Mira Treatman, Curate This, In Search of Resting Bitch Body

Lecture Hall

In Search of Resting Bitch Body

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

In making a performance my prerogative is to have supreme control over how people view the performer. This stems not from narcissism, but from an authentic desire to communicate my ideas clearly. Keeping folks’ attention is the only surefire way to get my points across and if no one gets those points, then I find the whole process of mounting work to be meaningless.

To create a performance I seek credibility. To appear this way, especially when portraying a version of myself, I forge a powerful and control-demanding physicality. I do not think this is necessary for all performers to gain credibility, but with my social status as female and youthful and 5 feet tall, it is perhaps a necessary evil (although I do derive much pleasure from feeling powerful and strong). To appear powerful in front of a public, I seek a neutral stance when I am not engaging directly in an action, one I lovingly dub “resting bitch body.”

Much like a “resting bitch face,” this neutral way of holding the body communicates disinterest in others while commanding others’ attention toward itself (see this summary in the New York Times). The stance frightens but no one can look away. This tension of “I want to look but it scares me” or “I want to look but I don’t know what I’m seeing” or “I’m looking and I like it but I don’t want to like it” is my goal. I desire the bitchy resting body because it serves as a poker face and is open for interpretation. At times this body’s manifestation is an authoritative public speaker; for example a lecturer may easily command attention because she’s moving intuitively like some kind of bird of prey. The tension of tracking her next move makes it hard for an audience member to look away. Other times this body is Mona Lisa-subtle. An audience member could stare at a bitchy resting body performer for the entire duration of her performance and have no sense of her emotional state. I am attracted to the fear-inciting ambiguity.

Codified performance forms come with their own neutral or default body positions and dance is probably the finest example of this. For concert dance-forms there is a default way that a trained performer carries herself when not executing a major step or theatrical action. Concert dance audiences come to the theater with a set of expectations, regardless of their familiarity with the choreography, of how to interpret or even read the performance through the neutral body stance of the performers. On the balletic end of the spectrum dancers are supported from their core with an erect spine conjuring a regal image while perhaps on the contemporary side dancers may have more fluidity and asymmetry in their spine. Regardless of these differences these neutral stances serve the same purpose in concert dance, which is to communicate the status of the performer. Through reading the bodies in neutral, the audience is primed to know who’s a hero or villain in a narrative and non-narrative work alike within the context of the dance-form. This is exactly the kind of tool kit I am pursuing in dance-theater making: to create a bitchy resting lens from which an audience clearly views my creation.

In addition to priming audience members, having a default neutral body serves as the barometer of normal. This might be one of my favorite parts about making new work, which is that I can sculpt the status quo to be whatever I desire. I create and set the barometer of normal. If a performer is portraying an ingenue, I can hypothetically have her assume the physicality of a wild turkey vulture and she can still be an ingenue in the world I’ve created. In actuality, I can also have this ingenue hold herself in a bitchy resting body stance where she’s still holding the role of the ingenue thematically, but her body is powerful, tough and authoritative. Using my own barometer of normal, this bitchy ingenue anomaly makes total sense.

Then there’s what in all of this keeps me up at night: my concern over whether or not having a resting bitch body as my neutral stance in fact reinforces stereotypes and the structures that cause cycles of violence and injustice propagated by the hierarchy resting bitch is trying to get away from. I know that I am perceived as a weak, lower status body in the Western performance canon, therefore I should present myself as tough and powerful to counteract the binary, right? But what if I just eschew the Western performance canon altogether and just have fun and portray my body ignoring all of that uber liberal crap drilled into my head since age 5. I seriously do not know! That’s why this keeps me up at night. Intentionally performing a resting bitch stance is reactionary and defensive towards the powers-that-be and it could be more powerful to ignore those powers altogether.

My favorite physical theater teacher of all time once made a comment to me that has stuck forever. I was trying to negotiate something with him, probably something like a deadline for an assignment or something of little consequence. He happened to be about a foot taller than me and so it was next to impossible to make eye contact with him without jutting my face up unless he was sitting. I found myself addressing him in this way frequently and began to develop a habit of sticking my chin out and widening my eyes for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time. In my memory it was an instinctive way of communicating with a superior. That one day when I was making the negotiation, he called me out that sticking out my chin and widening my eyes did not make me appear more powerful whatsoever in the bargaining process. Ever since I’ve tried to figure out how to make things go my way through my physicality knowing that every little movement, whether consciously or subconsciously, becomes a data point for those viewing me to interpret. This favorite teacher even identified as a lefty feminist non-hierarchical experimental theater PhD and still I found myself viewing him as a superior. Ultimately, my drive to cultivate a powerful physicality comes down to something of a Napoleon complex. I’m okay with it.

