Working Back Toward the Inevitable: A Conversation With Kate Weare | By Marie Tollon

Twice in the past three years, New-York based dance artist Kate Weare has thoughtfully woven her choreographic voice into the ongoing dialogue that KT Nelson, Kimi Okada and Brenda Way initiated almost 45 years ago with the creation of ODC. Often a detailed study of power struggles, Weare’s dances succeed in bringing to the surface the subterranean psycho-emotional palpitations that oscillate within each of us. Her work relies on dancers’ utter commitment to deep listening and their ability to inhabit the moment with urgency. The heightened intensity that Weare cultivates within her work could be seen in her contribution to Triangulating Euclid which she co-choreographed with Nelson and Way in 2013 or in the way she coached members of the ODC dance company to perform her Drop Down and Still Life With Avalanche (in collaboration with Way) in 2014.

Kate Weare Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kate Weare
Photo by Andrew Weeks

After a two-week residency this past fall, Weare returned to ODC this spring to complete Giant, a piece co-commissioned by White Bird and ODC, that premieres this week at YBCA. Weare and I met to talk about her process and the work culture she cultivates in the studio.

MT: In your process, you ask dancers to do a lot of questioning. Was it the case with Giant and what kind of questioning did you ask dancers to do?

KW: I don’t think I developed this attitude about dancers consciously. It’s just an outgrowth of the way I actually worked as a dancer. I was always very interested and involved in the intellectual reasons for things to emerge and merge. I, in turn, expect that from dancers. I want to have questioning, unfolding, lively conversations with the people I engage artistically.

I was once in a working process where dancers and actors were in the same room together. It was really the only time I’ve had this wonderful opportunity to see them as unique species, and how they function differently in their training. I was very struck at the strengths and weaknesses of each mode. The actors were so involved in asking questions about their material, grappling with it, chewing on its meaning, and shifting its meaning slightly all the time as a practice. And they were doing that with words and dialogue – their medium – very intellectually. Sometimes it felt like they ended up talking, talking, talking instead of doing, doing, doing. And the dancers were sort of in the opposite camp. In a very robust way, the dancers were more like athletes; they would repeat and do and do and do, but often in a hitting-your-head-against-a-wall way. It’s another mode of chewing on material, of course, but repeating is not the same thing as shifting perspectives. I began to see this parallel potential.

Our medium is physical and we process through the body. I think there are a lot of complexities in that. It’s not just mechanical or athletic, it’s also psycho-emotional, and about intuition, about the moment-to-moment differences in temperature, energy, willingness, perception, mood. All of these things can be part of a rigorous process of reevaluation and reanalysis for a dancer. It’s an intellectual as well as a physical, emotional process.

MT: Your process puts a lot of responsibility on the dancers.

KW: More responsibility than bringing the work to life onstage? I will say that I am a precise thinker, formally speaking, so I’m not just leaving them out in the open in terms of structure or context, but I also cannot fully power the structure from the inside out unless I’m the one dancing it. I believe in dancers as a locus of meaning. The dancers have to care about what they are doing on a profound level for it to ignite – period. In performance I can’t care about it for them, the audience can’t care about it for them. They have to do it.

As a dancer, I never sat with the idea that I was empty and the choreographer filled me. Dancers who come with the notion that their technical prowess is what matters the most about them – their training as a kind of armor – often get uncomfortable with my process. I’m looking for meaning inside of movement and underneath the surface, I’m not looking at only, or even primarily, how brilliantly it is executed. How brilliantly it’s executed is kind of the least important idea for me, or perhaps the one I take the most for granted. It’s a formal component that helps create meaning but it is in and of itself not meaningful. I’ve never been that interested in dance that deals primarily in astonishing technical feats are or how beautifully intelligent the craft is, yet another kind of feat. How the performers live inside of form is what excites me on a gut-level, on a human level – that is what I care most deeply about.

Part of the research of understanding yourself within new material is to be passionately, urgently engaged at every moment, even the moments you don’t yet comprehend or that make you feel vulnerable. That’s the work. I love the quicksilver brilliance of a dancer who can stay connected with immediacy…that’s a true artistic practice, actually.

