Charles Slender-White interview with Tanya Chianese, 1 of 2

This interview was conducted in Berkeley on April 6, 2018, leading up to the ka·nei·see | collective and Cat Call Choir's premiere of their latest work, Nevertheless

Nevertheless World Premiere
April 19-22, 2018
CounterPulse, San Francisco


Charles Slender-White: What were the initial, leading inspirations or motivating questions for this piece?

Tanya Chianese: After my last large project, I was having a hard time figuring out what I wanted to make work about. This was in 2016 around the election and the Women’s Movement that followed. I realized that all I cared about during that time was women’s issues. I decided to make a trio based on Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood videotape about pussy grabbing. I was specifically inspired because I was really shocked by how many people were discrediting the fact that those things had happened and were happening to many women around us.

 Photo by Rob Best

Photo by Rob Best

I was curious what it would be like to work with three women and make a trio with luscious movement and inspiring classical music. And to have this lovely piece happen while the performers were grabbing each others’ crotches and boobs and other areas. With that work, Please Don’t, I wanted to juxtapose the beautiful music and dancing with these disgusting acts. It was really terrifying to start presenting Please Don’t. We got received a huge amount of enthusiasm around the work, as well as some online trolling.

Then I decided we should make one or two more pieces in this vein. Next, we made a duet called Stop Telling Women to Smile, which was inspired by the Street Art Movement and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s work of the same name. And, we made a third piece, …, about women being interrupted in conversation. We presented all three of those works during the 2017 International Anti-Street Harassment Week.

From there, we got even more positive encouragement and a lot of people wanted to see more. I was personally afraid to continue working on the topic of sexual harassment - it’s a huge - but then Heather Arnett from Cat Call Choir reached out and expressed her interest in continuing this work. So, we started collaborating together on Nevertheless.


CSW: Are you still interested in those inspirations and questions or has that shifted? 

TC: Definitely. 
 

CSW: Is there anything you’d like audiences to know before they see the work?

TC: In addition to the general trigger-warning and parental guidance we’ve included before the show, we also encourage people to take care of themselves, enjoy the show, feel free to laugh at the jokes, and come in with an open heart.


CSW: What do you mean by ‘take care of yourself’?

TC: It’s a hilarious show, but there are also a lot of tough parts for the audience and for the performers. To support everyone, we’ve been talking with a lot of arts organizations in the Bay Area about how to make sure we’re supporting our audiences when we’re presenting such difficult subject matter. For instance, there is a section about sexual assault, and for an individual viewer who might have gone through something like that, we want to make it very clear that they can leave if they want, and that there’s no shame in getting up and walking out of the theater. Or, if people want to talk about the show, they can reach out to us or contact other sources for support. We want people to know that the reason we’re creating the show is to create a space of solidarity where we can crack up and laugh at how ridiculous it is that this [sexual harassment and assault] happens, but also allow where we can cope with it and discuss it and increase awareness. 

 Photo by Rob Best

Photo by Rob Best


CSW: How is this work similar to or a departure from your past works?

TC: I’ve always been interested in perspective, and in putting things on the stage that can remind viewers that there are many perspectives and to encourage us all to have an open mind.

The last show I made was about Marchel Duchamp’s readymades, which was about taking everyday items and looking at them differently. The work before that, Cookie Cutter, was about how we look at things from a stereotypical point of view.

But, above all, I’m interested in presenting things on stage in an accessible manner without telling people to look at things in a certain way.

Beyond that, this show is very different than anything I’ve done before. It’s a collaboration which, for me, is very different. Without Heather Arnett, I don’t think I could have made a show that talked about vaginas and penises on stage, and grabbed boobs, etc. She has really pushed my creative envelope in a good way.


CSW: Have you learned or discovered anything in this process that you think you might carry forward into future projects?

TC: Collaboration. It has been both very hard for me. But, it has also helped me open my eyes to my own work and challenged me to try new things, which is what art making is all about. I really appreciate what we’ve been able to do together, and I’d like to continue that further.

Also, I want to not be afraid to make this sort of work again. If I want to make something blatantly about social change, I should just do it.


CSW: Do you see this work participating in a larger socio-political context? If so, how?

TC: Yes. We’re hoping to make a solidarity space, and a space for allies. We also want to create a place for everyone to have a good time, to joke about these things that we deal with everyday.

A fair amount of people who are going to come to the show are likely to experience street harassment on the way to the show. And so giving individuals the tools to recognize that by bringing more awareness to these issues, and taking power away from those instances, we can make change. 

 Photo by Rob Best

Photo by Rob Best


CSW: How many creative hours would you say it took to make this work?

TC: About 1,200 hours 


CSW: How many administrative hours?

TC: About 1,200 hours


CSW: How was this project funded?

TC: The project received support from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the Frank Shawl Residency at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, and individual donors. Heather Arnett and I have also provided a significant amount of support for the project out of our own pockets.


CSW: Was the funding for this project typical or atypical compared to your past projects?

TC: Typical.


CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been challenging?

TC: All of the collaborators are really busy making ends meet, with their other projects and many jobs and work schedules - this has made scheduling pretty hard. This, of course, is related to funding. If we could pay everyone more, they would be able to prioritize this work more - everyone has to be able to pay rent. 

  
CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been working out really well?

TC: I feel very happy, satisfied, and thrilled to be sharing this work. I think we’ve done a great job creating a well-rounded show where you laugh so hard you cry, while touching on the horrible feeling of trauma and assault. I’m very excited to present it. For all of the nights I was worried about the project and afraid to put it on stage, I think it has been working out really well.


