Five Questions for Robin Staff
After six years presenting their Fall Festival at Dance Theater Workshop, DanceNow will bring the Dancemopolitan Festival from October 19 through 22, 2011 at the soon-to-be renovated Joe’s Pub. Since 2003, DanceNow has been presenting showcase format programs at Joe’s that more recently evolved into their Featured Artist Series (with Nicole Wolcott and Vanessa Walters’ premiering Alley of the Dolls: This is not a sequel this week). The Dancemopolitan 2011 Festival will be presented in a similar, but slightly new format for the newly renovated Pub and the best tiny stage in New York City. I recently spoke with Executive Artistic Director and Producer Robin Staff about the shift.
Your move makes a lot of sense in so many ways. Your dance programming at Joe’s has offered up something very different from the typical dance presentations around the city. What prompted this? It set us apart. With everything that is changing we had to take a good, hard look at ourselves and had to see what do we do best. We took our own challenge and asked ourselves how to do more with less. During our process working with Kyle Abraham for Heartbreaks and Homies he labored over creating something special for that space and with very little money (a $3,000 stipend and DanceNow paying for the production costs). I realized that this was where we should be focusing
our energies and once I ran the numbers versus the cost of staying with what we were doing, I realized we can offer artists more to be at Joe’s. This year, for a 5-minute segment artists will get $300 this year and if an artist has more ideas they could do up to three works. I don’t mean to only talk about the shift in numbers terms. It was a perfect storm in many ways with DTW’s shift to New York Live Arts, we had to figure out if we fit within that new identity. It wasn’t easy to move on from DTW and the opportunity we gave many artists to dance on that stage (that they wouldn’t have otherwise). But, I learned about the renovations during Heartbreaks. They showed me the pictures and it’s going to be so elegant at Joe’s. No more standing room, which was a problem for dance when it gets above 150 with people standing at the bar. Now, it will be able to seat 180 people. The dressing rooms will be great and they’re going to work to give us more rehearsal space for the Featured Artists. We’ll have some access to the Public’s rehearsal spaces. We did it in green room for Fraulein and The Whiz, but now there will be renovations to the space and they’ll be able to work in a proper studio. And, Joe’s has been very generous with letting the featured artists get as much time as possible in the Pub. So, we planned to try and do The Festival in synch with their renovations. They’re going to roll us out with them as DanceNow Joe’s Pub. Our plan will be to go back to the September dates once the renovation has been rolled out.
Since the beginning, DanceNow (NYC) has thought outside the box and brought new audiences to dance in your own way. You’ve been very successful with your Doug Elkins’ Fraulein Maria, Kyle’s Hearbreak & Homies, David Parker’s Showdown and Nick Leichter’s The Whiz. You’ll have David & The Bang Group back for their newest show Misters & Sisters in June and this week you have Nicole Wolcott and Vanessa Walter’s Alley of the Dolls (This is Not a Sequel) on Thursday and Friday. They’re something like Dancemopolitan staples, aren’t they? Back in 2006, Nicole Wolcott and Nicole Berger did a show Thrash N’ Rock and we always wanted to bring it back and develop it. Nicole has been an artist that I’ve wanted to promote and help for a long time. She’s so talented and I’ve been watching her since she started making work while dancing with Larry Keigwin. And, David… Well, he is so suited to the stage to the cabaret format. Also, in thinking about the shift for the Festival, I wanted to be sure the Pub would embrace us. They pretty much let us do our thing. Back in the Thrash N’ Rock days we were doing Dancemopolitan almost every month and it got to be too much. Then we cut it down to about 3-4 a year.
So you’re strengthening your partnerships. You’ve got other partnerships in the works outside of NYC. This is so valuable for your artists. You’re able to offer more than just one-off shows now. What else do you have in going on? While we’re trying to up the partnership with Joe’s I’m also now curating the tiny dance program at Steelstacks
in Pennsylvania and it’s the same thing. It’s a music venue with some dance. That will be DanceNow SteelStacks. With a connection between Joe’s and Steelstacks, we’ll be able to take some things that premiere at Joe’s and take it out to PA and other times I’d like to try things out at Steelstacks and bring it here. Once Joe’s was on board for the switch for our Festival, the next thing was whether our funders would embrace this shift. Most of our money comes in for the Festival and later for the Dancemopolotan Series. NYSCA, Mertz, Jerome – they all said this was fantastic and would be great for our organization. We will continue accommodating an equal sized audience and eventually it could serve more, if it flies and we will be able to present more artists and give each artist more. We have all been begging for another Fraulein or something that could run, as a holiday series, for a couple weeks. In addition to fee, Featured Artists get a residency at Silo (at Kirkland Farm in Pennsylvania) for a couple weeks, and some are on the guest teaching roster at DeSales University and they might get a commission from DeSales to set work on the students. So, we’re shifting into increasing opportunities for artists in multiple venues. We’re thinking about developing new avenues for teaching and developing and maintaining long-term relationships with artists.
You’ve been able to foster new voices and to support some of these long-term relationships. How does this shift enable you to do that better? So, the festival as it was at DTW was always a testing ground for what we might want to put up or grow at Joe’s. It also simply let us see what everybody was up to. So the Aha! moment came when I realized that if we’re looking for work to bring TO Joe’s why didn’t we look at it AT Joe’s. For instance, I’m looking at an artist’s work that she’s done it out of the city in another cabaret space. I have the DVD, but I’d rather see it on the Pub stage. We’re also talking to Monica Bill Barnes about her SnowGlobe piece. She had all this stuff on the cutting board that she wanted to put up at Joe’s so she’ll probably be doing some of that during the festival in the fall she’ll show another segment. So the structure of the festival, because it’s Joe’s and we only get 55 minutes a show, is that we narrowed the time limit down to 5 minutes a work. We need to make sure we can get 10 artists in there and artists are always not working within the time limits. We believe in this editing process. Pieces get so wordy and sometimes work goes on and on and it kills the piece. Less is more is a challenge for someone; to make it say something in short time. We’re keeping the DanceNow Challenge again. We want it to be suitable to the space and the winner will get the $1,000 fee and a Silo residency and Gina Gibney will provide another 20 hours of rehearsal space. Like Ellis Wood, last year’s challenge winner, she’s been working on that for a couple years and she’s been developing it out here into a full-length work.
And, you’re making some changes to your RAW program, which provides newer artists with their first entry into DanceNow. Yes, we did do the Raw events and we’re shifting that to be more of a mentoring project. This is a response to a difficult situation when you’re seeing work that year after year isn’t ready for the stage and the artists continue to come back year after year. How could we help them? We brought several mentor artists, including Hilary Easton in to work with them to develop their work. It was great to sit with them and listen to them and ask them questions. Most of them asked how do I create a network and get more than a couple people they know and love to see their work. So we took a handful of artists from Raw and asked them to send proposals for Joe’s this year, so that we can continue funneling new faces and familiar ones and see work that we’re considering to develop.
There’s one more thing I wanted to say. My Aha! moment after Kyle’s show was pretty similar to the Aha! moment I had when joking around with Doug about doing a modern dance version of The Sound of Music. Sometimes, it’s the whim of an idea – this is crazy fun and maybe we could do this – that proves very fruitful.