- photo courtesy Christy Pessagno
- Departing ADF Dean Donna Faye Burchfield
Relating a conversation with Donna Faye Burchfield, Dean of the American Dance Festival, without audio and video footage—or Labanotation, for the dance transcriptionists in the audience—is, to some degree, an exercise in frustration.
Even when seated, her hands and body frequently work through and illustrate the concepts we’re discussing. Her speech is peppered with sudden stops for reflection, followed by equally sudden surges of insight. Pensive murmurs contrast with full-bodied laughs as she contemplates the absurdities and deeper implications of her craft.
As the festival’s Dean since 2000, and in other roles there dating back to 1984, Burchfield has inspired a generation of dance artists, here and as co-chair of the dance department at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. She founded a joint MFA program uniting the two in 2005. Her students from both venues continue to achieve the highest distinctions in dance.
When Burchfield announced last month that she would leave ADF and Hollins at the end of the summer, the news sent shockwaves through the dance world.
On the afternoon of July 19, and briefly on July 24 and 25, we talked for a couple of hours about what she’s leaving, where she’s going—and why.
Thanks to head librarian Kelly Lawson and the staff of Lilly Library at Duke University for hosting our conversation.
INDEPENDENT: At this point almost everybody knows what you are leaving—your positions as Dean of the American Dance Festival and as Director of the Dance Program at Hollins University.
Let’s open the conversation by focusing instead on what it is you are moving toward.
DONNA FAYE BURCHFIELD: Open space. (pause)
Tell me more.
I was talking to a friend late Saturday afternoon. It was after a long day, and she had called to talk through this news of me leaving. At one point in the conversation I said, “I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff.” Which is pretty true.
This is my 28th summer here. That’s more than half my life.
I don’t even know what my address will be in Philadelphia. I’m selling the home my children grew up in Roanoke. I’m leaving Hollins, which has been this cradle of—reassurance.
If you can imagine, when I went there my son wasn’t even potty trained, and my daughter had never been anywhere except a one-room schoolhouse and she was about to go into first grade.
[Burchfield worked in the region at Carolina Friends School and N.C. State, before her time at Hollins.]
So it was a big deal for me to leave here to move to Roanoke.
I can only say it really is a valley, and it really did reassure me and comfort me. Roanoke and Hollins became this reflective space. It just was.
Something happens in a place where you sleep there, you eat there, you watch your children grow up there, you walk down a hill behind your house and you teach your class. And you dance there, and all of these minds and bodies are working together and thinking, and bodies are moving between classrooms. It’s that idea of circulation—a circulation of knowledge and of hope.
I would say that the circulation of knowledge and feelings generates an ontology of hope, in a way.
Something happens in that kind of space.
So really, it was just ideal at that time in my life. (laughs) Also, just being in that women’s space; it was just essential.
And the students that I met and the things that they shared with me—the other day I was reading Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today. In the dedication, she says, “I gratefully dedicate this book to my students and to my teachers. I hope I will always have difficulty telling you apart.”
In how much they’ve shared with me and continue to shape my life, I really feel that way about the students at Hollins. I think we were just in it together. So there’s that.
Then, at ADF, there was the way that I grew into myself here—from being a student to working on the staff to making the punch. There’s something to the idea that my very hands touched the typewriter that typed the names of people like [Trisha Brown dancer and teacher] Abby Yager when she was on the scholarship list.
I can remember when [Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dancer and teacher] Woody McGriff needed me to drive to his apartment right away when he had fallen ill, and then [choreographer/solo dancer] Mark Haim came to teach Woody’s classes.
I remember when [African-American choreographer and dancer] Clarence Teeters taught his first class here.
It’s just the layers and layers of that “rootedness” that we read about in Elaine Scarry’s Resisting Representation.
[In that work, Scarry contrasts the forms of mobility, access and scope in the vegetative world—the growing of branches and vines—with their human versions. Scarry also probes how a laborer not only finds foundation, stability, sustenance in labor, but how the borders of her/his identity increasingly extend into the terrain of that work.]
I feel rooted to my experiences in dance here. I remember my hands on that typewriter; I remember dragging tables off of the floor so that [Balaswarasvati/Beinecke Teaching Award winner] Linda Tarnay’s composition class could roll out the paper and lay down to do drawings of their bodies’ energies in 1982.
I remember dyeing all of my leotards orange when I was first a student here. I couldn’t afford to buy new leotards and I was so excited about being here so I took all my dance clothes—because we all wore leotards and tights then—and I bought orange Rit dye, and I dyed everything orange. It was one of those crystallizing moments where you know you have to do something, but you don’t know why necessarily.