Barry Kerollis, photo by Bill Hebert

Crossing the Border

Disorganization, Nepotism, and Lack of Community

I first became aware of Barry Kerollis several years ago when I saw him dance with BalletX. His strong stage presence and sensitivity as a performer made him a stand out in this contemporary ballet company. Years later I discovered that not only was he an accomplished dancer, but he also possessed a unique voice as a storyteller. What I appreciate most is how candid he is on a variety of topics from his own point of view, influenced by years as a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher. Dance Magazine sums up Barry’s work perfectly as an “innovator using unique new media to break the fourth wall with audiences.” His current forays into media, which include the blog Life of a Freelance Dancer and podcast Pas de Chát: Talking Dance, are just the beginning of ways Barry will continue to transform the public’s perception of dance.

-Mira Treatman, curator

Here I am again. Writing in the dark, sitting on a Greyhound bus on my way home from New York City. This trip has become a regular commute of mine since I decided to transition my career goals from the birthplace of our nation to the capital of the dance world. I’ve considered this move for nearly four years since working in the city where I was born didn’t work out as I had envisioned. I’m tired from these bi-weekly (or more often) commutes that eat away at my bedtime hours. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it, even if I am only in the early stages of renewing my hope for opportunity.

When I think about Philadelphia, one thing that defines this city is opportunity. In the past, it was historic opportunity for a new union. Today, it’s entrepreneurial opportunity in an affordable city, and, more importantly for me, artistic opportunity in one of the artsiest cities I’ve explored (and I’ve been to many a US city). But when I moved to Philly five years ago, I moved here for the opportunity to expand my experience in an area that holds my greatest passion: the dance scene.

Let’s get to the point. I left Pacific Northwest Ballet, one of the nation’s top five ballet companies, in 2011 to live for my art and try my hand at something new. I left a 40-week contract for half of that and left a $60,000 a year salary for one-third. But I came to Philly to join a company outside of my comfort zone in order to stretch my range as an artist, so it didn’t feel like that great of a sacrifice. That daring risk I took didn’t pan out as I had hoped. I quickly found myself without the job that brought me here after suffering a career-threatening injury that the company chose not to support.

I remember thinking to myself that day, “It’s going to be okay. I’ll post that I’m looking for a teaching job on Facebook and email all of the schools in the area. It shouldn’t take that long to find something. And, I’ve got credentials, experience, and something different to offer the scene (having danced at PNB) to boot.” Very quickly, reality set in.

I was grateful for the support of Koresh Dance Company’s school and local modern dance guru Gwendolyn Bye, but what I found in my new community was a combination of disorganization, nepotism, lack of community, and across-the-board organizational struggle. Here I was, green in our scene and eager to share my experience dancing with PNB and Houston Ballet. But a lack of work opportunity and, even more difficult, a lack of fair wage forced me to embark on an extended national tour that would change my life.

All I wanted to do was live in my new home city. But with little local opportunity, I turned to the national dance scene, which embraced me almost immediately. From this point, I began to tour our great nation as a freelance guest artist. While performing, teaching, and choreographing everywhere from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alaska, I kept trying to make Philly work for me, even when I was only in town for a week at a time. During one of these occasions, I performed in a questionable dance film where the director considered firing me because I asked to be paid a dishonorable $75 for 12 hours of committment. This stressful situation transpired over a mere $25 raise from the $50 he offered. Either salary was still well below minimum wage. A 6-week open class series I ran at a West Philly studio couldn’t hold one class because attendance was often one or none. I finally stopped looking for local gigs after a school director complained that my rate wasn’t worth my experience. I easily charge $25 more per hour in any other city. I tried to sacrifice as much as I could. But while some met me with understanding, more did not.

After suffering severe burnout from years of non-stop travel, I was ready to give the Philadelphia dance scene one last-ditch effort to make it my artistic home. After four years on the road, four months on the job as Interim Artistic Director of Alaska Dance Theatre, being selected as one of four choreographers out of a pool of 60 international applicants to create a work at the prestigious National Choreographers Initiative, and more, and I was finally committed to find a place at home where I felt my value was needed and respected. Over the longest period I stayed in Philadelphia since 2011 (five months at the beginning of 2015), every pre-professional school, university program, and professional organization aside from the one that brought me back east received an email humbly asking to take me into consideration for work. The only response I received was from Temple University’s dance program (who kindly told me they couldn’t offer any work). Otherwise, no respectful notice of receipt, no “No, Thank You,” no response at all. Aside from my contributions as a substitute at Koresh, I felt at a loss and like I didn’t belong to our community.

In my disappointment, I found myself seeking local collaboration outside the dance scene. Applying for a collaborative arts grant sealed the deal. I was told my application was declined because “I seemed more interested in meeting other artists than collaborating with them.” Instead of becoming a part of the community, I ended up collaborating with myself, again, on a national scale. Here, I created a web series interviewing highly-respected professional dancers, which garnered national attention from multiple dance periodicals. While Dance Magazine recognized my work as a Philly-based artist, I still felt like I hadn’t been accepted as a part of my community.

