What conditions does an artist need to make anything worthwhile? Aside from such craft-specific tools as paintbrushes or actors, the basic resources for invention are: time and attention, and freedom from the scramble to find time and attention. I spent part of my summer at the American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, NC, a training ground for modern dance students—who, as students, generally have lots of time and attention, at least for the duration of the festival. The ADF also serves, to a small extent, as an incubator for new work. (Other American summer festivals, less focused on student development than ADF, make the creation of new work more central to their mission, offering space and time, as well as other resources, to known choreographers.) But even these festivals, even the artist residencies offered by academic institutions or theaters themselves, are short-term solutions for artists aspiring to long-term careers. And while it’s true that the shortage of resources for dance is hardly a new phenomenon (see the New York Observer’s recent article, “The Crisis in Modern Dance”), I got a glimpse at ADF of what an alternate model of artist support could produce. At a post-performance Q&A, American choreographer Victor Quijada recounted some of what has been available to his RUBBERBANDance company as an artist in residence at Place des Arts, Cinquieme Salle (a Lincoln Center type institution in Montreal). They are finishing their fourth and final year in this residency.
Over that period of time, Quijada has been privy to what many American choreographers have not. He has had the opportunity to develop and clarify his ideas without worrying about where he will rehearse and how much it will cost, or dealing with the ever-faster cycling of grant applications. Specifically, he has been articulating his own movement language—the physical logic driving his work—so that it is easier to transmit to other dancers. This is not a small task; honing in on one’s own kinesthetic nuances to the extent that they can be fully transposed onto another body requires more than self-awareness and descriptive language. It is a deep, sustained learning experience, drawing on investigations of self and difference, and mapping connections between the sensations of movement and the sensations of learning. His own body knows classical ballet principles, modern dance, and L.A. b-boying, so as a choreographer, he’s finding an effective way to convey his personal approach to energy to his dancers.
But communicating and distilling movement ideas are not the only things Quijada’s been up to. He collaborates with a gifted composer—another rare opportunity for most choreographers—who challenges him as an artist; he creates work for camera (choreographing and directing); he continues to compose dances for the stage. The range and depth of these activities are largely made possible by the company’s stability as resident artists at Place des Arts.
In New York, once considered the capital of the dance world, most choreographers are making dances however and wherever and whenever they can. Their self-investigations—about the particulars of their movement, their objectives as artists—are quite frequently the very subjects of their art-making. A New York Q&A typically goes something like this: befuddled audience member asks how the choreographer knows when a dance is finished, and she responds that it’s over when the performance date arrives. Then the next project picks up where the last one left off.
A long-term residency doesn’t necessarily change this; art is a continuing investigation. Nor do I mean that deadlines aren’t useful—many a masterpiece has been cranked out against the clock, though quite a few of those have undergone revision after the premiere. I don’t want to undervalue exposing artists’ inquiries and processes either, or cling needlessly to climax/resolution arcs. On the contrary, I have gotten tremendous pleasure from following an artist closely, and I find that knowing what that artist did last makes what he does next more fulfilling, even if that dance won’t make it into any history books.
But what if there were more possible answers to the question, “When is it finished?” And what if a residence meant a real home, at least for the few years Quijada has been able to take? Most American “residencies” don’t last long enough to make one work, certainly not the kind of work an artist might call “finished.” Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write anything great, she had to have income and a room of her own. Essentially, this is what all artists need. She also, rightly, pointed out that a genius denied these basics (like Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister) would never have found form for her brilliance, no matter how bright—a loss both to that artist (whom Woolf decided would commit suicide) and to the larger public.
America—New York included—is being drained of gifted dance creators, many of them (like Quijada, but also Meg Stuart, William Forsythe, and a long list of others) taking advantage of resources abroad. Looking at the scope of what Quijada has done in just a few years, I can’t help but wonder what other talented artists could come up with, given the chance to deepen their practice. The pressure and bustle of working in New York makes choreographers good at thinking fast and making do. But what if, at least a little more often, they could actually finish something?