The New Dancer: A Conversation with Three Bay Area Freelance Dancers | By Marie Tollon

In the past few years, the social, economic and demographic landscape of San Francisco has shifted considerably, due primarily to the recent tech boom. How are dancers adjusting to this change? What alternatives are they finding to pursue their work? Freelance dancers Irene Hsiao, Eric Garcia and Katherine Wells have each found a way to sustain their artistic practice in the Bay Area. ODC Deputy Director for Advancement Christy Bolingbroke interviewed them as part of ODC Next Moves’ lecture series.

Christy Bolingbroke: To start off, did you go to college and what is the most important lesson you learned from that experience?

Irene Hsiao rehearsing  4SEE with Kinetech Photo by Mark McBeth

Irene Hsiao rehearsing
4SEE with Kinetech
Photo by Mark McBeth

Irene Hsiao: I did go to college. I studied English literature and molecular cell biology, with a concentration in neuroscience. I learned how to dance in college.

Katherine Wells: I did not go to college; I actually finished high school early. I started cutting classes more and more so I could jump on the train and take [dance] classes. I remember one of my teachers wrote on one of my papers: “You are one sprained ankle away from working at McDonald” and that was the last time I went back to class. I felt I was done with high school and was going to pursue dance. I got my first freelance job right around that time, when I was 16, in the Bay Area.

Eric Garcia: I went to USF, to study performing arts and social justice. I started dancing in college, as most men dancers do. The dance department at USF is focused heavily on community-based arts, it’s less about the technique and more about the communities you work with, how to be a choreographer, how to be a director. I learned how to identify and to use resources, so that you can do what you want to do.

CB: One of the biggest challenge in coming out of a very structured or codified program like a college or the dance school you grew up with, is to make time for class when you are also trying to make time to create the work. Can you tell us about your regular practice, what kind of classes you make the time for?

IH: For me, at this stage, it’s more about trying to absorb more information, so I try not to have a too regular schedule, because I want to experience things in a new and different way.

KW: I mix some ballet and modern. With age, cross training is more and more important to prevent injuries. Early on in my freelance career in the city, whenever I was not working with someone who provided class, [I tried to] do work exchange or something like that where I could get training for free, because I never wanted to be in a space where I told myself “If I don’t go to class today, I’ll be able to pay this bill.” I didn’t even want it to be a consideration.

EG: I came to dance later so you will never see me in a ballet class! Lots of contemporary for me. I am fortunate to be dancing with companies that offer company class. It’s great to dance with my colleagues in a way that is not just about building my technique but also building relationships. I also go to the gym, train and swim to keep in shape.

CB: Are there any non-dance or arts related jobs that you are taking on and how do you balance that out with your work and performance opportunities?

IH: I write for the paper. That is a visible job but it actually pays very little. I also do freelance editing and I write study guides on literature.

Katherine Wells in Robert Moses' Kin Photo by RJ Muna

Katherine Wells in
Robert Moses’ Kin
Photo by RJ Muna

KW: It’s only been the last two years that I’ve been able to pay all my bills just freelance dancing. Before that, I taught here in the open program, I worked at the Lines Ballet School administratively, and [did] pretty much all dance-related jobs.

EG: When I graduated from college, I said to myself: ‘I want to dance.’ And then I did that and I couldn’t afford it! The reality is that even if you get a paying gig, it’s not going to be enough to pay your rent, gas, etc. So I wanted to stay in the dance world in some capacity and luckily, at USF, I got the administrative skills to write a grant, to manage a project, etc. At some point of my life, I had 7 jobs in addition to dancing for 5 companies, but now I work for one small non-profit, as a project production manager. It’s been fun figuring my arts administrator self and my dance self, that’s like “the new dancer.”

CB: One of the benefits of working at the box office or in house management is that you are more likely to see shows, or at least part of shows. Seeing as much as you possibly can and making the time to remain artistically curious and understand what else is going on out there is something that we have talked a lot about these past two weeks.

EG: Yes, restaurant jobs might pay more, but I ask myself what is my job at Z space doing for me? It allows me to see shows. What is my job at Counterpulse providing? It allows me to meet artists and to network. At the end of the year, there are so many things that are feeding my work.

CB: On the purely artistic side, I’ve seen each of you in several choreographers’ work. I think that is something unique in the Bay Area: we have so many dancers who are performing for several choreographers and the work doesn’t look the same. How do you keep it fresh? Katherine, your work for Robert Moses doesn’t look the same as your work for Amy Seiwert. How do you approach it differently?

KW: Staying curious and being open to the person who is in front of you, what they are interested in, trying to stay useful and in the moment [is essential]. If Amy Seiwert gave me a task and Robert gave me a task, even if they were the same tasks, I would never approach them the same way. I’m going to paint more with blue in Amy’s work, and I’m going to paint more with red in Robert’s work.

