Interview with Carla Peterson

My first meeting as a member of Dance Theater Workshop’s Board was the inaugural one in the new building.  It was 2002 and I’d considered myself part of an unofficial DTW schooling, moving through a series of programs following a Fresh Tracks in 1995.  As an Artistic Advisor for DTW’s multiyear Mekong Project, I was able to see firsthand how far reaching this organization’s impact has been.  Watching artists from various SE Asian countries engage in artistic and political discourse that transcended national boundaries during residencies both in the region and around the US affirmed my belief that DTW was about so much more than 219 W. 19th St.

However, my entire tenure as a board member has been in observance of an organization struggling with the immensity of a gloriously hopeful, naïve, and ambitious undertaking. Last month, members of the board and supporters of the organization gathered for DTW’s last fundraising gala. This year, DTW will reincarnate its staunch spirit of support for independent artists under the name New York Live Arts as part of its merger with Bill T. Jones.  Fittingly, the final gala was a celebration of DTW’s long running Fresh Tracks program, where Bill T. showed some of his earliest work.  It felt like a homecoming for an artist deserving of a home and more concrete legacy and a promise that DTW’s mission to serve artists and the field will remain strong.

At the forefront of that mission stands DTW’s Artistic Director, Carla Peterson. I spoke with her in December.

What do you think this change means for the field of contemporary dance and performance?  How does this reflect the current moment?

What DTW has been grappling with is symptomatic of what’s happening in the field and economically everywhere. So, to have two boards to come together to talk about what a partnership might be, while partnering has been part of the DTW ethos for a while, especially after the new building opened, made perfect sense.  I don’t think it was unusual that this conversation ensued, but this was related to the institutional survival and then it morphed into a more solid reality.  Bill T. has a long, early history with DTW, a few years ago we had honored him during our Gala, and he was looking for a home. There was a big push in the landscape with funders wanting arts organizations to rethink and re-imagine who they are. If one thinks back historically about how many of these organizations proliferated over time and recognized how many were artist driven, they’d see that that was spurred on by a particular moment in social and economic history just as this is being spurred by a particular moment in social and economic history.  The Ford Foundation decided in the 1950s that they would offer philanthropic giving to cultural organizations and then the National Endowment for the Arts was formed in 1965.  Of course, there was the New Deal before this, but in the early 60s there was a shift in the country that provided federally supported cultural makers with resources available that allowed artists to create artist-centered organizations like DTW.  It was a little bit of ziegeist with a lot of artist-led art centers proliferating nationally. A lot of the smaller and scrappier National Performance Network organizations started at that time, and then Reagan came in and recessions and the culture wars, etc. and while we maintained an upper trajectory, I think it is interesting that these organizations grew but without a sense of really what had to be done to survive. The building went up with a lot of optimism and wound up in a terrible economic frame. We get to this current moment because of all of what has come before.

It’s been put to me that around the country that those close to DTW tend to be more pessimistic about this change and those with a lower affinity are more optimistic.   I know, personally, over the past year’s worth of discussions I’ve been excited and terrified, inspired and morose, both advocate and skeptic at any given moment.  I owe so much to DTW, but I feel I can be loyally detached from specific outcomes.  What’s your sense from deeper inside?

Everyone is thinking about what the loss is in relation to what the gain is.  We want to emphasize how much there is to gain, at the same time you have an artistic community who have relied on, and owe much to, DTW at various junctures in their development.  And while not as an artist, but I too, in my earlier relationships with DTW as an NPN site in Ohio, felt the same way.  As a cultural activist, I cut my teeth due to those relationships. I learned what it means to speak for the arts through my associations with DTW. So, as we morph into this new entity there is going to be a real commitment to the things that DTW has represented before.  Look at Fresh Tracks, it has been called many things along the way, and has more recently morphed into something new with the residencies.   Each incarnation is a framework that was responsive to the need of those times. Dance is so under resourced and often misunderstood.  My heart is invested in putting resources into the hands of emerging artists, but I also want to work in tandem with other people to bring dance to a more populist artist. I think that’s what this new organization will work towards without sacrificing a commitment to continuing the dialogue around new investigations. I hope that this new organization can stay connected to those more radical ways of making work that may not fit within more conventional notions of what dance is. That’s one of the ways in which artists stay in front. I would hope that NYLA will remain committed to that. I will maintain my own advocacy for that. I’m excited about opening to more hybrid work. I think this is connected to the way artists think and that doesn’t seem very different from the way I worked as DTW’s AD, like with the Norweigan company Verdensteatret whose work is not easy to categorize.  Where there is choreography but you won’t see a Limon heritage there, for example. They work with puppets, poetic narratives.  There’s already was an opening up to showing work that dance makers or artists who work within the body as their main practice are going to be interested in anyway.  It’s great to get people who go to galleries, performance art, and read performance literature in here more often, and even if we weren’t merging, I would want to continue in that direction.

I see the renovation of the upstairs studios into a flexible performance space as an opportunity to expand access to a wider array of body-based artistic practices.  It takes the impact of the organization beyond who shows up in the downstairs theater.  What else do you see this merger providing support for?

