Under the mentorship of choreographer/dancer/teacher Paula Mann, six emerging dance artists Laura K Johnson, Tera Kilbride, Laura Levinson, Erica Neal, Cristina Tolson and Laurie Walker have undergone a rigorous six month working process, each intuitively re-defining their own creative path. The result is intensely combustible, ebullient and riotously complex. Something for everyone.
Writer and actor Kip Dooley sat down with legendary choreographer/dancer/teacher Paula Mann and emerging artist Tera Kilbride to talk about mentorship, empowerment, and why dance is essential today.
KD: You've been creating your own work and teaching for a long time, both at the U of M and through institutions like the Jerome and McKnight Foundations and the Cowles Center for Dance. How did this new, six-month mentorship program for post-college emerging artists come about?
PM: When I was teaching at the U, I would teach people how to make solos in their Sophomore year. And I always thought that was crazy. Solos are the hardest thing to do, so why are we making these nineteen and twenty year-olds do them? I had a hunch it could be done much more efficiently and broadly if the people in the workshop were a little bit older, and a little more experienced, but still considered "emerging." They’re a little more savvy, and they’re in a sweet spot for learning.
KD: So how did this differ from a college course or a workshop?
PM: I've studied a myriad of compositional perspectives to give students, but I didn’t want this to be a composition workshop. The artists already had their own unique approaches the work and I didn't want to enforce structures that weren’t applicable. It had to be flexible.
KD: Were there other programs out there like this that you looked to as models?
A: No, at least not here in Minneapolis. There are a lot of fantastic things here, but none that give all the attention to creating a solo statement. And as I've said, solos are the hardest thing to do.
KD: So, “let's do that?”
PM: So, let's do that! I had also been thinking about what good mentorship looks like. This was a pilot project, and I'm trying to get funding for the next iteration, but from the start I’ve wanted to keep it artist-driven. The artist has to drive it, and others' opinions are just opinions. I probably drove Tera crazy with not giving as many opinions (Nodding from Tera and laughter from both).
KD: It seems counterintuitive, but oftentimes good teachers don't say much at all to their students! Why do you think keeping the process artist-driven is so important?
PM: Well, because it's their work. Actually, it's their insides coming out. If an outside force drives the process, the work becomes corporate. You see in the film industry how that just does not work. Why do we need another Spiderman? I cannot figure that out. But that's not what I'm interested in, and that's not my place. I do another thing.
I've done twenty solos in my career, and I still feel like there's something about being alone in a space with nothing but your ideas and your movement; as hard as it is, it is also so rewarding and powerful. Things come out by yourself that don't come out when you’re in a group of dancers. Things you might censor.
KD: And what makes it so difficult?
PM: It's hard to stick with it. It's even harder to stick with it over six months, which was a bigger question for me: can we even do this? It was difficult for these artists, I know, but the work is looking so precise now that we’re in the final stages. And perhaps most importantly, they have learned how to take responsibility for their own work.
KD: In the world of performance, it seems like so much of what you do and how you do it is contingent on other people -- on what shows you get cast in. That system doesn't encourage performers to learn how to take responsibility for their own work.
PM: That's right, they don't own it. People do learn eventually, of course, but how to own your work is not in our vernacular. In dance we call it "embodiment." It's how you live in this work, and how you take it inward to continue work on it. How you "are it"...how you "be it"... difficult find a word for what that process is, because it’s so individual.
KD: Tera, what was this process like for you? I know you’ve done a lot of weekend or week-long workshops; how was this different?
TK: Well, work needs time to settle and breathe in your body subconsciously, so when you come back to it, you have more information. You need that if you're going to make deep work. You can put together a good show in a short period of time, but it's just a show. If you're going to make work, it needs to settle in your body. You need to dream about it, write about it, sit in a studio in silence for a half an hour and then--boom, the rules of the piece pop into your head. That literally happened to me. One day the piece really wasn't working, but I had dedicated the time to be in the studio working on it, so I just sat there quietly and eventually what I needed to do became clear.
PM: Everyone’s process is so different, and people need time to figure that out. I wanted to see--and we did accomplish it--how individual these works could be. And they are quite different. That's exciting to me, to see that diversity in artistic vision.
KD: Are there some common themes that have emerged between the solos, as diverse as they are? Do they have something in common that makes them important to see in this particular historical moment?
PM: I think they all deal with self-empowerment in some way. I don't like to "pull the woman card," but they are all female voices, and they are broader than people might think. Tera, what do you think?
TK: Things were really heightened, politically for all of us, and personally for me, when the program started in the fall. Our President-elect was making horrible comments about women. I myself was living in a neighborhood where I was constantly being cat-called, which made me feel horrible in body and my being; and yet this same body gave me a weird sort of privilege in my place of work, being a charismatic white woman. I felt like I was living in a pressure cooker, and everything was heightened. I was struggling with the question of “what do I do with this body?”
PM: The thing about dance is that it deals with each unique physicality. If you could see the inside of me, you could see my energy patterns. That's abstract, and hard to write about, but you know it when you feel it. It's visceral. It attacks you.
TK: I can track at least four things in my piece that really happened in my life, mostly instances where someone was taking out their misogyny on me. So I took those moments, responded to them with my body, and found the patterns.
