Feature Image: Students of Color Solidarity Coalition and Performance Colectiva at the University of California Berkeley. Image courtesy of Natalie Sanchez.
Bubbles are meant to burst. Enter Natalie Sanchez and her collaborators of Performance Colectiva, a group composed of current students as well as recently-graduated students from the University of California at Berkeley (CAL). Natalie and the troupe’s collaborators successfully graduated from the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) with the mission to connect and bridge communities in the San Francisco Bay Area through performance. Performance Colectiva’s story is one of an exciting theatrical beginning in a class that catapulted outside the campus. Natalie recently sat down with me at CAL’s Free Speech Movement Cafe to talk about her experience and the development of Performance Colectiva.
Performance Colectiva formed out of a desire to continue the work started in a class. Natalie registered in Performance Studies Professor Angela Marino’s Teatro Lab class, created by Marino in 2013 to give CAL students an opportunity to learn about theatre in Latin America. Teatro Project is a group of Latinas/os in the Theater and Performance Studies Department advocating diversity across the campus and the local community. Working rigorously throughout the Spring semester, the lessons culminated in a community performance Bodies, Buildings, Borders: An Experimental Showcase. The student performance addressed themes directly impacting students of color by weaving personal reflections on the experience of higher education with perceptions of community struggles and political challenges. Moved by the rewarding experience of the class and the reception of the production by the community attendees, the students felt compelled to continue working after the semester ended. Thus, Performance Colectiva was born. Natalie, in the final semester of senior year, felt the determination to enroll in one more semester to minor in Theater and Performance Studies.
Natalie’s decision to stay an additional semester proved invigorating, but also critical in crystallizing the reason for Performance Colectiva. Following the initial performance, the students organized other performances and community interventions to confront and burst the “Berkeley Bubble”. According to Sanchez, the “Bubble” is the resulting effect of students from CAL closing off ties with the communities in non-campus Berkeley and the greater East Bay. In the process of bursting the bubble, she has cultivated new relationships with the graduating students and with Marino, as well as found enriching opportunities to work with distinguished Bay Area Latino playwrights.
In Spring 2014, they helped bring Octavio Solis to CAL. As special guests to the Association for Theater in Higher Education annual conference, they, alongside the Teatro Project, adapted, directed and performed Luiz Valdez’s Zoot Suit. What is more, both the Teatro Project and Performance Colectiva are assisting TDPS with bringing eminent playwright Luiz Valdez to the UC Berkeley Campus. On November 18, Valdez will give the Keynote Lecture “The Power of Zero.” The lecture is opened to both the campus and community at large.
Ultimately, Sanchez remarks, Performance Colectiva’s goal is to be a “performance pipeline so folks that don’t identify with the [TDPS] department can go in and learn about their identity and find strategies and inspiration through taking classes.” They seek to provide a dual process for community engagement: CAL students connecting to the community and the community engaging with the department. Hence, while Performance Colectiva uses performance as their practice to speak in educational spheres about issues affecting students of color, they are equally involved in the community advocating migrant justice, fair wages and political enfranchisement.
On Sunday, I am traveling to Morelia, Mexico for a performance collaboration at the Mexican Centre for Music and Sonic Arts (CMMAS). This performance project occurs October 10, 2014. My performance will be a collaboration with Carol Borja, Morelia-based Performance Artist and resident fellow at CMMAS. Carol invited me to collaborate and perform her adaption of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. Kane’s brutal text deals with clinical depression and suicide. Borja adapted the original text and produced an accompanying sound score. I am developing original choreography to be performed in tandem with the sound score inside a unique set design, informed by Borja’s ethnographic field-work in mental institutions. According to Borja, the focus of the performance is to advocate the visibility of the mentally ill minority in Mexico. The performance intentionally coincides with International Mental Health Day.
Also, I will be co-facilitating a three-day movement and dance workshop at the Alfredo Zalce Museum of Contemporary Art (MACAZ). During the workshops, we will guide participants through the choreographic process used to develop my movement for Borja’s adaption. Also, I will concentrate on teaching performance methods that I have utilized for recent site-specific productions in Cloneen, Ireland and Belgrade, Serbia.
I have had the great pleasure of working with Carol Borja for over two years. She generously joined me in Guanajuato to document the performance Los Tres Peligros (2012). In addition to her literary and performance art skills, Carol possesses a poignant graphic and photographic eye. Though we met in Mexico, we were already linked based on our mutual education at the University of Warwick. While not part of the same cohort, we both received an MA in International Performance Research.
