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Portland Ballet Offers Pay-What-You-Will Tickets for Holiday Performances

The Portland Ballet – Upcoming Events Calendar
Nov 29 – Dec 1, The Enchanted Toy Shop with Firebird
Dec 1 – Capitol Highway studio construction wraps
January 6, 2014 – Classes resume
Jan 25, 2014 – Grand Re-Opening Gala

The Portland Ballet Introduces Pay-What-You-Will Ticketing,  Welcomes Wider Audiences to the Arts

This Thanksgiving weekend, The Portland Ballet (TPB) offers Portland audiences a unique proposition: a full 90-minute ballet with live orchestra for only $5.

In an effort to bring arts performances to a wider audience, TPB is setting aside 100 pay-what-you-will tickets for each of its six performances.  Available at the PSU Lincoln Hall box office one hour before the show, the tickets are good for open seating and cost $5, plus an optional donation.  Adult tickets usually cost $35.  A preview performance on November 29 at 4pm will have only pay-what-you-will tickets, which can be reserved by calling the Lincoln Hall box office.

The company hopes that people who might not usually attend live arts in Portland will have a chance to do so this holiday season.  “We’re committed to getting new audiences and different kinds of people in the door,” said Jim Lane, Managing Director.  “We don’t want finances to be a reason to stay at home.”

Portland Ballet introduces Pay What You Will ticketing for holiday performances

Pairing TPB’s beloved holiday show The Enchanted Toyshop with the classic Russian folktale Firebird, the performance offers a full evening of high-quality dance and music.  This program features original choreography by John Clifford, widely considered the protégé of George Balanchine, and live accompaniment by the Portland State University Symphony.  At $5, “it’s really the best deal in town,” says Lane.

The addition of Clifford’s 2005 Firebird brings drama and history to the production.  With the highly dramatic elements of danger (evil sorcerer Kaschei), beauty (the bewitching Firebird), tragedy (Princesses held captive by Kaschei) and romance (valiant Prince Ivan), the ballet is technically and artistically challenging.  TPB founders Nancy Davis and Jim Lane count the ballet among their favorite roles, having danced it with Los Angeles Ballet approximately 75 times, nationwide.

Rehearsals for the holiday show continue amid construction.  TPB is nearly finished with a 75% expansion of its Hillsdale studio, including the addition of an entirely new, third studio.  The expansion was underwritten with a $170,000 capital campaign and launched in April 2013. In addition to individual donors, the capital campaign received significant and generous support from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and The Collins Foundation.

Led by Artistic Director Nancy Davis, The Portland Ballet nurtures young dancers from age three to 19.  TPB students are trained with professional intent by a faculty that includes some of the nation’s finest dancers and choreographers.  TPB dancers leave the school with the life skills – commitment, discipline, teamwork, curiosity, and pride – to succeed in any endeavor.  TPB graduates have gone on to professional dance careers with companies such as Houston Ballet, St. Louis Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Sacramento Ballet, Ballet West and Ballet Idaho.  Instructors come from the National Ballet, the original Los Angeles Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, Odessa Ballet, Smuin Ballet/SF, Le Grand Ballet de Genève, BodyVox, Ballet West, and many others.  For more information, visit TPB online at www.theportlandballet.org.

John Clifford’s The Enchanted Toy Shop with Firebird
90 minutes, with intermission.  Respighi and Stravinsky played live at every performance by the PSU Symphony.

Where: PSU’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park at Market Street
When: November  29 – December 1, 2013
Friday, November 29, 4 PM (preview)
Friday, November 29, 7 PM (opening night)
Saturday/Sunday, November 30/December 1, 1 & 4 PM

Tickets:
Reserved Seating: $15, youth; $35, adult; $90, family package (two adult, two youth)
Open Seating: Pay-What-You-Will Tickets available at the door for every performance ($5 minimum)

Ticketing Information:  503-725-3307 ● Tickets at PSU Lincoln Hall Box Office or online at www.theportlandballet.org/Performance

Praise for The Portland Ballet’s The Enchanted Toyshop
“Charm and vitality to spare…its lively pace varied with action-packed divertissements.” — The Oregonian

CONTACT:  Caitlin Dwyer, Marketing
[email protected] • 503.423.7753

Yo-Yo Ma Spins an Emotional Tale of “Art for Life’s Sake”

Tim Mikulski

Tim Mikulski

As I have been sitting back at my desk at Americans for the Arts this afternoon, I’ve had a hard time coming up with a way to describe what I experienced last night at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It could be the lack of sleep, the lack of coffee, or the abundance of Twizzlers and Clif Bars I’ve eaten during and before Arts Advocacy Day 2013; but, I’m not convinced of that.

Watching Yo-Yo Ma’s combined lecture and performance of a speech called “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician” as our 26th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy last night was priceless.

Not only did it feature eloquent points about the power of arts education and being a citizen musician, but it also featured memorable performances by jooker Lil’ Buck, bagpiper Cristina Pato, MusiCorps, and teaching artist Greg Loman and founder Arthur Bloom—two of which brought tears to the eyes of those around me in the Concert Hall.

Before I get too involved in describing it, I guess I should provide you with a chance to watch the entire event below or you can continue reading and click on the links to see the specific parts I point out as I attempt to capture the night to the best of my ability.

I’ll wait here while you watch…

Speaking of arts education, Ma explained that experts say there are four qualities needed in students and inside the current workforce: collaborative, flexible, imaginative, and innovative.

Ma said, “We know that our present educational system encourages knowledge acquisition and critical thinking, but what about these other qualities? How do we develop them?” He thinks the answers are in the arts through its integration into the entire school curricula.

Bringing a little science to the mix, Ma said that the “edge effect” is the point in ecology where “two eco-systems meet” and “in that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

He then went on to explain that this effect impacted his life as he initially balanced his immigration from Paris to New York City at the age of seven and then again in examples like the fact that he played at one of the first fundraisers for what would eventually become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a young child, too.

It was at that event that he met Danny Kaye who literally came down to his level in order to speak with the young cellist “in order to be an equal.” Ma said Kaye came to the edge of a child who was probably fairly uncomfortable and won him over.

Ma explained that since then he “subliminally internalized this gesture and attitude today” and has tried to apply that concept to everything he does—to meet people at eye level, at their edge that decides one person from another.”

Ma, Parto, & Lil' Buck perform "The Swan"

Ma, Parto, & Lil’ Buck perform “The Swan”

At this point that he turned to his cello, invited dancer Lil’ Buck and pianist Cristina Pato to the stage for a performance that left the audience smiling and nodding in silence (minus a “wow!” or two that I could hear from my back row orchestra seat…Lil’ Buck formed a swan with his body to end the performance named after the bird!).

Ma returned to the main topic of “Arts for Life’s Sake” as he set up a performance that may stick with me for the rest of my life.

He began by saying that “musicians spend years learning technique, but the point of art is always to transcend technique. That’s when we get to meaning. We transcend technique in order to seek out the truths in our world in a way that gives meaning and sustenance to individuals and communities—that’s art for life’s sake.”

From there, Ma said he wanted to share with the audience an example of an artist responding to need in the form of Arthur Bloom, who developed MusiCorps which is a program that works with injured service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

I just had a chill even thinking about the stirring rendition of Levon Helm’s “Wide River to Cross” that followed. The song was emotionally performed by Specialist Nathan Kalwicki, Lance Corporal Josh Cawthorn, Sergeant Rex Tharp, Corporal Marcus Dandrea, Lance Corporal Tim Donley, and MusiCorps teaching artists Greg Loman and Arthur Bloom.

Lance Corporal Tim Donley raises his arm to the crowd after singing "Wide River to Cross."

Lance Corporal Tim Donley raises his arm to the crowd after singing “Wide River to Cross.”

After the performance Ma returned to the “edge effect” stating that “as music therapists know, by combining two things many don’t usually associate (music and healthcare), Arthur has discovered a new path for healing for these veterans. And, as Arthur explains, this real work, discipline, and rigor. You can see for yourselves the transformative power of what the veterans are doing when Lance Corporal Tim Donley, who says so beautifully at age 21 that he feels blessed to have found two great loves in his life. First, the marines and now, music.”

Ma went on to discuss his arts education work through his own Silk Road Project and the Turnaround Arts initiative, and the importance of including the arts in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning.

He concluded with a performance of Sarabande by Bach from the Sixth Suite for Solo Cello.

While the event came at the end of our training sessions for Arts Advocacy Day the next day, everyone in the Hall felt that the impact of Yo-Yo Ma’s lecture will likely live on well beyond as more of us take the time to appreciate, participate in, and cherish “Art for Life’s Sake.”

