Saturday, October 13, 2012

words and action

photo of Julia Rhoads' company Lucky Plush by Cheryl Mann

Over the last 10 days I have been to 8 different performances, films, and talks but one event stands out from all the rest. And it’s not Black Watch at Harman Hall or Voices of Strength at The Kennedy Center – although both of those were excellent – it’s something on a smaller scale that left a deeper impact. On October 2 choreographer/director Julia Rhoads spoke at Dance Exchange about a model she has created to generate stability and sustainably for small to medium sized arts organizations. It’s not only a brilliant and innovative structure, but the MacArthur Foundation has already recognized her concept with a quarter-million dollars. That’s not a typo: the MacArthur Foundation gave $250,000 in funding for multi-year support of Rhoads' proposal called, aptly enough, Creative Partners.

Rhoads conceived of this system for supporting for arts administration after considering how “90% of my job is administrative, 10% is artistic.” She wondered how she could change this paradigm (which is not unusual for successful, smaller-sized dance companies). Several keywords popped up: the structure needed to be collaborative, collective, sustainable, interdisciplinary. In many ways the structure of her newly designed organization reflects the values that drive her stage work. It's based on pooling resources of three smaller arts organizations to generate enough funding to pay one director of development and associate to find financial support for the three organizations. The organizations Rhoads chose to partner with are like-minded, but not dance-specific. She selected eighth blackbird, a new music ensemble, and Blair Thomas & Company, a puppet theater troupe.

By joining together with two other organizations and pooling resources to pay for their director of development and associate, Rhoads will diminish the paperwork that makes her more administrator than artist. Perhaps most inspiring about this model, her partners are not fellow choreographers, but a musical group and a puppet-theatre company. This interdisciplinary element points to a shift in the cultural landscape of the 21st century, and makes Rhoads’ organization one of the first to possess the flexibility and adaptability that will keep her artistically and administratively nourished. She spoke candidly at DX about the emphasis today on funders seeking artists who can double as educators and said this is not her. There are magnificent teachers who excel in the “arts-in-ed” paradigm and she is not interested. She wants to make great, evocative, powerful contemporary performance that merges dance and theater, and this is exactly what I saw last Friday at UMD’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
photo from the performance The Better Half by William Frederking 
"The Better Half" was phenomenal. Rhoads, in collaboration with Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, has made one of the most inspiring and clever works I have seen this year. Although it’s billed as “a reworking of the classic melodrama Gaslight (1944),” Rhoads’ “The Better Half” is a merger of dance and theater performed by a cast of top-notch performers: Rhoads, Fancisco Avina, Adrian Danzig, David Lakein, and Meghann Wilkinson. They are captivating masters of melding of emotion and motion/people and performer, which is a focal point of contemporary performance. “The Better Half” addresses questions that form the crux of the art form: what does it mean to perform? why is dance relevant to conversations about communication and interaction? How does theater fundamentally involve movement and bodies? 
“The Better Half” is a depiction of people and psychology that’s thought-provoking, poetic, and poignant. Choreographically Rhoads designs gesture and form in ways that are stunning. I saw her years ago when she presented her “Punk Yankees” in Chicago and continue to marvel at her ability to press against boundaries between artist and audience, as well as her proficiency with presenting a type of theater that’s both entertainment and social engagement. 
Listening to her development of Creative Partners I realized Rhoads is both artist and administrator. And where was the rest of DC’s dance community when she talked about her innovative ideas at DX? It was the same night the DC dance service organization planned their DanceTalk for local artists and audiences. For a community that is relatively small, DC seems to have trouble with communication and collaboration. 
Rhoads’ event at DX was deeply inspiring: her thinking is clever and clear, her ideas are smart and sustainable. She recognizes the ecosystem of dance, its structures and systems of support, what works and what does not. It was a conversation that reminded me of the power of honoring artists and their ideas, before considering the audience or a final product. Left to their own devices, artists like Rhoads are not only making great performances but also figuring out how to nurture their own ways of making for years to come. And she’s looking for a uniquely-equipped director of development: posting here.

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