EG: With working with a bunch of different choreographers, you are inevitably exposed to so many different processes. In this one, I am playing a character and I have a 100-page script, with this company it’s super ‘dancy’. In this one, it’s very cerebral, we are writing journals. Then I go to my rehearsal and tell the dancers: ‘let’s use our voice; let’s play with character. Let’s journal for a bit.’ I just can’t help it, it steeps through what I do.

IH: I feel like it’s the same way as when you have a conversation with someone. Someone talks a lot louder, and sometimes you talk louder or you get a chance to tell something because of something they said. Even if [Katherine, Eric and I] were talking about the same thing, we would talk about it in a different way. So in the same way, movement is generated in these ways.

CB: I’m going to flip the question. I don’t get the sense that you just dance for whomever is going to offer you a job. Why do you look for in a choreographer that you would consider working with?

Eric Garcia in Jenny McCallister's work Photo by Pak Han

Eric Garcia in Jenny McCallister’s work
Photo by Pak Han

EG: For me, it’s shifting. When I first started getting professional work, I was like: ‘yes I’ll do it!’ I was much more timid when I came out of college. Now, I happen to have a lot of work so I have the option to say: “That is what I am interested in doing and I want to work more in a collaborative setting.” I want to be equal to the choreographer. You are also interviewing that director for that position. Do I want to work for you?

KW: I always want to work with someone who is going to provide a framework where I will have room to do my own work, whether that means they are going to tell me what to do but I still bring some of myself, I can feel useful, or the artist is going to just tell me: “go!” Also someone who is going to challenge me and give me space to challenge myself.

IH: The part where you are just doing what anyone offers you, that can be a very fruitful experience. How can you make that into an experience that is worth having?

CB: What does the 21th century dancer or choreographer need to exist and thrive?

IH: It seems that everyone wants someone who can draw on their own archive of experience and be themselves but be many, many faces of themselves. And yet who are the very strong choreographers? They are the ones who have a very unique vision. It is something I think a lot about but I don’t have a resolution for.

KW: I learn very early on that the thing that will make you the most employable dancer is not how high your leg can go, what technique you have, but if you are good to work with, if you are a good energy in the room, you are useful. What does that mean is different for different people.

EG: Being a dancer is two sided: it’s your creative side and your business side. How do you access your resources? How do you self promote? How to write grants? It’s really important to be savvy and really active in decision-making.

Irene Hsiao is a dancer, writer and photographer. She dances with Kinetech, Lenora Lee Dance, and Alma Esperanza Cunningham Movement, and has appeared with Winifred Haun & Dancers, Labayen Dance/SF, Matter Dance, Glory Dance, MC Squared, Urban Pointe Evoc’tion, Jamie Horban, and various other projects in the US and Asia. She writes articles on dance regularly for the SF Weekly’s Exhibitionist Blog and previews for the paper’s Night+Day section. Her book Letter From Taipei was published by Spring Books in 2014.

Eric Garcia, Co-Artistic Director of detour dance and the Tiny Dance Film Festival, is a choreographer, performer, filmmaker, teacher, and activist whose feet are deeply rooted in the Bay Area. Inspired by personal narrative and storytelling, Eric has collaboratively worked with groups of incarcerated men, senior adults, and self-identified non-dancers on various multi-media and site-specific projects. Since 2010, he has proudly worked as the Production Coordinator with Fresh Meat Productions, a non-profit that produces year-round trans and queer arts programs such as the Fresh Meat Festival, Sean Dorsey Dance, and the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival. Eric has performed works by Katie Faulkner, Sean Dorsey, Amie Dowling, number 9 dance, EmSpace Dance, Lisa Townsend Company, 13th Floor Dance Theater, Sharp & Fine, FACT/SF, Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, Palanza Dance, The Anata Project, LEVYdance, and Project Thrust.

Katherine Wells grew up in Sunnyvale, CA receiving the bulk of her training from Western Ballet School in Mountain View. She has worked with Lucinda Childs, Ann Carlson, Dwight Rhoden, Bliss Kohlmeyer, Todd Eckert, Nol Simonse, Val Caniparoli, Marc Brew, Adam Hougland and been a member of Mark Foehringer Dance Project, Colorado Ballet, Oakland Ballet, Diablo Ballet, Tanya Bello’s Project B, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Post:Ballet, Zaccho Dance Theater and Robert Moses’ KIN. Her performance of Moses’ Helen was named Top 10 of 2012 by SF Chronicle. She received an Isadora Duncan Award for her performance of Seiwert’s Devil Ties My Tongue. Katherine recently joined ODC/Dance.


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