Use Arts Integration to Enhance Common Core

Susan Riley

These days, integration in any area, be it STEM or the arts, seems to be the buzzword to curriculum designers everywhere. There are so many resources floating around out there with the claim of integrating content areas. Yet, true integration is often difficult to find. Indeed, integration is a rare yet seemingly “magical” approach that has the capacity to turn learning into meaningful practice.

Which of course, as any teacher will tell you, is anything but magic.

Integration requires collaboration, research, intentional alignment, and practical application on behalf of the teachers who take on this challenge. From the students, integration demands creativity, problem-solving, perseverance, collaboration, and the ability to work through the rigorous demands of multiple ideas and concepts woven together to create a final product.

Integration is not simply combining two or more contents together. It is an approach to teaching which includes intentional identification of naturally aligned standards, taught authentically alongside meaningful assessments which take both content areas to a whole new level. Put together, these components set the foundation for how we will be able to facilitate the Common Core State Standards.

Shared Features

So far with Common Core, the often-highlighted integration approach is through STEM. However, arts integration is just as effective yet many times overlooked. What is striking is that both STEM and arts integration are linked through definition as an approach to teaching through two or more content areas.

Still, the arts have some unique parallels to the Common Core Standards that may make their implementation a beneficial addition for teachers and administrators. These parallels attest to the rigors of the arts and the need for their processes in today’s global workforce and the unforeseen future.

1. Process Produces Product

I developed many of these arts integration lessons which provide students with time to compare sources, conduct research and focus on the process of their work. The products created are naturally richer and more extensive than from a “traditional” approach. The importance of shifting our focus from products to processes can be found within the Common Core Math Practices—most of which are aligned with the Artist’s Habits of Mind.

2. Access Points

An arts integration approach is naturally engaging to students and to teachers. Almost everyone has one art form (visual art, music, dance or drama) with which they connect and use to make sense of the world. And our society places a high emphasis on the arts. We are bombarded with advertisements for iPods and iPads, music, movies, and shows that are often produced with high visual impact. By weaving the arts into and through our content in naturally aligned ways, we are providing relevance to student learning, and giving them an opportunity to connect their world to our classrooms.

3. True Equity

The emphasis on process-based learning and using access points that are relevant to every child makes teaching and learning an equitable opportunity for everyone in the classroom. By using arts integration, teachers and leaders can ensure that students are learning in a way that meets their own unique cultural, social, emotional, and intellectual needs.

4. Analytic Practice

When studying any piece of art, composition, drama, or dance, one must be able to analyze the components that create the whole. Additionally, the ability to synthesize these parts into a whole work is critical to making meaning for each audience member. Common Core Reading and Math Standards have both identified the need for this critical practice, and many teachers are struggling with implementing it in the classroom. Arts integration may be a pathway to providing those opportunities.

Strategies for Implementation

Arts integration seems to be hidden from view because teachers are nervous about their own artistic abilities, and also their ability to effectively facilitate a lesson that includes authentic arts standards. Yet arts integration strategies have a variety of levels, and many can be implemented quite quickly in classrooms. The keys to using arts integration successfully are:

  • Collaboration between arts and classroom teachers to find naturally aligned objectives
  • Using an arts area in which the classroom teacher is comfortable (for many, this starts with visual arts)
  • Creating a lesson that truly teaches to both standards
  • Assessing both areas equitably

Here are some quick sample arts strategies to try if you’re just starting out.

1. Mirroring

A drama and dance technique, this is a fantastic way of connecting to Common Core Math Standards. It provides students with a way to share understanding using movement, concentration and problem-solving skills. This technique involves partnering students and having them “mirror” each other’s actions.

2. Stepping into the Painting

This visual arts strategy involves carefully inspecting a chosen painting as a way to interpret personal meaning for each student. Students then combine their interpretations to create a global story from the painting.

3. Call and Response

This music technique is practiced all the time in general music classes as a way to build improvising and composition skills, and to practice fluency. It can be used effectively with reading or math concepts and, because it is rhythmically based, the classroom teacher can guide the exercise with simple hand clapping.

Are We Building Cooks or Chefs?

Arts integration is about the tools that we use to provide the opportunities for teachers and students to create their own meaning. By taking a traditional approach, we are short-changing our teachers from the true art of their craft. This leads to burnout and resentment, which we desperately need to address if our students are to succeed. And our students deserve an opportunity to own their learning for themselves and to make deep, meaningful connections through the curriculum.

Arts integration allows us to build chefs who make choices—not cooks who merely follow the recipe. By fostering a community within our schools where authentic arts integration is taking place, we can meet and exceed expectations set by Common Core and move into a culture of true inquiry and learning.

Sample Arts Integration Lesson Seeds

Looking for Arts Integration lesson seeds that connect with Common Core Standards? Click the links below for some samples that I have created. Please share your own lesson seeds in the comments area below.

(Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Edutopia on November 30, 2012.)

In This Body – Dreaming Awake

Sixteen years ago, I had surgery to remove a tumor from inside my spinal cord. Although the tumor was benign, the surgery paralyzed me from the neck down. I spent six weeks in a hospital and months learning to walk again.

I called upon my artist-self during those darkest hours. My fingers were the first part of my body to experience any functional return. While others at the rehab hospital were wheeled off to occupational therapy, I asked to go to the computer lab to tap out sentences with the one finger up to the task.

I felt an overwhelming urge to put on paper the thoughts crowding my brain, make some sense of the experience, and reassert authority over my body. Some of this writing was later featured in the Lambda Award-winning anthology I co-edited entitled “Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories.”

As the weeks progressed, standard physical rehab provided little success. I realized when being transferred from bed to wheelchair my body could hold itself up (although briefly and with assistance). While the kinesthetic connections were lost, I thought I might be able to learn to stand up visually. So I asked to work in front of the mirrors. Therapists were skeptical and reminded me everything is backward in a mirror. “Yes,” I countered, “but as a young man I was a dancer and learned to dance with mirrors”

It took some days with leg braces and a walker, but eventually I stood in front of that mirror. What I could not do kinesthetically, I accomplished visually. Over the next weeks, I began to walk between two parallel bars in front of the mirror. Tentative steps grew ever more confident. The dancer in me taught my mis-circuited body to walk again. Sixteen years later, I continue dancing through life, albeit slowly and with the assistance of a cane.

I also made several short films about my spinal journey. “Dreaming Awake” made in 2003 is a prayer of reconciliation for my discombobulated body featuring music performed by Joan Jenrenaud and the Kronos Quartet. Here is my voice-over narrative for the video:

I dissociate from the burning in my legs, silently crying between sleep and the morning. Hopes and dreams keep me safe through the night.  After surgery, I died then, but you refused and brought me back. Seven years and counting, of tilting toward the ground. I am afraid if I sit down; I will never get up again.

The dancer in me learned to stand visually; the marathoner took the second step. Rehab gave me strength and range of motion, but with each new modality, I interrupt expectations: improvements are not cures. If I sit down, I will never get up again.

Still imagining a body I cannot have, I startle myself, glimpsing fatigue in passing windows. My bifurcated body torques with every stride, neuropathy and weariness debilitates. Therapists caution about wear and tear, while friends cheer, “You’re getting better!” If I sit down, I will never get up again.

Navigating deadened limbs and twisted trunk, pain remains constant, dulling our life together. After a day’s activities, I have no comfort left to give you. Living through chemistry, libido is gone. Holding and touching you, I long for remembered sensations. I’m afraid if I sit down; I’ll never get up again. If I sit down, I’ll never get up again.

In this metaphorical body, I try to intercept suffering, abide in discomfort, forgive the trauma. Bearing witness, I sit with loss, move toward unobstructed feeling, and bring you along into my dreaming awake.

The complexity of coping with the resultant physiological, emotional, and social issues of disability is as potent now as when I wrote this poem in 2003.

Sixteen years post surgery; I am still circling the drain as I live within this body. However, I am extremely grateful that art provided me tools for healing, hope, and reconciliation.

Unleashing Creativity in the Classroom via Common Core Standards

When I think of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I think of Martha Graham. I think of John Keats.

My imagination runs wild with images of fun, inspired, powerful learning experiences for kids. There is no doubt in my mind that this transition opens the door for new energy and greater opportunity to elevate the joyful practice and rigorous study of the arts in our classrooms across the nation.

It says something powerful to me that the authors of the Math and English Language Arts (ELA) standards often begin their explanations of the CCSS through art. Last month, for example, I savored several lovely minutes gazing at a sketch of a Grecian vase in a hotel ballroom packed with K–12 district academic administrators. This wasn’t a time-filler. It was the keynote speaker himself, Phil Daro, describing the major transitions in the Math Standards by invoking Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

Keats’ image and accompanying poem, the pinnacle of art meeting craft, he explained, conveys the major instructional shifts of the new Math Standards. As as he spoke, I couldn’t help but think of the ways in which Keats’ ekphrastic approach, the poetic representation of a painting or sculpture in words, mirrors the function of math in human endeavors, as the beautifully-crafted ten-line stanzas, quatrain and sestet, the lines explore the relationship between art and humanity.

