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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.


A Fresh Look at The Rite of Spring

April 25, 2012

By Rebecca Gross

A Rite of Spring at One Hundred brochure, featuring an image of Béjart Ballet Lausanne performing Le Sacre du printemps. Image courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts

This morning, the NEA announced 928 new grants, totaling $77.17 million in funding. Congratulations to all our new grantees, and thank you to all who applied!

To celebrate the announcement, we’re taking an in-depth look at Carolina Performing Arts/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which received an Art Works grant to support their upcoming festival, The Rite of Spring at One Hundred. Designed to commemorate the centennial of the iconic ballet, the festival will explore The Rite through 12 new commissions by 20 collaborating artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, and pianist Yefim Bronfman. The NEA grant will specifically fund new work by puppeteer Basil Twist and a collaboration between choreographer Bill T. Jones and artistic director Anne Bogart. We spoke via e-mail with Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, about the legacy of this once-controversial work, the genius of Igor Stranvinsky’s score, and why art makes the world worth living in.

NEA: Can you talk about why you think The Rite of Spring has become such a seminal work?

KANG: The riotous 1913 premiere is legendary. The Rite of Spring upended everything the bourgeoisie thought they knew to be art. The savagery of the music and movement violated all the concepts of beauty, tone, and harmony.

Stravinsky’s use of incongruous and asymmetrical rhythms that lacked traditional musical resolution caused the listener to become uncomfortable. This dissonance with its emphasis on rhythm instead of harmony, combined with [Nicholas] Roerich’s outrageous costumes and [Vaslav] Nijinsky’s “anti-ballet,” was shocking in its time and remains a hallmark of artistic innovation. The New York Times ran a quote in the 1930s that said something to the effect of The Rite of Spring being to the 20th century what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was to the 19th century.

NEA: The Rite of Spring has been artistically explored by everyone from Disney to Charlie Parker. What do you think it is about the piece that lends itself to interpretation?

KANG: While Nijinsky’s 1913 choreography quickly fell from the public eye following the premiere, Stravinsky’s score was performed again and again. The genius of The Rite of Spring, with Stravinsky’s revolutionary use of phrasing and lack of resolution, forces the listener to pay just a bit more attention. It is also unsettling and disturbing. This characteristic keeps the music feeling new and lends itself to constant reinterpretation. Even if you’ve heard the work 100 times, the next time still sounds like the first!


NEA: How did you go about choosing the artists that have been commissioned for this project?

KANG: Planning for the project began during the 2007-08 season. We began with many artists with whom we’ve already had a relationship. We started with informal “backstage” conversations that led to a series of more formal conversations. We must have had hundreds of conversations with artists all around the world. From these, a few visionary ideas naturally emerged.

NEA: How do you hope The Rite of Spring at One Hundred will contribute to the work’s legacy?

KANG: Our goal isn’t necessarily to witness the creation of the 21st century’s version of The Rite of Spring. We are simply paying tribute to this masterpiece by supporting the creation of 12 new works that re-imagine The Rite and still can stand on their own as individual works. We see our role, much like Diaghilev did in his day perhaps, to bring artists together to create great art. In that context, we feel great responsibility in our work.

NEA: The Rite of Spring is frequently cited as a work of artistic innovation, a concept we spend a lot of time thinking about at the NEA. What is your definition of innovation, and why do you think it’s important to the arts?

KANG: To me, the idea of innovation is rooted in the celebration of failure. I believe great art, like many great human achievements, often emerges from failure.

NEA: How do you balance the need to preserve the artistic canon with the need or desire to create new works?

KANG: This may sound overly philosophical but I don’t believe we ever achieve balance. We are in constant search of it. Each engagement, commission, and presentation can be seen as a reaction to another. That is why the most distinctive performing arts programs have an artistic personality that extends beyond genre, theme, and culture. For this celebration we are both preserving the canon and supporting the creation of new work.

NEA: If you could ask Stravinsky one question, what would it be?

KANG: I would like to understand what he thought of and how he balanced the past and the present in his compositions. As humans, I believe we consistently struggle with remembering the past and being in the present, incorporating tradition in contemporary life.

NEA: How would you define the artist’s responsibility to the community?

KANG: Artists are part of a community. While in some sense I believe an artist’s responsibility is no different than anyone else’s, an artist’s work serves as an important chronicle of our time and place.

