An Interview with Melanie Stewart, Artistic Director and Founder of Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre and the producer of nEWJan 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Dance Headlines
The following interview was conducted for The Dance Journal by by Dr. Elisabeth Hostetter, Associate Professor of Theatre Rowan University and Board Member, Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre.
Dr. Hostetter: One of our first goals with this interview is to make sure that people know what the upcoming 2009 Winter nEW festival scheduled for January 5-11 is all about? Can you speak about what audiences and participants can expect?
Melanie Stewart: The nEW festival is, at its essence, an artists’ community. I think of it more and more as an artist colony where audiences are invited to come in and witness the process of making work and its ultimate production. It happens in a residency program at the University of the Arts and is produced by Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre in partnership with the University. The University provides us with a wonderful facility, which includes state of the art dance studios and a performance venue at the Drake Theatre. We offer community classes, workshops and rehearsal space as well as a limited amount of production support for our artists. The nEW artists are selected on an annual basis by a peer panel of artists. The community is self-sustaining and is made is made up of primarily Philadelphia area artists, although we have had a couple of out-of-towners. This year our community is comprised of the six 2008/09 artists, who will be graduating from the program in June, and the six incoming 2009/10 artists, who are just beginning the process.
This January will focus on classes and allow artists time and space to work on original choreographic pieces. The process will be begin on January 2, 2009 with the nEW Winter Festival, which will be a ten-day, intensive workshop that will include long rehearsal periods, community classes and culminate in a “Meet-the-artists/See-the-work” informal presentation. We will begin classes on Monday and we are now offering two classes every morning that will be taught by the artists and open to public. In the afternoons we have a number of available rehearsal spaces for the artists to work on their pieces.
The 2009 Winter nEW Festival provides a chance for all of the artists to come together with their dancers and to offer classes to the community as well as to invite other artists and audiences in to see the emerging work. It also provides a valuable chance for all of us to collaborate on ideas on how to get this newly devised work to production in June. We will all reunite on May 18th, 2009 to prepare for the premier production of the finished works of the 2008/09 artists, from June 3-7, 2009 at the Drake followed by another month of intensive classes and rehearsal time for the 09/10 artists.
The entire program lasts approximately six-weeks and we are in-residence working together in intensive collaboration at UArts to rehearse, learn and prepare for production. I also do a certain amount of mentorship with each of the artists on how to develop their core values, mission statements and brainstorm with them on ways to distribute their work. I also try to help them learn how to identify themselves as artists and how to stand up and claim their artistic identity. Other artists, who have been part of the process in the past, also come forward to mentor the nEW artists. It is a very organic kind of development, which is still emerging and finding its form. Even as we speak, I know that we will have an orientation this Friday and that I will lead with the incoming 2009/10 artists through a program that I have designed but there is always room for discovery.
In the next several months, we will be interacting with one another and developing close ties between mentors, beginning artists and even student interns. We will be building the kind of relationships that help work grow and we will be creating plans on how we will collaboratively produce a production festival of new work. This kind of interaction always brings surprises and generates new ways of working. We will also be exploring ways to sustain the community as we work toward June.
Dr. Hostetter: You also mentioned that you are featuring classes in the morning. Are these classes open to everyone?
Melanie Stewart: We primarily market the classes to professional dance artists. Interestingly, this is an example of how the nEW festival has developed over time because the nEW community class series was an idea of one of the current nEW artists. She said, “I’d really like to offer classes for ten dollars or what you can pay. It would be great and could be taught by nEW artists.” In the past I had brought in master artists and teachers to work exclusively with the nEW artists. But I decided to go with the idea of the nEW artist and to let them teach each other as well as interested people outside of the residency program. We offered open classes for the first time last year and it went like gangbusters! So many people came out, the classes were overflowing. It was fantastic! The artist who suggested the idea, Megan Mazarick, came forward to be the coordinator of that part of the festival. So, I no longer have to decide who teaches class, which is great because it distributes some of the workload and increases the agency that each artist feels as both an educator and a learner.