CSW: Anything else to say about the work?
    
TC: One of the reasons I think Cat Call Choir is so successful, is that they take these real life stories of harassment and sing them to nursery rhyme melodies. By making fun of the harassment, you can start to take away its power. Maybe by acknowledging how ridiculous this all is, we can start to feel more empowered to start to speak up. 

 Photo by Heather Arnett

Photo by Heather Arnett

The Cat Call Choir performed at the Women’s March, we’re hosting community events, and we have plans to tour the work to keep the conversation going. The #MeToo movement and everyone else making work about this topic has been great and really inspiring.

We’ve also been gathering stories in this process from each other as collaborators and others in the community, and many people have been bringing their stories to us. Even though am making a show about this, and am fully aware that it’s happening all around us, I’ve been horrified to learn about how many people I know personally have experienced very intense sexual assault. That’s been emotionally really hard to process those stories, and has also provided a lot of fuel for the work. 

The performers deserve a huge shout out. They are being objectified and abused on stage, and abusing each other against their intuition. That’s really scary to do, and they’ve been so inspiring. 

I’ve never felt so empowered in my life as I’ve felt while creating this work. It has been thrilling to see how many people are excited and interested in the work. 


CSW: Counting both small and larger pieces, how many dances have you choreographed? 

TC: 75-100


CSW: What motivates you to make work?

 Photo by picsprobono

Photo by picsprobono

TC: Making work is all I’ve wanted to do, ever. I want to constantly make positive and beautiful experiences in life, about life. I think art makes our world a better place to live in...not only because it can make social change, but because it can create these stunning landscapes and environments. Art is everywhere, and society tends to forget that. My goal is to help others get into enjoying art.


CSW: What is something you’d like to do in your work that you’ve not yet been able to do?

TC: I really like choreographing on large groups of dancers. It’s very inspiring. Last year as a guest artist at SF State University, I got to work with 17 dancers and it was an incredible experience. I get to do that a lot in my teaching, but it’s a bit different. I have an idea for a next show, and having a large cast of 20-30 people would be ideal.


CSW: What are some outside limitations or constraints on your ability to make work?

TC: Always funding. This limits the ability to rehearse more, rent larger theaters, afford a publicist, afford marketing that is going to reach a larger audience. More funding would also give me more space, as a choreographer, for creation.

    
CSW: What is something you learned earlier in life that helps you in your career now?

TC: Two things.

 Photo by Rob Best

Photo by Rob Best

I was home-schooled. My parents were great about encouraging me and my sister to study what we love. That’s really important for me to remember to create work that speaks to me, with a heart to bring it to others and to include them and share with them, and add to our society in positive ways.

And, my dad is a professional film composer in Los Angeles. He’s the most humble person I’ve met. No one outside of the movie industry probably knows who he is. But, he’s been making a living and supporting a family and two kids solely on his work. He’s never been the main credit on a particularly famous movie, and he’s spent his professional life making music for documentaries and commercials and smaller projects. He reminds me that it’s not about recognition or ‘success’ but it’s about enjoying what you’re doing and living life and giving back to the world.

Unfortunately, competitiveness is a part of our field, but my dad and his career reminds me that winning and huge recognition is not what it’s all about. 


CSW: What is something you didn’t know that you wish someone had told you?

TC: I didn’t realize until after college that the job opportunities in our field are unlimited. It’s not just about getting a full-time dance contract. You could be a house manager, an administrator for a regional ballet company, etc. There any many avenues you can go down and still be a part of this great community. It’s important, also, to recognize that success is relative to what you want to do. 

 

Tanya Chianese, Founder and Artistic Director of ka·nei·see | collective, has been professionally commissioned twice and awarded three residencies. She was the 2016-2017 guest choreographer and teacher at San Francisco State University, and honored to be the Guest Speaker at the School of Theatre & Dance's 2017 Graduation Ceremony. Most recently Tanya has performed with Rogelio Lopez & Dancers, Garrett + Moulton Productions, Paufve | Dance, and Kristin Damrow & Company. She teaches movement at primarily Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Roco Dance, Berkeley Ballet Theater, and Ace Dance Academy, and is a guest teacher at Dance Mission Theater, City College of San Francisco, and San Francisco State University. In 2010 Tanya taught ballet to visually impaired adults and children in Oklahoma City through a grant funded by Devon Energy, and has also instructed children in after school programs at low-income elementary schools in Los Angeles through a grant funded by the city in 2006. She has worked as an administrator for Oklahoma City Ballet, Epiphany Productions, Blind Tiger Society, and dance anywhere®. She holds a B.F.A. in Modern Dance and B.A. in Art History from the University of Oklahoma.

Charles Slender-White Interview with Arletta Anderson & Adam Smith, 1 of 2

This interview was conducted in San Francisco on February 21, 2018, leading up to their premiere of their latest work, Good Strong Hands

Good Strong Hands World Premiere
March 16 & 18, 2018
CounterPulse, San Francisco

Charles Slender-White: What were the initial, leading inspirations or motivating questions for this work?

 Photo by Eric Garcia

Adam Smith: Usually what happens in our process, is that we talk about the things we’ve been interested in lately - maybe a picture, or singular moment, or general theme. Lately, I’ve been interested in a performance situation where, if I punched my thigh and gave myself a bruise one night. And then the next night the audience sees that bruise, but then sees me punching somewhere else on my thigh, what is the narrative that they will create in their own heads? So, considering incremental change from performance to performance, and the idea of object permanence applying to live performance...that something exists before the audience is there, it exists in front of them, and it will continue to exist after they leave the theater.