Ishmael Houston-Jones is a long-recognized movement improviser, writer and choreographer. Additionally, he holds positions as curator for organizations located in New York City and Salt Lake City( UT). His involvement in both dance and curation is an appreciable opportunity to investigate the relationships between the shifting fields. He made some time for my questions even while teaching at the American Dance Festival summer school. Thank you Ishmael!
You curate Salt Lake City’s Daughters of Mudson from New York City. What elements go into your decision-making? Do you think you are afforded a level of ‘objectivity’ from such a distance?
I think Ashley Anderson asked me to curate the DoM programs, specifically because I was not from the SLC dance scene and had some, but not much, knowledge of local dance histories and politics. On that level I possessed certain objectivity. From reading the learning to loveDANCEmore journal and speaking with Ashley I received a view of the SLC dance ecology and what seemed to be missing, or at least missing support. I’m not sure I can name what those things were. I’ll try: for a relatively small dance population Salt Lake was dominated by 2 large and well supported modern dance companies and the ballet. The U of U graduated many talented dancers but if they were not going to leave town or try to join one of the existing companies there seemed to be few opportunities for (young) independent choreographers to develop and show their work. So, one of my foci was independent choreographers who could use support (mainly through visibility and production). I chose artists via video from the Mudson works-in-progress series that seemed to be most probable of being able to complete a work. Personal taste always is a factor, but not a deciding one. As curator I used my standard of what constituted “good” work and computed that with the viability of the w-i-p becoming a fully formed piece and I intuited the niche these artists works might fill in the local dance ecology.
2) What is the role of the curator, be at dance festivals or monthly showings, within the dance sphere? How have you observed this role change over time?
I’m going to cc the email I sent to you previously distinguishing the roles of programmer, presenter, producer, and curator as they relate to dance performance.
Like the term “postmodern” the word “curator” experienced some subtle and some not so subtle shifts of meaning as it moved from the visual art domain to common usage in the performing arts, most specifically dance. The term “curator” has become conflated with “programmer,” “presenter” and “producer.” I feel that sometimes this is because the word “curator” has a more highfaluting or pseudo-sophisticated connotation in the view of some people. I spoke two summers ago at Wesleyan University at ICPP, the Institute for Curatorial Practices in Performances (yes, there is such a thing). Unfortunately, I can’t locate my notes, so I’ll try to recreate them with the help of my online dictionary and Wikipedia.
From Wikipedia’s entry on “Curator:” A curator (from Latin: curare meaning “take care”) is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.
So a curator, in the common sense, is someone who cares for art objects, preserves them and places them into a historical context for a greater public. This is definitely how I saw my role as the chief curator of PLATFORM 2012: Parallels at Danspace Project. I chose the works to be preserved, either through performance, archival video screenings, panel discussions, or perhaps most importantly, a catalog. I sifted through archives to find original footage, photographs, press clips and programs/flyers/press releases/letters from the 1982 series. I chose writers for the catalog. I chose sub-curators for special events. I chose the artists who would be showing new work on most of the mixed bill programs. I tried to show connections. For example, screening excerpts of a recently released documentary film on the1980s-90s New York Vogueing/House scene on the same evening that I showed work by young choreographers whose work is informed by the “the streets, the clubs, the houses.” Or presenting work by Zimbabwe-born contemporary choreographer Nora Chipaumire on the same evening as work by Okwui Okpokwasili, a New Yorker, born to Nigerian immigrant parents to illustrate a link between work that is coming out of Africa today with work by an American artist who is one generation away from the homeland. This is to say that a lot of thought and care went into the curating of this platform.
On the other hand, I am loath to call myself a curator of the DraftWork series. Though I do put thought into my choices, there is little consideration to contextualization when organizing the shared bills of works-in-progress. It usually comes down to which artist is available on which Saturday afternoons that Danspace has access to Saint Mark’s Church. Sometimes there are happy accidents when the work of two choreographers seems to mesh or dovetail. Other times, during the discussion with the audience after the showings, I’m forced to speak to the two choreographers separately because they have nothing in common. In this regard I would say that I am a programmer. I choose choreographers who I think will have interesting work to show and fit them into available dates. The discussion with the public is a small attempt at contextualization but mainly it serves as audience building and artist feedback. Danspace Project is the presenter of the series.