As a choreographer I feel my responsibility is to create a really tight structure but not to decide on the cellular meaning within. The dancers are part of how the meaning forms from inside out. I have a problem when a dancer comes to me and says: “What am I supposed to feel?” That’s your job! And this is our conversation to have. You are the only one who knows how this feels inside your body, within your experience, and I will reflect back to you how I think it fits in a larger context, how I need you to shift this or question that, whether it’s working, or if I believe you.

That’s something that takes time and trust to develop, as it’s both an unspoken and spoken dialogue that requires a lot of honesty through the course of making a work. It’s not an instantaneous thing, and I’ve had dancers pass through my process feeling very insecure because I’m not a director who will say: “This is right and this is wrong.” I don’t think that way. Ambiguity, nuance, complexity, ongoing curiosity, that’s the research I’m engaged in.

MT: You established that sense of trust and research with the group of core dancers with whom you worked for over 10 years in your company in New York.

KW: I had a special group for a long time but they’ve turned over, and I only have one dancer left from my original company (who’s now my assistant director, Douglas Gillespie.) We’ve worked hard in the last 6 months to get our culture back into place with new and younger dancers. Part of the way – in my studio anyway – this culture develops is that there’s an incredible amount of lateral exchange, an emphasis on unfolding. Everyone in this room, myself included, is acknowledged to be in a state of artistic process, change and growth – sometimes slow, precarious and even embarrassing, sometimes lightning-boltish and thrilling. There’s no person in the room who has all the answers – not me, not the senior dancer. We’re all subject to each other’s responses, perceptions, critiques and support. For a long time as a director, I’m quite penetrable and porous, and then, at some point it becomes clear to me what actually will be meaningful in the piece at the structural level. I take control of the form of the work as I sense it, and by the time it’s onstage the dancers have taken back control. The performers have all the power once it’s onstage. That’s a huge trust exchange, back and forth.

MT: In your process, the studio becomes a lab?

KW: Yes, the studio is a laboratory, in it we can mess up and fail and no one (who isn’t down in the mud with us) is watching. If you can’t be foolish, wrong-headed, boring, unskillful and vulnerable within the laboratory of the studio, you can’t go anywhere you don’t already know how to go.

MT: Did Giant go in a different direction that you had in mind in the beginning?

ODC/Dance company members Natasha Adorlee Johnson and Joseph Hernandez in Kate Weare's "Drop Down"

ODC/Dance company members
Natasha Adorlee Johnson and
Joseph Hernandez in
Kate Weare’s “Drop Down”

KW: I didn’t come into this project [with an artistic agenda.] I had some framework of what I knew I was interested in content-wise. I also had my long history of making work and knowing what are the inescapable issues of my work. Of course, I’m always trying to push out of what I already know, so I came into this project feeling: I don’t want to do what I normally do in a quick commission situation, which is bring a structure or formula that will end up in a work that I know I can deliver for this company who has hired me to deliver it.

Instead I wanted to feel what it is like to live here, to be myself in the studio with the ODC artists, and have a process where I live inside of not knowing for a long, long time and the dancers live inside of that too. It can feel uncomfortable, I don’t have answers, we don’t know where it’s going to finish, I can’t help them or myself feel certain. None of it is going to land for a while.

Interestingly, I had the impulse after our initial 2-week research visit that I ought to just bring in phrase-work on my own body and have [the dancers] emulate me, and that might put us all in a more secure place. But I deliberately, perhaps perversely, made the choice not to do that. Because even though it reassures dancers and speeds up processes, it also limits my ability to perceive their idiosyncrasies, their purities. As a choreographer I have to find a way to be in conversation with them, earn their trust so they can live inside my structure, my perception. I never doubt that my own voice will be seen in my work because my voice is so clear to me – it always has been an out-loud presence in my life. For that reason I can be flexible and open in process and still hear myself.

[ODC dancers] are beautiful movers, they were very alive in improvisation during our research period. I felt they had very interesting stuff inside of them. I didn’t spend as much time trying to transfer my own physical instincts onto them, partly because I’m in a place where I’m very interested in increasing and developing my directorial abilities, not continuing to believe that my dances emerge only from my own body, which is what I thought for the first 15 or 20 years of my dance-making career. I think in the early stages you think the way you do it – the source – IS the meaning, but now I understand that this complicated conversation can yield meaning that couldn’t come only from one set of physical instincts, even the choreographer’s.

