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.

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