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 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 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.