Arletta Anderson: So, that was our initial thought of object permanence as a theatrical device. And, then we we got this opportunity at CounterPulse where we're doing only two shows. Because of that, we realized that making a structure that could change from night to night would require a much longer run. That specific ideas has morphed, but the theory of object permanence has led us to think a lot more about presence and absence, and the presence of absence. How we experience loss or the removal of something, and what fills that emptiness. That made us think about tangible objects and materials, and the intangible and ephemeral. Oftentimes start with broad ideas, and then start to narrow the theme based on the people in the room. We’ve been watching a lot of sleight-of-hand videos, and have been having conversations about things that we’ve lost and people that we’ve lost, and our relationship to that. So, now we’ve gone beyond our initial inspiration and have become more interested in how the spaces get filled when something is lost or absent.
 

CSW: Are there other things that have shifted along the way?

AA: We had imagined at some point filling the space with stuff, of having a lot of objects in the space, but we’ve been pairing that away as the work has gotten more and more specific. This has been a pretty compressed creative process, too, so maybe if we had had more time we would have kept more of the objects around to figure out how to make them work within this piece. 

 

Good Strong Hands 07.jpg

CSW: Did you have the thoughts for this work before you knew that it would be at CounterPulse and on this timeline?

AA: Yes. We knew that we would either have an opportunity like this or that we would self-produce in another space later in the year. So, the circumstances of this production have shifted our timeline and creative process. 


CSW: Is there anything you would like audiences to know before they see the work?

AS: We don’t lie or pretend. One of the core elements of the work we tend to make is the recognition that we’re [artists and audience] literally a group of people in a room together. 


CSW: How do you think that shifts or can shift the way the audience experiences the work?

AS: I think it becomes a lot less presentational without the fourth wall. Even if we're not doing direct audience interaction, in that sense, there's more of a connection with the performers and artists and the content that's happening, rather than just sitting back and watching. It's not like looking at a painting, you’re having a more indirect conversation with the work.

AA: And part of what we're interested in live performance is this happening of real time. That we're all gathering in a space for a set period of time and we'll all continue on after that. It's not like watching a movie that you can pause and rewind and replay, and that has been produced and edited - we’re humans with errors, and all coming together with this agreement that we're going to experience the liveness of the performance. There is something magical about the theater and we're drawn to that, but we're also drawn to dispelling that magic. We just in a square room with curtains that are just pieces of fabric hanging from the wall. That play between the magic and the reality is exiting to us. We’re not any more magical than the audience members sitting there.

AS: It’s a weird place to be at, to constantly insist that 'this is not magical', but to want the audience to keep looking.
 

CSW: What are the benefits of working together, presumably with two different perspectives and skill sets?

AA: Our approaches to process are pretty different [from each other]. When we first started making work together, our first few rehearsals would feel like an awkward first date, figuring out what you want to do and what the other person wants to do. In terms of process, as a dancer, I'm used to getting into a studio with other people and collaborating, making, working, and refining together. Adam sometimes, as a writer, needs to go work and think by himself for a while. So, it has taken us time to figure out when it's a conversation and when it's more independent work. For us now, it's often movement first (as a result of many conversations), and then a lot of the text that gets shaped is Adam's work on his own. Then we refine together.

AS: The text is sourced from conversations we've had and from our collaborators.

Good Strong Hands 06.jpg

 

CSW: What do you think working together in this way provides?

AA: I'm not really interested in making/creating alone. Adam has been the driving force in us making work together.

AS: For me, coming from [the Neo-Futurist work of] the non-illusory, non-pretending, no fourth wall, task-driven, you-are-who-you-are kind of world...I noticed a lot of overlap between that and contemporary dance. We tend to align in our viewpoints and aesthetics, and so it's a good collaboration for us.

AA: This also came out of many years of seeing shows together and talking about shows. Our sensibilities are very much the same, and so that led us into thinking about how our forms and approaches could work together. We're interested in abstracted language, and task-driven movement, and finding ways for these to work together. We're really interested in how these forms [dance and theater] can not be distinct, but can be something together.
 

CSW: What are the downsides of working together?

AS: We've definitely had to find time to just be spouses together. It's the good and the bad at the same time - anytime we have dinner together at home for the last month we end up talking a lot about work, and we've made a lot of progress on the piece. And at the same time, working from home, we have to decide to stop working and just be humans together. With any partnership, we both try to defer to the other person to progress to the next step. When you're working alone you just make those choices by yourself, but there's more back and forth as we try to make decisions together.

AA: That might be a little less efficient than working by yourself, but at the same time we share responsibilities so that helps a lot.
 

CSW: How did you choose Eric Garcia and Melissa Lewis as collaborators? What does collaboration mean, in the context of this cast and this work?

AS: This is the first time we’re working with other performers, and we wanted to work with people who were familiar and friendly and people who we respected as artists.

AA: We also wanted to work with people who we knew were game for this type of work - not specifically dance and not specifically theater...people who had the facilities to do both - to speak and move - and people who we knew would be voices in the process. People who would be fully open to being collaborators. We’ve been driving the ship in terms of ideas and shaping, but the work would be very different if they weren’t involved. They’ve developed much of the movement and contributed a lot of language and personal narratives. It also felt very important to include people whose experiences were not ours. And, through that process, even though we weren't seeking this specifically, some things have come up around the difference between their cultures and familial experiences and ours.
 