And I remember Linda Tarnay remembering that, and saying, “Donna Faye, I remember you crossing that stage in that audition, and just throwing yourself across the space—and that you were always wearing orange.”
It marks something. I can remember it now, so now I know why, some 28 years later, I’m here; wearing orange.
[And she is: Burchfield is wearing an orange sweater during our interview.]
It doubles back; it gives me a way back.
So yes, I’m jumping off a cliff. Because if we are these connections and they are part of us, and if we are rooted to these experiences as I understand that I am, the only way I can describe how I feel is—a feeling of suspension.
As I was talking last night at the [Balaswarasvati/Beinecke] Teaching Award presentation about that future that is yet to be felt, I know there is… what I don’t know. I know there is what I am yet to know. (laughs)
I’m not going [to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts] because of everyone I know there, or because I know all of those students and they know me. (laughs)
It’s quite the opposite. I think there was a handful of University of the Arts students here this summer; maybe four or five.
It does give me some comfort to know a couple of things. One is that I’m closer to New York as I grow older.
I find that for the last 17 years I spent so much time in that reflective space [at Hollins], that valley, that cave of creativity, really deep within. I’ve spent so much time trying to create this conceptual space of dance for myself.
I mean, I had to. Because dance wasn’t really there; dance wasn’t anywhere at Hollins except in these classrooms. You couldn’t go out and see dance—in that sense, it was pretty isolated.
And yet it really was. My students helped me understand that conceptual thinking is actually doing. It results in something.
I would say I spent a lot of time in that imagined space. Partly because, you know, my husband lived here [in the Triangle] and my children went away, even for high school. So I spent a lot of time in Roanoke by myself; I lived by myself a lot.
I feel suspended. I feel like I’m jumping into a place where I don’t know where I’m going to land.
In the introduction to his play, Camino Real, Tennessee Williams wrote, “It is amazing and frightening how completely one’s whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses.” He’s asserting that in creating something new one must invest all; that, if you invest any less, why did you bother showing up?
These striving and, quite frankly, under-recognized younger artists and teachers in dance—I move so close to their struggles, of not knowing how they’re going to make it.
Erika Hand, Dawn Springer, Jung Eun Kim, Nile Jones: I’m surrounded by them. Jen McGinn, Ashley Anderson—they’re all…they’re all artists.
And they’re all struggling and holding on tightly.
I move so close to their struggle.
I felt I need to put myself—I felt I needed to be in it with them. And I also feel this responsibility that maybe by jumping into this open space and growing these wings—maybe, just maybe by doing it, more possibilities can open up.
I just feel like there’s a capacity for radical generosity and radical reciprocity, one I don’t know that I’m fully, really getting yet. But I really want to.
Jillian Peña’s another one. I remember Jillian looked me in the face and said, “Donna Faye, we’re all depending on you.”
And I was saying, (quietly) “Holy shit!”
Depending on you for what?
She means “You’ve got to help us; you’ve got to make dance possible!” (laughs)
She means “You’ve got to GET OUT!” (laughs)
She means, if I can break free, then so can dance! (laughs)
There’s got to be movement. As Randy Martin says in Critical Moves, there has to be a critical movement; something has to give.
I could feel it. Everybody I would talk to, everywhere I go, would say, “Donna Faye, we can feel this; there are these places of extreme need and extreme scarcity.” We’re really this expanding field, expanding the imaginative. What is it that Jesse Zaritt calls it—a body that is open, expanding and expressive, reaching in all directions—I think that comes from his work with Deborah Hay.
But as dance is expanding and starts opening its eyes in some ways, resources are shrinking. In a sense, it’s like Joyce Carol Oates’ response to Arlene Croce’s writing on Bill T. Jones. When there’s a great crisis, arts helps us construct hope.
But, if the arts are supposed to save the world, in the words of Susan Gablik, then what are we doing wrong?
A generation of dance artists are now trying to figure out how to make their way, in a time where Pina [Bausch] and Merce [Cunningham] are dead, Paul Taylor’s made out his will—in terms of how his company is to be run after his death—and Bill T. Jones is on Broadway.
Young artists are looking at these developments and asking, “Is that how I make my way forward?”
My husband, Hutch Traver, believes that modern dance is the last subculture for alternative thinking in the country. It’s one of the few things not overwhelmed by the numbers, by the money. We still hope, think, feel, act…and dream.
We used to say “Save the arts,” or ask how we can sustain them. But, really, it’s about survival now.
You talk to these young people and they say, “I’ve been waiting in line for food stamps.” Nobody can get a job, or they’re working on the census, and all of the people in the room are in the same situation they’re in.
If you’re now saying that Mark Morris can’t get work, or isn’t touring as much as he was—if you’re going to start expanding that out to these other places, we’re in a hot mess.