I think that one of the things that will be stronger will be our ability to put more substantial resource towards those artists who have been working for a while and who have developed a voice and have a language and the facility to develop full, strong work but don’t have resources. We have a few of those choreographers who may have gotten in as trust fund babies or got in on the loft scene early; but so many of our field’s choreographers in their 40s/50s, who chose to work independently and work towards intimacy, don’t have a national cultural policy that allows them support over time. What will be interesting in this amalgamation is that we’ll have someone like Bill T., who brings in a specific historical line up of choices, made over time, that include deliberate reaches to a wider audiences and honoring and engaging that and – this could be an exciting tension between us – other artists who have been working for decades without that scope.  He’s a major, recognized, choreographer who deserves a home, so we can value that and support, but not romanticize the struggle for those artists who aren’t reaching a national profile. If you want to go boring NYC versus Europe discourse it’s been said many times that there are real communities of artists in NY who know each other, hang out and see each other’s work.  Dance is a social endeavor and you need to rely on each other here in this city.  There you have artists who are supported and ensconced in beautiful facilities and they don’t’ have reasons to enter into a dialogue with each other, because they don’t depend on one another. They have a singular artistic path, and don’t necessarily share spaces or dancers or evenings.  Why do people go to Judson on Monday night? That’s your rich cultural life, though there’s no money in the bank.  There are those who intentionally make work that requires smaller venues and intimate audiences and then there are those who have mobilized their personalities and networks and built bigger support and their own centers, while others have hit their 40s/50s and aren’t doing as well. This is a chance for us to do something for experienced voices that aren’t often seen or heard as widely. However, I feel very strongly that while we will put more resources to mid-career artists, we cannot abandon supporting younger artists as they develop overtime.  I do not want to move us away from remembering the younger artists that we need to stay in contact with over time and provide with different opportunities.  We need to build relationships and don’t want to wait for artists to make a name somewhere else and then say their ready. I want us to be part of that conversation that allows artists to learn from all of their investments.  The conversation of the upstairs studio will allow us to bring in artists who aren’t too defined by formalism and codes to work in the theater space. It’s a space that allows audiences and artists the chance to continue interrogating their relationships, with a potential acknowledgement of the history of theater.  It will not be highly technical; it will have some production capability, but the advantage of it is this open large space where artists can work up there in ways beyond our current Studio Series.

I see that as an example of DTW doing what it’s always done: respond to the needs of the field in real-time.  NYLA could be a better DTW, it has that potential, to serve artists at every stage of their career and as our field matures, it’s nice to see an organization mature with it.  You’re also keeping the discourse around “What is dance?” in an expansive place.  The NY Times merger article sites the presentation of next year’s season as revealing the organizations’ new identity. I get that, in a sense, but you, clearly, will be so much more than a single roster of artists on your stage.  Plus, are you ready to move that fast?

I was sorry to see it said that the next season will define us. We’re not going to be an elephant turning into an aardvark. DTW has always morphed. DTW changed when the building landed. It has changed identity with changes of artistic leadership – from the founders to David White to Cathy Edwards and Craig Peterson to Cathy, and, most recently, me.  But in the last year, the board has done what was necessary to ensure the financial viability of the organization.  Our next season isn’t going to be a radical thing.  That’s just not how curating works and not what supporting artists looks like. It takes time to stay with an artist and support their development over time. I bring veteran experience and can work together with Bill T. while honoring who he is and knowing the history of the field to do that. Bill is going to be in a learning mode as much about DTW now and as I am going to be catching up to him.  He’s a choreographer; he’s not supposed to be running around looking at work 7 days a week, which is often what I do. Ultimately, he and I will need to develop a confidence together, feeling assured with each other, which is a process. This will happen over time in the next couple years. There will probably be larger projects with more production support behind them.. I’ve been interested for 3 years with someone, I can’t say their name, but we’ve been flirting with the idea of having them here, but that’s a project 2-3 years in the making.  I couldn’t go full steam ahead developing long-term relationships until we could solidify the merger. Next year isn’t going to suddenly answer you. Having it take time makes it organic; makes it grow from inside the organization with integrity and, besides, artists don’t make work that way.  We may have larger projects that serve as gateways to more experimental work.

It was fun to see Ellis Wood, David Parker, David Neumann & Doug Elkins showing work at Monday’s Fresh Tracks gala. It felt a lot like the DTW I came to in the 90s. I was glad to see Bill T. there.  How present is he in this process? How are you all defining this organization in the immediate day to day?

At some point in January, they will all be here. At our meeting, there will be some things relayed to staff that addresses what this might look like. Parallel to artists’ creative process, this is a creative entity that will form itself over time.  There are parameters we have set about things we want to do and that will develop as we sit here next to one another. There will be an artist advisory board that Bill T. and I will gather.  He and I have to get together to identify the terms and places from which we’ll call these people and growing that advisory board into one that also welcomes non-dance artists.  We want to populate it with people who come from different kinds of forms to generate new ideas about what we can be doing. Bill T. really wants to develop a Humanities Series and is taken with things that the 92nd St. Y has been doing for years.  We want to animate the building with great discussions.  We’d love have rotating visual and audio artists, maybe a guest curator to do things in the lobby. We’ve got this great glass lobby to pull people in. And, why not mobilize the elevator as an experimental space for a sound artist. I’ve thought of this ever since I first went to PS1 where the lobby entrance into the gallery spaces holds this tiny TV monitor on the floor.  At first you don’t notice it and then suddenly your relationship as a vertical body towards this thing in the ground opens up a different relationship to a TV.  It brings up a different thought processes.  There are so many body related opportunities that may not look like dance, but are from body-based modalities or practices. I love Tony Orrico’s work down in our lobby right now because it’s a body-based practice and I like getting him while he’s young and not just bringing him in after he’s done his thing somewhere else.  I want artists to establish and strengthen their names here, to come home here at any point in their journey.  That’s what this organization should be.

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