Good Strong Hands 05.jpg

CSW: How is this work similar to or a departure from your past works?

AS: It’s similar because we’re still looking at the deconstruction of theatrical experience...putting process on stage in some ways.

AA: And with that, we’re still interested in the functioning of lighting and sound as things that are part of the happening on stage. Working with lamps and practical lighting elements, and having a lot of the sounds coming from us on stage. That's an on-going interest of ours - how sound and lighting can be a component of the work as it's being built and as it's being performed. It’s different in that we have other people in the work.

AS: It’s a continued exploration of what we’ve been doing, but just a different path. 
 

CSW: Have you learned or discovered anything in this process that you think you might carry forward into future projects?

AA: Working with specific collaborators has been really valuable for us. As collaborative makers, where there’s a constant dialogue between the two of us which is not always clear, it’s great to have people in the room who are patient with our process and back-and-forth. As we move forward we've realized that it's important to have collaborators who understand what they're going in to.

AS: This has helped us solidified some parts of the creative process, like story-boarding. We experimented with story-boarding in our last work, and decided that that’s something we like to continue doing. Some of the [creative] development practices we've toyed with in the past have become more codified in this process. 
 

CSW: Do you see this work participating in a larger socio-political context? If so, how?

AA: Yes and…there’s a way in which we’re thinking specifically about things. Especially having other people in the space with us, we’ve been very conscious about how people are being represented, about who is saying what and about whose words are being spoken by whom. I recently read a short interview with Anish Kapoor. He was asked about if he made political work, and the way he talked about that resonated with me. He spoke about how, once you label a work as being 'about' something, it only exists within that [frame]. But that if a thing can have many interpretations it can sit in one context and then maybe years later have another context. That feels really important for us in making work - not that we intend to have a legacy that can be looked at 10 years from now - but that our work is not intended to be read in only one way. We have our own interpretation of our work, and a specific set of experiences, and privileges, and ways in which we read the world. We intend that our work can be an experience with different lenses, that can be read by different people in different ways.

There's a lot of work being made right now that's very specific with its political and social situations and intentions. My experience of seeing work like that is that it can be very narrowing in my ability to have an experience with the work.


CSW: As an estimate, how many creative hours would you say it took to make this work?

AA & AS: 300.
 

CSW: How many administrative hours? 

AA & AS: 80
 

CSW: How is this production funded?

AA: It’s personally funded. We applied for Zellerbach, which we’ll know about just before the show, but otherwise it’s funded by our own resources and ticket sales.

AS: There are some parts of producing that we're really good at, but grant writing is something that is still a new part of our practice.
 

CSW: Was the funding for this project typical or atypical compared to your past projects?

AA: Typical. With the exception of weather // body - which was funded through the Edge Residency at CounterPulse.
 

Good Strong Hands 04.png

CSW: What are one or two things about this project that have been challenging?

AA: The time constraint. That was partly just the circumstance of having this opportunity, because we had previously thought about showing the work later in the year. And, managing developments in our own personal lives as partners - job changes and busy schedules and all that. 
 

CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been working out really well?

AA: The collaborators. They’ve been really great to have in the room. 

AS: And, the continued way in which we discover vocabulary has been satisfying.

AA: And, the ability to make a work in the space where you’ll be performing it. This was so crucial for weather // body, and it feels like a luxury right now for any work making.

AS: Being in the space where we'll be performing the work has moved us along way faster [in the process] than if we were making it in another space.
 

CSW: Anything else to say about Good Strong Hands?

AS: I’m excited to witness people witnessing it...to see how people interact with it and what their experiences are, both positive and negative.
 

CSW: Counting both small and larger pieces, how many works have you created? 

AA: 12
AS: 220


CSW: Do you each create independently, as well, or do you now primarily or exclusively create together?

AA: I don't make work independently.

AS: I write on my own, I write with us in mind, and I co-write with other colleagues.
 

CSW: What motivates you to make work?

AS: I'm constantly thinking about: what if? wouldn't it be neat if? couldn't it be interesting if x happened on stage? This process isn't necessarily fun, but it’s definitely satisfying.  

AA: My relationship to making is specific to working with Adam. I'm interested in the work I'm making as a dancer for other choreographers because it is collaborative, at least in some degree. I wonder if that will shift at some point, and what that transition would look like.


CSW: What is something you’d like to do in your work that you’ve not yet been able to do?

AA: Mode of making up to now has been around what’s easy, inexpensive, can fit in one suitcase, and can travel. Maybe that’s valuable but also limiting in some ways. It’s interesting for us to start to think on a larger scale. Part of that is a financially larger scale, and curious about how big we might be able to think if we had the means to do something a little bit larger.


CSW: What are some outside limitations or constraints on your ability to make work?

AS: Money and general resources in terms of venues and flexibility growing. 

AA: The lack of commissioning fees. 


CSW: What is something you learned earlier in life that helps you in your career now?

AS: The Monster at the End of This Book - features Grover from Sesame Street. The entire book is Grover pleading with the reader to not turn the page because there's a monster at the end of the book. And then you get to the end of the book and the monster is just Grover. This was my first lesson in destroying the fourth wall. It's fun and cute, and something I keep thinking back on.

AA: Most formative for me was living in New York and seeing a lot of work. This was invaluable as a maker - to witness and have conversations about work.

