Sister Cities: How a Project in Cultural Diplomacy Brought Zurich-Based Artists to ODC and Beyond | Guest Post By Lucienne Alicea

Efforts to facilitate meaningful international exchange in the arts are nothing new. For good reason. The myriad ways in which we share, learn, connect, and generally cross-pollinate beyond our own political borders are an artistic, or moreover, a human, imperative. For the dancer, choreographer, or visionary at large, the act of purposefully immersing oneself far beyond the local and into the unfamiliar can fuel vital creative growth and amplify perspective. To this end, organizations and institutions occasionally create exchanges and residencies to serve as artistic homes for artists to engage in their craft, and are designed in any number of ways. In that sense, this practice is not a new development. What is novel in its own respect, and perhaps even revolutionary, is how a government-based project founded sixty years ago by President Eisenhower would lay the framework for a lasting cultural partnership between the cities of San Francisco and Zurich, Switzerland.

Meret Schlegel Photo by Peter Kadar

Meret Schlegel
Photo by Peter Kadar

For over ten years, San Francisco and Zurich have been designated as Sister Cities, and it is from this relationship that the Swiss Artist-in-Residency at ODC draws its roots. Devised decades ago by political leaders with the participation of city officials, the aim of the Sister Cities organization was to increase and sustain meaningful mutual support and stimulate partnerships in fields of shared interest between American cities and cities abroad, thus promoting, on a grander scale, global peace and understanding. The Sister Cities partnership between Richmond, Virginia and Ségou, Mali is centered around music. Rouen, France and Cleveland, Ohio share a Sister Cities affiliation centered around the culinary arts.

As Martin Schwartz, Cultural Officer of the Consulate General of Switzerland in San Francisco, explained, San Francisco and Zurich both place a high premium on the arts. To commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the partnership, which had been relatively dormant, a number of new ideas and projects emerged: a co-curated photography exhibit, a film festival, and the Swiss Artist-in-Residency, with ODC as an official partner. It was affirmed that dance and choreography were a major component of the artistic identity of both cities, and plans were put into place to highlight this.

This particular experiment in thematic international cultural diplomacy has taken prominent Zurich-based dance artists Meret Schlegel, Natalie Wagner and Sandro Minasi, among others, from their lives in Europe. It has brought them to San Francisco and funded their six-month living experience with Swiss-government sponsored stipends, and provided them with a place to live. It immersed them within the hub of ODC and funded their studio rentals. As a facet of this unique partnership of goodwill between two cities, the Swiss Artist-in-Residency is purposefully designed to prioritize that which is of most basic need to an artist, without making stipulations or demands on the artists in return. There is one salient responsibility imposed with their participation in the program: to simply explore—their art, their surroundings, themselves. To create space for themselves in San Francisco, in whichever way it may manifest for them personally.

Applicants for the Swiss government-funded residency are vetted through the dance department of the City of Zurich Department of Culture, with a jury entrusted with making the selections. The application process is competitive, and those applying are expected to have been working at a professional level, with well-established experience in the area of dance and choreography. With regard to finding a venue for the residency, Schwartz noted that in the planning stages, ODC was considered the best possible fit for the Zurich artists to come and be artistically housed in. The large range of dance styles represented, the diversity of residency programs already in place, as well as the tremendous resource of space were described as major factors that led to the decision. The ample amount of studio space was considered part of the heart of the residency program, a resource allowing the Zurich artists freedom to try out new ideas within the walls of ODC. Connections with Zurich-based dancers have sprung up in neighboring arts organizations as well, such as CounterPulse, and Zaccho Dance.

Through this program, two global communities are connected meaningfully and intend to remain so in the area of dance. Synergies between the individuals and communities of the San Francisco Bay Area and Zurich continue to thrive as mutual learning takes place, linkages are made, and networks widened — rippling their effect into the future. The value placed on unbridled exploration espoused in the program, as well as its international scope, contribute to what makes this program and its inception unique. Of particular interest, however, is not only the design, history, and implications of this program as a model, but also the way the Swiss Artist-in- Residence program is experienced on the individual level, by the residents themselves. Who make up the artists who participate in this residency? What are their experiences like, and what does it conjure up for them? Their perspectives, which three of them share in the interview below, speak to relatable themes of self-discovery, hard work, and passion for their craft.

