Photos of Gina Hoch-Stall and Scott McPheeters in collaborative piece Presenting: You first, with the hope for reciprocation. Photo by Frank Bicking

Artist to Artist

Owning the “Artist” label and Defining Success

Gina Hoch-Stall is an inspiring, bright woman, who has a way of smiling and looking you straight in the eye that dares you to bullshit her. She is talkative, opinionated, and likes communication to be direct, and you can see these qualities in her dance company RealLivePeople. She is clear about what she wants you to get from a performance, and her choreography, which often includes the dancers speaking earnestly about their own experience, strives to be accessible to dance-lovers and first time dance-goers alike. I sat down with Gina at Good Karma Cafe in Center City to talk about how she sees her art, success, and calling herself an artist.

-Antonia Z Brown, curator

AZB: One of the things I love about your work it that it has a very specific and clear intent to it. You’ve obviously laid out a mission around it and developed a personal style. How did you come to find that direction in your art?

GHS: There were a few moments in my childhood where I can remember seeing a dance performance and feeling simultaneously elated and furious: I was shocked by what dance could do and upset that I hadn’t thought of it first . . . at the age of eight. But aside from specific moments of inspiration I actually think that a lot of my creative process and endeavors have come from a reactive place. I’ve often been more sure of what I did NOT want to make than what I did—although I also value the work of artists who appear to have a clear point-of-view to offer their audience. I have felt like there weren’t many people who were focused on creating “accessible” dance or dance for less familiar audiences in Philadelphia, and that has always been a huge tenet of my mission and work.

Lately I’ve been on a bit of a new journey, questioning everything. Which I think we, as artists, should all be doing, all the time. In the past I’ve started most of my artistic projects from a place that felt safe and clear but I’ve found that having so much clarity in advance can actually stifle my creative process in and around the studio. Since my time at the Ponderosa program in Germany recently I’ve been questioning a lot of my working patterns and impulses: why big group dances? Why make dances in the studio? Why wait until you know more than one thing before you make dance? Is it so bad to make terrible dances—what can I learn from it?

So you question the goals of your art?

All the time! As I said, never more so than right now. I think I’ve spent the last five years becoming more and more clear about the RealLivePeople mission and the type of dances that fit with that model and work for that audience. But there’s a reason that the company is called RLP and not Gina Hoch-Stall and Co—I’ve always wanted to keep a bit of distance between the work created by the company and my own full range of creative output. That is a complex balance though and I feel like I’m always redefining it. I will say this, I definitely have no problem now calling myself the Artistic Director of a dance company because I am. The company is real, it exists, it has some funding, it has paid some artists and other people have come to our shows and really enjoyed themselves. That is immensely satisfying and I feel really good about spending most of my creative time in the last five years making that happen. The next five years? We’ll see . . .

I think that’s hard for a lot of people, owning calling yourself an artist.

Yes, and I think it’s especially hard as a dancer because it’s immediately attached to your physical self—there is literally no way to separate it. So the first thing people will do when you tell them you’re a dancer is look at your body and try to assess it for skill (as if they can see your years of training, rehearsing, creating, exploring) but actually just seeing if you look skinny/strong/anorexic/stereotypical. I don’t, and for many years that was a huge barrier to me calling myself a dancer. But I was lucky to have exposure to other seriously strong, super talented female dancers who gave so little of a shit, on the outside at least, that I was eventually able to own my own self as a dancer and now, just in the past few months, as a choreographer. It’s such a personal journey and really has so little to do with anyone else because when you can say it, “I’m an artist,” and actually believe it, really convince yourself, no one else questions you. But you have to do the work to get there and it’s pretty painful and full of rejection.

What does success look like for you? Because it can be so many different things.

Success is such a tricky concept. I feel like we should be super specific about when we’re discussing internal success and external success because I feel like outsiders are often given the power to determine the success of an artist or a project without that artist’s own opinion being taken into consideration. And my feeling about that type of success, the external variety, is that it’s a bit like luck: if you keep making things, showing up, being a decent human being and giving other people opportunities, eventually you’ll get some—but that’s it. It also helps if you come from privilege and connections.

As for the other kind, internal success, I’ll talk about my all-time favorite metaphor for life: the forest and the trees. I believe that some of us are more oriented to tree thinking: focusing on the day-to-day, short-term, in-the-moment interactions. While others are more focused on forest thinking: big picture, how do I fit in the universe, what will my life mean, how does my work fit in the context of economics, politics, pop culture right now?