Lindsay Clark said she was cleaning hotel rooms, simultaneous to dancing with Faye Driscoll, who’s been all that in New York this year. She can’t survive and she’s cleaning hotel rooms. There are just these giant gaps.
We have to figure out these ways of radical reciprocity. We have to reach out into the world in ways we haven’t yet. We have to share resources, and work on sustaining those things too.
I think so much of what we carry forth in dance is driven by the nature of the form itself, its temporality. The dances happen, then they go away. So much of what we carry forth is invisible.
When he wrote of the French Resistance, poet Rene Char said, “Our inheritance was left to us by no testament.”
There’s this haptic knowledge, a knowing by [physical] sensing, that we have to be with other bodies to start feeling, living these certain things.
One of the things that Sean Buffington, the new president at University of the Arts, asked me was, “If you figure out a new way for this curriculum to be, what are some of the things you’d want these students to graduate knowing?” It’s the usual kind of interview question.
Given what we’ve just been talking about, how to cook over Sterno? (laughs)
Yes, how to stand in a food stamp line. (laughs)
Or the Twyla Tharp quote about square dance—that if we all don’t support dance, that’s all that’s going to be left. But then, you were there when she said it [when Tharp was awarded the Samuel Scripps / ADF Award, in 1990].
Yes, I so get it when she says that.
So he asks that question.
Then I said, “One of the things is mutuality; to know who you are in this field with.”
Who do you share in this dance with? Who’s in it with you—and how can I extend that? For when we do that, suddenly we’re not alone. So one thing is mutuality, and finding ways to build mutualities.
Then there’s relationality: What is dance happening in relationship to? What are other things in the world that are happening that dance can speak alongside, with, to, about, or in extension of—so there isn’t this isolation. Within that relationality is the idea that it’s unsolicited. I’m wondering, can we get back to that place where dance might…just matter? (laughs) And do something because it does (laughs), on its own terms?
Then I said that the students would be able to sustain themselves in the form. Literally, in their bodies. How do we deal with the fact that as we age in this art form, we become less and less—and it shrinks even more; you can imagine this collapsing feeling constantly. How do we begin to expand how we think about bodies in dance, and our bodies in dance?
Then there’s reciprocity: What is it that dance teaches us, that we can share—like when Jesse [Zaritt] and the group of young folks here speak of radical generosity and radical reciprocity. How can we create an environment where those notions rise up and get discussed? What is it about dance that can be shared?
When you go to the New York Times article “An Open Mind” [on the open educational resources movement, at MIT, Yale and Open University], and see these world-renowned scholars of anatomy or physics teaching these lectures—I’m so neurotic I feel like I’ve watched all of them. It’s one example of access; one example of sharing.
Here at ADF, there’s been the thought that we need a roomful of specialists. But maybe there are ways that, if we start working together, other things could happen rather than—“We need one teacher who does this, one teacher who does that, one teacher who does this other…”
…that old capitalist, modernist thing: one person to make the shoe lace, one person who puts the buttonholes in, one person who puts the bottom of the shoe on.
Henry Ford, call your office.
We’re overwhelmed by the choices and possibilities.
Neta Pulvermacher does a great composition exercise on choices. When you have so many, it’s really hard to make one choice at a time.
Given that flat line that is the now, that just keeps extending in front of us, how can we create those places where we can feel and respond, and not just be pushed by cultural forces; a place where we can just say, “I’m here. This is me.”
I think it gets back to knowing how to be resourceful, knowing how to think across and through. A sort of polyattentiveness, in the words of John Cage.
While also—p.s.—making sure everybody’s in some kind of physical practice.
Because the fear, I’m sure, is that if somehow dancers start reading, thinking and expressing—both verbally and with their bodies—something else will get erased.
But when dancers are writing about dance, they’re not erasing it. It’s not even speaking for dance. In the words of Trinh Minh-Ha, they’re speaking alongside of it.
One time, somebody said, “Donna Faye, I can really tell your students read books.” I don’t think it was meant as a compliment; I replied, “I guess you’re saying their feet don’t point, or their bodies don’t look like the other dancers’ bodies.”
I just think that—it sounds a bit absolute and maybe even corny, but I do think dance can speak on its own terms.
I don’t even know that I know what that means yet. But I’m really dead set on continuing to put myself in a situation where I’m asking myself what it means.
I can only say that it makes sense to me, when I watch a student start out trying to work on a creative, imaginative, choreographic project. They try and they try to make these thoughts and feelings visible. And week after week, you literally see in front of you these attempts; you watch this process happen. And you see something is happening in that process of going inward to bring things out of ourselves.
And then…get ready…something gets made.
That’s when I’m realizing that dance is speaking on its own terms.