NEA: Conversely, what is the community’s responsibility to the artist?

KANG: Our responsibility is to protect, value, and defend forms of human “productivity,” such as art, that are not driven by the profit motive. This is what makes a world worth living in. This is our responsibility to the artist.

NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?

KANG: It means that art does indeed make a world worth living in.

Ten Years Later: A Puzzling Picture of Arts Education in America

Narric Rome

On April 2, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a study glamorously entitled Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools 1999-2000 and 2009-10.

The surveys that contributed to this report were conducted through the NCES Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), mailed to about 3,400 elementary and secondary school principals and approximately 5,000 music and visual arts teachers.

National arts education leaders, through policy statements, have been calling for this study to be administered for many years, and helped to direct specific funding from Congress to make it possible.

Ten years is a long time to wait for a federal study to be published and finally it has arrived!

This report presents information on the availability and characteristics of arts education programs of those surveyed, broken down by discipline (music, visual arts, dance, and theatre).

  • It indicates that while music and visual art are widely available in some form, six percent of the nation’s public elementary schools offer no specific instruction in music, and 17 percent offer no specific instruction in the visual arts.
  • Nine percent of public secondary schools reported that they did not offer music, and 11 percent did not offer the visual arts.
  • Only three percent offer any specific dance instruction and only four percent offer any specific theatre instruction in elementary schools. In secondary schools the numbers improve somewhat as 12 percent offer dance and 45 percent offer theatre. Sadly, the study was unable to survey dance and theatre specialists because the data sample didn’t have sufficient contact information in those disciplines.

Despite being designated a “core academic subject” in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and being included in mandated elementary school curriculum in 44 states, this survey demonstrates that access to arts education remains elusive to a tremendous number of students across the nation.

This may not be surprising to many following the state of our education system as recent surveys from Common Core and the National Arts Education Foundation have provided fresh evidence of the arts being a victim of the narrowing of the curriculum.

Furthermore, this report mostly found schools with the highest percentage of free or reduced-price lunch-eligible populations significantly less likely to provide students with access to arts education at both the elementary and secondary levels.

This means that the nation’s poorest students, the ones who could benefit the most from arts education, are receiving it the least.

While the FRSS report does provide valuable information about how the arts are being offered in our public schools at the aggregate level—broken down by region, demographic community types, school enrollment size, and population of minority and reduced or free lunch students—the study is unable to provide this on a state by state basis.

Data collection at the state level is essential to ensuring equitable access to arts instruction for all students. Existing state studies indicate an uneven landscape in providing access to arts education.

A current list of state studies is available on our website and the Arts Education Partnership’s state policy database contains further information on state education policies and practices.

In addition to revealing critical equity gaps in access to arts education, this study tells us little about the quality of arts education such as teacher preparation and availability of instruction to students; the availability of appropriate facilities and equipment for instruction; and the use of standards-based curriculum. Further measures of quality are needed to get a better picture of the status of arts education.

Ultimately, national studies on arts education are rare and more are desperately needed. Virtually every major educational reform effort is built using federal and state data, so data in arts education must be collected with a rigor and sense of purpose equal to that of all other core academic subjects.

While some of the data about access to arts education was encouraging from the FRSS report, daily news reports from across the country continue to show local communities struggling to keep teachers and programs in place.

So what can advocates do to improve arts education?

Americans for the Arts recently published an Arts Education Field Guide that offers an introduction to the various constituencies impacting arts education, from school house to the White House.

The Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network offers a community audit toolkit to help local leaders assess the status of arts education in their communities. For more ideas, check out our list of The Top 10 Ways to Support Arts Education.

As education reform efforts continue at the state and federal levels, advocates can use the resources above to make the case for strengthening arts education locally.

Additional analysis of the FRSS report Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-10 will be forthcoming in the next several weeks.

In the interim, please email us any FRSS or arts education related questions.

Thank you to the research assistance provided by Arts Education Coordinator Kristen Engebretsen and Government Affairs Fellow Kelly Fabian.

It Only Takes One: How an Emerging Arts Leader Can Impact a Community

Angela Harris

When I received the call from Americans for the Arts saying that I had been selected to receive the 2011 American Express Emerging Leaders Award, I had so many emotions.

