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.

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.

100 philadelphia

Real Talk

The Audience Impact

Nick Stuccio is a founder and the current president and producing director of FringeArts, and curator of a significant portion of Philadelphia’s preeminent performing arts festival. It is fair to say that Fringe, with its 19-year history, has exerted a tremendous influence on the theatrical flavor of our city, and we were very excited to talk to Nick about how the organization is growing and changing past its teens, particularly in the realm of audience-building.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

CT: When I first mentioned Curate This to you, your first question was “Who’s the audience?” Why is knowing the audience on the top of your mind?

Nick Stuccio: Who are we making art for? That’s very important to us. What are our goals as a presenter?

We have to be careful about being too insular. I’ve been with FringeArts for twenty years, and I was a professional dancer for ten years before that, and there has never been an epoch of time in which the artist community is as broad, diverse, interesting, high-functioning, intelligent and talented. It’s a large and healthy community. Which means at any arts event, the audience is largely made up of artists.

The challenge is to find avenues and roads that lead to people who are outside that community. It’s a more diverse room when there are also people in the audience who are not artists. It’s certainly been a challenge at FringeArts, and it’s hard work.

And it’s not just about the dynamic between artists and non-artists. That’s just one example. We want to provoke conversation, and the conversation is richer and deeper when the audience demographics are representative of the city we live in.

Who are some of the artists you have curated who are actively reaching out to new audiences?

Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Philadelphia, which was performed by 100 Philadelphia citizens, entirely non-performers, representing the city’s specific demographics. Sylvain Emard with Le Grand Continental, which was another large-scale piece performed by people who are not performers in a group line-dance. Those are the big highlights. They were titanic, spectacle works. We had thousands show up.

Which I think has very interesting implications in terms of the relationship between social practice and artistic practice. Of course it’s interesting from an artistic perspective, but it’s also an opportunity to build to new audiences, to reach communities that we don’t often tap into.

What was the response to 100% Philadelphia, as you remember it?

It’s a very powerful piece, and the response was overwhelming. We had a lot of people go to Temple University’s campus to see it. Over half the cast were people of color, representing the demographics of our city. We intentionally did not put this show in Center City, because Center City is a historically white neighborhood. We put it on Temple’s campus, which is a more neutral ground between African American neighborhoods and non-African American neighborhoods, in the hope that we could attract a more diverse audience.

I was hoping for an audience that reflected the cast. That didn’t happen, entirely. But we gained enormous ground, considerably expanding the diversity of our audiences.

100% Philadelphia was a learning experience around outreach. You can curate an audience as well as the program. It’s hard work. We are always considering what will interest the public and how to engage the right people. On one level, filling seats is a win. But we are continually reflecting on what communities we have to reach to ensure that the show has the greatest possible impact.

I think it is fair to say that we all want an audience that reflects the city we are performing in, but when it comes to funding, is having diverse audiences a priority for funders?

I think that’s ultimately a question for funders.

Funders favor organizations that have clear goals and aspire to reach them. Our mission is to present contemporary, progressive performing art.

What’s underneath that mission? We believe in a deeply progressive world. And we believe that artists have a charge in creating that world. In order for these pieces to have an impact, to create the world we want to see, they need to be reaching the right people.

As a curator, how do you balance the concern of filling seats against FringeArts’ ongoing mission to bring cutting-edge work?

I’ll tell you, one of the most rewarding shows we’ve presented was Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant. That was a big risk. The show was very difficult conceptually—very dense and enigmatic. But people responded. The size of the audiences far exceeded our expectations.

When I go to one of our shows, I watch the stage about forty percent of the time, and I watch the house the other sixty percentlistening, feeling, watching faces. During that show I did not recognize the room. Which tells me there is a growing segment of our community that is hungry for sophisticated, complex, experimental art by the world’s very best art-makers.

Have we played a part in creating that appetite? I think so. But either way, we’re psyched about it.

What shows in this year’s Fringe Festival surprised you, in terms of audience?

Similarly to our experience with Castellucci, we had great success with our two masthead shows, Available Light and After the Rehearsal/Persona. Both were in hot, un-air conditioned venues, and they were dense and difficult pieces. But audiences came out for them in droves, and feedback was amazing.

The one that’s standing out for me is Underground Railroad Game. Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard worked on that for a long time, and we sold the crap out of it, even adding shows.

The piece was a great conversation starter about race. On one hand it was a big hit, but on the other, I wish we could have curated the audience differently. We’ve met with Scott and Jenn about bringing the show back to FringeArts, in part so we can work on continuing the conversation they started while aiming at a more diverse audience. We certainly need to partner with other organizations to help us find more networks of people that we’re not connected to.

But you know, we’re 19-year-olds, and . . . well, 19-year-olds are messes. I know I was. These are muscles we have to build.