Good Strong Hands 01.png


CSW: What is something you didn’t know about work making that you wish someone had told you?

AA: That you don’t always have to know the answers...that not knowing is a part of making work.

AS: The allowance for chance and chaos and change. 

AA: The reality that in any one moment there are infinite choices to make, and you sometimes have to just make one.

AS: And that sometimes the most arbitrary choices are the ones that are most exciting for people.

AA: Trusting instinct.
 

CSW: When you experience a work of art that resonates with you, what are some of the components in the work that are typically present?

AA: Commitment to idea. I saw Tense Dave in 2005 at Dance Theater Workshop, and I cannot forget about it. There was an on-going commitment to one idea that I still think about.

AS: Goes back to the sleight-of-hand thing. Where you are seeing movement and language happening the whole time but, but something else is somehow hidden from view and then revealed at the end. Reminds me of a piece I saw around 2005 by 33 Fainting Spells.


CSW: What qualities or attributes do you think helps one be a compelling artist?

AS: Someone who likes to problem solve and also gives themselves problems to solve.

AA: A curiosity. A willingness to not know.

AS: A good brainstormer.
 

CSW: What attributes, perspectives, knowledge, or dispositions make for an ideal audience member?

AA: The same attributes as a good artist - a willingness to not know.

AS: Someone who isn’t tied to the idea of getting it or liking it or not liking it. With paintings we often consider the work rather than having to decide if we like it or not.

 

Arletta Anderson and Adam Smith are a dance artist and a theater artist, respectively. Locally, Arletta has danced with GERALDCASELDANCE, Christy Funsch, Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations. Adam is most known for his work with the San Francisco Neo-Futurists and his critically acclaimed docu-theatre experiment, Theatre Show. Together they create multidisciplinary performance that brings together movement, theater and music. Their work exists in real time: there are no characters, no fake sets, no suspension of disbelief. Anderson and Smith have shared their work at ODC (Pilot Program), The Garage, Exit Theatre, and in the Boulder Fringe Festival in Boulder, CO.

Charles Slender-White interview with Raisa Punkki, 1 of 2

 Photo by Raisa Punkki; Graphic Design by Alice Malia

Photo by Raisa Punkki; Graphic Design by Alice Malia

This interview was conducted in San Francisco on February 28, 2018, leading up to PunkkiCo's premiere of their latest work, Controle

Controle World Premiere
March 15-17, 2018
ODC Theater, San Francisco

Charles Slender-White: What were the initial, leading inspirations or motivating questions for this piece?

Raisa Punkki: In 2015, I started to investigate ‘the female’ and femininity - I’m a strong feminist. I started to look at women and the roles they play in religion. From this, I made Salve Regina in 2016. Most of the performers were women, and we wanted to push the conversation about women a bit further and start opening the boxes. I grew up in a very religious environment, and so I needed to unpack those boxes, too, to try to understand what was going on. That work led to the next piece, A Room (Of Our Own) (borrowing from Virginia Woolf), which premiered in June 2017. We were making that 2017 piece after the US Presidential election. It was about women and oppression, and came out quite dark.

I’ve always followed news and politics, but after the election I had to take a break. It became too much and made me so tired. I had to stop following the politics in this country and in Europe. I thought maybe I wouldn’t make anything for a while. But then, I got this idea about one word, "control".

I’ve never made a piece based on one word before. I was thinking that maybe people needed some structure and maybe there is some sort of safety in that structure - some control in and coming out from the system. Maybe there is a lot of liberty within some control, instead of everyone just doing and saying whatever they want. I got together two collaborators, Jack Beuttler [lighting designer] and Alice Malia [set/costume designer], to start to talk about how we can explore this with lights and set, how we can explore what is seen and not seen, etc. We started meeting regularly for this project more than a year ago.

This is very different for me, because I never started with just one word before.


CSW: Why were you interested in that word?

RP: Because I stopped participating in social media, I stopped watching the news, and with 45 [President Trump] and what he's doing...it's like vomit all the time. It would be nice to have a little bit of control and manners. So, I started to wonder about what this word means to me, how I'm reacting to it, and how my collaborators are reacting to it.
 

 Photo by Raisa Punkki

Photo by Raisa Punkki

CSW: Are you still interested in those inspirations and questions, or has that shifted? How/why?

RP: No, not really. The piece started from the word, but it has started to take on its own life. That's exciting.


CSW: Is there anything you would like audiences to know before they see the work?

RP: No, not really. People should just come to see it. Maybe some people would be interested to know that there’s a visual artist [Alice Malia] on stage who will be performing with the dancers.


CSW: How is this work similar to or a departure from your past works?

RP: Movement-wise, it’s almost nonstop. The last piece, in June 2017, was much slower and almost meditative. This piece is not as emotionally loaded as my previous works, like Salve Regina.


CSW: Have you learned or discovered anything in this process that you think you might carry forward into future projects?

RP: I discovered that I’m very tired. The current situation with news and politics is exhausting. I know that since I’m this tired, I need to take more time before starting on the next work.


CSW: Do you see this work participating in a larger socio-political context? If so, how?

RP: I don’t see now, exactly, how it is or isn’t part of a larger socio-political context. I’m interested in the dialogue that might come out of the audience's experience seeing it.


CSW: As an estimate, how many creative hours would you say it took to make this work?

RP: Approximately 1,500 hours (30 hours/week for a year)


CSW: How many administrative hours?