I was thrilled that the panel appreciated the impact that I was making in the community. I was proud that all of the hard work and countless hours that I had invested into starting a nonprofit and growing from the ground up were being recognized; and I was nervous about the future and committed to making sure that I lived up to the honor of the award.

2012 has been a wonderful season of accomplishments for both me and my organization, Dance Canvas. Since June, when I received the award, I have cultivated a new choreographic partnership with Kennesaw State University, which will be developed into a new track and choreographic options for the students of the dance department.

I also began a new partnership with Career Transition for Dancers, and worked in conjunction with the Los Angeles-based organization to provide career training to dancers and choreographers in Atlanta.

Artistically, Dance Canvas partnered with the Rialto Center for the Arts to provide creative connections to involve the community in educational outreach and residencies. These community connections allowed Dance Canvas to work with The Trey McIntyre Project, and with the French Consulate of Atlanta to present a master class by Pierre Rigal’s production, Asphalte.

For the past two years, Dance Canvas has presented a youth after-school dance experience, in partnership with the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and their Culture Club initiative.

Through my association with the marketing department of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Ailey Company selected Dance Canvas’ youth program to receive an “Ailey Experience.”

On February 15, new Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle and Ailey dancer Matthew Rushing visited our Culture Club students, ages 5–11 years, and taught Alvin Ailey’s celebrated work, Revelations. The experience was a “once in a lifetime” moment for these students and a huge milestone for Dance Canvas.

With the assistance of the 2011 American Express Emerging Leaders Award, I have a received an incredible validation from two well respected organizations, Americans for the Arts and American Express.

I know that as I look toward the future and to the new endeavors that I want to create, the award will provide credibility in an industry and an environment where emerging leaders are often dismissed. Larger institutions are now taking notice of our accomplishments and have taken an interest in the much needed resources that Dance Canvas provides.

I am looking forward to our 2013 Season…the five-year anniversary of Dance Canvas and I am thankful that the first four years were capped by the honor of being recognized by my peers!

Results of JA-SO's Japan Night Benefit!

Japanese Association of Southern OregonJapan Night, March 11, 2012 - Entrance to EventOn Japan Night, almost 200 guests showed up to enjoy Japanese cuisine/culture and support our cause.  With generous support from local community, $16,072.00 was raised from ticket sales, silent auction and other donations.  All money will be sent to the two places below to help reduce radiation exposure for children in Fukushima.

       Orphanage  “Aiikuen” in Fukushima to support their weekend trip for the children to have fun and a safe time outside of Fukushima prefecture without worrying about radiation.  (
        Preschool “Takenoko” to help their transportation fee for the children to travel one hour every day just to play outside safely.  (

Japan Night was a big success!  We are sincerely grateful for your support.
Japan Night, March 11, 2012 - Japanese Cuisine

Japan Night, March 11, 2012 - Cuisine



Japan Night, March 11, 2012 - Japanese Dancers

Japan Night, March 11, 2012 - Dancers

Japan Night, March 11, 2012 - Japanese Music

Japan Night, March 11, 2012 - Music

Art Talk with Leyya Tawil of Dance Elixir

March 7, 2012

by Paulette Beete

Close up of dancer Leyya Tawil dancing

Leyya Tawil’s Dance Elixir. Photo by Liz Payne

“[Artists are] contributing to everyone by trying to push a healthier, more hopeful humanity forward. I feel like that’s our responsibility.” — Leyya Tawil

Although Detroit native Leyya Tawil has always danced, she was actually on track to be an engineer until an ankle injury instigated her decision to pursue dance as a profession. In 2003, she founded Dance Elixir, a San Francisco-based company of dancers and musicians that focuses on collaboration and improvisation. The troupe has performed nationally and internationally including stints at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, Montreal’s Studio 303, and the Syrian National Opera House in Damascus. When I  spoke with Tawil via Skype, she was about to head off to Amsterdam to collaborate with a musician on a work that will tour to New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, and Oakland later this month. Tawil shared with us about her version of the artist’s life, the impact of travel on her art practice, and her view of artists as warriors.

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

LEYYA TAWIL: I think of my artist life as a belief system that pervades everything I do and all my decisions. How that plays out tangibly is that I connect the dots. My practice in the world is to connect ideas with actions and people with other people and places with ideas. So it becomes a big web of associations. So that’s how I feel my artist life plays out in a way; [I’m a] connectitian, which is how most of my work happens—by connecting dots.

