based for decades. All three developed skilled companies and bodies of contemporary work emergent from personal influences and cultivation of individual dance languages. Additionally, serious dance real estate in the region, which helps drive the development and exchange of artists and choreography evolved from the work of both Way, with the multifaceted dance campus, the ODC Dance Commons (where Garrett teaches), and more recently from Goode with the Joe Goode Annex.

All three fuel the potency of Bay Area dance and when the choreographers were each asked to describe their life at 22, the responses served as a reminder that time can be big and we may possess not one, but many lives. Each choreographer shared discoveries about, as Way put it, “Who are we really? Not, who do they want us to be?” – “they” being teachers, families, previous generations of dancers, and mainstream culture full of “shoulds” and flippant assumptions about “real jobs.”

I remember director Mariano Pensotti’s talking about his play, The Past is a Grotesque Animal suggesting that the decade between age 25 and 35 is the time you let go of the person you thought you were going to be to become the person that you are. I’ve also heard since moving to San Francisco (where astrology plays a bigger role than, say, Pittsburgh where I grew up) that one experiences Saturn’s Return – a time of challenge and change – during one’s late 20s and resolves with some shifts by about age 30. Astrology believer or not, these formative years shape divergent lifestyles, including those of the choreographers at the table.

Joe Goode

Joe Goode

Goode was in New York City at age 22 and did not yet know he’d make his own work. Garrett held a math job at a San Francisco law firm and hadn’t event begun dancing seriously. Way had two kids and was living in Paris with the intention to live an adventuresome life. At the time she ran a restaurant and participated in performance Happenings, but did not yet envision a career in dance ahead.

Goode was about 30 when he moved to San Francisco where he danced with Margaret Jenkins and convinced himself to make the work he wanted to see. Garrett, having completed her masters in dance at Mills College, went to New York where she was deeply influenced by Dan Wagoner. Garrett danced in his company and was later exposed to European values through her work with London Contemporary Dance Theater.

Way, at Oberlin College, started an inter-arts department. She questioned how women might express a more complex reality than Balanchine (her mentor) envisioned. Having migrated to the Bay with KT Nelson and Kimi Okada with the vision to develop a company and dance center, Way mentioned owning that vision as a group was key to having the confidence to build.

Brenda Way

Brenda Way

Her advice to the Western Michigan University seniors: “You will need to free up time for the unconscious scanning upon which all creative work depends.” Garrett then spoke to the uncertain nature of the creative process, stating “I’m more comfortable with the terror since I’ve been in that state for so many years.” Goode added, “It’s good to be annoyed,” because it can act as a catalyst.

So are dancers better today? The trio agreed that the answer depends on the specific skills to which you refer. Technically, dancers can do more these days, however performers develop over time and presence cannot necessarily be taught. I agree. Presence is why I loved watching the dynamic cast of mature self-aware dancers gathered by Hope Mohr to perform Behold Bold Sam Dog at the ODC Theater last week. The nuance and commanding attitude demonstrated by these performers cannot be taught in a program. It is achieved through lived experience, self-study and time onstage in performance.

Finally, Way spoke to the strength of dance in today’s digital age: “Who would have guessed that at the turn of the 20th century, the radical contribution of dance would be to bring people together in the same room.” To gather around live art offers the ethereal, visceral, physical presence. The mysterious and unfixed emergence is something your iPhone gadget can never provide.

If a Tree Falls in the Woods | By Julie Potter

tempest315

Lemi Ponifasio and MAU

“Are we just passing the same 15 dollars around?!” a visiting dance colleague from Philadelphia questions. She speaks to her frustration regarding the relative insularity of dance audiences she observes in her city of residence. She mentions dancers and choreographers attending each others performances, but voices concern over the comparatively small number of audience from outside the already initiated dance community. She wants to make a bigger impact. For her that goes hand in hand with reach.

Reach and impact, art and commerce, popularity, importance and history. Bringing dance into the world requires the negotiation of all of these components. I think impact can be aligned with reach but is not bound to numbers. Choreographers so often equate performing in larger venues with more success. So many artists want to tour so more people can see the work, the thinking being if more people see the work, it will have a greater impact.