For all of my hard work and all of my effort throughout 13 years as a working professional, I have found that in Philly I would have to settle for a burnout level of work in recreational dance to afford only just covering my bills (none to put away into savings or to pay off debts). Since transitioning my focus to the New York City dance scene in January, a few Philadelphia organizations have reached out to me for work. The difference this time seems to be that my profile on the national dance scene has risen. I feel a sense of respect for my work. Still, I achingly choose to attempt to transition my career two hours north, potentially transitioning away from the city I love and the city in which my partner has grown a thriving organizational business.

Philadelphia doesn’t feel like a tragic loss for me, as I have gained way more in my life and art from five years calling Philly my home base than in seven years living in Seattle. Though, I still feel a sense of melancholy in saying that Philly has yet to work for me as the place I call my artistic home. Like the residents of Philadelphia as they see the renaissance of this glorious city, I have yet to give up hope on this place that I love. But, at the same time, I can’t sit around and hope that the brick and mortar of our dance scene will change its fabric and accept the architecture that I have to offer.

Editors Note: At the time of publication, Barry was contracted as Guest Faculty at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center

Photo by Bill Hebert.

Mira Treatman and the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

In the Studio

All-Consuming Zealotry

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

For the last six months I’ve had the privilege of working with Irina Varina on Rejected Thoughts, the first full-length piece we have made together. We only met nine months ago and thus this process has been nothing short of a whirlwind, a tornado, and an all-consuming zealotry for making live performance. I welcome you into the studio with reflections on this time exclusively from my perspective. My views do not necessarily reflect Irina’s; however, I have her permission to share my thoughts on our collaborative process.

Mira Treatman tumbles for Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Mira Treatman stands over meditative Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Rejected Thoughts ended up being a collection of dance-theater experiments we performed in a home as part of SoLow Fest in June 2016. We started noticing when we would reject our own ideas in their infancy, before they even had a fighting chance to become something. This focus on the discarded eventually became the uniting force in our process. At times this was where the unity ended. Despite having a shared goal and passion for working, we came to the studio with different tools and preferences.

To give you some background: my training is in dance, but I also hold a degree in theater directing. I’m a nerd. I read statistics for fun. I founded a Latin language club in high school. I enjoy symmetry, organization, athletic challenges, and control. I don’t do well with ruminating. Irina comes from an acting and filmmaking background. She’s come to live performance after working as a director and an actor on screen. She hasn’t been on a stage her entire life the way some of my peers have, which I find refreshing. Aesthetically, though, we really differ. She loves seeing vulnerability and authenticity before anything else in performance. I love stage magic and starting from the codified rules I have studied. On my own, I prioritize magic over authenticity. I don’t believe either way is better or more correct, but it can be challenging to communicate when your past experiences have less overlap. When it comes to the meat of the work, Irina is able to lock herself up in her own mind. I find it challenging to be in my own brain without physical embodiment. I admire her ability to concentrate on thinking, but it is the opposite of my default way of working. This hit home for me when I realized that even our tea preferences reflected this: she would go for ginger and lemon to warm up and I chose peppermint to cool down.

A touch of alchemy happens when Irina and I work together because we want to make performances so badly. Despite our differences, we desire to make performances about what we care about, which I deeply cherish even though we would sometimes spend hours on a single detail. Working on my own I would never stick with one little detail for more than a few minutes. Both openly arguing and sharing disagreements were radical changes to the way I work. Our rehearsals were not geared toward productivity as at times it felt like taking a slow train towards mindfulness or something. After all, we were making art about thinking!

Irina Varina and Mira Treatman laughing about babushkas, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens
Mira Treatman and Irina Varina in babushkas and thought, Curate This, Lauren Karstens Mira and Irina working, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Completely unintentionally, Irina and I both had our ancestry on our minds during our process. We chose to hone in one area of our backgrounds, our individual relationships with wearing a babushka. Once we started playing with this part of our costume I began to feel so at ease, entertained, and on the cusp of making a breakthrough surrounding my identity. Physically embodying one part of my culture was the key here. No matter what I did or said while wearing the babushka, I knew Irina would be open to it, so I really really went for it and was able to say a lot of things that I had pent up for years. She gave me the full respect of truly listening. I enjoyed having space to explore our individuality in relation to the babushkas, but I still felt unity in our choice to wear them together. Just like our separate tea preferences and methods of working, our respective ancestries are another joyous celebration of difference.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina notes, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Long shot of Irina Varina and Mira Treatman, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

There were times over the last six months when I felt frustrated with the way Irina and I openly disagreed with each other. Hypothetically, if there were only one director leading the project and the other collaborator following along, I know that we would have used our time very differently and knowing this made patience hard to maintain. If we had little to no dissension we would have made the piece faster, but perhaps, if we had made the show with none of the that tension, it would have come out too vanilla or lacking intensity.