I think what I do for Daughters of Mudson falls somewhere between these roles. Taking a step back, I believe that Ashley Anderson asked me to be the “curator” of these shows because the dance scene in Salt Lake City is small and insular and rife with histories and politics of which I am mostly ignorant. I think having someone from outside of that world is probably beneficial for the integrity of the selections. Of course I am at a disadvantage because I have never seen the works live in development at Mudson and I do not know most of the artists as artists (or at all). Also, not being from the SLC scene might make me unbiased, but it also leaves me to use my intuition in choosing a roster of choreography that will add something positive to the SLC dance ecology. Some of my concerns when selecting work are aesthetic and cultural diversity, work that doesn’t derive directly from the established local canon, (RW, RDT), work that is saying something fresh or saying something in an original way. Since I don’t write program notes, the shows lack a certain contextualization. This was evidenced by Karin Fenn’s rather confusing review of the 2014 edition in SLUG in which she faulted the programming for not being avant-garde. I didn’t see the shows, so she may have been completely correct in her assessment of the work; it was just that her lens was not the lens with which I selected the work.
I would call the role of loveDANCEmore with respect to the Mudson series is as a presenter. Their primary raison d’être is to offer artists opportunities to show their work. Plus they also give a small stipend and some free documentation and PR.
There are very few dance producers currently operating in our world. A producer is someone who supports the creation and/or subsequent performances of that work with, well, money. Other things (rehearsal time and places, commissioning fees, public relations and touring support) may be given as well. But a producer makes a financial commitment to the artists and their work and carries through to the completion of the project.
Most of the small to medium sized venues in New York with which I interface (Danspace Project, PS 122, The Kitchen, NYLA) exist in a situation somewhere between presenter and producer. While the executive/artistic directors at most of these spaces cannot offer full support toward the creation of new work, they all offer some form of backing beyond a fixed artist’s fee or split of the house. Sometimes they receive and disperse commissioning grants; sometimes they can offer a week or two of technical residency or a long rehearsal period in the space. Danspace Project even produces catalogs for their platforms (to which they assign a curator). But it is rare that these organizations are able to fully produce the creation of a new work. Larger arts organizations, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York or the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are able to do this with some of their programming and thus they become producers
1.5) How does your decision-making change when you curate for the works-in-progress showing Draftwork at Danspace?
Since I am part of the NYC dance environment I have seem much of the work from the artists who apply. However, there are always several who are unknown to me. Artists become a part of DraftWork either through application, in which they make a proposal to show a work in development; or they are someone whose work I have seen live and I ask if they are working on anything new that they would like to show in progress. Again chance and available schedules play a big part in who is selected. There is always this baroque quartet dance among St. Mark’s Church, Danspace Project, the artists and me to fit the program into the dates when the church is free.
My decision making for DraftWork is similar to how I curate DoM, except I am more likely to be familiar with previous work of the artists. I look for potential at any stage of development. I also consider how articulate an artist is when discussing their work, since the audience engagement is an important part of the DraftWork program.
3) How is dance curation different from curating for theatre or the visual arts?
Dance differs from the visual arts primarily in that with painting, sculpture, etc. there is a physical object that has a monetary value and can be bought and sold. With dance you are curating an ephemeral live art experience. Also there is a much longer history of visual art curation so its meaning in that context is more codified. In the early 21st century we, in dance, are still making it up and trying to define what it means. I actually have not heard “curator” used regarding theater. Back to the visual arts, I think that perhaps installation art, film and video curation may have much in common with both dance and visual arts.
6) Are dance practitioners better dance curators? What changes in the curation when a practitioner curates dance?
I’m not sure if I have a definitive answer to that question. Intuitively I think practitioners would have a specialized knowledge of what to look for and a historical view to where certain works fit with one another. But as a dance practitioner I am almost completely unqualified to organize for example a program of New South Indian Dance or even of experimental ballet. A critic, a scholar, a dance historian with knowledge of those specific fields would be infinitely more qualified than I. Also, the question of objectivity emerges. If the practitioner is currently making pieces of their own, can they be impartial when choosing work. How will their own practice color their selections? Of course critics, scholars, and historians have their prejudices also, but those are not directly related to their own practice. As someone who is still making work, when I curated Platform 2012: Parallels at Danspace, I was careful to assign five sub-curators for special events over the two months. I did this to diffuse my own voice and bias and to add different points of view to the Platform.
5) What was your experience curating Platform 2012:Parallels? There was an interval of three decades between the original showing and the 2012 iteration! Did the two-month event capture the conversations you were aiming to highlight?