This January they’ve decided that we have the capacity to offer two classes a day. I don’t know how that is going to go because we don’t have a formal registration process. It is first come, first serve and it is marketed primarily to professional dancers on our face book and myspace pages, the Philadelphia dance listserv and by word of mouth. We are offering a class every day from 9am to 10am designed as a kind of a warm up and easy-going class and then from 10am to 11:30am we will have a more full-blown, full-bodied technique-oriented class.
I will not be teaching dance technique in this series. I will be sharing my approach to developing dance theatre within the context of the work that I am doing in a four-hour workshop on Saturday January 10th, which will cost twenty dollars (or what you can pay). We will explore some of the techniques that I have been using to create my new piece, currently titled “Time to Dance.” I’ve been invited to make this work for the 2009 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. I have been collaborating with obie-award winning playwright and director, John Clancy, and a number of other local artists in development under the auspices of nEW.
This summer I will also be leading the nEW artists in a series of professional development classes and I will oversee all of the student interns, who are up-and-coming artists that have not yet begun their professional careers.
I am very involved in the day-to-day running of the program but I am also interested in getting the artists to take ownership of the program. This year I haven’t done much planning for the “meet-the-artist” component of the Winter nEW festival. I am planning to give that culminating event over to the artists, whereas, in past years, I tried to design and manage all of the events. I am now looking for ways to turn over creating the vision and responsibility in order to give more ownership to the artists.
Dr. Hostetter: Speaking of the artists, can you talk a little about some of the artists involved in the program and the kind of work they will be working on.
Melanie Stewart: Sure! The artists who have been working with us for a little over a year include: Gabrielle Revlock, Jeffrey Gunshol, Eun Jung Choi-Gonzales, Olive Prince, Jaamil Oalwale Kosoko, and Charles Anderson. We were meant to premiere their work this January, but because of a schedule conflict with the space at Uarts, as well as a shared feeling that the summer may be a better time to premiere the works, we will be doing the presenting series in June this year. Meanwhile, the 2009/10 artists are Abigail Zbikowski, Nora Gibson, Sarah Gladwin Camp, Jenn McGinn, Guillermo Ortega Tanus, and Dina-Verley Sabb-Mills. So, we’ve got this in-coming group, who are all mostly emerging artists, while the graduating class is a mix of established/emerging artists and some out-of-towners. They are really two very different groups.
I currated the work of the graduating 2008/09 artists but I didn’t dictate any agenda and the work belongs to them. When they began the program I asked them about their choreographic research. I asked them to articulate a research question in words and movement. In other words, I interviewed them and they also got up on the floor in front of a large group of people and, in a way, auditioned for the entire community.
The questions are all unique and I’ve gotten to know their work really well. Charles Anderson is investigating the fusion form of the African aesthetic in combination with a contemporary approach to modern dance. He also has issue-based questions that he is exploring inside the fusion-based form. It is very multi-layered. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Gunshol is doing his “Rite of Spring.” He feels it is a rite of passage for each choreographer but his will highlight his interest in pop culture and cultural icons. He is also interested in investigating what audiences want to see, so instead of looking to the Stravinski score, he is looking to pop music and popular iconography to support the work. He is interested in his own interpretation of the “Rite of Spring” that addresses his own understanding of living in the world today. Of course, the piece is still about how a person struggles to overcome rites of passage and to live in the world of the moment.
Olive Prince looked to the moment that Virgina Woolf committed suicide by walking into the water with rocks weighing her down as the starting point of her new work. That was just the beginning image of her inspiration and it seems so long ago now. Now Olive’s work has grown and developed to be about femininity and the questions that women are asking, not about the right to take their own lives, but about their rights to live. Of course, these descriptions are just my interpretations.
Dr. Hostetter: I like how you are able to speak about the work with such intimate knowledge of it because you’ve watched it develop and you’ve been in the same room. Have you seen a lot of interplay between the artists and the resulting work because of your shared experiences through nEW?