I can only tell you what it feels like.
Whenever what I’m experiencing is fundamentally challenging my ability to put it into English, I know I’m in the right place. In moments like that, I believe I’m on the edge of language—that border between the work that language has accomplished, and what it yet has not.
That doesn’t happen very often for me in writing about theater. It frequently does when I’m writing about dance.
When I hear you talking about “dance speaking in its own terms,” we seem to be in this area again, or somewhere nearby: on the borders of language, or the borders of different languages. The hand speaks, the body speaks, just in a different tongue.
A century ago, Gustav Mahler famously said that if composers could say what they had to say in words, they wouldn’t bother trying to say it in music.
All I can say is, that must have been a really sweet deal for them.
One century later, none of us are so easily excused. That almost ornamental exceptionalism that once held that dance artists didn’t need to possess the ability to write and speak, articulately and with some insight, about their work is falling by the way.
Still, we should take a moment to put hands on just how difficult that work truly is.
At present, you and I are seated. We aren’t dancing—at least not in the conventional definitions of the term. And I’ll go Taoist just long enough to observe that the verbal language about dance is not the dance itself.
But the pursuit, consideration and interpretation of dance through language is a humbling craft—at least when it’s done honestly, with care, and, for lack of more polite terms, in the absence of an agenda that’s been fundamentally influenced by marketing.
When I reflect on how proudly some of our colleagues teach their written response to dance, I must observe that so much of the primary work of language has yet to be achieved concerning the art form—and much of it hasn’t even begun.
It’s obvious that we are still in the infancy of this part of the craft; these are the cradle stages. And with that foundational work uncompleted, there’s the risk that anything built rests on a base that’s unreliable.
When it comes to bringing the experiences of dance into a common place—one more lasting than the extremely finite time span of the performance itself—in order to verbally process and derive meaning from them, in order to play and deal with and learn from them, then yes, there’s no shortage of open space at all.
But from the opacity of academic verbage to the blunt instruments used in a public discourse too often lacking sufficient understanding or craft—the present state of our language is, in itself, indicative of our dilemma.
As Derrida said, “These words and letters don’t shape and bend to express the depths of my feelings.” When you can imagine these things moving and bending and shaping, then suddenly you get a little closer.
As Lin Hwai-min’s dancers in Cloud Gate Dance Theater did, in his work based on Chinese calligraphy, Cursive.
It got really emotional for me when you brought up Tennessee Williams a few moments ago. Because that feeling was so strong, I know, even more, how important that notion of porosity is for me.
I have to stay porous. I have to just know that in order to move through this I can’t get frozen in fear—or all of those “ugly feelings,” to quote the Sianne Ngai book. Greed, jealousy, envy—I feel that if I get caught up in them I’ll crumble.
I do have to stay porous. And I have to keep remembering that motion I’m hoping for, that open space.
I have felt that dance has kept me on my feet. Dance literally keeps me on my feet—and a lot of students I know, too. So I have to just stay on my feet.
One thing more about dance speaking on its own terms.
Dana Rainey’s a student who I met here. [Rainey is now a professional dancer in New York, who was featured in Harlem Song at the Apollo]
When I asked her about her piece she was going to perform at the student concert at Hollins, she said to me…that God was going to tell her what to do.
That He was going to tell how to do it.
So I said, “Hmm…tell you what. Let’s go to the studio tonight, and we’ll draw a musical map; we can break it down on a map through space and time and energy.”
I did this whole rational thing, of course, because I felt responsible.
I remember telling David Ferri this, and he said, “Can you have her call up and ask God what the light cues will be? How am I supposed to light this piece?”
Finally he said, “I’m just going to give her one light cue then.”
And I said, “Fine, fine; give her one light cue.”
Interesting situation. Faith has something to do with the nature of meaning itself—or at least it can. But in a circumstance like that, it can also indicate a number of other things—including an artist in absolute denial. On one hand, some sort of faith is probably required to deepen our engagement with the world and other people. But historically, faith has also been invoked in full-scale retreat from the world, into mysticism, disengagement, solipsism and self-eclipse. Though faith can open any number of conversations, it’s also been used to preclude all possibility of conversation as well.
So. You’re in quite a dilemma here. You’re asking yourself, “Is she wigging out? What kind of a conversation can we have about this—if any?”
There’s this secular thing; we’re in an educational environment; there’s tension all around us, and this comes up.
I called Hutch and just said, “What the hell am I supposed to do? I’ve never encountered this before.”
And he said, “You don’t get to decide what inspires her art. She does.”
He went on, “Can you imagine telling Ravi Shankar that God isn’t speaking through his hands?”
And I said, “Holy shit. That’s right. I don’t get to decide that.”