NEA: What do you remember as your first experience with the arts?

TAWIL: It’s always been dance. I always made dances alone, in my basement, before I even had a dance class. But one of my earliest events was producing a show on my block—I think I was seven years old—and I had my friends from the street as the dancers. And it was Madonna’s “Dress You Up” video that I re-choreographed and presented to all of the parents on the street. It was one afternoon in the summertime. So that was my first show. My dance story has always been my own fascination with moving.

NEA: When did you know that dance was what you were going to do professionally?

TAWIL: Not until I was 19. I was already at the University of Michigan in the engineering school. I’ve always danced, always made dance, always loved dance, always wanted to dance. But it wasn’t until I was 19 and I actually had twisted my ankle and I wasn’t able to dance [at all] that I really had a turning point. I just knew in those few weeks that I couldn’t dance because of my injury that [dance] was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

NEA: What decision has most impacted your art career?

TAWIL: I think to date the biggest decision was my decision to travel, to not just build in my immediate community, but to prioritize travel and to see the world and to live in other societies. And to feel the life in different places—the speed, the flow, the aesthetics—to really talk to different people and do different things. It really changed how I think about art, how I think about what I do, and the relevance of art. And it changed how I actually make work. It just broadened the whole scope [of my work]. It allowed me to zoom out and detach from the constructs that I was raised in—like concert dance and technique. It just made everything more relevant and broadened the scope of what I would consider dance or art-making.

NEA: You said that one of the things that traveling did was change your definition of art. Can you say a little bit more about that?

TAWIL: Seeing how people live in different societies, in different places, informed how I think art relates to … this society in America versus how art relates to society in multiple other countries. It dissolved the borders of what I consider [art] …. A tangible example of that is the act of improvisation—what needs to happen today [if] I’m in this new place, I don’t know how to get around, I don’t know how to do anything here. Everything’s ne —the language is new, the people are new, the food is new. [I] approach the day as an improvisation into living, and then [look at] the value of that as being art in and of itself. So art isn’t something outside of life. This sounds so very cliché, but it’s like little moments of expression throughout the day is actually the art versus a delivered packaged thing.

NEA: Can you say more about free improvisation and how that’s part of your art practice?

TAWIL: Free improvisation as a genre is mostly attributed to a musical practice that comes out of free jazz. But for me in dance, free improvisation becomes a container for live research into ideas, and live research into the body as the story, the body as the content. So it’s a live practice, and it’s a research practice. And it reflects and projects.

I feel like in the act of improvisation in performance, when witnessed by anyone, a dialogue is created between what do you recognize in what is happening and what are the representations playing out here in the moving body, but also what are the projections? So the body becomes a container of ideas, intent, future thinking, history, and culture, and it depends on the audience member or the witness to “read” and the performer to “read” the situation and discuss. So it becomes this play.

I usually perform improvisations with one other person—it’s usually a musician—so it’s a dance conversation along with a sound or music conversation along with the audience so it triangulates into performer to performer, performer to audience, and then all of that is read under the context of the venue, the context of society. It becomes a statement of the day, of the moment, but also everything that you know because what you know is what you’re dealing with. Everything that you know is what is playing out in that improvisation that day.

If I’m improvising in Detroit I have a different understanding of the vibe of the environment than if I’m improvising in Amsterdam or Cairo. Just by acknowledging location there’s already a dialogue with the audience. The location—more than the audience themselves—is the dialogue. And that has to do with rhythms or realities of how you understand the body. A gesture in the States will mean something very different outside of the States so that becomes a dialogue. That’s how the audience influences me in the act of improvisation. It’s a learning process. I learn about a place by improvising in that place, and it’s a really important practice for me in my work.

NEA: Let’s talk about your company Dance Elixir. How did it come to be? What was the need?

TAWIL: Dance Elixir for me was a natural progression. I was an independent artist making work, and my work has always been collaborative—not so much with other dance artists, but mostly multi-disciplinary. I’ve always worked with original music composers or designers, etc.  …. [A]t some point my collaborators became a more solid group, a more regular group, so we could start to build something a little bit deeper working with the same people over and over again.