RP: Approximately 500 hours (10 hours/week for a year)


CSW: How is this production funded?

 Photo by Raisa Punkki

Photo by Raisa Punkki

RP: I work a lot for myself. I teach Pilates to private clients, and I calculate how many sessions I can have to provide money for my projects. I also got the Lighting Artists in Dance Award, a grant from the Wattis Foundation, and a rental subsidy from the Rainin Opportunity Fund to help with renting ODC Theater.

I come from a culture [Finnish] where it’s not appropriate to ask for money. That’s changing there, too, but it’s still difficult for me to ask people for money. I do have a few private donors, though, who approached me about supporting my work.


CSW: Was the funding for this project typical or atypical compared to your past projects?

RP: Typical.
 

CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been challenging?

RP: The process has been having its own legs and wheels and momentum to go forward. I have a wonderful team of collaborators, and mostly new dancers - all of that is going well. There have been some weird things happening - posters arriving damaged, packages of set materials arriving open and damaged -  little things like this that end up taking a lot of extra administrative time. It’s ridiculous, but it’s frustrating. 
 

CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been working out really well?

RP: Working with my whole team. Every time I go to the studio with the dancers or have meetings with the designers - they all contribute their ideas and interests, and everything grows together. Working together like this is the main thing, and it’s amazing.
 

CSW: Anything else to say about the work?

RP: Come and see it!


CSW: Counting both small and larger pieces, how many dances have you choreographed? 

RP: More than 50.

 Photo by Hien Huynh

Photo by Hien Huynh


CSW: What motivates you to make work?

RP: I have a life-long task and question, “why”. When that keeps coming back, it motivates me to make work.


CSW: What is something you’d like to do in your work that you’ve not yet been able to do?

RP: Have money. Then I could concentrate on the art making. Now I’m a producer, fundraiser, dancer, administrator, etc. Having enough funding and a great administrative team would be ideal. 


CSW: What are some outside limitations or constraints on your ability to make work?

RP: Funding.


CSW: What is something you learned earlier in life that helps you in your career now?

RP: I have done so many different types of works - huge theaters, musicals, and smaller productions in non-traditional spaces. I’ve studied music for more than 10 years, so that has helped me know what I want regarding musicality. I’ve gotten to work with other amazing artists in the past, so I know how important that is for me now and going forward. I have learned how to make something out of nothing. I learned this from home - even if you don’t have money, you find a way. If something is worth it, you find a way to do it.


CSW: What is something you didn’t know that you wish someone had told you?

RP: Nothing. I’ve grown into this. I started when I was 9 and knew since then that this was my thing. It might transform into something else, so I stay open to all possibilities.


CSW: When you experience a work of art that resonates with you, what are some of the components in the work that are typically present?

RP: The surprise. If someone can surprise me. I can see the skill and how it’s done, but if I can be emotionally surprised or surprised in some other way, that's exciting. I saw Meredith Monk a few years ago at YBCA and I cried after - there was something spiritual present there. This is why people should see art and why I want to see art, to get something original that stirs the insides.

 Photo by Raisa Punkki

Photo by Raisa Punkki


CSW: What qualities or attributes do you think helps one be a good artist?

RP: Humility. You need to be humble and have your antennae open. You have to absorb what is happening. Artists are vessels and filters, things go through them. Artists are story-tellers.


CSW: What attributes, perspectives, knowledge, or dispositions make for an ideal audience member?

RP: I don’t know.


CSW: How would you describe or define contemporary dance? 

RP: It should be contemporary - present, coming from this time, explored at this moment.


CSW: Do you make contemporary dance?

RP: I put that label on because people want labels. I don’t want to label anything. I didn’t even want a company, but when I moved here I was told to have a company to make it easier to market, I guess...


CSW: How would you describe your work if you didn’t call it contemporary dance?

RP: My works are very collaborative. It’s not just dance. The relationship between costume and set design, lighting design, sound and music are very crucial - the creative process is very interactive. 


CSW: What roles do you think art plays in society?

RP: I wish it had a bigger role. Because, again, the sensitivity and creativity in art is needed in all fields of life. I wish that that kind of thinking was more present everywhere - it would take the world in a different direction. Art making is not about making money, or getting something, or owning something. With dance, you don’t get anything concrete. I would like to see more value placed on things that are more spiritual and intangible.

 

Raisa Punkki is a San Francisco-based dance artist who was born and raised in Finland. While living in Europe she worked and studied to learn several genres of dance and movement practices including ballet, contemporary dance, butoh, jazz, boxing and Pilates, so she could better understand and tell the stories through the moving body. In Europe she worked and toured with Kenneth Kvarnström, Tero Saarinen and Anzu Furukawa, among others. After moving to San Francisco in 2003, she founded her dance company punkkiCo in 2005. Punkki is a mother of two children. Through that life altering change she has been able to receive yet another way to gain knowledge of the female human body and mind. Her quest in life is to try to find the answer and keep asking the question: why? She constantly tries to broaden her range of experiences so she can find, capture and expose life’s significant moments through her art making. Raisa Punkki’s artistic exploration happens through different forms of contemporary dance, theatrical work and through collaboration with artists from different disciplines. The creation of her choreographies takes time and the final presentation is based on the maturity of the idea. For her, the strongest form of expression is the nonverbal communication that happens beyond words. 

Charles Slender-White Interview with Kristin Damrow, 1 of 2

 Photo by George Baker

Photo by George Baker

This interview was conducted in San Francisco on January 22, 2018, leading up to Kristin Damrow & Company's premiere of their latest work, Eames.