Hm. Yes, a teacher who cares can also be overdeterministic. And in performance, what do we almost always want? Total control of all variables.
You wanted to make the way safe, to help bring a performance in for a landing.
And, in this case, you learned that, no, you don’t always get to do that.
I go back and tell David, “Listen, we’re just going to turn the lights on and she’s going to dance. And then we’ll turn them off.”
Dana walked on stage that night. I caught eyes with David in the back of the theater. And you know what happened: she got a standing ovation. From Hollins students, faculty, distinguished guests, community members. And parents.
David looked back at me, said, “From now on…” and just held up his hands. And I said, “And we thought we knew.”
Don’t get me wrong: It wasn’t a prayer dance. She didn’t tell them, “This piece is God speaking to me.” It wasn’t anything like that at all. The title wasn’t suggestive; I think it was something like “Alone.”
No. It was something else. It was the way that audience felt that with her.
Communication was happening on its own terms. And sometimes, there is a certain genius in just getting out of the way.
When I say that dance has to speak on its own terms, this is all bound up in that for me.
There’s so much that I don’t know about it, but I feel like my responsibility is to support and shape where those things can emerge.
It’s always in these moments with students that I learn so much.
Elaine Scarry writes of the “stuttering of the imagination” when we fail to take what we imagine is possible and try to make it possible. What she refers to as the “acts of rescue” on which culture and civilization is built involve “conceptual activism”—the notion that if you can imagine it, maybe you can become it.
Yvonne Ranier writes that “feeling is fact,” and observes that all of these small acts can ultimately result in something huge, if we try to make visible what we hope for or feel.
So these are all things that students should graduate knowing. And, on top of that, of course, we have to make sure simultaneously that there’s this physical discipline.
There’s always a confusion, that when you combine these practices, it means you do less. During her MFA, Ananja Chatterjee said, “No, it means you have to work harder: An arm here doesn’t communicate the same as an arm there.”
We have to do all this and work harder. It just means there’s more work ahead.
The University of the Arts conversation was telling for me. When I’d finished answering that question, provost Michael Nash said, “You know what I find most interesting? At no time did you say, ‘I would make sure they all knew how to do a plie or a tendu.’” I said, “They can learn that by rote.”
The program there has had the same director for 28 years. It’s very different than Hollins. There’s 300 students there in the school of dance, with more than 100 incoming first-year students and 33 full and part time faculty. Its huge.
As opposed, of course, to ADF’s enrollment this year of 444, with a faculty of 45. Why did you apply there?
It’s kind of a simple story. Their dean, Rick Lawn, sent me an email in the fall to say they had this position, and would I be willing to read over the job description to make sure they knew the candidate they really should be looking for. I get that kind of conversation a lot in my job.
The dean called, and I spoke really freely with him. It went on for about an hour. At some point he asked me for possible candidates, which I provided. And at the end, he said, “What if you apply?”
I said, “I’m pretty entrenched. I’ve created these programs that are interlocked; my home is here; there are all these things.”
He said okay. One day later on, he sent a quick email that said, “Just keep us in mind.”
And then, when I went home alone, again—at 9 pm, again—suddenly it was like a tipping point; a place where I was in relief.
The next day was a faculty meeting at Hollins—and a person who had been at Hollins for 35 years was retiring.
And I was whispering to myself, “Okay, let’s fast forward. Is that going to be me? Am I going to be here 35 years? And if that happens, what?”
And with that, I just said… “Run for the hills! (laughs) RUN FOR THE HILLS!” (laughs)
I’d been working from 9 am to 9 pm, I don’t see anything changing, (laughs) it’s not going to change—
—because, of course, you’re too good at it—
—and for all those reasons, I start asking what will happen if I do apply.
I talked to Hutch, and he said, “You’re going to hate it. Go ahead and apply but you’re probably not going to like it, it’s probably not going to be what you want. I just can’t see you ever leaving Hollins.”
He was supportive. He was saying go ahead and apply. He was just saying, “I can’t imagine your ever leaving Hollins.”
Fast forward: It’s March, and I’m in Europe with the MFA students, which I love. The last day we’re there, I get an email saying, “We want you to come to campus for three days.”
I was asking, “Has that changed within me?” And I said, “I’ll go and see how it feels.”
I got back home. I went. And all I can tell you was that I was asking, “Can I be here? Can I feel this?”
I was standing in one big studio there. There were maybe 45 kids in this class.
And I was saying, “Look at all these kids. Look at all these dancers. They’re everywhere.”
I felt I really could (laughs) spread the love. (laughs)
When they invited me back for a long dinner, I had that conversation with the president, the provost and the dean.
It has an MFA program that’s already been approved and is ready to go; it just needs to be written.