Keats’ topic and craft also invoke CCSS-Math’s call for increased focus, coherence, and rigor in conceptual understanding, procedural skill, and application, academic skills. Indeed, many of these academic math skills, as arts educators well know, can also be taught and reinforced well through music, visual arts, and dance. Rhythm as fractions. Choreography as geometry. Math as art.

Similarly, I’ve enjoyed experiencing David Coleman launch into his wonderfully compelling elucidations of the new English Language Arts standards by asking educators in the room read aloud a short first-person narrative, often from some of the world’s greatest artists. I’ve heard him guide a room full of the wonkiest of wonks through Martha Graham’s “This I Believe” testimony from NPR.

I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that is has been the symbol of the performance of living,” we read together, listening to different interpretations of the phase “performance of living,” making inferences through Martha’s turns of phrase about her biography and work and approach.

This experience illustrates the shifts in focus of the CCSS ELA Standards: building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and educational texts, reading and writing grounded in evidence, and regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary.

As I read them, the CCSS ELA and Math Standards are all about deep, thoughtful study, rigorous analysis, and continuity of focus.

Take the Student Portrait on Page 7 of the CCSS Standards, for example. Now, that student is someone I want to know!

Even more, she is someone I would love to teach, and from whom I would love to learn. That student is also someone who, without a doubt, has spent meaningful time every day with the arts. She has learned to read and write and think and speak through a close study of the world’s greatest artists and time spent sustained amounts of time engaging deeply with great works of art. She has sung, painted, sculpted, written, and danced throughout his education, in order to develop these college and career ready skills.

Every educator can draw inspiration from a very close read of the standards, and arts educators can feel edified and energized by the ways in which these shifts in practice can and should unleash creativity and the arts in our classrooms.

It will be time very well spent for arts teachers to take time to really look at and understand both the ELA Anchor Standards and Math Practices themselves, drawing explicit connections to the practices of their respective disciplines.

Sustained inquiry is the prerequisite to close observation: as we study the new standards, we can start to conceptualize exciting new curricula that allow students to spend meaningful time studying a masterwork of art, that engages students in the historical context of the time, that reinforces the key elements of the practices and anchors as appropriate, and continually helps open student’s eyes to the world beyond the classroom.

We are lucky to be working with districts in California to turn this energy into new tools, resources, and approaches for teachers as we transition to the CCSS. We’ll be working with teachers to develop a matrix of the CCSS Anchor Standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice with the California Visual and Performing Arts Standards, so that educators can see similarities, differences, and opportunities.

We’ll also be working with teachers to develop performance tasks that use the arts as the vehicles for making progress on select ELA and Math standards and developing some arts-related performance assessments aligned to the CCSS, to help provide tools and resources to districts as they make the transition to CCSS in the coming years.

If only I had had CCSS to guide my instruction 15 years ago! Maybe then my principal would not have questioned my judgment when I taught my students how to swing dance as the extension of my seventh grade unit on the 1940s!

An arts-based practice makes learning compelling and fun: it’s the exciting work of learning in action, the collective “aha” of close reading, not knowing the answers immediately, that not only develops important skills in reading, writing, thinking, speaking and listening, it also brings us together as humans. It’s the real stuff of learning. The real stuff of creativity. And in the end, it’s the way we will really close the achievement gap and reinstate the United States as a global leader in education.

It’s an exciting time. Time for arts educators nationwide to step forward to showcase our disciplines. To call for a renewed embracing of the arts as fundamental to every aspect of our system of public education.

Phil Daro would no doubt agree:

“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

~ John Keats, “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

Art Talk with Battery Dance Company

August 15, 2012

by Liz Auclair

Dancing to Connect teaching artists work with students in Taiwan.

Dancing to Connect teaching artists work with students in Madrid, Spain. Photo courtesy of Battery Dance Company

“Our mantra is ‘artistic excellence, social relevance.’” — Jonathan Hollander

“Completely unpredictable and uniformly fabulous”—that’s how Jonathan Hollander describes the results of Battery Dance Company‘s Dancing to Connect program. In more than 50 countries, Dancing to Connect has taught young people, most of whom have no previous dance training, how to use movement to express themselves. In just a week, Dancing to Connect teaching artists work with the students to create and perform a dance piece devised entirely from their own creativity. Recently, as part of a Mission Continues Fellowship, Roman Baca—a dancer, choreographer, and former U.S. Marine —collaborated with Battery Dance to bring Dancing to Continue to Iraq. (You can read more about Baca’s experience in our new edition of NEA Arts.)

To learn more about Dancing to Connect and Battery Dance Company’s cultural diplomacy efforts we spoke with Hollander, who founded Battery Dance Company in 1976 and leads the organization as artistic and executive director.

NEA: Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to create Battery Dance Company?

JONATHAN HOLLANDER: Like many other sort of ambitious young people who are drawn to the art of dance, I had been dancing in a company with a variety of choreographers in New York City and I realized that my passion was for choreography. I had been in a company for three years that was a collective and I had the opportunity to “try my wings” in choreography without going through the huge undertaking of starting an institution. But that collective sort of came apart at the seams; everyone went in different directions, and I realized that I wanted to continue with pursuing my craft as a choreographer. The only way to do that—that I could see at that point—was to create a company.

One of the critical factors that determined the path was that my partner, who was my wife-to-be, and I moved into a loft in the Wall Street area. At that time, New York was in a severe recession and old buildings in areas like the financial district were sort of leftover. Nobody wanted them. Soho was already over-populated with artists and had become expensive. But we found 3,000 square feet in a building on Stone Street, the first paved street in Manhattan. It was a historic district surrounded by office towers, but this low-rise, five-story building had wooden floors and exposures on four sides. It was the perfect laboratory for a dance company to take shape. And the fact that we were in an area of banking and insurance companies and law firms where there was really very little art was, I think, a key determining factor in what Battery Dance Company eventually became.

NEA: What is unique about the work of Battery Dance Company?

HOLLANDER: Our mantra is “artistic excellence, social relevance.” Those two parts of the puzzle are equal in terms of what our mission is. We want to make the arts accessible to all. In no way do we want to compromise the quality of the arts. We feel like all people deserve great art and you don’t know where you’re going to find a wonderful audience, a great student, or a budding dancer/choreographer. You can’t assume that these people know where to go to nourish their latent talent or passion. So being in an area like the financial district where there was not a single theater challenged us to figure out how [to] get our art to the people. We began performing out of doors on corporate plazas and parks and piers and attracting really large audiences—much, much larger audiences than we would have if we were in even a name-brand, small, black box theater in New York City. So we realized we can own this process—we don’t have to have anyone tell us we can do it. And I think that’s a huge key to who we are and what we became. We’ve made our own path. We haven’t accepted definitions of what a dance company can do. So you might find Battery Dance Company in a park, you might find Battery Dance Company in a public school, you might find Battery Dance Company at a main-street marquee theater, you might find Battery Dance Company in a small village in India. The variety of what we’ve been able to do has taken us to 54 countries around the world and to untold amounts of alternative spaces in New York. That’s what makes our life interesting; that’s what refreshes us constantly.

NEA: How did the idea for Dancing to Connect come about?

HOLLANDER: We’ve worked in the New York City public schools for over three decades. In addition to creating new work and pushing ourselves as artists, it’s been very important to us to nourish these relationships with young people in schools that don’t necessarily have access to the art. This propelled us to create a whole new vehicle for arts education called Dancing to Connect.

We found that wherever we go with this program the results are completely unpredictable and uniformly fabulous. It’s a program that was developed through our learning step-by-step about what works and what doesn’t work with high schools students, in terms of dance. What we found was, the longer the program, the less effective it was. We’re not talking about a dance conservatory program, we’re talking about a program that appeals to and can work with any group of participants, whether or not they’ve had any dance training before. That’s perhaps what’s so surprising or different. Obviously, we’re not going to remake dance training and say it can be done in an instant—you drop it into water and it flowers. No, no, no. But what we’ve figured out is that the art of choreography is something that very few people actually explore. Whereas visual arts, music, even theater, these are [art] forms that—as part of many young people’s educations—they get an exposure to it, they’re given the materials to work with [that discipline]. But they’re not given the materials to work with dance and choreography. So when we make those materials available, young people just grab onto it and make it their own. And that’s what this program is about. We do not bring in pre-fabricated choreography. We bring in our love for the art form, our understanding of the craft involved in building a piece of choreography. We hand over those tools to young people and in the course of 20 or 30 hours they make their own choreography. They stun us with the results.