I committed myself to this project despite my frustrations because the tone of the rehearsal room was always respectful and constructive and with little whining or defeatism. When I look at Lauren Karstens’ photographs, I see two polar-opposite people who choose to build on common ground and to seek that common ground before difference. To be the artist I desire to be, which is one who stands strongly on her personal philosophy, I desire equally strong-willed people to keep me grounded in my own voice. Working just with people similar to me only provides a skewed version of the world.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina, the art of the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

All photos by Lauren Karstens.

Dani Solomon in a hood

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Embrace the Artist Identity

I have had the excellent fortune to have worked with Dani Solomon on multiple projects over the last 18 months. Dani has a seemingly endless store of energy and creative force, working nonstop with a variety of collaborators while also furthering her own work. After only three years in Philadelphia she is variously accomplished: Dani is a graduate of Headlong Performance Institute, is a member of Medium Theatre Company and Thespionage Theatre Company, and has worked with Lightning Rod Special, Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, 14th Street, and the Institute for Pschyogeographic Adventure. Dani’s work as a theater maker, writer, and director has been produced at Colgate University, SoLow Festival, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

No matter what work you find yourself in, explaining it to someone outside your field will always be tough. When art is that work, describing it becomes a special kind of challenge.

Outside our dynamic, ever-expanding art-making bubble, art is readily conflated with entertainment—a highly consumable, available product with standardized criteria for what’s “good” and “bad.” Entertainment is fueled by cash in a way that art tries not to be. The value of a physical theater piece, sound installation, or movement experiment is inherent in the experience of it, not in the dollars that flow in and out, but this process- and experience-based value system is hard to sell to someone who is more familiar with the economy of the entertainment world.

On top of overcoming entertainment and art’s sibling rivalry, there is the ubiquitous question (of debatable value in itself)…

– What do you do?
– – I’m a performer and creator in the Philadelphia theater scene.
– So, what do you actually DO?
– – . . . Marketing . . . for a software company.

This is a hard question for me to answer. Are they asking what I like to do? How I make money? What makes me tick? In the same breath that I want to explain my artistic interests, I feel the need to also justify why I make art in the first place, as if it is the elephant in the room. Whereas the value of entertainment is justifiable in a capitalist framework, the pragmatic value of art is difficult to explain in that same frame.

So, what do you do? What do I do? What do we do what do we do what do we do?

As a young artist who cannot afford to rely solely on an artistic practice for financial security, I find myself grappling with a doubleness of identity in both being an artist and having a day job. (Of course, there is more to who I am than my artistic work and my rent-food-and-Netflix job.)

For one thing, I’m still building the confidence to consistently identify myself as an artist, something triply challenging in less artistic spaces. That inner voice constantly prods: Am I really an artist? Is my art financially successful enough to claim that I’m an artist? Do enough other artists know my work for me to be an artist? Do I make art often enough to say I’m an artist?

I try to tell that incessant voice: Yes, I make art, so I’m an artist. But this voice finds fertilizer in environments like these:

– So now that you’re done with that show, does everyone have a break from theater for a while?
– – Uhh, it’s not a universal break no, like, not every theater artist has a break right now, but yes, I have some time between projects.
– Oh, that’s nice. Once I’m finished with this wedding stuff, I should find a hobby, I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands.

I could just hide it—pretend this art-making ailment doesn’t exist. Try to pass as a hobbyist. Sometimes I do, because it’s easier. I don’t have to explain that part of myself. I just float. But floating throws away an opportunity.

As a whole, we young artists need to be better at claiming our artistic identity because it is our obligation to communicate the importance of our practice in a society that otherwise will not hear it.

So, when questions like What did you do this weekend? Will I see you on Broadway one day? What do you do? come up, let’s not take the easy way out. Move that uncertainty aside to preserve the integrity and health of our field. Don’t separate yourself from the path you have chosen when it’s convenient. Creativity is not an otherness. Humans survived through our creativity and our resourcefulness. In our own small, humble way, we help move humanity forward while preserving its sanity, vulnerability, and openness.

Let’s tell people about our artistic work. Prepare a short version and a long version, a version for someone who’s last brush with theater was skimming Romeo and Juliet in high school and one for a Walnut season subscriber. Do not be ashamed of your work in all its weirdness, rawness, and contradiction. Peel back the curtain of your art-making and let people in. Let them in, damn it! Do not judge it for others, and do not apologize for what it is or what it is not. But use your judgment: there are times when discussing the difference between boundary-pushing theater and theater built for mass consumption will go on deaf ears.

We need to be the ambassadors of our artistic community because no one else will. Though our interests may be niche, we shouldn’t assume that no one else wants in. That elitist attitude won’t grow our audiences. If you believe in the worthiness of your work and that of your peers, then won’t your co-workers deserve to experience that art, as well? Maybe they’re the ones who need your work the most.

