In the past few years, artists have increasingly taken on a curatorial role. In New York, Danspace Project’s PLATFORM series comprises programs curated by guest artists. In the Bay Area, many choreographers have stepped into this position, including Amy Seiwert with the Sketch series, RAW Dance with the Concept series and Hope Mohr with the Bridge Project. As curators, artists facilitate conversations, build community and initiate trends. How is this recent surge of the ‘artist-curator’ transforming the dance field? What questions and challenges do the curatorial choices of these artists raise?
While addressing these questions in a post-show panel discussion, this year’s edition of the Bridge Project focuses on the West Coast lineage of the Judson Dance Theater. Operating between 1962 and 1964 through a series of performances at the Judson Church in New York, the Judson Dance Theater impacted the dance scene to this day, by breaking with the conventions of modern dance, incorporating everyday movement into choreography, and blurring the lines between art and life. This year’s Bridge Project features solos performed by four women and dance artists: Anna Halprin, who taught many leading figures of the Judson Dance Theater, including Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer; Simone Forti, who studied with Halprin before moving to New York and joining the postmodern movement; Mohr, who performed in the companies of three members of the Judson Dance Theater (Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Douglas Dunn); and Peiling Kao who performs a new solo choreographed by Mohr.
Mohr and I recently met to discuss the program and her curatorial agenda.
Marie Tollon: In the past, the Bridge Project has featured your work in conversation with another artist’s work. The format is slightly different this year.
Hope Mohr: I’ve gotten to the point where I want a whole evening dedicated to my work. I also want the Bridge Project to have its own separate platform. So I split up the programs into a fall program with a curatorial focus and a spring program dedicated to my work. I still have a new piece on the program this fall, but the program is more focused on curatorial thinking.
MT: You have mentioned that the Bridge Project is also a way to present artists who are under the radar or whose work has not been presented in the Bay Area. But this year’s artists -Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs, Anna Halprin- are certainly not underrepresented. What was your incentive for bringing them together?
HM: The 50th Anniversary of Judson was two years ago. They had a big Judson celebration in New York at Movement Research, but the West Coast aspect of that lineage has not been given sufficient attention. In that sense, the Bridge Project continues to address underrepresented areas of critical thinking in dance.
MT: The program showcases four women and dance artists of different generations, thereby raising questions about age and lineage. Can you talk more about that?
HM: I wanted to curate a program that framed content in terms of lineage. Anna Halprin is the grandmother of Judson in many ways. Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti all studied with her before going to New York and developing many of her ideas –task based movement and improvisational approaches to choreography in particular. Of course Judson was not all connected to Halprin, but I think she deserves recognition for her role in that wave of radical experimentation. So I wanted to represent Halprin as part of the Judson lineage. I also wanted to include Simone Forti, who was involved in the New York avant-garde of the 1960s and has also been a West Coast voice for quite some time. Forti links Halprin, Judson and the West Coast. Lucinda Childs [Mohr is performing Childs’ 1964 solo Carnation on the program] is definitely an East Coast voice, but I danced for her and I brought some of her sensibility into my own work, namely a concern for formal composition, so now part of her sensibility lives here through me. Finally, I wanted to make a work for the program that represented my ongoing efforts at weaving all these strands –the formal, the experimental, and the personal as source material.
MT: The evening consists of four solos. I imagine there are some practical reasons behind this choice, but I wonder if there are also conceptual or aesthetic incentives for choosing the solo form?
HM: Indeed it was logistically more feasible to present solos rather than ensemble pieces. But the solo form also distills choreographic voice. And I’m hoping that the commonality of the solo form will bridge the works in a way that creates a conversation among them.
MT: One of the post-show talks is dedicated to curatorial thinking. As you wrote on your blog, “ ‘Curate’ has become one of the defining buzzwords of contemporary culture. Contextualizing one’s art has become almost as important as making it.” How do you feel curatorial thinking is affecting the dance field and the dance discourse?
HM: The democratization of curating is emblematic of our culture of networking and networks. More than ever, people are conscious of their position in a web of artistic relationships. Contemporary influence is not only linear. People are not only influenced by historical icons; they are also deeply influenced by their colleagues. The rise of curatorial activity also goes hand in hand with the rise of collaboration as the dominant mode of making. Now people think about their work in relationship to other people. The model of the lone modern master is dead.