Lucienne Alicea: What is your background with dance?

Natalie Wagner: I started when I was seven years old at the National Ballet school of Switzerland, though I left ballet in order to explore — I wanted to be more than just a little swan! I discovered jazz and flamenco and even took dance classes in Los Angeles for a long time. I went to the United States when I was 19 and at that time the West Coast blew my mind! The level was so much higher here, it’s like we were sleeping in Switzerland when it came to dance. The dance genres were very separate in Switzerland, yet they were already starting to mix forms here. I knew I wanted to do that so from then on I started to create more and do my own work, and delved deeper into contemporary.

Sandro Minasi: I started dancing late, when I was about 18. I would mimic Michael Jackson and MC Hammer, but in Switzerland hip hop was never that big— it was more about sports. In the beginning, I would dance with my older brother who would go to dance classes with his friends to impress girls. Eventually, teachers from the United States came to teach hip hop and my brother dragged me with him. I remember thinking it was so cool. My brother started teaching hip hop classes and I started taking his class. I had stopped sports all together and started going every day to dance class. Later on, a company took me in as a rookie and picked me to be a part of their crew. We started doing commercial style shows all over Europe. Eventually I stepped out on my own and started to dance with my own group. A turning point for us was when we came to the United States to perform in 2009. The audience in San Diego really loved our performance, which was picked up on video. By the time we got back to Europe the video had gone viral. We were getting offers to perform everywhere and invitations to TV shows.

Meret Schlegel: I have been dancing all my life. Dance and art are still my compass to help me find my way in our complex life on this planet. But my dance training is very unconventional. As a kid and teenager I took all the classes I could in my hometown – mostly music and dance improvisation. In Switzerland back then, there was no dance in high school or junior college, nor were there dance schools in contemporary or modern dance. After junior college, in the early 70’s, I left for the United States. There, I found a new performance scene which spanned across different disciplines – a departure from what I had previously experienced not only in the arts, but in society. Vertical hierarchies, like in ballet, were becoming more horizontal, and collaborations, teamwork, and self-organized collectives were emerging. It was a very interesting and inspiring time, which formed and molded my approach to dance. I kept moving back and forth between the States and Europe, and studied modern and Release under Joan Skinner and other teachers in the Bay Area, New York, and elsewhere. Once back in Switzerland, I received a BA in dance and continued what training I could find in Europe.

LA: What inspired you to apply for this residency?

Natalie Wagner

Natalie Wagner

NW: I found out about this opportunity when it was made newly public to dancers. One of my teachers encouraged me to apply. I was teaching every day, performing, and choreographing for theater and musicals— it was super chaotic. I never knew how to pay the rent the following month and it became exhausting. For me, the residency was more about the idea of having a break from my daily life, have time to reflect and explore, and not worry about how to pay the bills. In my application, I also explained why it was important for me to go to San Francisco. I wanted to make it clear that the city itself held interest for me. I had come to San Francisco 13 years ago for a weekend, and I wanted to see how the image I had from before compared with the San Francisco of today.

SM: I applied because I got to a point where I asked myself: What is next for me? I was always leading, which I enjoy, but I felt like it was time to do something just for me. I didn’t think I had a chance, but Natalie said I had to try. I sent the papers in on the very last day so that I could at least tell myself that I had tried. In general, hip hop in Switzerland is not as accepted as in the United States, and people don’t look at it as “real” dance because they don’t know the culture of what’s behind it. So when I got it I was shocked and not ready for it! But it felt right to take this opportunity to step away from everything, see things from a different perspective and grow as a dancer and as a person.

MS: From 2000 to 2011, I was the director at Tanzhaus Zürich. I was teaching consistently, but only performing abroad once in a while. When my time at Tanzhaus was over, I resumed my career as a dancer and choreographer. This change felt reminiscent of when I first came to San Francisco in the 1970’s. When I heard of this residency program, it felt like something would come full circle. Being the Swiss resident artist at ODC for 6 months was my dream, and it came at the perfect timing!

LA: In immersing yourself in an entirely new city, and a new dance community, how has this new environment impacted your artistic vision, your approach to your work, or your perceptions of yourself?