– Lot of housework this weekend. Put up some crown molding, planted some grass in the backyard, hung some towel rods. What about you?
– – I had a rehearsal for this piece I’m making about Mars. We’re interested in questions about our place in the universe, loneliness, and our collective interest in space . . . I’m a theater artist.
– Oh, that’s cool. Would I have seen any of your work? Are you part of a theater company?
– – Yeah, I’m part of Medium Theatre Company?
– Oh, neat.
– – . . . Yeah.
– Well, let me know next time you’re doing a skit.

Photo credit: Camilla Dely

Kat Sullivan_small

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My Life in Pennies

I met Kat J. Sullivan through meetings for thINKingDANCE, where we are both writers. She has performed with Trio C, SKI BALL, Antonia & Artists, and Anne-Marie Mulgrew & Dancers Co, in addition to working with independent artists such as Sean Thomas Boyt, Meredith Stapleton, and Evalina Carbonell. Kat’s work has been shown throughout Pennsylvania and New York, including the Come Together Festival (PHL) and the Triskelion Arts Comedy in Dance Festival (NYC). I am deeply appreciative of the insightful week of content she has curated, culminating in her oddly poetic ledger, below.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

I’ve been having the “money talk” with many different people in my life for a while now. I’ve asked my friends how they make ends meet as an artist without selling their souls. I’ve asked them what they do to make a livable amount, yet have enough “free” time for rehearsals, projects, workshops, etc. I’ve asked them how they do their taxes.

From what I’ve gathered from others and certainly in my own experience, performing artists do not hold down one 9 to 5 day job that covers their bills while they rehearse and perform in the evening. Rather, income is made by cobbling together odd jobs that cover not only essentials like rent, food, and transportation, but also classes, performance application fees, production fees for the self-producing, and perhaps paying your dancers/actors/etc. (Funding and grants are another beast entirely.) At the moment, I hold three consistent jobs that pay; these do not include a week of intensive rehearsals I attend once a month, writing and working on the communications team for thINKingDANCE, or other “random” sources of income. No two weeks look the same for me, and oftentimes rehearsals and other plans are scheduled at the last-ish minute. It can be exciting and it certainly keeps you on your toes (ha), but I don’t know many who scoff at the idea of some sort of financial predictability and stability. I’m currently searching for jobs that afford me decent pay but don’t require me to physically be in a place for a long time; I’ve started collecting figure modeling gigs as a result.

I love being a freelance modern dancer/choreographer, but when it comes to money, I don’t really know what I’m doing. How do we maximize our “money making time” so that we may take full advantage of our “art making time”? Let’s talk about it.

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Today was my first collaborative session with photographer Paul Taylor. I was connected with him through a dancer-friend who has been collaborating with him on dance/movement images for about a year now. In addition to being a gifted capturer-of-movement-on-film, he’s very sympathetic to the financial situation of performing artists; he pays me a bit over the regular hourly fee. Paul lives about an hour and a half away in New Jersey, and I have to stop for gas on the way back to Philly. I also hit a Starbucks for sustenance (although Paul also provided me with a few mini-Snickers and a banana for the trip).

+$: Photography session
-$: Gas, coffee and a sandwich, yoga class in the evening

Friday, February 12th, 2016

I start my day with the mid-shift at Gryphon Coffee in Kensington. This is my “non-art day job” where I make part-time hourly wage. We the employees are a scrappy little crew who are as dedicated to honing our coffee craft as we are making weird slow-motion videos of leftover soup being poured over a gourd. When we’re not serving customers or maintaining the general upkeep of the shop, I spend my shift throwing lattes. They taste great but I’m still working on my designs (though I’m told, “at least it’s all in the cup now”).

After I sign out of my shift, I head to Temple University to pick up some of my students. I teach the Philadelphia Dance Experience, a gen-ed course for non-dance majors. The crux of the class is taking the students to see four shows in the Philly dance scene; tonight, I am escorting them to FringeArts to see Raphael Xavier’s The Unofficial Audience Guide to Watching Performance. My students seem to enjoy the performance much more than the ballet we saw last weekend. I leave to bring a few of them back to campus, thinking about how I will direct our class discussion on Tuesday.

+$: Working at the café, working for Temple University
-$: SEPTA fare to and from the venue

Saturday, February 13th, 2016

A slow day. I visit a few thrift shops in search of a sweater or two. Insomnia Cookies are purchased.

+$: Nothing
-$: A sweater, some gloves, warm cookies

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

For Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend and I had planned on spending a few hours wandering around Longwood Gardens. However, it’s fucking freezing. We reassess how much we’re dying to see the “Orchid Extravaganza” and end up pivoting directions entirely. We find ourselves in the long, long line into Build-A-Bear Workshop at the mall. Less sheepishly than you might imagine, we emerge with two new Pikachus, clad in garish dinosaur and Star Wars costumes. (Ben named his “Pokémon Kenobi” and, yes, that is why I’m dating him.)