Eames World Premiere
January 25-27, 2018
ODC Theater, San Francisco

Charles Slender-White: What were the initial, leading inspirations or motivating questions for Eames?

Kristin Damrow: From a choreographic standpoint, I had been doing a lot of abstract work...work that was approaching concepts from a movement-oriented and emotional quality perspective. For my next piece, I wanted to make something that had a narrative and a story. In the beginning of this process, I didn’t know if that story was just going to come from my own imagination or if it was going to come from somewhere else. One day, while wandering through the aisles at the Alameda Flea Market, my boyfriend pointed out a chair that he saw. He was clearly excited about it, and asked me if I knew about the people who designed it, Ray & Charles Eames. I thought the chair was cool and interesting, but I didn’t know anything about the people who designed it. I went home, kept thinking about the chair, and started to learn more about Ray & Charles. Ray was a woman in the 1950s, and she was doing all this work with her husband - plowing the way for new design ideas, and changing the way people were making things and looking at design. It occurred to me that this could be a dance! So, I started to dig in deeper. Even in photos of Ray, who was a dancer herself, there was something there I was initially attracted to, something rich. 


CSW: Are you still interested in those inspirations and questions or has that shifted? How/why?

KD:Yes. Once we hit the stage it will be about 18 months of work on this project, including research, rehearsals, all that. I’m still intrigued by the idea of character building and story line. I love what we’ve made and all the energy we’ve put into the work, and I’m also excited about moving on to the next thing once this project is done. 


CSW: Is there anything you would like audiences to know before they see Eames?

KD: I’ve debated this one a lot. There are some pieces where you want people to walk in with nothing. But with this piece, I want people to know in advance who they’re seeing a story about. I’m giving the audience the tools they need to walk into the space and have this experience. We’re doing a pop-up museum in the lobby with Eames furniture and information about who they were. The program has a blurb about them, too. Because a lot of people might not be tuned-in to the design world very much, I think it would be good if they’re able to walk in to the performance with a little nugget of background information. I haven’t given this much context around past work, so it’ll be interesting to see how that changes things for the audience when they’re seeing this work.

 Photo by George Baker

Photo by George Baker


CSW: How is Eames similar to or a departure from your past works?

KD: A major difference is that this piece is more narrative and my past works have been more abstract. A similarity to past projects is the way that I like to dive into the whole world of the work. For Eames, the whole thing takes place in the 1950s. The costumes are inspired by what Ray and Charles wore, and the music is inspired by the 1950s, too. Aaron Gold, the composer, has sampled many different jazz songs from 1950s California. Staying true to what that world was is very important to me.


CSW: Have you learned or discovered anything in this process that you think you might carry forward into future projects?

KD: Being consistent with all elements of the production - stepping away from the dance, and looking at all the little things - the poster design, the program design, the marketing, etc.. Considering all the things that can give audience members a sense and feeling of the work, so that when they’re walking into ODC Theater, where they might have been many times before, the space and experience can be transformed a bit. I really like that everything has come together in this way. This is something I want to take forward, and it feels like it makes the work even more special.


CSW: Do you see Eames participating in a larger socio-political context? If so, how?

KD: This piece does acknowledge the ‘women in the 50s’ element, which I touch on a bit in the piece. But, I’d say this piece is more about enjoyment, and doesn’t comment too much about the world outside or a larger spectrum of issues.


CSW: As an estimate, how many studio hours would you say it took to make Eames?

KD: About 320 hours


CSW: How many administrative hours?

KD: Around 640 hours. 


CSW: How is this production funded?

KD: We got grants from the Rainin Opportunity Fund and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, and a lot of individual donors. The rest of the funding came out of my own pocket and from income I’ve earned teaching workshops. I had my first fundraiser this year and that was great. One of my goals this year was to start to build my funder base by finding people who are willing to engage in the arts and support the work. 

 Photo by Austin Tovar

Photo by Austin Tovar


CSW: Was the funding for this project typical or atypical compared to your past projects?

KD: Funding for this project was unlike past projects, because for this one we also had support from this group of individual donors.


CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been challenging?

KD: The time. I spent 18 months working on this project. I wanted to give myself as much time as I might need. We did Pilot and Take 5 at ODC at the beginning of the process, and then there were a few months where I fell out of love with the project for a bit and had to try to keep the fire going. This was difficult because I had done so much push push push with my other projects on shorter timelines, and the turn-around was much faster. I’m happy I’ve taken this much time, but have also realized that an 18-month timeline is probably my upper limit. It’s great, though, stepping into the theater this week and being so ready. This length of time also gave the dancers time to live in the piece, and invest in the characters. Developing all of that has taken a lot of time.

There was also the fun challenge of finding ways to honor who Ray and Charles were as people without actually talking to them, and allowing for our own interpretations of them.  Ray & Charles Eames were both very private and there isn’t a lot biographical information available about them - though they did have their body of work. We pulled a lot from photographs of them, from documentaries, from anthologies of their work etc..
  

CSW: What are one or two things about this process/project that have been working out really well?

KD: Feels good to have this thing that we’ve spent so much time on, and to feel like all the different production elements are coming together and falling nicely into place. It has also been satisfying to uncover something new choreographically - trying something different and feeling some nice and good personal growth. 


CSW: Anything else to say about Eames?