And actually they asked me lot of questions about that: “You’ve done an MFA this way [with the Hollins / ADF program]. Can you imagine other ways of an MFA program happening?”
And I said, “Yes, I can imagine many other ways of doing that. There are a lot of ways that dance studies can be imagined and reimagined, and I’m committed to doing it.”
At one point I even said, “If I can’t do it here, or there in Philadelphia, I’m just going to keep trying. It’s got to happen. I have no choice.”
I see my first order of business as just getting there and figuring out this thing that is the school. It’s a big job just to get to know them, one by one. Then I’ll start trying to see the next day, with them.
I could feel something there. No doubt I need to know more about it. Again, like I said, I’m jumping into open space. But certainly there’s a lot of dance there already.
You were appointed Dean of the ADF in 2000.
Yes, when Martha Myers retired.
Did she give you any benediction? Any marching orders, or advice?
Indirectly, yes; while I was working alongside her. First of all, from working alongside her, I never thought I was going to be the Dean.
There were giants in those days…
You know it. When she did retire that summer, and Charles and Stephanie called me into their office to tell me they wanted me to be the dean, I said, “What?”
I felt responsible to—I mean, if you work alongside somebody like Martha Myers, she really questioned, and she really worked very fairly with students. I don’t think we ever once had a student issue that didn’t work out fairly—and there were some pretty extreme ones.
We had everyone from [tanztheater choreographer] Simone Forti, to [Martha Graham dancer and teacher] Armgard von Barteleben. There were these vast points of view. She would really cultivate that.
She really allowed me to be involved in conversation with her; we really worked together for a long, long time.
So, indirectly, yes. It was like her saying, “We have to stay of the times, with the times, Donna Faye.” I remember she once said, “We can’t look like an old crocheted hat.”
She really had this inquiring mind and she still does. She said a lot of other things, but they’re not things I’d speak about in an interview.
I knew, by watching, what I didn’t want. I knew by observing what I had to uphold. I learned by being in the flow of things.
When I spoke with Sara Procopio over the weekend about the ten-year anniversary of Shen Wei’s company, I asked her what Shen Wei has given the dance world in the last decade.
Now it’s your turn. What do you feel you have given the dance world in the past ten years? I’m wondering if you believe you’ve changed it in some way.
(quietly) God, I hope so, Byron. (pause)
Well, to start, 80 people who wouldn’t have otherwise had their MFA now have their degrees—80 people who otherwise would not even be talking to each other.
Because when you think about Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, who was in Alvin Ailey’s company, Doug Elkins, Lisa Race, Dana Casperson, Helen Pickett and Gerri Houlihan—that they were all in the same classroom with younger artists like Dawn Springer and Shani Collins…
One of the things that I wanted to happen in the program was that it be multi-generational. I know it’s an overused term, but I wanted these younger artists to be with artists with these life experiences. I hoped a different kind of thing would happen in the room as a result of that. And it did.
So maybe I’ve driven away some of the isolation; maybe I’ve staved it off in some places from our work.
And also with that access—when you’ve got these ways of thinking and being together, dance expands. Something suddenly does change when these people are in the room together and their experiences are so vastly different.
The field itself has been changed. It’s not only them, it’s the kids that they then teach: When Wendy Wagner is in public school in Roanoke, and having them do projects on Katherine Dunham, something’s changed.
I remember when we started looking through all the applications for the MFA, I felt that if we were going to have an incredible program in Roanoke, some of it has to go back into the community. Luckily there were artists in the community who applied to the program and came, and they’re still living and working in Roanoke.
So the MFA was a big one for me.
It was an outgrowth of a gang including [Shen Wei artistic associate] Sara Procopio, Melissa Chris and [New York choreographer/dancer] Jesse Zaritt, who hung out at Hollins when there wasn’t an MFA—and they just hung out there anyway.
Melissa Chris was at Hollins for 7 years, when there was no graduate program. Sara Procopio was there for five and transferred. Jesse Zaritt graduated from Pomona College and moved to Roanoke, to Hollins—where there was no MFA.
So we knew we had to do something.
The opposite of Field of Dreams: If they come, you will build it?
Yes. And the minute it opened, what flooded in—and it just keeps flooding in.
What I did was, maybe, have the right support and the right tools to tap into this river of dance that, just at that moment, so needed to be freed.
I feel like I just have this divining rod and it just created this gusher. It’s like when Philip Glass says, “I don’t make music. The music is out there; I just have to find it.”
Our bodies don’t make dance, they meet the dance.
When you’re in the room with students, it’s not that they have to make it. Their bodies just have to meet it and find it.
I was trying to say that if, together, these people can open up spaces where dance can be found, the bodies will find it. If they have the right tools to get there, which might literally just be dancing in someone’s work—it moves, it creates flow.