+$: Nothing
-$: Breakfast, tea, dinner, ibuprofen at RiteAid

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Another shift at the Gryphon. I head to Conshohocken’s Yoga Home in the evening for their Power Flow class. Yoga has become central in my life in two ways: 1) as essential cross-training for dance, and 2) as something I gift to myself to maintain my sanity. I stay for yin afterwards.

+$: Working at the café
-$: Yoga classes

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

The opening shift at the Gryphon is peaceful, even though I’m not one for waking up that early in the morning. I yawn and manage to make a few drinks. After getting off at noon, I rush to Temple for my 12:30 class. We are discussing the historical and cultural context of hip hop today . My evening contains a Vinyasa class and a glass of wine.

+$: Working at the café, teaching at Temple University
-$: Yoga class

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

Wednesdays start at The Iron Factory in Kensington, where I create and rehearse my own material. I split a monthly membership here with my friend and collaborator Meredith. I futz around with some movement for a new work before Meredith meets me to rehearse Reign, a piece of mine that we will be performing this weekend at the Ruby Slipper Fringe Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s been a while but we find that the entirely-synchronized duet comes back into our bodies with relative ease.

From there, I am back at the Gryphon. I don’t normally work three days in a row, but since I’ll be leaving to head south on Friday, I need to squeeze my shifts in earlier in the week. Ordinarily, I would rehearse a work in progress by my friend Sean Thomas Boyt on Wednesday afternoons, but we are off this week. In the interest of the topic of this article, I will say that I do not get paid to dance for Sean, but I don’t expect to. I’m happy to help make my friend’s work a reality with as little cost to him as possible, and I know he would do the same for me.

+$: Working at the café
-$: Paying for rented rehearsal space

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

I arrive at Temple at 12:30 to teach. My students discuss the commercialization of hip hop and whether or not it ultimately benefits the form. The conversation is lively and I make a mental note to incorporate the topic into their upcoming quiz. Another evening at yoga—I attempt to fine tune my headstand.

+$: Teaching at Temple
-$: Yoga class, delivered dinner because I’m too busy packing to cook

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Meredith and I leave Philly for North Carolina in the morning and make it to our Airbnb after ten hours of driving (and several stops for gas and coffee). We will tech in the theater tomorrow morning and perform in the evening. The festival does not pay us to participate but their application did not require a fee, which is a plus.

+$: Nothing
-$: Gas, food and drinks, lodgings for the weekend

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

Meredith and I meet up with my friends Gwen and Nicole to tech at 11am. Afterwards, I explore Winston-Salem with Meredith for a few hours. We visit different venues in the city for their Art-o-Mats: refurbished cigarette dispensers that now relinquish a small piece of hand-made art at the insert of a coin. In the evening, we all reconvene at the theater to perform. The show runs smoothly, though by the time we reach the talk-back afterwards, I am exhausted.

+$: Nothing
-$: Food, coffee, small pieces of art, more gas

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

We begin the trek back to Philly. We take a more scenic route, hoping to stop in a national park on the way, but the rain is too strong. We reach home by nightfall.

+$: Nothing
-$: Food, coffee, gas

Photo by Kat J. Sullivan.

The Ripening Suite_small

Tip Jar

 Nine Action Points for Jumpstarting Your Art

Evalina “Wally” Carbonell is a powerhouse of a dancer and choreographer. Although she performs most often as a member of Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, I have come to know her better through her own work; a homogenized blend of technical dynamism and deep, rich sensitivity. She’s also one of the weirder people I’ve met during my time in the Philadelphia dance scene, often conversing with rapt fanaticism and prone to fierce hotheadedness. (One of my favorite rants of hers was a tirade against a male dance critic who called her work “quirky,” damning it as the equivalent of a cute pat on the head for female artists.) Wally has a beautiful artistic mind and a beautiful explosiveness to her thoughts, and I was eager for her to have a platform with which to share them.

-Kat Sullivan, curator

1) Transform instinct into intention.
In dance, we are constantly in touch with our inherent physical instincts. Additionally, we are tasked with expressing ourselves in a way that is poignant and affecting. Society tells us that while children move and create from an instinctual place, “mature adults” learn to make conscious, informed choices. As mature artists, we must combine these capacities. We must stay in touch with our animal instincts and, at the same time, be capable of identifying and honoring the intention that is revealed through the creation of each dance.

2) Explore the opposites.
Our understanding of the world relies on contrast. We can only appreciate good through exposure to evil. As dance artists, we can create the most effective art not only by defining the subject matter, but also by identifying the things that subject does not illuminate. In order to elicit an emotional and physical response from a viewer, the dance must be visible; for maximum visibility, contrast is required.

3) Converse with your work.
Through the creation process, we give birth to another entity. While the dance stems from us, it is also a force distinct from us. A painting is made by the painter, but it is not “the painter”; however, a dance is intertwined with “the dancer” since it is both made and transmitted through the human body. The choreographic process is a conversation between the creator and/or dancer and the dance. We must allow the dance to speak to us, and not only inflict ourselves upon it.