The primary questions that acted as theses for the 2012 platform were: “Does “Black Dance” exist?” “If it does exist, what is ‘mainstream’ Black Dance?” “If there is such a thing as mainstream Black Dance, who is making work today that pushes beyond that mainstream?” I think the Platform did what I thought it might do; it presented more questions than it answered. It provoked discussions. It presented a wide array of possibilities. The temporal distance between 1982 and 2012 was somewhat taken care of by having me as chief curator and three others from the 1980s as sub-curators (Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar). They as well as Gus Solomons wrote pieces for the catalog. Wend Perron wrote a memorial to Harry Sheppard, one of the 1982 artists, who died in the 1990s. We also published the original program, poster, review, and letters of inquiry from 1982 in the catalog. Along with many photographs. We also had essays concerning the current climate written by Thomas Defrantz and a young choreographer, Will Rawls, curated two programs. One where original video footage from the 1982 series was shown followed by a panel discussion by some of us who were present at the time. Will also screened excerpts from a heated debate between Bill T. Jones and Steve Paxton to illustrate what the thinking about Black Dance and Postmodernism was in the 1980s. The other program Will curated studied 21st century media for the presentation of dance (by Black folks). This meant mostly looking at an assortment of clips from YouTube and other internet sources. I think I did a good job of bridging the 30 years between the platform and the original series.
4) What lens does curation add to dance and what does it take away? Should curation be a required module within dance studies?
The most important thing the lens of the curator offers when she or he uses it well is context. Rather than simply programming a series of dance performances based solely on the taste and predilections of the programmer combined with desire to have “butts in the seats,” curation is a way of looking at specific niches in a very broad field and to put them within a historical and/or critical frame. I think curation, when done correctly, elevates the art form by treating it seriously as art worth studying, debating, analyzing, etc. I am loath to pronounce “shoulds,” but for the all the reasons given above, I think the study of dance curation could definitely enhance the study of dance.
Colin Lalonde, Montreal-based performer and artistic director, is producing a new performance project about the cloud—yes, the one that promises to be available everywhere and house all of your family pictures! I met Lalonde during my Master’s studies at the University of Warwick (UK). Also, we have been regular collaborators for Unlisted: a performance series, both in Belgrade (Serbia) and Pittsburgh, PA (USA). Lalonde generously gave me five minutes of his buzzing time to discuss the recent project phmrl.DATA, as well as describe the process of starting a multidisciplinary performance studio in Montreal.
–How did phmrl.Data develop from idea to production?
Like a lot of my projects I had the idea for form before the idea for the piece came. phmrl.DATA’s inspiration came from taking part of a conference on performance curation where one of the speakers was asking us all yes and no questions. I noticed that people seemed to get an odd joy from sharing this information in public. I then connected that to my growing interest in how we behave online and thought it would be interesting to write a piece that was simultaneously a pitch for a data-mining company and an act of data-mining itself. So I recruited Kelly O’Toole and we started research on big-data, writing and piecing the performance together in rehearsals.
-Why do you have an interest in big data?
I guess you could say I’m interested in big data because big data seems to be very interested in me. I felt somewhat ignorant to trends that are increasingly having major effects on our lives. Living in the times that we do, most of us spend an immense amount of time online, we have GPS enabled smartphones, and have sensors that track insane amounts of data in our cars. All that data is being used to make decisions that have pronounced effects on all of our lives. The most obvious for me is getting information from Google or Facebook that Google and Facebook have determined is of interest for me. These trends in some ways raise serious questions as to the role of free will for individuals. There’s so much potential for good in big-data but there are some serious red flags to ponder on.
-How does performance help address the concerns or promises of big data?
Essentially phmrl.DATA is a participatory performance where spectators view a pitch by the phmrl.DATA team convincing them to join their “large net platform” where all the world’s data will be concentrated. The pitch is then interspersed with questioning of the audience, which acts as a tool for the company to collect everyone’s data. The idea being that we already give so much information online (which is ultra public), so how does that act feel in person and in a more intimate public? We hope that this uncomfortable feeling and dissonance to what is being said by the characters leads to some questioning of our current state of affairs regarding privacy and the Internet.
-What are the limits of the project to deal with issues about big data?
We have a fairly large scope for the project. It acts mainly as an introduction to technologies and anecdotes about big-data as well as its promises. We speak about past big-data projects like Google’s Flu Trends that tracks where the flu virus is spreading through the aggregation of search terms. We also talk about future trends in big data such as Facebook’s app that listens to what you’re watching on tv and the radio through the microphone on your smartphone. The piece really dances a fine line between being almost documentary theatre and sci-fi satire.