But then with all of that, Byron, like you’ve said in your essay on Bill T. Jones’ Chapel/Chapter, there has to be responsibility.
Dance is corresponding. It’s relational. It doesn’t just move out, it moves out and looks back: “Are you still there? We still need roots!”
Now that dance is expanding, is out there and people are finding out new ways it can drop down its little roots—if they drop down and there’s nothing there, it keeps searching; that’s the nature of it.
But when dance is constantly searching for a place to put down roots, it exhausts itself. Human beings move, Scarry observes, while plants put down roots and branch out. But humans need a sense of roots as well. And when dance is never allowed to take root, and must keep searching, it ultimately uses a lot more energy.
Dance needs a mothership, a home.
So, how can we create an environment of possibilities? Ann Hamilton talks conceptually about creating an environment where things are possible; where there’s the potential for multiple points of entry; multiple ways of solving problems.
My job, I feel, is to continue to create environments where there is potential for that meeting, for that becoming to take place.
And when I talk about it, I feel my body moving toward it (laughs)—I’m rocking in my chair as I’m talking about it.
Yes. I’m including the occasional Labanotation in my interview notes here. (laughs)
I want to move my body toward it. I feel like it’s in motion. I’ve just got to figure out other ways.
One time, Lindsey Clark said, “Dancing bodies need other dancing bodies to know that they exist.” We need more spaces where that is possible.
Plus New York is nearby. There’s grass there too, it’s not all cement.
With our trips to Europe and through these relationships which Douglas Becker has really fostered and kindled, I have to say that there’s the thing about the divining rod—you feel that invisible pull, the labor of love, in dance in all these years.
But something happened when we got to Nancy [a suburb of Paris], to the Ballet de Lorraine and [artistic director] Didier Deschamps was there.
I remember saying to him, “My gosh, if one our students comes here and works with your students and they make a piece—what if you don’t like it? What if it’s a failure?” For here is this model I have, so impressed in my mind.
And he said to me, “It’s not about that. It’s about these young choreographers from here working with these students and young dancers. It’s about the experience, Donna Faye. Let them just meet and get to know each other. I assure you that this young company in Nancy; they’re as isolated as the rest.”
There are all these sort of pockets of dance—everyone feels that. Even though we live in this world where things can be shared, dancing bodies need other dancing bodies.
Then we went to Vienna, to this incredible place, Im_Flieger [a research center and development lab by artists for artists in dance and performance].
The name means “In flight”?
Yes. It used to be an airport hangar. At Im_Flieger they were the same; the generosity I was met with kind of blew me away.
But I think that’s where I became really interested in this notion of mutualities.
Why is that? It’s not just an accident. They were really, really caring [in Nancy]. And then we would show the works of the students, they would watch us working, and then they would say, “Come back next year, this was really great.”
Then we’d go to Vienna, and they’d say the same thing, “Come back next year. We like how these students are working and what you’re thinking about.”
There was a flow.
And that’s where I get back to the labor; there’s something about it where you say, “Oh! We’re rooted in the same way—or maybe not the same way, but we’re rooted in this.” I’m still trying to find ways to talk about this.
They were friendly. We forget that dance can really exist—and maybe even thrive in these ways.
We didn’t sell tickets. The space at Im_flieger is supported by the government. It’s a small space, it wasn’t a large audience. But after the performance, they took the basket backstage and divided the ticket sales for the evening among all the performers.
Pass the hat?
Yes, it was kind of like a house party in a way.
But I think it gave these students another way of imagining themselves in dance. And even if these were small radical shifts, they’re still shifts. They were very, very gracious; we had really good luck.
But then is there such a thing as luck? Or is luck when opportunity and preparedness meet hand in hand?
I believe that one’s expectations influence the answer. The perceived scarcity of kindness, of psychological and emotional support as well as physical and economic support are the first places I go in my imagination.
I think there is some need of that lightness for me. I sought it out. And when it was there it just shined so brightly. I felt such relief.
I don’t know what I was feeling. Maybe it was just, literally, a certain kind of personal freedom that I could experience. Again, it’s as bell hooks says: “When you create new relationships, you create new meaning.” And we did, encountering people in the situations of dance.
So there we were, creating these new relationships. And I was saying, “Oh, so this is what this feels like! I forgot!”
I forgot that I had the capacity to do anything outside of certain, very particular ways of thinking and ways of being in dance.
It sounds corny when I say (bad Texan accent), “They were so nice; they were so loving; they’ve been so caring; they’ve been so friendly.” But it’s not just that.
Again, the words point towards scarcity or perceived scarcity — kindness, caring, friendliness, friendship.