MT: In your process, the music often comes later. Is that also true for the making of Giant?

KW: I want to discover what the physicality is speaking about before I layer it with the powerful lens of music, which is the lens through which the audience will generally interpret the material. You can close your eyes, but not your ears. If you are a choreographer you have to reckon with that reality – you either serve the sound or you figure out how much meaning the sound will attribute. In this case, oddly enough, I’ve ended up with a sound score that is deeply informing, the sound ideas are profoundly tied up in the meaning of the sections. I don’t always end up there.

MT: Can you talk about the title of the piece?

KW: Giant works with issues of formal scale, and scale of will too. Power and the desire to dominate, to be feared, understood, seen, loved and affirmed are always there in my work and certainly out in the word at large (whew! look at our national unfolding drama.) I’m always interested how this trails over to gender. Emotional embodiment and drama matter a lot to me but not necessarily within a narrative context. It’s much more about how the feeling, the energy inside a system or an image plays out against the energy elsewhere in the work, how it reshapes itself in perception. I was thinking of gender originally but I don’t think that’s where this piece has ended up.

There is something interesting to me about how Giant flips back and forth on itself. Nothing adds up back-to-back, everything contests or contrasts the thing before it – large, even outsized structural gestures. There are lots of motifs in this work that deal with spatial issues: How big does the space get, or how tiny, or how bent or pressed? How do people within the work contain and shape the space, each other? Who gets to shape the space?

MT: Is there anything else you want to add?

KW: Some of the imagery of Giant is peculiar and particular and that’s to the ODC dancers’ credit during our initial research period. I think the piece is true to much of what happened in the studio for us. I wouldn’t have made this piece in another context or with a different group of artists. They’ve led me some place different.

The piece doesn’t attempt to fill all the space all the time. There’s riskiness in it, in that much of the imagery is highly concentrated yet I’m not attempting to make it all make sense for the audience.

Even though I’m very involved in mechanics and technique and asking questions that only highly trained bodies could [grapple with,] it’s not a terribly interesting framework to me as the source of meaning. The youth and beauty obsession of the dance world is such a given – it’s been done for so long, over centuries really, and those values have been accomplished and reiterated with great skill and surety. In this piece, for instance, there’s a beautiful quartet of men that hinges on a lightly generic bit of choreography, yet it works in context because it pleases the eye, soothes certain comfort zones, caresses a bit in contrast to what comes before and after. To me, it could also be touching on how banal beauty can be.

I feel many people make dances in the dance world to reaffirm what a beautiful body looks like. I’m interested in stuff that is more primitive, animal and un-nameable. I’m very interested in “essentializing” – working back toward the inevitable, the natural, the imperative, and taking you to places that you don’t quite know how to orient, where you have to trust your senses again.

Porous Boundaries | By Marie Tollon

Holding a water bottle, dancer Private Freeman walks casually across the studio floor and puts his bottle down upstage center. He then circles around, one hand seemingly feeling the air, before trying out a few steps, stopping pensively, and rubbing one foot against the floor, possibly testing its texture.

Private Freeman Photo by Andrew Weeks

Private Freeman
Photo by Andrew Weeks

Rehearsal for Going Solo, KT Nelson’s piece premiering at YBCA this week, has started and the first section of the work, introspect and less choreographically set, hints at the making process that happens off stage, in the studio. Embodying the thin line that exists between process and performance, this introduction also points to other porous boundaries. At time playful and exuberant, at other times more somber and mature, Freeman lets boyhood and manhood converse seamlessly, thanks to the deeply attuned range of physicality that he has built and nurtured over the past 20 years he has been dancing.

After rehearsal, I talked to Nelson and Freeman about the piece. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Marie Tollon: KT, You have choreographed solos for dancers within group pieces before, but this is your first time choreographing a solo piece. Can you talk about your process?

KT Nelson: Making a solo is maybe the most difficult thing for me. One of my gifts as a choreographer is to balance one thing against another. A choreographer who has a talent for narrative would probably have an easier time with a solo, just because they are following an idea through from beginning to end. I’m usually following an image through which is much less linear and easier to manifest in a group. The other hard thing about solos is that there is only one body. In group works, the relationships you develop are offset by another body, or a line of bodies. I’m trying to develop [Private’s] relationships in other ways.