Bridge dances at Bushwick Open Studios. Photo by Michael Yu._small

My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Please Do Not Hire the Local Talent

Megan Bridge might be best-known as co-curator of <fidget>, which, together with neighboring Mascherspace, presents some of Philadelphia’s most exciting experimental performance. As a choreographer and dancer she has performed with artists as diverse and lauded as Lucinda Childs, Jerome Bel, Willi Dorner, Headlong Dance Theater, and Group Motion. Her most recent project, Dust, premiered here in Philly at FringeArts in April before touring the country. Bridge is also a critic, and has recently taken over as executive director of thINKingDANCE. Bridge is ubiquitous in Philadelphia’s experimental dance scene, so asking her to curate a week of content was a no-brainer. Here she discusses something very much at the tops of our minds: financing art.

– Julius Ferraro, co-founder

Once the nation’s capital (a status it lost to DC in 1800) and the center of culture in America (a status which gradually, and for reasons beyond the scope of this article, trickled away to a certain island just to the north), Philadelphia is currently the second largest city on the East Coast.

With a population of 1.5 million, Philadelphians have struggled for decades to escape the little sister syndrome. Philly is a city of hard workers. Local pride breeds a certain provincialism, unfortunately perpetuated by constant reminders that New York City, an economic and cultural giant that lies only 100 miles to the north, is still very much in people’s minds the art capital of the world. But with increasing glocalization, and visibility and accessibility through the web, not to mention the burgeoning population of young artists in cities other than New York and the new energy they bring, New York’s hegemony is pretty much over (I know, Brooklyn, it hurts).

Unfortunately, the chip on Philadelphia’s shoulder remains. Philly artists have an inferiority complex which is perpetuated by an institutional imperative to look outside of Philadelphia to find “excellence” in the arts.

This actually happened to me.

I was at the very beginning of working on a new project, choreographing an evening-length dance. It was a big project, and I needed big funding. I met with a small group of representatives from a Philadelphia foundation that I thought might be a good match. After describing my project and talking about the dancers I was interested in working with, I was directed by the head grant officer to not hire any Philadelphia dancers. In this person’s perspective (and . . . I inferred, the perspective of the foundation), there weren’t any dancers in Philly that were “good enough.” This particular grant officer even went so far as to name two specific dancers (one in New York, one in Europe) that they thought I should reach out to as potentially good matches for my project. I was flabbergasted. The audacity! How could a funder possibly suggest that s/he knows best what collaborators an artist should choose to bring into such an intimate relationship as creating art together?

After fuming for a few days, I used my application for that grant to get on a soapbox about my commitment to working with the excellent local artists in my own city, and about the intimate nature of collaborative relationships. From my application: “The dancers I am working with are LOCAL. This is an ethical and political stance. I believe in working collaboratively with performers, and in collaboration that is built on trust and personal/political/aesthetic relationships that grow over time in the studio…I believe in rigor and depth of inquiry, not “talent.” …There are many other qualified “experts” in this field that reside outside of Philadelphia, however I would not enter into a collaborative relationship of this depth with someone I don’t know.”

Needless to say, my application was rejected.

But so here’s my problem with art in Philadelphia. It’s that we keep going back. We keep letting these funders determine the nature and scope of our art, we jump through hoops as they change reporting requirements, budgetary guidelines. We spend as much time developing innovative marketing strategies (outreach! growth! capacity building!!) as we do making our art.

Could you imagine a Philadelphia where the richest funders required some basic proof every year that artists were regularly practicing, and based on that proof, the pie was divided evenly between all the artists? More art for everyone, with built-in diversity. Communistic-style. Down with capitalistic art and the way funders are holding us back from making our best work. Philly artists, what can we do?

Edwin Markham’s epigram Outwitted puts this much more eloquently, and I paraphrase for its application here: If someone draws a circle and excludes you, then draw a larger circle and include him. Can we artists band together somehow and draw a bigger circle that includes the funders? Choreographer friends of mine Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler have attempted this in a comedic way with their “2015 Call for Funders: Gabrielle and Nicole invite funders to apply to support The Dance Apocalypse’s 2015 creative work. Eligible funders must demonstrate a history of supporting radical, experimental, feminist performance for at least 5 years. To be considered please submit a letter of intent…addressing the following questions…” (read the full Call for Funders here).

Another approach is a boycott. Easy enough for those of us making work that would be an unlikely fit for large foundations. Many artists are making work with the support of small donations via crowd funding, or traveling around for tiny gigs to make ends meet. But it’s hard to blame those few of my peers, whose work does fit the foundation bill, accepting large grants to fund their work. And sometimes I even get hired as a dancer for those sweet gigs, sucking the tit of one of the foundations I’m so harshly railing against.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that Philly artists need to support each other and keep reminding each other that WE ARE MAKING WORLD CLASS ART THAT NEEDS TO BE SEEN AROUND THE WORLD! By any means possible.

Photo credit: Michael Yu