And I think I need to satisfy both of these to feel successful. In my tree-brain I need to be in choreographer-mode and move my body thoughtfully at least once a day, every single day. For my forest-brain I need to have a minimum of three, maximum of eight, projects coming down the pipeline that simultaneously thrill and terrify me—specifically things that seem to be in my wheelhouse but that I’ve never attempted before. There’s something about knowing that I will be forced to change and evolve in the future and then doing it in small, bite-sized daily pieces that makes me feel successful—like I’ve got this living-as-an-artist thing down.

And yes, I do feel my most successful when someone who has never even thought about seeing a dance show sees something I’ve created with my collaborators and is like ”Oh, I actually really like dance!” That makes me joyful deep inside.

Does money play into your idea of success in art? (I’ll put it out there, I don’t think the two have to be connected.)

If I have more money I can spend more time making art, if I have less money I have to spend more time working (which can be artistic too). I think it’s much easier to be ‘successful’ when you have money because you have the luxury of spending the time it takes to play and discover something new. Limitations can be wonderful but if they are always the same ones it gets tedious and struggling to pay my collaborators what I know they are worth is often infuriating.

Where do you think the Philly dance scene will go next?

I’m so excited about the young dancers in Philly right now. I am seeing so many new faces at performances and workshops, and they’re really excited about performing and taking classes. And there’s like nothing there. So I hope they’re going to be really entrepreneurial and start building things. I think for a while, my mini generation (dancers who graduated at the height of the recession) all left. They moved to the burbs or out of Philly and I don’t think that’s happening any more. So I’m just really excited about this next group. I also think that people who have been in the dance scene for a lot longer and have been really scrappy and productive have become elders in the community. And they’re being really supportive and generative. There’s Meg Foley with the Whole Shebang and there’s the workshop series that you just did at Mascher which looked really great. I think people are getting excited about dance class again, which always makes me really pumped because it brings people together—in addition to keeping our bodies strong and able. Even though it’s a rough time for funding and presenting, I still feel hopeful.

Photo credit: Gina Hoch-Stall and Scott McPheeters. Photo by Frank Bicking.

Antonia Z Brown performing One Dancer, Six Choreographers. Photo by Miles Yeung

Lecture Hall

What Are Dancers Thinking About?

Antonia Z Brown is artist-in-residence at Mascher Space Co-op, one of the best places to go in Philadelphia for exciting experimental dance. Her work has been performed on all three U.S. coasts, and has been described by reviewers as “full-bodied, virtuosic and ‘space-eating.’” Here, she shares one aspect of her practice with Curate This.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

I often start my dance rehearsals with a sensory movement practice. Using certain images and metaphors, I like to bring a new group of dancers together in a shared experience where they can find connection to their own individual creativity as we wake up our bodies and minds together. This practice gives me a through-line from one project to the next, and is also flexible enough as a research lab for delving into each new project’s theme. In the most recent version of this practice, developed in rehearsal for my recent Fringe show Body of Water, the main focus was to connect to water imagery and the watery flows of movement already happening inside the body.

I invite you to join in this practice to experience what goes through the mind of a dancer. My choreography often requires a lot of fine tuning imagination and the connection between body and mind, and I hope you enjoy seeing what that feels like.

Think of it as a guided meditation.

Find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Begin either standing or lying on your back, with your eyes closed. This is for all bodies. You can move, be moved, or be (relatively) still depending on what feels good to you.

Christina Gesualdi. Photo by Miles Yeung._small

In the Studio

A Walking Practice

I know Christina through working with her as members at Mascher Space Co-op. She has a special way of thinking about her art and about Mascher, and a deep love for the well-worn, DIY rehearsal and performance space. Christina often talks and writes in a roundabout, muddled-through way that gives weight to the slow, the dispersed, and the felt, and this modus operandi extends to her sincerity in working with the multiplicitous, slow-moving organism that is an artist cooperative. I thought of Christina for an In the Studio piece not only because she is an integral part of this unique cooperative studio, but also because her art space expands beyond those walls. She walks around Kensington as part of her dance and life practice.