As the work started to deepen because there were less moving parts, it felt like the natural progression would be to formalize it and centralize it under a company structure. The need for me was to create an organization, a dance company, [for which] part of its mission is collaboration, is working in a multidisciplinary way, but also with not a really rigid product…. We’re not just doing big, high production value shows that tour; some of it’s solo work, some of it’s improvised, some of it’s arts research, some of it’s film, some of it’s concert dance. [I want] the actual formal container of Dance Elixir in order to facilitate a lot of different ideas about dance…. So I think the need is because I have a certain ever-changing idea about what should happen next. So the formalization helps ground it.

NEA: We’re celebrating Women’s History month in March. What does it mean to you to be a woman artist?

TAWIL: I have such mixed feelings about that as a title—woman artist versus artist. And I think that my mixed feeling is not really good versus bad, but it’s complicated. I was [asking myself] why does that feel complicated, and I started making a list of things the word “woman” signifies in terms of artist. The first word that came to mind is power…. I know that by creating work I’m sending ideas and ripples out into society, and I have just a lot of pride in [the fact that it’s] a woman’s voice. It’s my voice and I’m a woman. But I also think there is something about being a woman artist, which I want to bring to the conversation, which is glamor. I mean that in the best sense. The idea of artist as subservient to society is not my flow, so to bring back this idea of the artist as the warrior in society and for that to be the female warrior artist archetype is something that gives me a lot of strength at times to think about. To think about the role of the artist and that I’m a woman doing this practice of change in the world.

NEA: How does being of Palestinian and Syrian heritage inform your art practice? How about being a native of Detroit?

TAWIL: My Palestinian and Syrian heritage has just added a lot of complexity to my outlook. I realized growing up as a first-and-a-half generation American that no two people are the same, no two outlooks are ever the same…. No two truths are ever the same, and what is true is often relative. So what’s true here is not true there, what’s true to you today might not be true tomorrow. So I feel like that has contributed to my approach to art-making. I don’t have a value system that says, “Well, this is true and this is not true.” And in even in making work, my creative process, I’ll go in with an idea, but I’ll think, well, whatever happens in the studio, that could be true. So the idea of ownership or staticness dissolves.

As far as my Detroit roots and Michigan roots I should say [the biggest influence] is work ethic, I mean straight up work ethic. There’s no harder working community that I’ve participated in. And also having my heart in Detroit and knowing how that society has risen and fallen, risen and fallen—it really is a future thinking scenario. The people of Detroit have to ask the question—when everything fails, what happens next? So I feel like both work ethic and future thinking are what comes out of Detroit and it is inspiring. It’s a push for me. There’re some high standards there for work and creative thinking so I have to hold it up!

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?

TAWIL: I think, quite honestly, the artists are the warriors of hope, of seeing the next phase of humanity and building toward that, choreographing those ideas of future society, as we wish it to be. And so what I’m trying to do is contribute to how I hope it goes, where I hope we’re heading. And in that way it’s a practice where we contribute to our immediate network, our family, our family of artists, our city, our state, our country, and the world at large. And we’re contributing to everyone by trying to push a healthier, more hopeful humanity forward. I feel like that’s our responsibility.

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

I think the responsibility is to heed the arts that are going on, to really look to them and listen and to give them voice, to give them support and voice so that the ideas can actually manifest and the art can manifest so that we have ways of thinking about what happens next in the world. I think [the] community needs to hold up the artist and listen, just listen. And it’s not to elevate the artist above the non-artist because I don’t believe there are non-artists. It’s just to say there are people trying to do the work to create a healthier way of living and a more beautiful and more joyous way of living and the artists that do that I feel can be supported, should be supported by their community because it’s joy and joy should be part of the conversation about where we’re going in the world and it’s not. There’s no conversation about joy, and I feel that that’s something art can do, and the community can listen and believe, or challenge and talk.

NEA: What does Art Works means to you?

TAWIL: Art is working, working really really hard. And art is a functional practice. It’s not salt at the end of the meal; it is the meal. And so it’s working in a functional way. And it works to change people, and it works to change systems. Art works as a catalyst. “Art works” is really nice because it becomes a verb. I like to think of it as a verb, being a dancer…

NEA: Anything you want to add?

TAWIL: I would just add that the importance of collaboration in this dialogue is important, because collaboration outside yourself is, I think, how we’re going to build the next world. And it becomes less about the personality of one and more about the system of many. Collaboration is the base of what I do. It’s the heart of what I do.