KD: Because it aims to be an accessible piece, I’m hoping that this piece can help broaden our audience. I think it’s a cool way to bring in someone who might know nothing about dance, but might know about the Eames or might have one of their chairs. We’ve done collaborations with SFMOMA and AIASF (American Institute of Architects, SF) to spread out a bit wider to use this work as an opportunity to meet new people. I recently did an interview with a tech company, Fast Company, and it’s very exciting to me that this piece has landed on their radar...new people who might not have otherwise known about the work or been interested in dance. It feels good to find a way to integrate more of the community.


CSW: Counting both small and larger pieces, how many dances have you choreographed so far? 

KD: 50 or more

 Photo by Austin Tovar

Photo by Austin Tovar


CSW: What motivates you to make work?

KD: I’m always driven by music and the enjoyment of just rockin’ out. Besides Eames, a lot of my past inspiration has come from music or the feeling that a song gives me (and within a context of what I’m already thinking about). Sometimes I’m inspired by visual things, like something at a museum (my next piece is inspired by this). The spectacle of things - sheer number, scale, quantity of things - is also very interesting to me right now. 


CSW: What is something you’d like to do in your work that you’ve not yet been able to do?

KD: Something I’m going to try in the next piece is building my own stage. I like seeing dance in the theater, but I think the experience could be so different if I was able to manipulate all of the production elements.


CSW: What are some outside limitations or constraints on your ability to make work?

KD: Budget. I also think dancers in the Bay Area are often under a lot of stress because they have to do a lot of other jobs in order to survive. So, their ability to commit to a project or to be involved in multiple projects is limited. 


CSW: What is something you learned earlier in life that helps you in your career now?

KD: Competitiveness. As a kid I was in 4-H. My mom put me in any competition she could - cake decorating, clothing making, horse riding. Early on I wouldn’t say it was a healthy competitive nature. But now, in growing as an artist I’ve learned that I can channel this competitive nature towards myself...asking how can I improve myself as an artist and use my own limitations as competition. Always giving myself the next level to strive for keeps me going - I’m a work horse. 


CSW: What is something you didn’t know that you wish someone had told you?

KD: The challenge of switching hats, from choreographer, to admin, to teacher, to girlfriend, to dog mom, you know? It’s hard to give a sufficient amount of time to one thing, take a break, and then switch to a different frame of mind. I think I’m figuring it out. We all work differently and have different work-flows, so it’s probably something that people just need to navigate for themselves and find through experience. When I was in school, my professors were very clear that this career isn’t easy and that we had to be self-motivated. They were very upfront about that. But, it would have been helpful to have a little bit of a heads up about switching mental spaces, too.


CSW: When you experience a work of art that resonates with you, what are some of the components in the work that are typically present?

KD: I don’t know if this is because of my recent project, but I love storylines now. Having an attachment to an experience of the dancers on stage. Seeing them interact with each other and have an experience with each other is interesting. Seeing things that are a bit otherworldly. And, seeing things really thought out - costumes, lights, etc. - seeing all the pieces come together and seeing the investment from the artist. I love physical movement, too..the full embodiment of the dancer moving...sheer physicality. 


CSW: What qualities or attributes do you think helps one be a good artist?

KD: Following and trusting your own impulse, and fully going there. If there’s an idea, don’t worry about what’s the norm. I think being able to take risks and roll with them.  


CSW: What attributes, perspectives, knowledge, or dispositions make for an ideal audience member?

KD: Someone who can walk in, see the performance maybe without any context about the work, and say something more than just ‘good job’. Someone  who can  give a genuine perspective without a filter. Being congratulated on making work is always nice and feels good, but I like to hear feedback that goes beyond that. 


CSW: How would you describe or define contemporary dance?

KD: I think contemporary dance involves having your own unique perspective on what you’re approaching (concept, subject, form, etc.).  And, looking at it from a pure movement sense, contemporary dance has that visceral, embodied, sensory physicality. There’s a humanistic physicality to contemporary dance - maybe more technique, maybe more emotion, but something that expresses, through physical movements, the focused ideas we’re working on.
 

CSW: Do you make contemporary dance?

KD: Yes.


CSW: What roles do you think art plays in society?

KD: Commenting on what’s going on around us, whether personally or societally. Live performance can also give people a moment to step away from all that, too, a moment to step into a space and experience something different. And there’s something about human connection, too. All these people come together, sit in one room, and experience something together.


Kristin Damrow grew up on a rural farm in Wisconsin then lived in Chicago while earning her B.A. in Dance from Columbia College. In 2010, she moved to San Francisco, California, where she founded Kristin Damrow & Company. Damrow has choreographed and produced over 15 new dance works for venues throughout the San Francisco/Bay Area. Her work is said to be “charged from beginning to end; an intoxicating contemporary dance that hooks you instantly and keeps you on the edge of your seat.” (Heather Desaulniers, Critical Dance) In 2017, Damrow was selected into the esteemed ODC Pilot Program, which highlights emerging artists making an impact in the San Francisco/Bay Area dance community. Kristin Damrow & Company’s annual home seasons have received support from the Zellerbach Foundation and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. Damrow is a faculty member at ODC Dance Commons and Dance Mission Theater, and is the director of Body Language, RoCo Dance's pre-professional teen company. She has taught master classes at Columbia College (Chicago), Gibney Dance (NYC) and Mark Morris Dance Center (NYC). Damrow also is a guest instructor at the University of San Francisco, Sonoma State University, City College, Shawl Anderson Dance Center, and LINES Ballet.