NEA: Can you describe what happens in the program?

HOLLANDER: We have teaching artists, who are the same people who are our dancers and choreographers. That’s the key to the Dancing to Connect profile—we find people who are multi-talented, who are world-class performers, budding, emerging choreographers with lots to say, and nurturing teachers. We know that each and every person in our group is capable of handling the challenges. [They have] the adaptability to channel their creativity and at the same time to unleash the creativity of the young people they’re working with. And when I say “young people,” that can be anybody from age 14 to young adults.

[We have] one or two teaching artists, depending on the number of participants, work with the group of participants. We do five successive days, four to five hours a day, whatever we’re able to negotiate, and during that process, our teaching artists go through a series of exercises. They give challenges and assignments and essays to the participants that lead them from the cerebral thought process into the physical realm. They create a pathway whereby the participants, who may never have been in a dance class before, are all of a sudden up off the floor, and using their body in creative ways, with shape, with movement, with dynamics, with levels, with speed, all of the different concepts of movement come into these little assignments.

[For instance,] you write your name in the air with any part of your body that you choose other than your finger. If you didn’t hear the instruction and you were watching the room, [you’d see that] all of a sudden people went from static to kinetic as they’re creating these amazing movement phrases. Then the next thing that they have to understand is, “Okay, that was fabulous, can you do it again?” How do you memorize a sequence of movements if you’ve never done that before? And then, “We’d like you two to come together and teach each other the phrase that you made up.” All of a sudden you’re the leader now and you need to teach this other person your phrase. There’s this team-building aspect, sharing, building up leadership—all kinds of side results from this dance process. At the end of it there’s a performance, oftentimes in a big theater, and some of these students have actually never been in the theater before. They’ve never been on stage. They’ve never even been in the part of the city where the theater is. There’s a whole multi-dimensional awakening that happens through this process.

NEA: Why did you decide to use Dancing to Connect as a program to reach students internationally?

HOLLANDER: It couldn’t have existed without the three decades of background of work in the schools in New York. But the very first program was in Germany, the second was in Cambodia, and the third was in New York. There’s an element of chance here. You don’t necessarily make every opportunity that you have. You have to be ready for the opportunities but you don’t know when they’re going to come about. And the program in Germany came about through a lot of different coincidences and involved a lot of different people—Germans, Americans, my dance company, another dance company that was collaborating with us, and the local community in which we found ourselves—Freiburg, Germany. It’s a very musical city and the schools in Freiburg basically invited us and gave us the opportunity to work with their students around a historical theme. There’s an intellectual component to the Dancing to Connect program [that] provokes the creative process. That theme is something that we determined in the first instance but then in every instance after that it’s been shaped and formed by the participants themselves through discussions, through sharing between the teaching artists and the participants.

One of the students that we worked with in Kenya, in Nairobi, said that Carmen, who was our teaching artist, “helped us share our secrets.” I think that was the pivotal experience in creating whatever the work was that was created there. Opening up the vulnerability of the young people, making them feel like it’s a safe environment. There’s no right and wrong. You’ve just got to experiment, the way you do if somebody puts some paper and paints in front of you and says go to it, let your mind go, don’t criticize yourself, don’t manage every single stroke of the brush, just let it go. And that’s kind of what we do.

NEA: You have collaborated with the State Department and U.S. embassies on cultural diplomacy programming. What is it about the arts, and dance in particular, that makes it such a successful tool for this kind of outreach?

HOLLANDER: So many reasons. If the audience is young people, and the State Department is very concerned about the next generation, what country in the world has young people who don’t like to dance? Now, have they ever done modern dance? Have they ever choreographed a dance? Probably not. But we don’t tell them, “You can’t move this way.” We let them move the way they move. That’s another part of the secret ingredient—we’re not telling them to imitate us. Because that you could not do in a week. Instead we say, “We think you have it within you and you just haven’t found it yet so we’re going to help you see if you can find it.” “It” being your own self-expression through movement. Language is less important.

Theater couldn’t do this because theater relies on language and words and we’re working in countries like Japan where people study English from a very early age and they can write it and read it beautifully but they can’t speak it…. The University of Freiburg did a study of our program in terms of English-language learning and they found that students were speaking much better English in the dance workshops than they were in their English classes because the motivation was so great. Which also speaks to the motivation of young people to dance.

We have been very fortunate to work with the State Department, to work with U.S. embassies around the world. I was a Fulbright lecturer in India in 1992 and an American Field Service Exchange Student in high school so the cross-cultural experience of living in different places, adapting to different cultures, and sharing with people in very different circumstances has been something natural to me, and I’ve bred that culture in Battery Dance Company. One of things that I think allowed us to be successful in working with embassies is because what we want to do is in keeping with their mission and goals. They want to reach the next generation. They want to reach populations that are unexposed to American culture and may not have the opportunity to engage in the arts in a formalized way.

NEA: Can you describe a Dancing to Connect experience that really sticks out in your mind?

HOLLANDER: I’ll tell you a New York City one. We were in a very large public high school—thousands of students. It was in a very difficult neighborhood with kids facing all kind of challenges. We tend to forget about the challenges that they’re dealing with because we get so immersed in the project that it’s all about getting from here to there—there’s going to be a performance, it’s on Friday, and we have five hours left to really refine and polish and get this ready. At one of the rehearsals leading up to that performance, two sisters who had been really important in the piece and who were doing so beautifully were not there. I went to the teacher and said, “I just can’t tell you how disappointed I am. They were doing so well and look at this—they’re not here.” And she [explained that] their mother was taken by the police for drug possession. The sisters were remanded to Covenant House, which is sort of a safe harbor for young people. They had spent the day trying to get out of Covenant House so they could come to rehearsal. And they somehow got through the bureaucracy, got themselves out of there and into school the next day so they could perform.

A similar kind of story happened in Germany in Freiburg. We were halfway through this wonderful experience of building dance pieces and one of the students came to the school teacher and said that his father had won a prize and the whole family was given a trip to South Africa and they were leaving on Saturday, the day of the performance. And he just did not know what to do. His teacher told him, “This is an incredible thing. I’m sure that Battery Dance will understand.” Of course we did and we started making adjustments in the piece since he would not be there. Well, the next day he showed up and he said he told his parents that he could go to South Africa any time but this was the only time that he could do this dance piece. He was going to stay back and stay with his grandmother while his family was away. This same young man—who was not a dancer, this is not somebody who was going to become Baryshnikov, he was a soccer-playing, regular guy—he and his cohort convinced us we had to go back to his school next year to have a program for the veterans so they could go farther with this project. The third year that we were in Freiburg, those veterans, including this young man, wanted to be teacher-trainees and help us with the younger groups. That probably gives you a sense of the incredible sense of belonging to something that happens in this program.

NEA: How does Dancing to Connect fit in with Battery Dance Company’s other international programming?

HOLLANDER: Wherever we go, we also perform. We are taking our art around the world. But these days the Dancing to Connect vehicle is leading us into all these new areas of exploration. For example, dance as a vehicle for conflict resolution. We worked with Israeli, Palestinian, and German youth in a two-phased program and we tracked the results. The inclination toward war as a vehicle for settling conflict changed by about 30 percent in terms of the young people who took part. The perception of the other—Palestinian perception of Israelis—changed over the course of this program. We’re now at that very exciting stage in our development where we’re realizing that this model arts education program also has ramifications for social change in ways that we never imagined—working with HIV-positive populations, countering stigma, countering ignorance. The fact that an American dance company would go to an African country and work with HIV-positive people—in a country where if you’re sick, the family throws you out onto the street. And yet, that’s our chosen community. That telegraphs something in terms of public health, in terms of information, and we’re very dedicated to exploring more and more avenues for using this vehicle to teach and promote health and social practice of inclusion.

NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?

HOLLANDER: I guess everything that I’ve said addresses that. An artist cannot work without community in my opinion. I’m not interested in insularity. The older I get and the more engaged I am in my art form and in nurturing the next generation, it’s for me opening doors, not keeping it quiet and secluded and removed from community.