Art Works Podcast: Robert Battle

February 2, 2012

By Josephine Reed

Behind the scenes of Robert Battle’s Takademe. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Meet Robert Battle. He just completed his first season as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and is only the third artistic leader since Alvin Ailey began the company in 1958. The great dancer Judith Jamison picked up the mantle in 1989 and led the company for two decades, eventually choosing Battle as her successor. Battle was a dancer, choreographer, and founder of his own company, Battleworks. He grew up in a scrappy neighborhood in Miami, a bow-legged kid who had to wear braces to straighten out his legs. But he was raised in a house that loved the arts: he took piano lessons, sang at church…and took martial arts to defend himself from other kids. He began taking dance classes in high school, where, as he put it, the musicality, flexibility, and discipline all came together. Battle’s path was set, and seeing the Alvin Ailey company perform proved to be another game-changer. In this excerpt from the podcast, he remembers that experience. [1:54]


How NEA Funding Affects Local Communities

This year marks the 25th anniversary of National Arts Advocacy Day (AAD), the largest and most wide-ranging, one-day advocacy effort in support of the arts.

Advocates come from across the country come to Washington, DC, to meet with their members of Congress and staff members as part of the event. While the topics range from charitable giving incentives to cultural exchange, the keystone issue for many advocates remains support for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Here is what last year’s National Arts Advocacy Day Co-Chair Kerry Washington had to say about the importance of NEA funding (and other issues):

If that wasn’t enough, check out some of the stats that demonstrate the scope of the NEA’s impact:

  • Nearly 2,000 NEA awards have been made in communities in all 50 states.
  • 100 percent of Congressional districts will receive at least one grant, and 3,000 or more communities will participate in NEA-sponsored projects. These communities will benefit from these projects in ways such as touring and outreach.
  • Nearly 90 million individuals benefit from NEA programs, including 9 million children and young adults.
  • The NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities.

Still not convinced that the NEA needs your support?

Here are some examples of past grants, in each discipline, of the NEA’s scope and reach:

Alabama Dance Council, located in
Birmingham, AL, was awarded $10,000 to support the presentation of the 2011 Alabama Dance Festival, which featured performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, showcases of Alabama dance companies, pre-professional and professional master classes, professional development workshops, summer intensive auditions, and dance education workshops.

Mixed Blood Theatre Company located in
Minneapolis, MN, was awarded $50,000 to support the production of new plays and the commission of world premiere works designed to advance and engage artists and audiences with disabilities.

Western Folklife Center
located in Elko, NV, was awarded $50,000 to support the production of the semi-permanent exhibition Ranchlines: Verses and Visions of the Rural West, which emphasized creativity, ingenuity, and a poetic approach to life and work in the rural ranching West.

Tacoma Opera Association located in Tacoma, WA was awarded $12,500 to support a double-bill performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.

Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, located in Oklahoma City, OK, was awarded $15,000 to support Concept/OK, an exhibition and artist residency program in the new Visual Arts Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Savannah Music Festival, located in Savannah, GA, was awarded $50,000 to support the annual festival presenting artists of different genres including world music, music and dance traditions of Latin America, traditional songs from coastal Georgia, and chamber music masterworks from Europe.

Alaska Design Forum, located in Anchorage, AK, was awarded $50,000 to support Elemental, a research project in collaboration with Renewable Energy Alaska Project that seeks solutions for providing sustainable, affordable housing in rural Alaska through public roundtable discussions, design charrettes, and an exhibit, toolkit, and master plan for a rural village.

Women Make Movies, located in New York, NY, was awarded $60,000 to support the Women Make Movies Distribution Service, which included more than 500 titles includes documentary, narrative, experimental, animated, and mixed-genre work created by artists worldwide.

University of Hawaii at Manoa (on behalf of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing),
located in Honolulu, HI, was awarded $10,000 to support the publication, distribution, and design of the international literary journal Manoa, which makes contemporary works of Asia and the Pacific available to English-speaking readers through new translations.

NEA grants help make possible 30,000–35,000 concerts, readings, and performances; 4,000–5,000 visual, media, and performing arts exhibitions; and 7,000–8,000 artist residencies in schools and communities.

Arts Advocacy Day is fast approaching and it is important that members of Congress hear your voice in support of the NEA so that the agency can continue to impact YOUR nation, YOUR state, YOUR community, and YOUR art.

Find out more about National Arts Advocacy Day and the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy by visiting