MT: With props?

KN: I have been using the imagery of a sailboat, at times an actual paper sailboat my sister and I made with discarded paper items. And I’m using water sound effects. Both of these function as props in a way.  They have been useful in establishing an interior landscape. I am not sure they will still be in the piece in the end. But they have been very helpful in the process.

MT: Private, does performing a solo piece require a different set of tools, or maybe a different kind listening, than dancing in a group piece?

Private Freeman: I would say it involves a different kind of release. When you are in a full company work, you may have a solo within that [piece.] I have always approached solos pretty much the same way. Yes, I fit into part of an ensemble, but knowing the context of what we are doing, I have always felt a freedom within that solo, that I could interpret it more freely on a performance to performance basis and let it grow even more. A whole solo isn’t any less or more challenging, it is a broader scope of what I sometimes get to do on a smaller scale.

This is especially true with KT, because she allows you to improvise a lot and trusts that you’ll make decisions that are appropriate to the context. It is also a one-on-one conversation with a choreographer as opposed to a group conversation. One-on-one, especially with KT, you know you are on the same page and are talking the same language. You don’t have multiple interpretations. It stays in this little world which is enjoyable because you immerse yourself more.

MT: KT, what other images are you working with, if any? 

KT Nelson Photo by Connor Radnovich

KT Nelson
Photo by Connor Radnovich

KN: I definitely had an operating image, which is now different from what I thought it was going to be. I originally had an idea that was related to my environmental concern: the human in relationship to nature, the pedestrian versus the animal, and the question of whether the natural world is in us. But when we were working on the Velveteen Rabbit, I was sitting in the theater with my sister and she said to me: “Who is the crocodile? They are so playful!” It was Private and in that moment I realized my working image for the solo wasn’t the right one. He has a physicality that slips from man to boy with such seamlessness.  At that point my overriding image became the melding of a man and a boy, and how those qualities can be deeply connected and not separate. The question of “Who are we really?” is also in there.

MT: There was a bit of the conversation between boy and man in Cut-Out Guy as well.

KN: Yes, I found myself revisiting Cut-Out Guy and trying not to. I think Private -who wasn’t in Cut-Out-Guy– and I worked through that after the first week.

MT: At one point in rehearsal, you said to Private: “In this movement, there’s a bit of you and a bit of me.” How would you characterize each other’s vocabulary?

KN: I really don’t dance anymore. Private’s first year dancing in the company was my last. So we actually once danced together. One thing Private and I do share is a love of momentum – identifying the energetic quality of a movement and setting it free- and the inability to stop moving!

MT: Private, you danced with ODC for 12 years, took a 7-year hiatus, and now are back. What are ODC’s specificities that you held on to these past few years?

PF: One thing I learned that is always maintained at ODC is a sense of true collaboration on the dancers’ level. It’s a collaboration in the trenches [that involves] digging deeper and one-on-one or group conversations. In a lot of companies, there is no conversation, you come in and you’re told what to do.

One of the things that I loved about ODC the first time I ever saw them, which was before I was offered a contract to work with them, was the ensemble moments because I saw every personality out there. I didn’t grow up dancing and learned from a small age to be exact and be exactly the same as everybody else. I started to dance late because there was freedom and expression in dance. It was about sharing ideas, creating something really amazing to present in front of people. It’s as simple as that.

MT: What did you learn from your “artistic walkabout?”

PF: I have learned to better understand the psychology of different groups of people. There are companies where everyone is on board with whatever mentality the director sets forth and some companies where they don’t. I learned how to incorporate all these psychologies and personalities, how to work with them better, and how to make myself better to work with as well.

 

Capturing the Real | By Marie Tollon

Dance photography offers a different lens through which to look at movement. By capturing single moments of a dance and freezing them in time, it acts as a magnifying glass, calling attention to details that can get lost in the unfolding of live performance –such as the specific physicality of a dancer, the elaborate composition of a short section or the mood of a piece.