NEA: Conversely, what do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

HOLLANDER: That’s an interesting question and I don’t know that I have a really quick and easy answer for that because, in an idealistic view of our society, I wish that the arts were more understood and appreciated as a foundation for life, not peripheral to life. It’s very hard for an artist to penetrate a community that is convinced that the arts are unnecessary or not for me, for someone else. And yet, I don’t feel like I face that with my art. I feel like I face that with funding. Artists are struggling to grow their art and, let’s face it, it’s very expensive. Dance is an expensive art form, not only in terms of money but in terms of logistics and facilities. Like right now we are negotiating with the U.S. Embassy in South Africa. And on the one hand they want to reach the same audience that we’re interested in, which is the disadvantaged, non-elite audiences. On the other hand, they want us to go to those audiences and work in those communities where there are no appropriate facilities. So we’re up against a really difficult conundrum of the fact that we want to say to a community we go into, “It’s actually not healthy for young people to be jumping on cement.” On the other hand, we don’t want to be putting forth the message that you need to be rich and have expensive facilities in order to dance. So we’re kind of up against it. It’s the resources I guess I’m addressing in terms of the community responsibility to the artist. If the community wants art it has to understand the resources necessary for art to thrive.

NEA: At the NEA, we believe that Art Works. What does this phrase mean to you?

HOLLANDER: It’s obviously a double meaning because “artworks” are pieces of art and “Art Works” [means] that art functions and if you pair that with “A Great Nation Deserved Great Art” theme, then it means that art works as part of the mechanism of society.

If you’re in New York this August Battery Dance Company will be presenting the 31st annual Downtown Dance Festival through August 17. More information about this free event can be found at www.batterydance.org.

Art Talk with Daniel Phoenix Singh of Dakshina

July 24, 2012

Daniel Phoenix Singh and another dancer in a scene from his dance work "Sonnet."

Dakshina founder Daniel Phoenix Singh with Melissa Greco Liu in “Sonnet.” Photo by Stephen Barnovics, courtesy of Dakshina

“[A]rt is the nexus where all the different aspects of my life—as a gay man, a South Asian, a first-generation immigrant, a person of color, a little bit of a tech nerd, and now a U.S. citizen—all come together.” — Daniel Phoenix Singh

At first glance, Indian classical dance and Western modern dance would seem to have little in common—except in the hands of dancer and choreographer Daniel Phoenix Singh. With his company Dakshina—which received a 2012 Art Works grant from the NEA—Singh explores both movement vocabularies creating energetic, moving, thought-provoking works that are equal parts tradition and innovation. Singh didn’t start studying dance formally until his early 20s. However, his love of Bollywood movies as a child in India, his job working as a janitor at a local high school, and his professional experiences in computer science have all added up to a somewhat unorthodox, but no less fruitful arts career. We caught up with Singh via e-mail to find out why he’s learning tango and salsa, how his work has been influenced by modern dance choreographer Anna Sokolow, and what advice he has for young artists.

NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?

DANIEL PHOENIX SINGH: I don’t identify that strongly with the term “artist”—it has too many false/romanticized notions associated with it. I make dances, and I dance, therefore I’m more comfortable with the terms dancer or choreographer. I strive to create art, but it is not up to me to decide whether I’ve achieved what I set out to do. The observer in the short term, and the continuum of time in the long term will have to decide if I am an artist or not.

In my attempts to create art as a dancer or a dance maker, art-making begins with awareness and self-reflection. From there I move toward understanding the community around me, and then on to trying to make meaning of the world we live in. The ironic end point for the dance is one where the self of the dancer or choreographer is removed so the dance can speak for itself. We either hold up a mirror for the observer or let the observer see something that animates us, and perhaps through this insight lead them into their own “aha” moment. I try to wrap all this up with compassion, and give it back as a gift. My company’s moniker “Dakshina” means offering in Sanskrit, and so both giving and giving back are strong guiding principles of our work. Art then is about awareness, self-reflection, and giving for me.

The degree to which I achieve this differs, but I try to keep sight of this goal at all times.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?

SINGH: I remember my mother dressing me up as the Hindu god Krishna for a costume competition when I was five or six years old. According to legends, Krishna as a child was very fond of cream, and would often steal cream from the cowherds in his town. To make my Krishna more authentic, my dear mother gave me a small brass pot of cream. And in keeping with my character, I ate all of it before I even got on stage. I still remember feeling special that day as my mother dressed me up as Krishna, even making garlands for me from the flowers in our garden. It felt good to step into someone else’s skin so simply and completely. It was one of those funny and magical childhood experiences that leave an indelible mark on you. I tucked this away in the recesses of my mind till I could finally return to this journey as an adult.

I also grew up with Bollywood and Tamil films all through my childhood. The poetry of the songs, and the dancing—the inexplicable but joy-inducing dancing at the drop of the hat made these movies childhood treasures for me. Ironically, though I lived in Chennai—the heart of Bharata Natyam, I didn’t pay much attention to dance till I saw a male dancer in the film called Salangai Oli (Sound of the ankle bells). The concept of a male dancer didn’t enter my consciousness till I saw that film. I know they existed, but it was like I hadn’t put two and two together just yet. There was also a class issue. Just like the U.S., the arts are mostly available to the wealthier classes in India.

I look back at these two experiences fondly and realize how lucky I was to have them seed themselves in my mind.

NEA: You didn’t become a dancer until you were in your early 20s. How did you discover dance, and what prompted you to pursue dance as a career?

SINGH: Life in India was hard and my parents went above and beyond to make things easier for me. They worked hard to get me into a private school for a good education, and they even relocated to the U.S. so we could go to college here. So somewhere in the drive to establish a decent career, I didn’t let my dance interest grow. I didn’t even know that was an option for me. I was working on my computer science degree and working as a janitor at a high school.

Two auspicious encounters in both those areas of my life set me on my path to becoming a dancer. My Bharata Natyam teacher Meena Telikicherla’s school happened to rent out the high school where I was a janitor for their dance school’s annual day performance. I saw the crystal clear technique in her dancers and was very moved. I introduced myself and started learning from Ms Telikicherla—almost 6 years of Bharata Natyam classes on Tuesdays and Thursday mornings from 7 a.m to 9 a.m. Around the same time, I met Pamela Matthews when I signed up for a Ballet class at University of Maryland Baltimore County while taking computer science classes. Pam is a stunning dancer but was/is also a very grounded, down to earth and funny teacher. She taught us how to let go of our inhibitions and made dancing fun. Watching her dance and eat up space so easily, and speak so eloquently with her body in her understated ways, I said to myself, I want that feeling.  

To be honest and frank, while I had these strong urges to dive into dance headfirst, I also balanced them out with the reality of making a living. So yes I did want to pursue dance as a career, but I was also old enough to realize that I needed to balance that with something else to pay the bills. So even though I sometimes wish I had started dancing earlier, I also realize now that my computer science background (even though I was one class short of getting the degree) has helped me build my dance career more than anything else could have.

NEA: What led you to found Dakshina? What do you hope to accomplish with the company? And why choose a repertoire that’s both modern Western dance and traditional Indian dances?

SINGH: When I finished my undergrad degree in Dance, I felt like I needed some more dance experience and knowledge under my belt. I went to University of Maryland for their MFA program, where I met Mim Rosen and Libby Smigel who encouraged me and helped me clarify my vision. I also stumbled into the Women’s Studies program and met a fabulous professor Katie King, who opened up my worldview entirely. Through my women’s studies classes, I saw that the typical binary setup in most social choices didn’t have to be true. I didn’t want to have to select between my heritage as an Indian, and my interest in American modern dance in my adopted home country. I spent the first several years focusing on Bharata Natyam and modern dance forms to find our feet so to speak. After having immersed myself in both Bharata Natyam and Modern Dance for almost 12 years, I started getting this itch to see what would happen if I created vocabulary drawing on both styles. I now feel like things have finally snapped into place and now Dakshina has a three-pronged approach focusing on Bharata Natyam, modern dance, and our own syncretic blend of the two forms.

NEA:  As you’ve noted, your choreography embraces diverse dance elements. How do the different styles inform your work? How do they inform each other?

SINGH: I enjoy dance in the many ways it crops up in our lives such as social dance forms like salsa or tango, culturally specific dance forms such as Bharata Natyam that grew out of traditional or cultural underpinnings (of course tango/salsa were once culturally specific), and sort of the academic or stage dance forms like modern dance or ballet. It’s always been a goal of mine to present dance from all these different spheres, so people can see that dance has many different functions in different situations. 

It was also really interesting for me to notice how the forms start at different places but arrive at a similar outcome. Bharata Natyam works from outside in, where you build the structure of the dance and work your way into the feeling it is supposed to evoke, where as modern dance works from inside out—starting with an idea or feeling and building the dance from this kernel. Bharata Natyam and most classical Indian dance were typically performed in a solo format—now I’m incorporating elements of modern dance such as group dynamics, use of space, and patterns into my Bharata Natyam work. I take the importance Bharata Natyam places on a strong focus, the ability to completely take on any character you are portraying, the use of rhythms, and the stress on eloquent hands into my modern dance work.

NEA:  Dakshina has performed several works by choreographer Anna Sokolow. Can you tell me a little about who she was, what her work was like, and what drew you to her work? Also, how has Sokolow’s work influenced your own thinking about dance?