Melanie Stewart: Well, I think work always has a deeper impact when everybody is forced to articulate what they are doing and how they are doing it in front of other artists. You have to be on your game. I think everybody appreciates any kind of format that brings you into a community where you have deadlines and you need to show your work. It provides a certain kind of discipline. I have also given them tasks and assignments for the professional development piece. They have done some writing and have articulated their process in a variety of ways. They had to lead the community of artists in exercises that demonstrated their core values and how those values show up in their work. They had to show us these ideas without showing us the actual work. We also have the work itself. We do struggle through because everyone is so busy working on their own piece that it is difficult to really look at the work of their peers. It is really an issue of time. Time is our biggest asset and something that we need more of. There has never been enough time.
Personal relationships between artists do develop. It becomes a matter of who has an affinity with another member of the team. Because we all rehearse in the same space during the same time period, anyone can invite whoever is around to come into the rehearsal room to provide feedback on developing work. I don’t really know if anyone’s work has been changed, but I do know the artist express a deep appreciation for the chance to interact so much with one another. There is on-going e-mail communication between past and present nEW artists.
I do think we have to go further to create a deeper connection. I know that because of my own recent experience working in a professional retreat with Deborah Hay last summer. I went there to join 20 other artists supported by Dance Advance, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Rowan University and personal gifts from Friends of Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre. I am now communicating with that community in a new and profoundly deep ways that I wouldn’t understand if I didn’t have that experience. We had to be together from 9am to 6pm for ten days. We were all working together on one thing that did not belong to one individual. That bonded us. That was a whole different kind project but it got me thinking about how and why artists can become so committed and responsive to one another.
Dr. Hostetter: Can you tell us a little bit how your idea for the nEW festival has evolved over time?
Melanie Stewart: I initially designed nEW as a cooperative presenting project. I’d seen other artists in the world create a vital and collaborative venue for new work. Philadelphia-based choreographer Paule Turner and I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and found a venue called Aurora Nova, founded by a German artist named Wolfgang Hofmann It highlighted dance and movement-driven theatre and it was the only venue of its kind at the festival. It was cooperative even though it was currated by Wolfgang. Each company showed up with three thousand dollars and they all had to work at the venue in the box office and house management. Then they shared the profits. There were all kinds of cooperative aspects. We wanted that kind of model when we started nEW. We wanted to work shoulder-to-shoulder with our buddies. We wanted to call up our friends and ask them to sponsor a venue at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival with us. That’s how the nEW Festival started. Later, we pulled it out of the Fringe and made our own festival in June. It was a cooperative home season for established area dance artists. It still has an emphasis on production but today I am shifting more toward valuing and rewarding process and ways to get artists to share some of the burden of financing, incubating and presenting new work.
Since our inception, Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre has always been providing mentorship and cooperative programs for artists. We used to have an “Artists Working” program in our studio on South Street all through the 1980s. Later on I helped produce a variety of other artists including Darla Stanley, Paule Turner, Julia Ritter, among others. So, I’ve always had producing as a part of what I did, and though my primary interest has always been working collaboratively with other artists in the rehearsal room, I have found myself very often in the role of a producer. The goal of all of my producing efforts was to expand our reach and to create community and community based programs. This is very important in terms of sustainability for the future of dance. I believe that, unless all artists begin to think this way, we are going to be in big trouble. If being a community-based producer and administrator isn’t a part of who you are already, than it has to be something that you start to be interesting in becoming. We have to find new ways to engage audiences because they have become increasingly tired of being solicited in the same old ways. Audience members are clearly not interested in being viewed merely as bodies in seats.
Today, nEW attempts to foster an artists’ colony where artists can come and devise work. We invite audiences in to watch and participate in the process of creation and we are also committed to training established and aspiring artists. Finally we want to facilitate eventual and actual production of new work. As it stands, the nEW program helps provide artists a stepping-stone to build other incarnations of their work that may have a wider distribution. For instance, a work started at nEW can go on to presentation at Live Arts or the Annenberg Center or even the Edinburgh Festival or the New York Fringe. nEW is an intentionally small, low-to-the ground program. It shouldn’t take much to produce nEW because the artists are doing all the administrative work and we need to focus on making the work and sharing our vision.
For more information about nEW visit www.newfestival.net