NW: First, it’s inspiring to see that on a different part of this planet, people care about dance. At ODC, they create these beautiful platforms for different people, which I really admire. Young artists are given possibilities! Just to notice the structure of it, to see it combined as a dance school and theater, bringing different people together in one house is amazing. We don’t have anything like this in Switzerland. At first, I checked out classes at ODC but soon I realized that dancing didn’t give me anything, and it had nothing to do with the classes themselves. The classes and teachers are amazing. I discovered the aerial dance world. The fact that I don’t have to leave my whole dance background behind, but can instead contribute to this new art form with my dance background was something that I’ve loved. I cannot even imagine to still be only on the ground! My dimensions went up, and I want to explore the whole space, not just the ground.

I admire that it’s a totally different vibe in the aerial world from the dance world. There’s less elbow fighting, but then again, I’ve found the dance world in San Francisco to be unique. Here, people care more about you as a human being. I hear a lot about energy here and I really love that. It’s calm, and it’s been like therapy for me. In aerial, it’s even more interconnected. You must arrive and be present not just for yourself but for others, because when you’re up in the air, your life is dependent on the person grounding you. In dance you don’t have this risk— if you fall, so what? There’s a heightened commitment that you engage in with others that was totally new to me and resonates with me as well.

With my experience in a new movement form which brought me out to Oakland quite often, I also had the chance to take on the role of student for the first time in a long time and I realized that I had missed it. Being that someone being told what to do. I’m a perfectionist, but in that role, I was able to be ok with making mistakes.

Residencies don’t exist in the aerial world. I was just another person coming in and trying my best, and it gave me the chance to just be me. Through that process, I wound up being invited to perform aerial for a show that I had originally bought a ticket for! It took so much strength and courage and the experience shifted my outlook in a foundational way.

SM: In my experience so far, one thing I would want is more connection with the dance community from the beginning. It was hard to get to know people, but the exercise is a good one for me because I’m shy and don’t approach people easily. Since everything in Switzerland is already happening around me, I don’t typically have to go to it. That wasn’t the case when I first came here. It took me a while to really arrive. Immediately before coming here, we had a crazy event and right when that finished, I was suddenly here! Eight months of work ended abruptly, then I was in San Francisco. Now I feel like this is my home.

The diversity and cultural offerings, with the Latino community while living in the Mission District, have made me attentive to the particular cultural vibration here. I am interested in the acute differences in cultures and I’d like to incorporate this in a new dance piece. At first some things [people say] may seem rude, but it’s just the way people talk here. Appreciating this difference has helped me grow to be more tolerant, which will affect my own dancing as well. It’s always good to be challenged or you’re not growing.

The hip hop from the Bay Area is great as well, and I’ve always loved hip hop music from the Bay Area. For me, the hip hop community here is like New York’s in its feeling, but smaller and more familiar. In Los Angeles it’s competitive, but here, you know there’s a place for everyone. In exploring festivals around the Bay, I got to know a local dancer who introduced me to Nicole Klaymoon of Embodiment Project, another Resident Artist at ODC. I like the way her group works, and we’ve begun to explore the possibility of a continued collaboration together and bringing her company to Switzerland! I really like her approach and ideas, and I love the dancers. They’re kind and warm, and the way she talks to them is with so much respect. I’ve been inspired by how you can feel that they respect and love each other, and how it’s not only about technical skill. Human to human connection is important to me.

I’d like to continue training and sharing with local companies, as well as try other dance forms. I want to learn more about modern floor work, so that I can incorporate it into my hip hop b-boy work. I’ve connected with local choreographer Stacey Printz in an attempt to pursue that. My approach while in San Francisco is to exchange deeply with dancers and mentors rather than take classes. I need real personal one-on-one exchange, which will allow me to go deeper into my dance research.

MS: The city, its climate and location are unique! This once in a lifetime experience of not having to make money (actually not even being allowed to), caused such an opening of my mind and body. The effects are still with me in my way of approaching dance.

The experience of getting an inside look into the whole organization of ODC, and meeting all of those wonderful people who run and make ODC such a unique place, was a big part of my residency. Understanding the organizational aspects of such a place was important. I was also very fortunate as an artist to be invited to take part in Take 5, be a docent, and share my work by presenting a full piece that I choreographed in Switzerland.