4) Shock your process.
While we may choose to focus on one idea for several dances, they are not all the same dance. Each creation has a beginning and an end. In order to continue growing, we must continue to create new, distinct works. Breaking our creative habits can be challenging. One effective way to shock the process is to alter the timeline for creative incubation. By challenging ourselves to create work more quickly, or over a longer time period, than is our habit, we discover new sides of ourselves in the process. Through experiencing this “shock,” we may be inspired to explore other ways of altering the incubation process, thus developing works which may not otherwise have come to fruition.

5) Distill, expound, repeat.
In the creative process, ideas often flood the creator. At other times, the creator becomes fixated on one movement. When stuck in a creative lurch, this simple mantra, “distill, expound, repeat,” can give us the appropriate push. Identifying on which end of the spectrum we exist at a given moment will make it clear which verb we are to follow. If an idea seems too scattered, we must distill. If it is more mysterious than we had in mind or we crave more of the same, we must expound. Then, we repeat until it feels complete. Of course we may not always need all three words, and we can always mix up the order to suit the situation.

6) Be a sponge and a faucet.
Creativity requires an open mind. As dance artists, we must be both student and teacher, cultivating both the ego and a sense of humbleness. We must give and receive, constantly and actively.

7) Put it in your pocket.
Artists require tools. As dancers, we have space, time, the physical body, the emotional body, and the energetic body. We also have a whole world of influences and a lifetime of experiences with which to fill our pockets. By consciously collecting ideas, images, sensations, and rhythms, we percolate an endless supply of creative juice.

8) Styling is everything.
Dance is a complete sensory experience. A painting may be beautiful, but poor lighting, framing, and atmosphere can undeniably detract from its full potential glory. Dance is no different. We must strive to allow each presentation to fulfill its potential. This is not purely about budget. It is about taste, creative problem solving, and honesty with ourselves and our collaborators.

9) Work.
No excuses.

Photo credit: The Ripening Suite, choreography by Evalina “Wally” Carbonell, photo by Bill Hebert.

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.

Pamela Heatherington's studio. Photo by Lauren Karstens

In the Studio

The Difficulties of Keeping an Art Form Alive

Pamela Hetherington is a Philadelphia-born dancer and educator, and the founder of Take It Away Dance Productions. Her new Fairmount studio, soundspace 1525, provides the city with a dance venue specifically geared towards percussive dancers. Here, she talks about just how rare that is.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

When I recall tap dancing as a kid, I remember two feelings: abundance and freedom. I was so lucky. Twenty or so years ago, I had no idea how much work it takes to to keep an art form alive.

It is challenging to sustain any kind of art-making living. However, I would say that percussive dancers, around the globe, consistently encounter one specific challenge that makes or breaks your ability to survive. It’s not endemic only to Philadelphia to be sure. The hurdle is that most space and theater owners don’t allow percussive footwear on their floors.

In Philly, I was constantly competing for the two or three floors in town where I could dance. It sounds like a “first-world problem,” but, eventually, the shut-outs got to me. I started to do less and expected less of myself, putting up my lack of studio time as the excuse. I practice an art form that I can’t practice in most dance spaces and, ironically, though tap dancers practice an art form that’s designed to be heard on a wood floor, when you’re space-grabbing, you’ll dance on anything. Most likely, it’s marley. Or concrete. Or tile.

This space problem, which I’ve been dealing with for at least fifteen years, underscores a much larger, thornier, question, which is the question of tap’s visibility within the spectrum of dance forms. Michelle Dorrance said it best, in a recent interview, when she said that tap dance is oppressed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, really. If a university doesn’t offer tap as a major (or even provide a proper tap floor), dancers are less motivated to keep training, let alone see themselves working professionally in the form. If you don’t have a space in which to make things, then you stop making things. When there aren’t things to show, you don’t have shows, and audiences drift away.

I built this space because I want to be a part of solving the problem of how to keep tap dance present, how to support other tap dancers so that we can make new work, and how to draw all kinds of people in to see who we are and what we do. I want to change the game.

This is a space for Philadelphia, for dancers to create in, learn in, rehearse in, and dream in. It won’t be the last.

 

All photos by Lauren Karstens.

Fail. image by Mike Jackson, alrightmike.com

FAIL!

Dancing in the Weeds

Pamela Hetherington is a Philadelphia-born dancer and educator, and the founder of Take It Away Dance Productions. Her new Fairmount studio, soundspace 1525, provides the city with something rare: a dance venue specifically geared towards percussive dancers. Here, she provides a personal perspective on an all-too-common challenge: self-production in the arts.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

The cliché is true that failure is easier to spot than success. Back in June, I found myself in some second floor bathroom of the Gershman Y, about 15 minutes before the first curtain, puking into a toilet. Running for my life into that bathroom, I was pretty easy to spot—let’s just say that.