Katherine Wells

Katherine Wells

Dance and photography both evolve within a visual frame: the square or rectangular format for the photograph echoes the frame of the black box theater or proscenium stage –although that frame becomes more elusive in non traditional performance spaces. Dance’s ephemerality also recalls what photographer Ansel Adams said about photography: It “can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”

Featuring a series of photographs taken by dance photographer Andrew Weeks over the past year, the current exhibition installed in the ODC Theater lobby gallery reminds us of the similarities and conversation between the two art forms.

Weeks started photographing dancers shortly after meeting his wife, then a ballet student, in Chicago. When she landed a position with the Oakland Ballet, Weeks followed her to California, where he started taking photographs of her dancing, as well as her colleagues and the companies they danced for. “I really fell in love with [dance photography.] The two arts, dance and photography, are a perfect match and together can produce some beautiful still imagery. Getting to photograph dance is [to me] what a candy store is to a 7 year old kid,” Weeks mentioned in an interview over the phone.

For the past two years, Weeks has been working at ODC and taking photographs in the studio, on stage and backstage. Being at ODC on a regular basis over a significant period of time –as opposed to coming in occasionally for a performance – has allowed Weeks to familiarize himself with ODC’s community and values: “ODC is an amazing place.  You walk in and you cannot help but get the sense of community – so many friendly smiles and ‘hellos,’ so many friendships and bonding to witness, it makes me smile every time I walk in.”

It has also allowed him to get to know the Company dancers and the choreographers’ work: “As far as shooting the Company, the most enjoyable part about it for me as a photographer is letting my camera’s relationship with the dancers and choreographers grow as I have become more familiar with their work. Timing and anticipation are such an important part of dance photography, the more familiar you are with the dancers’ and choreographers’ movements, the easier it is to catch the right moment.”

Alex Carrington

Alex Carrington

Rather than coming into the studio with an agenda, Weeks shared that he’d rather “capture real moments with whatever [he] photographs -where the subjects are in their world, [while] doing their thing, not aware the photograph is being taken. I want my photography footprint when shooting to be very small. If I could be a fly on the wall I would!”

Given the copious amount of photographs that Weeks has taken these past 2 years, selecting the 10 works that are displayed in the exhibition was a challenging task. Comprised of soloists or duets in relatively sparse settings, the selection reflects Week’s attention to form, details and emotions, but are also an indication of how he watches dance: “My favorite part of watching a performance is when I get zeroed in on a dancer or a section of a piece of choreography. It is when I forget the outside world and live in the dancers’ movement or a piece’s moment that I love the most. To me, these photographs seem to speak to that.”

Turn Around to See What’s Coming Next: A Conversation with Brenda Way about ODC’s 45th Anniversary | By Marie Tollon

During a residency at the American Academy in Rome, ODC’s Founder and Artistic Director Brenda Way remarked on the way early Romans conceived of the future, not by looking forward but by facing the past. Way noted “in Latin we see the turn of phrase: ‘Turn around to see what’s coming next.’ I have always thought of artists as being the vivid front edge of the past. Now I am moved to consider, which way are we looking?”

Brenda Way

Brenda Way

The question that Way raised in 2009 finds a particular echo this year, as ODC celebrates its 45th Anniversary. Fueled by the collaborative and inquiry-based spirit that permeated the sixties and seventies, ODC started as a collective at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1971. In 1976, attracted by the sense of possibility and invention that San Francisco offered, the group boarded a yellow bus and left Oberlin. In those 45 years of making and expanding, ODC has maintained its intense commitment to community, artistic sharing and civic consciousness. Way and I sat down to discuss ODC’s history and how its future might take shape.

Marie Tollon: What count as some of ODC’s most significant moments in these last 45 years?

Brenda Way: There are so many. I would say leaving Oberlin and coming to the Bay Area in 1976 and a few years later getting a mortgage from Wells Fargo in Walnut Creek to buy the corner building in 1980 after being evicted from our first studio on Mariposa Street. An emblematic moment was opening night at this new space [the New Performance Gallery, ODC Theater’s former name]. We only had half the floors down and the jazz tap ensemble performed on it. We had porta potties on the empty lot, Christmas lights strung up over the floor and chairs on the dirt… the whole thing embodied the spirit of the group: we were doing it ourselves and no matter what happened, we would forge ahead. The review naturally talked about the porta potties.