And I mean deep friendship. People in Vienna were saying, “We want to come Hollins, we want to see where you live!”
And they didn’t mean it in that catty, Southern way, either (laughs)…
(laughs) No. And they came. And one of the first early contemporary dance choreographers in Vienna says, “I’m just so moved by this idea of humanness.” When [Im_flieger’s] Anita Kaya got to Hollins, she said it reminded her of why she got involved with dance in the first place.
In Vienna, dance had moved rather away from these connections with who we are as people, and more toward space and lines, in these conceptual terms. WUK, the collective that started Im_flieger, began as squatters who took over an abandoned public building, a hangar. And they built on these important, radical ideas—sharing, being responsible to one another—and they developed a collective sort of power.
It was a small group of people who were working with next to nothing. And they took root, virtually next door to something immense, called Impulstanz [Vienna’s international dance festival], which is operating with hundreds of thousands of dollars—just as the program at Hollins existed close by the American Dance Festival, which was also so much bigger.
You can’t tell me both of these circumstances are just coincidences. In both cases, something small pushed up against something big, and created one of Ray Oldenburg’s “third places”—a space that was necessary.
We were encountering people in the situations of dance, in institutions. In Brussels, at Space Nadine, one of their founders made copies of the keys to the space, and said, “When you get here next year, I won’t have to give you a copy.”
Make yourself at home. Or, you are at home; realize you are at home.
People were really kind. A lot of it had to do with just listening; I was doing a lot of listening. But I believe we all were.
Cross-listening, cross-feeling—as in Susan Manning’s idea of “cross-viewing.”
And each of these suggests change. They suggest something that funds you to take a step forward.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was not without places where it would fall apart.
But there is the capacity, in this, to create change and move through it and know that things were going to be okay. And then to move out into the world and—look-a-there!—people are actually (laughs) going to be there, and you’re not alone. And not only are you not alone, but people are supporting this moving, away and out into the world.
No matter where we went, at the conservatory in Vienna, they would say, “Donna Faye, these are really incredible students, with incredible questions and the way that they’re asking these questions and the way that they’re working, it’s really reassuring.”
I’m not going because things were bad. You know, like some people say, “I’ve got to get out of here! Things really suck”?
Those MFA experiences have been really, really beautiful—just this beautiful, beautiful garden, in Sherin Neshat’s words. And we weren’t just feeling good: They’ve begun to produce something. People have gotten jobs; they’re producing work. Things are resulting from it.
You’re painting a very clear picture of the way you are moving forward—and the reasons why you are as well.
I can only say that being inside an organization like ADF for as long as I’ve been here, I really, really didn’t have a full sense of myself outside of here—ever. (laughs)
Everything was always in relation to this: My children, my summers, my everything was in relation to this. I think it has everything to do with that.
But I get it, don’t worry: Even when I’m in Im_Flieger, I’m never outside my history. Didier Deschamps knows that I’ve worked at ADF. I understand the politics.
But really, I have to say, those are some of the closest moments. Especially in Im_Flieger, because Markus Bruckner and Anita Kaya had never really heard of ADF. They asked, “ADF? Where is that?”
The closest I can come to it is saying, “Life is here. How do I exist? And where do I exist?”
So maybe that’s where I felt… that lightness: “Wow. Here I am. And it’s okay.” And…
…there is life beyond ADF.
But I really need to know—and it’s been such a deep, personal struggle for me to know—where I exist.
Because I spent so much time in all those places, personal and professional. And it was just such a small—it was such a small—world.
And there was nowhere I was ever going to say, or be able to know my relationships to others outside of my relationships to them while I was still at ADF. It was complicated.
I think the job can be very lonely. Martha and I talked about that.
Because you’re in a conversation with someone, it’s nearing the end of the conversation and you’re thinking, “It’s so nice that I’m having lunch with them; I’m so happy.”
And then at the end of the conversation they say, “I wanted to tell you about this class that I teach…” And so it slides there.
And I would go, “Oh, damn!”
I’ve just been played.
Yes, that’s what it was. I’m not saying that some of it’s inevitable; I get it. But, really, after 28 years I was just…done.
I hope that I’ve left behind—well, what I’ve done. I’ve made some incredible friends.
It was not what I expected. It was more than I dreamed it could be. It really, really was.
It was like, “Shit, that worked! Let’s try this! And that worked, so let’s try that!”
It started being a collective. Other people started working together, and we were all working together. I never felt I was alone in it.
Now I feel it moving more away from me and becoming more about us, instead. It’s not all about me pushing the universe anymore. I’ve needed to see myself in a different relationship with dance, than just shoveling. For a while there, it seemed that the more work I did, the more I was at the periphery of dance.
It’s time I got back in the circle.