PM: Women aren't taught how to understand misogyny. Especially in relationships, where you get entwined with someone and then you realize, "I have to get out of this." It's very complex.
KD: It sounds, then, like this show presents a diverse range of energetic, embodied responses to tensions that many women are feeling in today’s world.
PM: Yes, and some of the pieces have constructs that make that clear; but in others, it's just filtered into the movement. I don’t want people to feel put off by movement. Because sometimes movement pieces are really more for the performer themselves. So as a viewer, I don't even know why I'm watching it. But these artists have put in the time and the effort to carefully shape the pieces, so that the audience can really get in there with them.
KD: I hear a lot of people talk about dance the way I, as a writer, hear people talk about poetry: "it's nice, it's beautiful, but I don't know what's going on."
PM: Exactly! "I don't get it."
KD: But dance and poetry are both so important! They are the foundations of so many other forms. Poetry works with the foundations of language, and dance works with the foundations of physical expression. We have so much to learn from them. So, for people who typically struggle with dance, how do you recommend they view the work?
PM: I've been watching dance since I was fourteen. I've seen everything and I've lived through a lot of trends and a lot of history. I can't expect someone looking at dance to have that perspective. But you just have to grab onto something that impacts you in a moment.
TK: Yes, find something that you like, and watch it. Hold onto that.
PM: Or, take in the whole piece. Perhaps you can't understand the details, but you think about the whole. I love to back up from a work and ask, "what's being said here as a whole?"
TK: It requires a presence of mind that isn't conceptualizing and making meaning one-hundred percent of the time.
PM: It's more imagistic. Another way is to just get into the actual physical motion of something. Just watching someone's physicality, you can start to ride along with it--
TK: Mirror neurons get engaged when you watch that way. Keep it simple. Just watch for energy patterns; the shapes a body makes; the transitions.
PM: Right. For example, sudden stops. When someone stops their body abruptly, how does that affect you? In general, I recommend entering through any door that you can. Just make sure to enter it!
KD: You said you had been reflecting on mentorship before starting this program. How has this journey influenced the way you think about mentorship and what you want to do?
PM: Mentorship lets an artist know someone else is there. You have a relationship, you have a back-and-forth over time. You need to have someone in your corner to keep going, but it’s hard for artists to find that.
TK: The biggest thing for me was just having Paula there to say, "keep going.” That's usually what’s missing when you try to make a solo piece: you get into your head and you start second-guessing, and then you give up the work.
PM: I knew she had a great piece, but she would not take that in.
TK: (laughs) I'm still working on that.
PM: I think the mentorship is really about helping people get out of that kind of doubtful space Tera just mentioned, by giving them another perspective. How can we do what we are really drawn to do? If you must do it, then do it. I just want to encourage people to follow the path. “Just put your feet on the path,” I say to them. The group provided a really healthy environment for these artists, too, so even if the mentorship program becomes a one-to-one thing, we'll always have a group meeting. That needs to remain a staple.
TK: Oftentimes in the dance world, things feel really competitive. But the cohort we made was very nurturing. We wanted to help each other find our own voices, which is critical to the success of any project.
PM: That's such a good point. It's really important to create a space that isn't driven by the negative, competitive ego. It's not that anyone is trying to be that way, but unfortunately, the system we live in encourages the ego to be the driver. It can make you want to throw your hands up and walk away from it all. It's like, "come one, let's be real! It doesn't have to be this way. Why are we following this old way of doing things if we know it doesn't work?”
TK: Because resources are limited, which puts us in a scarcity mindset.
PM: There you go.
TK: When we’re stuck in the scarcity mindset we only think about how we can get a slice of the pie, instead of finding unique ways to self-produce and encourage each other.
PM: Why don’t we band together a little bit more? Come together as a group and try to further ourselves, together? And what's hard is that artists at my age can be kind of cranky. I've worked hard not to be cranky. Artists get knocked around a lot over the years. You get kind of scarred. "I didn't get funding again. Why did they get it but not me?" But none of that is real. What matters most is whether you are in the work.
It’s difficult to make your own work because you often feel like, "I don't know what to do. How can I keep this going?" Even I have to think about that, after all these years. How can I keep it fresh? How can I replenish myself when I've already made fifty pieces? What's next? I'm not dead yet, but I've already had my highs and lows. What I know I can do, for sure, is help younger artists find their way. That’s so heartening. We need people to get into this process more than ever right now. As corny as it sounds, there are a lot of negative forces out there and people just are stuck on the surface of things. We don't understand our own depths. If everybody did the work on themselves, we wouldn't have a political system like we do. People are refusing to do the work on themselves. If I said that in an open group, people would probably throw fruit at me.
TK: They would be scared of you.
PM: (laughs) I don't know about scared, but it's not a popular sentiment -- to ask people to do their own work. Even though it’s hard, I love being in the process of work. It is a beautiful thing. Let's face it, when you see someone evolve, you think, "wow, this is a great thing. This is a positive thing." And it should happen more. Perhaps I can only do this one little thing in the big world. If that’s the case, I want to do it well.
HOLD THIS: Six Dance Solos
Saturday July 15th at 7:30 pm and Sunday July 16th at 2 pm and 7:30 pm
The Playwrights’ Center 2301 East Franklin Ave, Minneapolis, MN
Tickets $10-$20 on Brown Paper Tickets. Cash, check or credit at the door.