There have been a series of artistic projects that were important. When my son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I worked with the dancers on Investigating Grace while I struggled with the question of “why bother to make dance?” The deep relationship of the dancers to the material and the creative process really reaffirmed the value of artistic enterprise for the sustenance of the human spirit. On a lighter note, producing Toe to Toe with Warren Hellman was a big deal, and his spirit was a gift. Choreographing with student athletes from Cal was fresh. Their capacities were deeply focused and very extreme. It was also inspiring how many people could connect to dance through their appreciation of sports. Of course, working in collaboration with KT, as well as with Andy Goldsworthy, Zoe Keating and RJ Muna on Boulders and Bone was an inspiring and invigorating process.

On the touring front, the company selection by BAM to be one of the first companies for the State Department DanceMotion tour of South East Asia was thrilling. We were in Burma before the borders were opened. Although you read about the meaning of art in repressive cultures, it’s very different when you’re there and you see the profound [effect] that dance can have as a diplomatic connector. People who were afraid to be seen at our concert came by the hundreds, slipping in with their heads bowed. Our month-long tour in Russia in 1989 was also a high point due to the strength of dance and its place in the Russian culture.

The opening of the Commons was memorable. So many people participated in the celebration, performing their work all over the building. It was a profoundly generous and exciting event. And when we opened, Rick Coughlin and his crew of health practitioners launched the dancers’ clinic there, which was a fantastic statement of caring for the people in our profession and something I had never imagined. The subsequent collaboration with Rhythm and Motion stands as another critical turning point in ODC’s life and embodied our sixties philosophy that everybody could and should dance. Their spirit fills the Commons with energy on a daily basis.

Seeing the quality of dancers who are willing to put their artistry on the line is a constant source of amazement and delight.

ODC/Dance dancer Natasha Adorlee Johnson

ODC/Dance dancer
Natasha Adorlee Johnson

One of the things that has been the most surprising to me as I look back over all of these years is that when we first came to town we wrote an ambitious grant to the San Francisco Foundation. It basically laid out everything we are now—the school, the company, the theater—in tiny form. I never would have guessed it would expand to such a magnitude. There is intense pleasure in seeing organic growth. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom. You have a child who is growing up but you don’t have any idea of the form or future of her life. To be able to accommodate and help nurture new artistic generations has been a profound pleasure. And I do think it is connected to ODC being women artist led. There is always a consciousness about the human culture, not just the work. Not that men can’t think that way but I suspect our organizational culture may be tied to a deeper sense of family.

MT: What is in store for the celebration of ODC’s 45th anniversary?

BW: There are a few things that stand out as celebratory. It is the first time we are having a piece created by another artist, Kate Weare. It’s a co-commission by White Bird in Oregon and ODC. It celebrates the beginning of a new chapter. KT is making a piece for Private Freeman who has returned after his 8-year walkabout, and certainly that is a celebration of the long artistic relationship one can have with dancers. I’m sure that piece will resonate with a lot of his ODC history but also with what he has accumulated from his artistic life elsewhere. For my part, I am once again working with Paul Dresher after a hiatus of perhaps a decade or more. This is also a celebration of our history. It’s bringing the players that really helped form the aesthetics of ODC to the table again. Looking back to go forward.

MT: You have said: “Individuals have built this organization and individuals will carry it forward.”

BW: There have been some key board members for over 30 years—Lynn Feintech, Sako Fisher—who have been helping keep the business rigorous and entrepreneurial. That’s a huge part of how you can carry on in this world. That and loyalty.

MT: Thinking about loyalty, having the dancers on a 42-week contract is rare in today’s dance community.

BW: That coherent ensemble was very central to my interest in being a choreographer. I’m not sure today’s dancers even want the same thing anymore, but I think a steady work environment can engender commitment and it’s been very important for us to provide that. When somebody chooses to move on, they often come back to teach, to mount repertory, to help work with the Dance Jam. We try to find long-term connections, because their movements, their bodies are still in our repertory, even though they are not there anymore, so I feel loyalty to that, too.