MT: You have mentioned that this new role of artists as curators raises important questions.
HM: Yes. What are the values driving our curating? Are we trying to elevate our own work by associating ourselves with people we think are great? Are we trying to surround ourselves with people who are like-minded? Are we trying to sell more tickets? Is it purely economics? There are a lot of different ways to curate. Are you trying to start a conversation? Are you allowing yourself to be influenced by the work? What is the process of creative cross-pollination? Curating raises questions not just for artists, but also for audiences. Is curatorial activity for the audience or is it for the artists?
MT: Paul Taylor announced last spring the creation of Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, a center that will present his works as well as dances from modern dance pioneers and contemporary choreographers. Similarly, Stephen Petronio announced the creation of Bloodlines. It is not only a way for these choreographers to maintain some iconic work alive, it is also putting their work within context. How do you see this fairly recent need for contextualization in the dance field?
HM: I think it’s important not to operate in a vacuum. I think it’s important to recognize what’s in our creative DNA. Just as it is important to go to the Met and look at Cézanne, it’s important to continue to see a Lucinda Child’s piece made in 1964. It gives contemporary artistic practice context. Defining our relationship to influence is related to the articulation of our voice.
MT: In addition to your dance making practice, you write. The dialogue between writing and choreographing permeates s(oft is)hard, which you previewed at Take 5 as the result of a process of transferring thirty years of journals onto the moving body. What elements were you hoping to retain in the process of translating content from the static, somehow virgin vessel of the page, to the living vessel of the body?
HM: There is a raw intensity in my younger journals. Originally the solo embodied only that quality. It was very hard to watch. It was too unrelenting. So I worked with Peiling to find a range of qualities. Now the solo holds some shards of that intensity but also some softness, which makes it easier for her to perform and easier to watch. The process of moving from hard intensity to softness echoes my experience of ageing. When I was younger I experienced anger as my primary means of female power. I’ve discovered, or I’m trying to discover, softness as a kind of power too. Making the solo has been an exploration of the possibility that softness can be powerful.
MT: Journaling is an intimate practice in which the writing is meant to remain undisclosed. Would you say that your improvisation practice is akin to choreographing journaling?
HM: Yes. I journaled as a way of hearing and finding my voice. S(oft is)hard continues my interest in writing as part of choreographic thinking. Starting at age nine, I kept a journal to hear my own voice. Journaling is a form of repetition, but also change: at some point, I no longer needed it. My last journal dates to 2000, when I landed my first contract with a professional dance company. As I birthed a public identity as an artist, a private writing self became less necessary. The process of making s(oft is)hard involved sifting through 89 journals spanning twenty years. I kept the first and last, but the rest went into the recycling bin. For me creative practice now takes the form of improvisation in the studio. I do still write, although now it’s for my blog, which is not private. Blogging is the new journaling, for better or worse.
MT: Can you talk about the sound score?
HM: The score consists of a series of dates. The first date is my mom’s birthday. Journaling has been more of a medium for women than for men, due to the traditional relegation of women to the private sphere. Virginia Woolf wrote that “as women, we think back through our mothers.” Even though I didn’t start journaling until 1980, my writing lineage goes back at least to my mother, who is also a writer. That’s why the dates in the sound score start with her.
This program is about the passage of time. In making s(oft is)hard, I was thinking about the passage of time as it imprints on the body. I was also thinking about how, in the practice of journaling, entries are a series of windows in time. Underneath that series of dates there is the ongoingness of the body. While journals mark time through dates, the body continues to move and age.
MT: Is there anything else you would like to add?
HM: The postmodern aesthetic is not monolithic. This program does not claim to represent all stories, all trajectories nor all lineages. It is simply my personal window into the question of lineage. Even with respect to my personal artistic lineage, there are many more people who could also have been on the program -Trisha Brown, for example. Finally, a central inspiration for me in curating the program has been Brian Eno’s idea that good work doesn’t come from solitary genius, but from an ecology of ideas. The program offers one ecology of ideas that I hope will in turn feed back into the larger ecology that is dance making in the Bay Area.