SINGH: I saw a performance of Anna Sokolow’s “Kaddish” by Risa Steinberg at Dance Place almost 12 years ago now. I was struck by the starkness and drawn in by the powerful use of hands and hand gestures. Having seem modern dance where the hands are usually not emphasized too much, the Bharata Natyam dancer in me was thrilled to see such a rich gestural vocabulary in Sokolow’s works. There is one particular gesture in which the dancer beats her chest in mourning—something I’ve seen people in India do as part of their mourning ritual. I went back and read through the history of “Kaddish,” and found out that Sokolow had choreographed it as a prayer of mourning. I also found out that some Jewish synagogues didn’t allow women to wear the prayer sleeve and that Sokolow was making a strong statement about gender issues when she performed the dance with the prayer sleeve. It was poetic moment to realize that Sokolow’s “Kaddish” incorporated a Jewish ritual of mourning which was similar to the customs in India. It was also heartening for me to see that Sokolow was working on social issues in her dances without preaching about them. The seed to get Sokolow dances for my company was sown then. It took us almost 10 years to make that dream come true and I was hooked.

The essence of Sokolow’s work was taught to us by Lorry May, long time principal with the Sokolow Company who then became Sokolow’s assistant in staging her dances. Lorry accurately and strongly felt that Sokolow’s genius lay in how well Sokolow was able to draw the intent out of her movement (rather than using intent to shape movement). This is also typically how Bharata Natyam is shaped and I sensed an intuitive knowledge and gift in Sokolow’s dances. There were two geniuses at work here: the obvious genius of Sokolow, and the subtle but equally sensitive genius of Lorry May who allowed Sokolow’s works of starkness and simplicity pass through to our generation. I remember Lorry telling us: don’t superimpose yourself on the movement. Let the movement speak for itself. Those words were gems of wisdom, and showed me that Sokolow’s genius lay in how her movement is able to hold its shape so well after all these years.

After our most recent reconstruction of a Sokolow dance titled,”Lyric Suite,” the Washington Post‘s chief dance critic Sarah Kaufman wrote that Sokolow was a master of subtraction. I think Kaufman captured Sokolow’s essence in her description.

Learning the Sokolow repertoire has made me sensitive to making sure I don’t clutter the dances I create, to also create dances that are relevant to my time and my community, to take more risks and to most importantly be honest in reflecting the world back to the observer.

NEA: You are also studying Latin styles, including tango and salsa. Why are you interested in those styles and how do you think they will influence your work?

SINGH: As I mentioned earlier, I love to see how dance has different roles in the various aspects of our lives. Social dances like tango and salsa are about connecting with people in a very direct, one-on-one way. There is a Zen-like quality in social dances, in that you have to be completely present and sensitive to the person you are dancing with. This internal and subtle focus is definitely true of Argentine tango which I studied, where as ballroom tango looks and feels different (for many valid reasons). There is this perfect balance where you have to intuit and think on your feet, making decisions based on what your partner does, how crowded the club maybe, the pace of the music, what the lyrics may be describing, etc., all while improvising your steps and navigating through a crowded room. When you get comfortable enough in the basics to dance with a random stranger and still work together as a couple from the first second, you experience something incredible. At the end of my third year, I was able to follow with my eyes closed and just let my body do the “seeing.”

There is a certain mystery and intrigue about tango that is hard to express in words. 

The other special thing about social dances is that it is like having an intimate conversation with the person you are dancing with. Each person has their own body language and manner of leading you. I dance the Colombian style of salsa with Javier Varela, and the Cuban style of salsa with Shawn Malone. It may sound a bit hokie, but I could dance with a room full of leads with my eyes closed, and I could tell you when I was with Javier or Shawn just by the way they lead me. This is the magic of social dance—it becomes a unfettered extension of the person you are dancing with. 

I’m interested in a lot of dance styles because I feel very strongly that the more you learn other styles, the more you are able to plumb the depths of your own main style or technique. There are a lot of commonalities, and some strong differences. Knowing what the characteristics of the dance styles are helps me create movement to achieve certain specific feelings in the dancers and observers.  

Ultimately, these dances, to me, are about connecting with people, in direct and tangible ways. They influence my work in that, to me,  dance is always about making a human connection while expressing yourself. So the theme of connecting and the Zen-like quality of being fully present are the two most significant threads that I take from these dance forms and bring into my own work.

NEA: At the NEA, we believe the artist is part of the community, rather than someone who works apart in some “temple of the arts.” What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what do you think if the responsibility of the community to the artist?

SINGH: I absolutely think that my company Dakshina only exists because of the strong sense of community. Dancers are the core of my company; they spend their birthdays, anniversaries, joys and sorrows with us in the studio. Often the rehearsal process is an intense one, where each one of us is challenged to push through our insecurities, weaknesses, and make peace with the limitations we have and still try to do our best. Such a deeply meaningful personal journey is exhilarating, but also draining. We couldn’t do this if my dancers were not working together as a community and giving so very generously. I see communities as concentric circles like the ripples in a pond. Each stone thrown onto the surface of the pond creates an infinite number of ripples, and so it is with communities. Each action you take as an artist should resonate and speak to multiple circles of community. I’m indebted to my dancers more than anyone else for their good cheer, commitment, and faith in me. For me, being a part of the community means also being interested in the community’s needs and interest. So even as you tap into your mentors, be sure to give back to those you can.

 I also want to say this with the caveat that this doesn’t give us permission to sacrifice quality in the name of “community.” Whether it is in the media, or in the funding process, there is a big push for accessible art works. To the point that an anti-intellectual, slap-things-together-in-the-name-of-community approach is being pushed. To me putting up shoddy work in the name of community is deeply troubling. How to engage our communities while doing path-breaking work should be a central mission of dance companies.

I have strong support from my mentors such as Leela Samson, Uttara Asha Coorlawala, Mallika Sarabhai, Mim Rosen, Libby Smigel (executive director of Dance Heritage), Maryland Youth Ballet, AACU (where I work), Susie Farr (executive director of Clarice Smith Center), Carla Perlo and Deborah Riley at Dance Place, and my rehearsal directors Karen Bernstein and Harriet Moncure Williams. The DC community and the Indian dance community [are] very close knit and supportive…. I am indeed standing on the shoulders of these giants, and they deserve the credit for what I’ve been able to achieve.

NEA:  You have had many challenges in your life because of your decision to pursue dance–from having to balance it with a full-time job in an unrelated field to family issues. What would your advice be to a young dancer—or young artist—just starting their arts career?

SINGH: In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig writes, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a motorcycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain or in the petals of the flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha—which is to demean oneself.” I think of this quote when I consider all the various aspects I juggle in my life.

And to be fair, if I were a parent, I would be horrified if my child chose the arts given the current economic situation in the arts world, and the hard life that it requires. So with some hindsight behind me, I realize my parents were worried about my welfare. Though my family did have a very difficult time accepting the fact that I did Bharata Natyam, a dance form that draws heavily from the Hindu religion and mythology.

In terms of advice for a young artist: As we can’t expect the community to be interested in us if we are not interested in them, we have to be more politically involved, realize the power of your vote and voice—go out and ask for what you need, don’t settle. Learn to articulate your work in words even if you work in a non-verbal medium. Go to the county, city, regional ,and national meetings where policy makers are working and make your voice heard.  

Learn from the beginning to place a value on your art; don’t give it away for free. Only when you value your art will others value it. Be creative about how you patch together a career in the arts. I would also say [young artists] should double major and learn the management and fundraising skills they need to continue their dance careers. No one is going to be able to advocate for you as well as you can. 

At times it will be exhausting and draining. During these moments, remember that it will pass. Tap into your peer and established professionals in the field. Get their advice, vent with them, learn how to figure out how you can articulate your frustration with your support group. Then go to the leaders who can make a difference and ask for what you need so that the needs you have are met. Because between all these moments, you will have moments of sheer magic and joy that will be incomparable. You’ll fall in love with your colleagues’ genius. You’ll bootstrap/claw your way up to the next creative burst, and you’ll have so many experiences that are strongly human, and tangibly life-altering. In the words of DC choreographer Eric Hampton: “Make BIG mistakes.” Go for it, give it your all.

NEA:  At the NEA we think that “Art Works.” What does that mean to you?

SINGH:I want to explore that motto from two angles. On the positive side—when I was working on multiple styles and figuring out a way to negotiate tradition and culture with relevant current topics or finding a way to evolve the art form to another place, one of my mentors Uttara Coorlawala remarked to me, “You are choreographing your identity.” This is how art works in my life—art is the nexus where all the different aspects of my life as a gay man, a South Asian, a first-generation immigrant, a person of color, a little bit of a tech nerd, and now a U.S. citizen all come together. I do want to be able to move back and forth and not be hemmed in by artificial boundaries. And art works to create that fluid space yet anchors me in my life.