MT: How do you see ODC’s role in the current context of artists and arts organizations being pushed out of the city because of the rising cost of living?

BW: I hope we can work with interested developers, philanthropists or city agencies on the issue of artist housing. I think San Francisco is at risk of losing its deep artistic culture. I hope we will participate in some way in addressing this.

MT: What are the ways that you want to move forward?

BW: I want to try to endow these dance facilities, the ODC Theater and the Commons. I never thought about such long-term things in the past because contemporary art is really about today and I think we feel the need to invest all our energy into that. But now I think I have to make sure that this campus remains viable. If we can raise an endowment that pays the facility overhead, then succeeding generations, both artistic and administrative, can focus on what they want to do programmatically and not be swamped by the hungry demands of overhead. They can focus more on responding to the changes that will come.

Succession is on the horizon, too, although somewhat in the distance. We have enjoyed the stimulation, the give and take of more than one choreographer so we are exploring how that might look in the future.

Anything that we do going forward, I would hope we will remember that there will always be limited resources and that our core mission is built around making work, helping people make work and presenting it. I hope what goes forward as we move on are the values that we built this organization around. New generations will find different forms but I hope the communitarian values, the values of nurturing art and artists, will hold true.

This interview first appeared in the March issue of In Dance and is reposted here with the permission of Dancers’ Group.

 

A Changing Gayborhood : An Interview with Colin Giraud | By Marie Tollon

Gentrification is deeply changing San Francisco’s urban landscape, affecting the socio-economic fabric of its neighborhoods, and challenging the city’s long time history as a haven for alternative culture and minorities. What role does this new context play in the transformation of the gay neighborhood? In There Goes The Gayborhood? sociologist Amin Ghaziani focuses on how and why gay neighborhoods, or gayborhoods, are changing, “de-gaying and deconcentrating,” across the nation. If, as Ghaziani writes, “the presence of a gayborhood signals a city’s commitment to diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and openness,” then how are these values being carried forward in San Francisco’s current economic climate?

Colin Giraud

Colin Giraud

French Sociologist Colin Giraud, author of Quartiers Gays [Gay Neighborhoods] and D’Arcy Drollinger, Artistic Director of OASIS, entrepreneur and community organizer, join in a conversation to explore these issues on March 8 at ODC. This event is part of “Gender in Translation,” a multidisciplinary, Franco-American operation, dedicated to questioning the notion of gender in the social sciences, philosophy, and artistic fields.

In anticipation of this conversation, Giraud and I talked via email.

Marie Tollon: Why is gender sociology a relatively recent phenomenon?

Colin Giraud: Gender sociology is often portrayed as a new and emerging field in sociology, especially in France. But gender issues, such as social inequalities between men and women, have been brought to the forefront and criticized for a long time now, mostly by feminist groups, writers and activists, rather than by academic sociologists. Most often, converting a social or political issue into an academic and legitimate question takes time and meets opposition. Because Women Studies, Gender Studies or Gay and Lesbian Studies challenge fundamental social roots, masculinity and femininity, but also heteronormativity, they have faced and continue to face many opponents. But things have changed and American research played a major role in the development of gender sociology. Even if pionneering research and anthropological texts have already explored the origins of gender hierarchies, the ’90s constituted a crucial period for sociology. They gave Gender Studies a successful theoretical background through Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble which provided a new intellectual framework to highlight gender inequalities. I think this book had an amazing influence in both activist and academic circles, particularly in France. For the last decade, Gender issues seem to have interested more and more sociologists in France, and students as well. Today, PhD courses and research focused on gender are burgeoning and it’s a good thing. I also think that French sociology has been obsessed with issues surrounding social classes -which are of course very important-but it has contributed to a lack of attention towards other issues such as gender or race. To be more specific: French sociology is still way behind American Gender studies.

MT: You have written about the “process of gaytrification.” What does this process entails?