-Can you describe the development of SPB and your role within the project?
Studio Porte Bleue was my way of putting into practice all of the amazing experiences I had had over the past few years outside of Montreal, while living in Ottawa and traveling the world with the likes of you and the others in our Masters. I’m the artistic director of the company, so with a small indie company that essentially means I do everything that needs doing. In this case it was a bit too much as I literally wrote, directed, produced, and performed the piece. It was a bit all consuming and continues to be.
– How do you switch between the roles of artistic director, writer, actor and director?
I’m a collaborative artist by nature so I find it depends on the people I’m collaborating with and how I’m going to adapt for each individual project. The main challenge I’m discovering is letting go in some cases, I’m negotiating a project for November where I will be producing and performing in the piece and having a visiting artist direct. So I’m figuring out how to get out of her way and just do the nitty-gritty of producing and leaving out the early artistic planning which has to be owned by the director or the show will just be artistic soup.
-It’s almost a year since you started SPB, how’s the first year going? What are some of the challenges of managing the studio?
It’s going well! I’m happy with our progress, we’re creating interesting work and having the kind of connection with our audience that I think is unique and is genuinely respectful and constructive. My main challenge is working on multiple shows at one time. It is a bit of a schizophrenic experience.
-What other projects do you have lined up for the upcoming year?
This summer we’re inviting Chris Bell to stay with us and work on three performances with us. We’ll be working on one that explores labor and oral histories, we will be developing a show where he will be cooking for and eating with the audience while discussing the fall of Yugoslavia, and finally in November we’ll be presenting a piece on Jack Kerouac. All very different and all very exciting. And as always I’m thinking of what will be next.
You can keep up with Colin Lalonde and all other Studio Porte Bleue productions via Facebook or their blog.
Molly Heller, close friend and project collaborator, stopped by Minneapolis in March. She joined us for an intimate showing as part of a small residency exchange.
Molly, Melissa and I met in 2008! We collaborated on a series of projects that resulted in creatively fruitful productions. In 2009, we were awarded first place in the Audiences Awarding Artists show at the Sugar Space for the performance Prison of Form. The award stipend and free use of studio space helped us produce an evening-length work, titled The Grey Area.
Reunions are always a treat. Molly coming to Minneapolis was an excellent opportunity to catch up and talk about her recent projects, the challenges of being in academia and balancing creative work with private life. In particular, the showing was a suitable time to see how our individual movement styles have shifted, evolved and crystalized over time.
Our movement have similar, but identifiable differences. Molly’s current movement qualities orbit around intimate tensions. She places great emphasis on straining her body to exhausting limits, all while inviting audiences to partake in the exhaustion. Now, the invitation does result in participatory exchange. Rather, she is keen to create experiences that relay felt emotions across the immediate space. Especially, her current preoccupation is with “presence.” Molly’s current occupation is refreshing.
Her keen emphasis on charging space is uniquely invigorating. She employs guttural textures to create perpetual forces that build upon each other, but does limit the experience to the abstract use of time, space and energy. There’s a personal quirk to her movement! She uses a range of full facial movement to create kilter emotions. They are spasmatic, funny, disgusting and revelatory. Incorporating grimace into performance is something new for Molly.
Molly hardly incorporated her face in performance when we first met. Upon meeting, she had some aversion to using look and gaze in her creative expression. Instead, her expressions were invariably removed. While her movement has always combined a full-range of technical expression, there was something absent. In works like Vanities Faire the face was eerily neglected. Its affect was the epitome of postmodern dance. It was a postmodern photograph in motion. There was a simplification to the expression. Glossy eyes were always open and gazing beyond the immediate space, looking for something beyond the performance. Even in performance like $, a 2009 production with musical accompaniment from Rick Ross, there was an aversion to the visage. Then again, it was the very absence of facial expressions that was offsetting, creating an aesthetic estrangement.
The year is rapidly coming to an end. However, I am just starting to tune into the happenings of the year. I arrived back in the US, but I did not even get a chance to critically reflect on the choreographic seriousness of the turn.
It has been over eight months since we left Cloneen, Ireland. The weight of which I recently felt when we received a holiday card from the one and only Paddy O’Brian. Reading that card brought back many memories. Also, it settled into my mind and body the manner in which I grew to understand the value of auto-ethnographic processes.