-Antonia Z Brown, curator

For a while now, I’ve been saying “I have a walking practice.” I’d like to rethink that and instead just say, “I like to walk.” I think of walking like digestion—an active space of doing, sensing, and soft absorption and excretion. For the past few years I’ve been rehearsing fairly steadily at Mascher on Friday afternoons. I often split my time between being INSIDE and OUTSIDE of the rehearsal space.

When I’m INSIDE:

  • I try to move from where I am.
    It isn’t about generating or accumulating something to show people or to show myself. I dance with values of anti-productivity.
  • I question preparedness—does my body need to be warm, focused, and integrated in the studio? Yes . . . probably somewhat, BUT can I move without moving though codified ways of preparing? Sort of. There is no void to fill.
  • The space (4 walls / floor / ceiling) doesn’t exist to be filled by me. I am permeable and we seep in and out of each other. Even when it is just my body in the room, I am not at the center of this constellation. There is no void to fill.
  • I spend a lot of time rolling, sliding, laying, and finding low to the ground washing-machine-like cycles of churning in my body. The Mascher floor is the floor is the floor. I experience that floor. I experience the materiality of my own body and the space. I am influenced by the choreographers Leah Stein and Luciana Achugar. They have really different ways of trusting experience and pleasure and of addressing the way the stuff of the world meets the stuff of the skin. Both of their approaches resonate with my movement instincts.
  • Often I like working in pairs or with larger groups of people who I invite into the process. We do “Authentic Movement” in pairs. I hate the name “Authentic Movement” because I’d hate to think that movement could somehow be inauthentic, BUT I love the practice. One person moves for a timed duration with their eyes closed and their partner witnesses it while also witnessing their own experience as the situation unfolds. They switch roles.
  • WRITING TOO: I also find this way of slicing time up to be essential in my studio world. I like doing chunks of free writing. I enjoy pushing my hand and words forward on the page and making space for my thoughts to fold and to be murky and diffuse.
  • QI GONG TOO: This is a chinese energy medicine technique. It is a meditative way to move and resonate the holistic and energetic body. I like how its practices are based in ideas about sensing and guiding alchemy within the body and its fluids, its fires, and its winds, and then being in relation to the alchemy and pull of the surrounding environment and the five elements in nature. I like how it uses touch and sound.

When I’m OUTSIDE:

  • I am walking. I keep my body moving forward in space, down the sidewalks and across streets: Cecil B. Moore Ave. or North American St. or 5th St. or Susquehana. Like sausage getting squished through the grinder.
  • I’m noticing and letting go. I am skeptical of accumulation. I’m not taking pictures or trying to document it. This is experiential. I am skeptical of sensory tourism; it is messed up to romanticize, exploit, exoticize, and lock down what I see. My senses and awareness feel crisp and my skin feels awake.
  • I’m not at the center of this constellation. My body is here and also soft and permeable and spilling and absorbing.
  • Lately, I slice time up and try to keep my walks to a certain duration using a felt sense of timing; I used to use a timer to keep track of duration.
  • I walk alone or in pairs or with a slightly larger group of people who I invite into the process. We are not “showing/performing,” yet I know that there is a violence in assuming or holding rigidly to how we expect others to see us. I welcome an ambiguity in how we perceive and are perceived. Of course I hope that we don’t look like a town watch or a group of ambitious millennials on a realtor’s open house tour. That isn’t my intent.
  • When we walk in pairs or groups, there are no leaders and no followers. We aren’t afraid of dissonance and the possibility that we aren’t all on the same experiential track. Even walking in close proximity to each other, we leave room for not matching.

How do artists or citizens move through the landscapes, dynamic environments, and communities in which they make their work, especially when those communities and neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying and changing? It is our job to turn over and over and over the ways that we are embodied within ourselves and our work but also in our physical and geographic location.

This experience INSIDE and OUTSIDE of Mascher has collaged itself into a solo that I have made called lasso belly. Many of the pictures are of me rehearsing that solo. The piece asks how process and studio time can transparently and unapologetically live in a finished work. The piece asks how I want to engage with an audience and how I want to frame my own solo body and the contexts in which I choose to put it in.

All photos by Miles Yeung.

See Christina’s solo at Fresh Juice, Mascher’s 10th Anniversary Cabaret, Nov 20 – 21, 2015, 155 Cecil B. Moore. Info here.