During the residency, I was able to reflect upon some illuminating contrasts between dance of San Francisco and Zurich. I find that in Europe, the performance pieces ask more questions– they are scratchy and take risks, and shake up your preconceptions and ideas about dance. Often, you keep thinking or pondering about the theme afterwards. Most pieces are not so easily digested by only watching because they want you to engage and also leave a physical sensation in the viewer. In San Francisco, I have seen lots of beautiful pieces, so in my mind I kept remembering more the presence of individual dancers, and less the piece itself.

With regard to being immersed in this city, it was actually of some help that I used to live in San Francisco, because I felt at home right from the beginning! It made these 6 months so special.

Sandro Minasi

Sandro Minasi

LA: Since moving to San Francisco, have cost of living issues and the challenges it poses to local artists and art spaces been palpable to you? Do artists face similar economic challenges in Zurich?

NW: In general it’s hard for every artist, it doesn’t matter which planet or country you live in. Even in Zurich, the funding is just for a few people – a selected few. I think many people in the States have a wrong image of Europe that everything must be better with regards to funding— but you need to check who actually gets the funding. It’s the big ballet companies with prestige, the super famous choreographers. What about the rest of us? My life in Zurich compared to the life of artists here is not so different. I was just lucky [with this residency], it’s the first time I’ve gotten anything from the city, after proving myself as a choreographer and producing work for 10 years!

SM: I hear the talk about it from afar, but when you don’t talk directly to people, you don’t know. I didn’t know how much an apartment costs here, as the residency provides us with an apartment. When I found out how much it was, I was shocked! Switzerland is expensive, but this is twice the prices of Zurich. It’s so small there and there’s a lot of money because it’s a rich country, however it’s not easy if you’re an independent artist who wants to create. You have to know the right people. If you do hip hop, there are no funds at all! It’s hard, though I’m not suffering or complaining. It was better for me to build up my own project because I wasn’t going to wait for the government to support us. It’s hard, but it’s the right way for independent artists in Switzerland to do their own stuff and build their own community. There are a lot of politics involved, and if they don’t like you, they won’t support you. I was determined not to depend on them, but I see a lot of other people struggling within that system back home.

MS: First of all, Zurich is a small town in a small country! Traditionally, compared to the United States and San Francisco, we are very fortunate to still get public support for the arts. But unfortunately, the independent dance scene, dance theaters, and alternative locations are funded less and less! The funding is more project oriented. In the last 15 years, the network of these theaters and venues, as well as dance lobbying groups throughout Switzerland have been well-established, so we are lucky that the economic crisis is only now hitting the arts.

LA: In what ways do you think you will look back on this experience? Will carving out space hold more of a priority for you in the future?

NW: This will always be my time off, it’s special and unreal. I’m a workaholic and it’s hard for me to take time off. Now that I’ve had it, I am filled with energy and ready [to start again.] I initially felt that I needed to prove to the city of Zurich that it was good that they invested in me, and take advantage of every little thing, but that’s actually not the point of being here! It brought up contradictory feelings in me. I asked myself what do I need? It was a challenge not to feel a sense of obligation. That’s why this residency is so exceptional — when do you ever get the chance to just sit down and reflect about what you need right now? If I look back in 10 years, it will always be these 6 months which gave me the opportunity to ask: what do I want in life?

SM: It’s been an awesome opportunity. It’s going to affect my future in many ways. The goal to have time and explore, without having to accomplish a new piece or anything— I now look at it as a gift.

MS: Seeing how my daily studio time became so important was a wonderful surprise. Now back in Switzerland, I still rent a studio once a week without the pressure to create a defined product.

I came back to Switzerland not only with an extra bag of books and memorabilia, but also full of inspiration, ideas, energy, new contacts and friends, and memories of times passed at ODC, both in the studio and at the Theater watching performances. It was not only my personal research in one of the wonderful studios that I see as important—I absorbed the unique atmosphere there, and as a result, became part of it.

Lucienne Alicea grew up in San Francisco and has been a student of dance since the age of 5. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in International Studies, she began working for the Adult Dance Program of ODC School. She has been actively involved in the SF Bay Area performing arts community for the last ten years, having also worked for the Stern Grove Festival and Brava Theater for Women in the Arts. In addition to her passion for the arts, she is also an avid traveler, having studied and traveled extensively throughout Europe and Latin America. 

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