If more people see the work, it will have the potential to impact more people, but that doesn’t mean the work will automatically create a greater impact. If a lot of people see a forgettable work, the dance will not have a greater impact than something at a smaller venue, which leaves people buzzing. Who is the work for? It’s about the relationship of the art to the people in the room. Reach versus impact. We shouldn’t ghettoize the idea of small audience art.

Mary Armentrout. Photo by Ian Winters.

Mary Armentrout. Photo by Ian Winters.

In terms of scale, take, for example, Christy Funsch’s Funsch Solos: One on One  in March 2012 at Z Space, which offered audiences a rare opportunity to view solos up close in private viewing booths. This retrospective placed value on the solitude of watching and spaciousness related to that experience. Mary Armentrout’s The Woman Invisible to Herself  at the Sunshine Biscuit Factory included scenes for as few as five to ten people at a time. The intimacy of watching a performer closely talk to herself in a bathroom mirror elicited a contemplative and charged response from those with whom I attended. Both of these performances reached a limited number of people but offered meaningful art experiences for those in the room.

Comparing responses to the limited audience events with those of last week’s close to sold out run of Prophets of Funk by David Dorfman Dance at YBCA, I assert that reach does not equal impact. Comments from the group with whom I attended Prophets of Funk indicated that people were unimpressed, and some dismissive. A few enjoyed the work lightheartedly because of the memories it conjured of a time and place, but did not report being particularly affected. Once person commented that the dance to familiar funk music seemed “populist” and “lowbrow,” which really warrants a further investigation about what those words mean. As someone who loves the Approval Matrix from New York Magazine which explores the brilliance in the “lowbrow” and the despicable in the “highbrow,” I question use of the complicated and problematic words as they really reflect an individual’s attitudes, beliefs and degree of openness. What does it mean, for example, when we see a dance at a bar? That becomes the context, which may just be more appropriate than a proscenium stage for a particular work, like Kim Epifano’s Solo Lo Que Fue. While longer runs and touring do help a dance to mature, a large audience still does not fully dictate the possibility of impact.

In a conversation with visual art staff at the San Francisco contemporary art center, one administrator maintained that strong artistic integrity of an exhibition and importance to the field does not necessarily result in good admission numbers. Sometimes you do a visionary show ahead of its time and it is not well attended but later recognized as a great contribution. While this later recognition works to a degree for the visual arts as exhibits can be shared and circulated after the fact through catalogues, I am reminded of how the shelf life of a museum exhibition far exceeds that of a dance performance, an ephemeral form.

Writer Deborah Jowitt recently wrote about a dance’s impact as “Everything we saw we no longer see. Except in the mind’s eye, where it’ll glimmer for some time.” Measuring impact by memory is an impossible slippery slope. On the brain, doctor John Ratey writes in his book A Users Guide to the Brain:

“The formation and recall of each memory are influenced by mood, surroundings, and the gestalt at the time the memory is formed or retrieved. That’s why the event can be remembered differently by different people. One person isn’t necessarily “right” and the other “wrong.” Memory also changes over time. New experiences change our attitudes and thus how and what we remember. Memories – two minutes, two years and two decades ago – come and go every waking hour. Each one arises from a vast network of interconnected pieces. The pieces are units of language, emotions, beliefs and actions, and here, right away, comes the first surprising conclusion: because our daily experiences constantly alter these connections, a memory is a tiny bit different every time we remember it.”

Even with science about brain plasticity, and shifting memory, I strongly correlate the stickiness of a work and how long it lingers in my mind with how important I consider the dance. Sticky performances matter. Lemi Ponifasio/Mao’s Tempest Without a Body, Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show, and the physically theatrical play, La Raison Blindada all strongly remain in my memory months and years later, having perplexed, provoked and moved me. These are experiences that keep me coming back to performance hopeful and curious. What are your sticky performances?

So are we just passing the same 15 dollars around? Maybe some people in the dance community are. But fixation on getting to the incrementally larger venue to continually be reaching more people is missing the point about why the art has been brought into this world.

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