On the negative side: I see severe devaluation of the arts, the artist community, arts education, and the notion of art as labor. To me it is incomprehensible that cutting [arts] funding is even brought up as an option in budget discussions.  There is also a dearth of policy makers and arts strategists to examine the long-term effects of the changes in arts funding from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Like the K-12 trend where early education and high school are given priority and the middle school years are glossed over, I see a lot of emphasis put on start-ups or mega arts organizations. But there is almost no program that bridges the smaller companies to the larger organizations. In addition, the burden of subsidizing or supporting arts education in lower income communities has been shifted to the artist instead of state or national educational institutions. This often means that the already squeezed artists have to create or manage an arts administration program on top of everything else they are juggling. The irony in this is that the communities that need the most support are being undercut. I’d love to see Art Works take the leadership role in some of these issues.

 So my community’s responsibility to me is to work with me, even as I listen/hear/work with my community’s needs.

And I know that the problem of short-sighted arts policies can’t be resolved by just the artists. We need our community members, schools, youth, adults, policy makers, educators, and seniors to all rally around us and help us stabilize and promote the arts. Giving us research and development time, like the business models, would be extremely helpful for us to create the important work and to stay on the edge of the arts rather than becoming complacent or stuck.

 Unless this is remedied soon, we’ll have a lot of floundering young organizations dying out before they can stabilize themselves in the middle phase of their development, or large communities that have little or no access to the arts. This is where Art works is not functioning the way it should be. For Art Works to be the call it seeks to be, we need to refocus our priorities and work together to make this happen. I’m actually working on a paper that lays out some of my concerns right now and hope to have it published in the next couple of months on my company website’s blog. Stay tuned for the paper and I’d love your readers feedback to figure out how to make the call “Art Works” come true.

What Do We Really Know About People Who Get Arts Degrees?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

Since 2008, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) has surveyed graduates of arts training programs—people who received undergraduate and/or graduate arts degrees from colleges and universities as well as diplomas from arts high schools…people who majored in architecture, arts education, creative writing, dance, design, film, fine arts, media arts, music, theater, and more.

To date, SNAAP has collected data from over 50,000 arts graduates of all ages and nationalities. These respondents, as we call them in the survey world, graduated from nearly 250 different educational institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

In a few short years, SNAAP has become what is believed to be the largest database ever assembled about the arts and arts education, as well as the most comprehensive alumni survey conducted in any field.

Recently, we published our latest findings: A Diverse Palette: What Arts Graduates Say About Their Education and Careers. The report provides findings from over 33,000 arts graduates who responded to the online survey last fall.

Our report has attracted media coverage from the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Inside Higher Ed and—we were gawked on gawker.com! My favorite may be Forbes, which compares getting an arts degree with getting a law degree—and recommends that prospective law students consider an arts career instead.

Here are some of the big questions that SNAAP data begin to answer.

1.      Where do arts graduates go?

  • First, they are largely employed. Only 4% of SNAAP respondents are unemployed and looking for work, as opposed to the national average of 8.9%.
  • 72% have worked as professional artist at some point in their career, and just over half (51%) do so currently.
  • Dance, music performance, and theater majors are the most likely to work as professional artists at some point in their careers (all at 82%). Design comes in at 81%. The lowest, not surprisingly, are arts administration (42%) and art history (30%) majors.
  • Between 10–20% of students in most arts disciplines never intended to become professional artists.

2.     What does a successful career look like? Is it all about income?

The more we learn about arts graduates, the more we confirm that there is little correlation between income satisfaction and overall job satisfaction. Sure, most of us in the arts would like to earn more, but the same can be said of doctors, lawyers, and shoe salesmen.

SNAAP data provide strong evidence that income is not the primary driver for job satisfaction for arts graduates.

  • Nine of ten (87%) arts graduates responding to the survey who are currently employed are satisfied with the job in which they spend the majority of their work time.
  • 82% are satisfied with their ability to be creative in their current job, whether working in the arts or in other fields.
  • 84% of employed respondents agree that their current primary job reflects their personalities, interests and values, whether their work is in the arts or other fields.

3.     How do outcomes differ for graduates from different arts disciplines?

One could write many blogs on this subject, so here are a few tidbits that have to do with earnings.

  • Dancers and choreographers earn the least but are most satisfied with their arts-related jobs: 97% of dancers and choreographers are satisfied with their incomes but only 9% earned more than $50,000.
  • Those graduating with a degree in architecture have the highest median income (at $55,000) while those majoring in art history, creative and other writing, dance, fine and studio art, theater, and “other” arts fields have the lowest ($35,000).
  • Sound and lighting engineers or technicians (79%) and K–12 arts educators (72%) are the most satisfied with their income while fine artists report the lowest rate of satisfaction (38%).

These findings represent the tip of the iceberg. We ask arts alumni lots of questions about the skills they developed in school, how they use those skills in the workplace, and about their educational experiences. The vast majority would ‘do it again.’

Having said all that, we know that it’s essential to put our findings in context and dangerous to paint too rosy a picture. Of course, some arts graduates are employed in jobs that don’t adequately use their arts education, some suffer from heavy student debt, and some regret getting an arts degree. Many wish they had had a better education on the business of being an artist. But it’s still true that the majority are generally satisfied and happy with their life choices.

SNAAP’s primary purpose is to collect alumni data and report it back to each participating institution so they can assess and improve their curriculum, programs, and services. The deadline for institutions to participate in the 2012 survey is TODAY, July 2 (we can be somewhat flexible).

SNAAP is a big, collaborative project based at Indiana University and the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt. We are advised by a terrific National Advisory Board. Everything we have accomplished to date is thanks to generous funding from Surdna Foundation, Houston Endowment, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and others. Our first-rate team, including Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann, is currently busy writing a report on the cultural workforce funded by our most recent NEA grant. (Thank you, taxpayers.)

“Like” us on Facebook and you can be among the first to learn about our latest work.

Did you get an arts degree? How does your experience fit in with our findings? If you are interested in digging in to the data, read our 2012 annual report. Play with our interactive SnaapShot. Encourage your institution to participate, so that your story can be added to those of your fellow arts graduates.

Turning the Dance Floor on its Side

May 11, 2012

By Rebecca Gross

Project Bandaloop performs on the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. Photo by Atossa Soltani

Anyone who lives in or has visited Washington knows the Old Post Office Pavilion. Built in 1899, the building is a major city landmark, renowned for its gorgeous Romanesque revival architecture and 315-foot clock tower. It’s also home to several federal agencies, including our very own NEA.

But tonight at 9 p.m., the historic Old Post Office will transform into a vertical stage when frequent NEA grantee Project Bandaloop dances, leaps, and twists along the façade as it performs its aerial production of Bound(less). Mixing intricate choreography with the rigor of rappelling, the company was founded in 1991 by Amelia Rudolph, who continues to serve as Project Bandaloop’s artistic director. Since then, the company has performed on such unusual spaces as the Seattle Space Needle, a Norwegian fjord, the Oakland Museum in California, cliff and mountain faces, and a 180-foot billboard in Times Square.

Tonight’s free performance is part of the Kennedy Center’s “Look Both Ways: Street Art Across America” festival, and will feature musician and composer Dana Leong performing on the wall alongside the dancers. In anticipation of the event, I spoke with Amelia Rudolph about her incredible, perspective-bending company, the most memorable space she’s ever danced on, and what it feels like to fly.

NEA: How did you initially dream up the idea for Project Bandaloop?

AMELIA RUDOLPH: I’ve danced my whole life. In 1989, I started to climb for the first time in the Sierra. At that time, there actually weren’t that many indoor climbing gyms like there are now; most of the climbing took place in the mountains. As I was climbing one day, high on a ridge in the Sierra, in this absolutely gorgeous place, I wondered what it would be like to create a site-specific work, or dance, in a site like that. How could you dance high in the mountains, on rock, or on a cliff? At the same time, I realized all my dance fed into climbing, and many things about climbing felt like dance to me inside my body.

At the same time, I was doing my master’s thesis as a performance, and writing about why I was doing a performance. So I wrote a master’s thesis, but I also danced it. This was all happening at the same time and out of that came a group of people, and an idea, and a new indoor climbing gym was opening. I asked the owner, Peter Mayfield, “Hey, do you think we can come into your gym and experiment with the idea of cross-pollinating climbing and dance?” He was extremely supportive. We did a show there in 1991 in the climbing gym, and people really, really responded to it. I think it was so many things: the re-framing of dance, seeing sport and art together—so many things came together in that first performance. And for 20 years now, I’ve been putting dance in unusual urban and natural places. We’re a dance company that’s rigorously performing contemporary dance, complex choreography. We are very not circus-like. We just do it in unusual spaces and on a vertical dance floor.