UnknownCG: In my book, Quartiers Gays, I have tried to shed a light on the emergence and the development of « gay neighborhoods » in Paris and Montreal. Instead of considering them as established gay territories, I looked at history and considered the social groups who took a part in this urban adventure. Most of the gay neighborhoods in Western cities formed in old, working class and rundown urban areas. This gay migration, back to the inner city, helped gentrify these areas by changing local businesses, urban landscapes and attracting many other groups (private investors, white upper-class residents). Over the last few decades, gay men moved to areas that they in turn deeply transformed. They helped transform local urban life, not only by becoming visible but also by converting a stigma into attractiveness. Gaytrification means this specific urban role played by gay men in urban change, especially in the inner-city neighborhoods of Western metropolis. It affected both North-American cities (San Francisco’s Castro, New York City, Toronto or Montreal) and European metropolis (Paris, Madrid, Brussels or London). That’s why I decided to use this concept.

MT: In There Goes the Gayborhood? Amin Ghaziani looks at the way gayborhoods are changing –and notably deconcentrating- in today’s ‘post-gay’ era where sexual minorities are assimilating into the mainstream. What are the most significant changes the gay neighborhoods you have observed are undergoing?

CG: Ghaziani’s book points out what I have also observed in Paris and Montreal. If gayborhoods emerged as marginalized areas where gay pioneers could find safety and a sense of identity, they also changed their destiny. During the ’90s and until recently, gayborhoods have really been the hub of local gay scenes, but there is a price to pay for visibility and my research shows this ambiguity. Because of the gay gentrification, rents and prices have drastically increased in le Marais (Paris) and le Village (Montreal). More and more gay bars, bar owners and residents are priced out of these very central locations. I also pointed out this process of deconcentration, in the North East of Paris for example, since the beginning of the 2000s.

In my book, interviews with gay men underline another key factor. Gay men I met, especially among younger generations, seem to be less and less attracted by the idea of a gay ghetto. While first gay generations have moved to gayborhoods as -what they call themselves- “refugees,” the young gay population has been socialized in a “post-gay community” era. That can explain why they say they don’t need this specific area. Most of the time, they prefer gay-friendly and mixed places, they appreciate diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation and represensations of homosexuality. They also consider le Marais or le Village as stereotyped and old-fashion environments. Of course, social and legal changes in France and Canada played a crucial role for them. But most of them have also both social and cultural capital, they can live as gay in other tolerant and friendly places and circles: it’s necessary if you want be gay far from the ghetto.

Another point is the role of the Internet for gay men. Gayborhoods have also been a place for meeting or sexual encounters, but they are now in competition with the Internet, Grinder, etc. Why would you go to a bar if you can find sex from your own home via the Internet? That’s something I have heard when interviewing gay men. These multiple factors explain what has changed for the gay urban population. But it does not mean the end of gayborhoods : they still have the highest number of gay bars in Paris and constitute a place for international gay tourism. They have also become open museums for gay history: in Paris and in Montreal, for example, guided tours are organized and celebrate this gay local identity.

MT: What are the main differences you have observed between North American and European gay neighborhoods? And what are the cultural and historical roots of these differences?

CG: What is probably different in North America and Europe -at least in France- is the link between neighborhood, community and identity. In Montreal, I’ve been really surprised by the way gay men living in le Village consider their neighborhood as a territory for their community. They talk easily about their “community” and claim their identity as members of a gay community. That phrase made sense for them and most of them seem to be proud of it: they also moved in le Village for that reason and said it clearly. Furthermore, most of the North American gayborhoods also have political roots and LGBT activism played a role in their development as well. For example, in le Village, first generations of gay bar owners had links and organized events with gay associations or groups. These groups gathered in a local community center that offered social services, sport clubs or a gay choir.

I think Paris’ gayborhood is really different because of the French political tradition and its complex relationship to communities and minorities. Gay men from le Marais seem very embarrassed by the word “community:” they criticize the idea of a gay community, they don’t accept this sense of belonging, they are French, citizens, men, but refuse to define themselves as gay. In France, gay neighborhhoods and the idea of a gay community have always been seen as a threat to national and urban cohesion. This fear became an obsession in French political debates in the 1990s : minorities are not truly recognized in the French Republic and it affects sexual but also ethnic minorities. I think it also affected gayborhoods such as le Marais where gay political activism, urban and social visibility have always been criticized, denounced and banished, especially by conservative people (lobby groups, residents’ associations, political leaders). This “lack of identity” is probably one of the main differences between France and North America due to very different conception of what a community means : a group providing resources or a threat to society ?

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