Nobody’s Dance Mom
The experience of viewing a dance performance can sometimes feel as regulated or conventional as a TSA security check or your biannual teeth cleaning. There are expectations between someone who is doing the work and someone who is watching it. You sit in a chair. You are quiet. There is applause (hopefully). You go home or grab a drink or cry or laugh or rejoice that it is done and you can re-enter the outside world. At times, the riskiness of departure is too much to bear: what if the audience were to stand? Maybe no one bows? Perhaps you are permitted to drink or wander through the space or, if you’re lucky, interact with the performers?
But, does naming this steering toward unconventionality do anything for our experience? Think of how we now roll our eyes at the mention of a performance that is “immersive” or “interactive” or “not set in a proscenium space.” Even those accepted departures from convention now feel stale and unsurprising.
Kyli Kleven has one approach: lec/dem, a performance series in its second year at Roulette. It allows another stale and unsurprising format — the lecture demonstration — to be a generative precipice from which artists plunge into a performance space lacking any priorities on what is deemed ready for “show.” It is a curious and wide-ranging premise and one that piqued my interest around this time last year. So, one year later, Kyli and I met to discuss what has changed, what has stayed the same, and her radically generous approach to curating.
Tara Sheena: In curating lec/dem for the second time, I am interested both in this iteration of it but also using last year — as the initial version of what this [performance series] looks like for you — as a comparative place. Was anything lingering from before that informed your thinking this time around?
Kyli Kleven: I think last year I was very careful and a bit nervous. I felt a lot of pressure to clarify why I was doing what I was doing and why I was picking who I was picking. I felt it was so important to choose people whose work somehow straddles theory and practice in explicit ways. This year I kind of loosened the reins a little bit.
TS: It seemed like last year you wanted to stick really closely to the lecture-demonstration format.
KK: At a certain point, I just got really sick of thinking of curating in an evaluative way. I don’t think that lec/dem is about evaluating people’s work in that sense. I don’t think that’s what curation actually is; selection isn’t about deselecting everybody else. For some reason, it doesn’t always feel that way in our community. I am not the …
TS: Arbiter of taste?
KK: Yes, that’s not the point of artistic labor. I saw DANCENOISE [at the Whitney Museum this summer] and they are a great example of artists who just make their work. They make their fucking work. They don’t care about trend or legitimization. There’s craftsmanship there but that’s not what’s at play. There’s skill there but they are not trying to hone in on skill. There’s just a lot of heart. I feel like that’s what political work is: it’s expanding and unifying and beautiful and wild and doesn’t aim to master the audience. I think that is a huge through-line for the artists I chose this year.
TS: Did you make a more concerted effort to approach artists with your own ideas of if their work fits more into a “lec” or “dem”?
KK: I say “I imagine this,” but, ultimately, I want them to do whatever they want. It’s not for me. Part of the whole premise is that nothing is truly a “lec” or a “dem.”
TS: You make that very clear and I think you articulate that in a very accessible way. You say [on Roulette’s site] that “there is no binding conceptual content connecting spoken or danced work, and no causal or dependent relationship between the two.”
KK: Right, that’s what it’s doing.
TS: The other part of that is that there is a lot of explanation about each work [on the website]: who’s who, if they are a “lec” or “dem,” a description of their work, their bio. It seems very informational and, with that, very in line with a conventional, academic way we see lecture-demonstrations.
KK: Yes, this is the paper that is going to be given. I feel like last year I had to stand up for things not being called lectures or demonstrations. This year, I feel like it’s clearer these aren’t climactic moments and they’re not definitive statements. It’s so important to give people a chance to make work in whatever sense they do and feel like they can play with content, but not make work about content.
TS: What is your involvement in the work before it gets to Roulette?
KK: Very little. I don’t involve myself in people’s processes.
TS: You’re not interested [in that]?
KK: I am interested in people’s processes and I want to support them, but I am not in charge of people or their work in that way. I am a curator; I am a caretaker. I am nobody’s dance mom. I am not telling them what to do or think.
TS: I do also want to talk about labor and work. I know labor is something you reference a lot, in general, and is a personal interest of yours.
KK: That’s true.
TS: How does that fit into this context? Do you have any ideas about how labor plays a part in how you curate? You have a hands-off approach and it seems like a big part of that is just respecting [the artists’] labor. What does it mean to bring people into this show and ensure you are respecting their work?
KK: I feel like that’s a question all curators should think about. I don’t think by agreeing to be in a show that means you give carte blanche to the curators or venue to do whatever they want with your image or with your work.
I see my job as [standing] the fuck back and begging Roulette for as many resources as I can. My job is to advocate for the artist with the institution, care for the work, and tell the institution what the work needs. We are moving the chairs around each night and I had to send an email to acknowledge the extra work but, ultimately, it’s my job and it’s Roulette’s job. If people say they need to hang fabric in the balcony for their dance, then that is our job. It is our job to make that happen. We are liars and assholes if we don’t do it.
TS: The work is the only given. What these artists are presenting, it seems, is the only thing that is trusted and fixed. That will happen no matter what.
KK: Yes, and I will be mopping the space. I will show up early. I will sit there through all of the tech rehearsals and I won’t say much, but that is what caretaking is. I think it is really, really undervalued in our field.
TS: What makes you feel like it’s undervalued in the field?
KK: I feel like, when I am in other shows at certain institutions, they don’t even give you a chair backstage. If they know you have a certain cast, just make sure there’s enough chairs. Or, [the curator should] be there during tech rehearsal. All of those small things add up to a better show. It’s live performance — it’s so slippery and so dependent on the moment.
TS: I totally agree. Just you being in the room…
KK: It’s huge.
TS: It’s so huge! It points to so much interest and engagement and saying, hey I am here for you.
KK: I am here to advocate for you.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
lec/dem takes place November 16, 17, and 18 at Roulette. More information here.