NEA: How do you rehearse for “stages” that are as unique as the ones you perform on, particularly when you have to take weather into account?

RUDOLPH: We treat our studio space, which is the performance space, as a cross between a stage and a rock climb, or a hike. You have to be prepared. We actually will rehearse in some drizzle and some rain; we will rehearse in wind up to a point. We’ve rehearsed in Dayton, Ohio, in 18-degree weather. You have to do what you have to do, and you have to be really prepared and mentally tough to be able to do it.

So there’s that. Then we’re bringing a complex, full-length work to the Old Post Office that we’ve done in Oakland on a flat wall, in Miami on a Frank Gehry building that was also a flat wall, and we’re adapting it to the Old Post Office. There are several sections that I’m going to completely change; you just cannot do it on this building. I’m really looking forward to finding out what that building brings out in this piece. We have four days on the building prior to show, and we’ll be rehearsing as much as they let us.

Dancers Amelia Rudolph and Rachael Lincoln perform on Wildcat Point in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Corey Rich

NEA: What’s the process like between looking at a building or a cliff, and figuring out which movements will work on that surface?

RUDOLPH: Thomas Cavanagh, who’s my technical director among many other hats that he wears, took lots of pictures of the building and figured out how to rig the building on his technical scout. I and the dancers together are studying the pictures of the building. I know where everybody’s going to be during every piece, they are aware that there is 17-inch step down at this place, they’re aware that there’s a ledge above them here or below them there, a window frame here. We’ve been rehearsing the choreography as we know it, and I reasserted my encouragement to them yesterday that we all have to remain very open-minded to how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to change the piece to be on this particular building. You can’t ask the last dance company that danced on the building, “How was your experience?” So it’s exciting. It’s like the first descent of a river, or the first ascent of a mountain. This will be the first ascent of the Post Office for us.

I’m going to be there on day one with my assistant director Rachael Lincoln and the riggers. We will rappel on what we’ve identified to be the most tricky spots on the building. I’m very aware of certain decisions that I have to make on day one. Based on those decisions, we’ll decide for example whether to rig high or rig low on some of the pieces. Rigging high is going to mean on the central tower, we’ll be rigging out the top windows. To rig high means when you push off, you have huge loft, meaning you fly through the air for a pretty long time before you land again. Versus rigging low when you pin the rope further down the building so that there’s less rope between you and your anchor and your jumps are smaller.

NEA: Do you have any hopes or expectations for your performance on the Old Post Office?

RUDOLPH: Every stage that is a building has history, and so many things have happened inside the building, and in front of the building, and on the streets below the building. I feel like when we come and animate that space for the performance, there’s a way where we’re interacting with everything that’s ever happened in that building. Aside from [wishing] that the audience is inspired and moved by the performance that they see, I hope that there’s a relationship that occurs over the week between our company and the architecture itself, the people who work in the building.

NEA: You’ve performed in some incredible places. Which site has been the most memorable for you?

RUDOLPH: It’s very, very hard to choose one, because I’ve had so many experiences that were just so memorable in different ways. One extremely memorable experience in an urban setting was over 12 or 13 years ago, we performed in Houston off the first huge skyscraper that we’d ever performed on. We performed Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet with the Houston Symphony. It was earlier in my career, it was a huge challenge, it was very hot, it was a black skyscraper. Christoph Eschenbach conducted and turned out to be an incredibly gentle and sweet and amazing person who listened to what I had to say, considering how famous he was even back then.

I would say another is the six days I spent climbing El Capitan in Yosemite to create a piece called Peregrine Dreams, because the combination of how difficult that was, and how much logistical rigmarole went on to be able to pull off such a thing. We literally climbed with six people for six days and five nights; we slept on the wall. It’s almost 3,000 feet; we danced at 2,400. Just to know that it was possible at all to create art in that context was just incredible.

Dancers Rachael Lincoln, Anje Lockhart, Roel Seeber, Andrew Ward, and Damara Ganley perform Bound(less) on the New World Symphony Building in Miami Beach. Photo by Atossa Soltani

NEA: You also do performances in more traditional theater settings. How do you compare these very public, outdoor performances with your work in theaters?

RUDOLPH: There are things that each of them has that the other doesn’t. When we’re on a building, you can’t see our faces much. I do everything I can choreographically to have the dancers look out and look down and look for the audience, because it’s so important to see a person’s face when they’re performing. However, it has grand scale and magic and beauty, and the relationship to gravity is so skewed that it really changes your perspective and how you think at moments.

When we perform in a theater, you can look right at the audience. I can use the wonderful, liminal area between the floor and the air, or the floor and the wall, where one dancer’s on the ground, and one is in the air. I love working that transitional zone between these two worlds. I try to activate unusual spaces in the theater.

Of course, people pay to come sit in a seat in a theater, so your audiences are likely to be more traditional dance audiences. In the street, you may get those audiences, but you’re also going to get people who have never seen dance. I feel like we are ambassadors of the form in a way that is very important to me and to the organization, to bring dance to people who have never seen it before. Many of them are expecting a stunt. They’re expecting trickery. And what they get is dance. We get this response all the time: “I just wasn’t expecting to be moved,” or “I wasn’t expecting actual crafted dances.” I really enjoy that aspect of it.

NEA: Since most of us won’t be in a position where we’ll ever be dancing on the side of a building, how would you describe the experience?

RUDOLPH: It is a paradoxical combination of wonderful freedom, release, a sense of soaring, and intense effort, occasional pain, extreme mental focus. There are moments when I don’t notice the feeling of the harness on my body, or how tired my abs are, and I’m just flying through the air, or doing intricate footwork near an architectural feature, and I’m completely absorbed in what I’m doing. And other times, I will notice how tired I am. It is an endurance test at times, and the piece we’re doing in DC is one. I’ve been really working the dancers as best I can here in the studio, literally doing calisthenics practically along the wall along with the choreography. In order to actually hold on to the magic and beauty of the choreography 48 minutes into a dance like this, you have to train really hard. So it’s a combination of this mental focus, physical stress on your body, and releasing all of that, forgetting all of that, not feeling any of that. You’re floating on the music and in the air and the light, and it’s like a dream. You can’t believe that it’s actually real. And then you land and you realize your abs are sore and you’re reminded that it’s real.

NEA: Are most of your dancers also climbers, or not necessarily?

RUDOLPH: Not necessarily. I would say half of them enjoy climbing, but the first generation [of company members] included a lot more avid climbers. When I want to do something really technical in the mountains, I’d probably draw on some of them. Which is not to say these dancers can’t dance on a cliff, but this group is more highly trained as dancers. What we’re doing now is so danceical, that it requires a high level of skill as a dancer. Believe it or not, almost anybody can learn how to rappel off a skyscraper. But not almost anyone can be the kind of dancer that I’m looking for, which is a very smooth, released, beautiful, original mover.

NEA: Part of your mission statement says that Project Bandaloop “honors nature, community, and the human spirit.” How do those three forces manifest themselves in your work?

RUDOLPH: When we’re dancing high in the mountains on sparkling granite and the wind’s blowing and the peregrine falcons are flying by and you’re hundreds of feet off the ground, and you’re dancing, there’s a sense for me as a performer where it’s mystical; it’s not about entertainment. I don’t really need or want to put it in words as to what it is, but it’s an honoring of that place. It’s an honoring of the relationships of the animals and the geography and the sky above. In those ways, I think it celebrates the power of those spaces. And I hope through the films [of the performances], for people who’ve never been to Yosemite, or seen the mountains, or been outside the city, it lets them know that places like that exist. It may tune them into their vulnerability, it may tune them into the reality that we as the human race are impacting the world quite heavily. I’d love to do a piece in the rainforest; I still haven’t. If I knew how to dance underwater, I’d do something about the garbage patch. There’s a way where art can do that.

So there’s a political, advocacy side to it, as well as a spiritual side. When we were performing in [Oakland], there were almost 4,000 people in the street at Broadway and Grand. The police had to cordon an extra block so that we could fit the crowd in, and there was live music and dance and lights and beauty and magic occurring. All those people were there for the sole purpose of experiencing magic and beauty and dance. The community sense that was going on in the street—you could feel it. I was there in the street with them; it was palpable. Celebrating that sense of community is celebrating the human spirit. And I hope that the DC event…because it’s at night, with live music and lights, will have, I hope a kind of almost magical realism. Like you can’t believe this is happening here, now. And I don’t know, it might not. You never know.