Just five minutes earlier, I was doing what I always do before shows, which is to be alone and avoid people. Another cliché is also true: ignorance is bliss. I was feeling pretty OK about this show I had just spent six months choreographing and producing. A dance colleague of mine told me recently that nobody gets anywhere in the arts without being a little delusional. At that point, I was a lot delusional.

The trigger to all of this was the stage manager. She had just come upstairs to call time, and I took that as my cue to run down the stairs to check the audience. There’s just no way to predict how many people will come out to your show in Philadelphia. I have definitely done shows where my family of three comprised 33% of the audience. But, in the past couple of years, there were times I ran out of seats. I was crossing my fingers for the latter. But I took one peek out of the wing that night, and I knew. I was SO SCREWED. In about three hours, I was going to owe a lot of fucking money, and I didn’t have it. I wouldn’t even have enough to pay one person . . . and I had to pay ten. My face burned. My panic-vomit rose.

So, there I was, back in that bathroom stall, puking. My friend, who had worked with me on the show for the last few months, found me in the bathroom. I know she said something to me. But I wasn’t listening. I just wanted her out of the bathroom. There was no danger in me not leaving the stall in time for the top of the show. There were people in the seats. The musicians were there to play. A public TV station was even filming us for a fall program. But all I could play in my mind was the end of the night, when I’d have to cough up this money I didn’t have, and the painful tomorrow morning when the losses would become even more bitter. All I wanted at that moment was to take my three minutes of ugly cry in peace. Let me hurl and then somehow do a show—that not many people wanted to come see.

I’m not terribly rational in a pinch. I fall hard. And I’ve found that, because dance is so tied up in who I am, that I take my art failures much harder than non-art failures and very personally. It’s funny. Years ago, I worked for a corporation, managing massive projects involving millions of dollars. Did I make mistakes? Absolutely. Every damn day. Dumbass mistakes that I had to own. For the most part, though, I didn’t take the weight of the world on my shoulders when I fucked up. In the corporate world, mistakes are amortized, and the lost amounts? My boss used to tell me, “just bury the cost.” The hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost. And I did. I went home, didn’t think twice about what I had just spent the last 7 hours doing, and I was still able to do some damage at TJ Maxx. Not my money. And now it was. Karma?

I couldn’t roll this shit downhill. I had to answer to myself. I had to pay for all of this myself, literally.

At first, I would have told you that my failure was that I didn’t sell enough tickets. I couldn’t pay people. Losing all of that money, though, wasn’t the failure.

The big mistake was me. I had become so emotionally invested in a specific vision and a specific outcome that it prevented me from making the decisions I needed to in order for this show to work, on any artistic or financial level. And, at the core of that problem, was me, again. I wasn’t able to say a simple word: no.

Tap shows are a strange beast. We are improvisational soloists, but we are also choreographers. It can be a challenge to reconcile the two things in a concert setting. In this particular production, there was a ton going on: all kinds of musical styles, set-ups, moods, and approaches to the art form. All of them valid, but were they all necessary? Would everything have been better if I had tried to do even half as much?
I said yes to just about everything that felt good. I was afraid to say no because I knew I would have to face some very unpleasant outcomes.

But I should have said no a hundred times along the production process: when the theater manager couldn’t tell me for sure what the stage floor surface looked like under the marley (answer: there were holes in the floor), when I realized that there were no working lights in the theater, and when the theater manager told me the sound booth was not accessible to renters. I had to source lights and cables that I had no idea how to use, and I rented an entire theater’s worth of sound equipment. Saying “no,” for example, would have caused me to either change theaters, or reschedule the show, and I was afraid. I thought, stubbornly, I’ll make it work.

And I should have said no a hundred times along the creative process: when the cast and crew ballooned to an unwieldy size, and agreeing to eight musicians, when four would have been fine. In my perfect world, art is inclusion. But that’s not good arts-making. Good arts-making needs and demands boundaries. I was so deep in the weeds, it was ridiculous.

The painful failure I had to admit was that I spent so much time managing show production that I sacrificed the quality of what was actually going on stage. That hurts, even now, to write.

It might be weird to admit at this point that, overall, I’m proud of the show and what we all accomplished that night. But, the truth is, I made a show that sucked. Admitting where I went wrong sucked even harder.

What do I do now?

I work within this new awareness, and I’m grateful for it. I’m not going to stop making dances or working with live music in new ways. But I’ve let go of my vision of what a “concert dance show” is supposed to look like. For example, I am making art on a much smaller scale. The audience for what I do, right now, is also small. It’s just my reality. It’s about being real with myself and what is possible in my artistic life and this moment in time.

I never want to stop challenging myself to make dance and music that pushes me to learn something. I want to keep making that work with people that inspire me to be better. I can say “yes” to all of that.

Illustration by Mike Jackson, alrightmike.com.