AUNTS, a group devoted to dance, presents "AUNTS style," a new showcase of work featuring a wealth of experimental choreographers and dancers at the Brooklyn space Littlefield. Feast your eyes on works by Christine Elmo, Stacy Grossfield, Joey Kipp, Karl Scholz and Adam Smith. Started by Jmy James Kidd, AUNTS is now led by Laurie Berg and Liliana Dirks-Goodman, and it remains one of the dance world's pleasures.
The ever-shifting group AUNTS is dedicated simply to, as its mission statement goes, “having dance happen.” The credo is about fostering dance and performance, but it’s also a state of mind. Over the years, AUNTS events have been presented in lofts and on rooftops; on Thursday 19, “AUNTS style” will take place at Brooklyn performance space Littlefield. In usual AUNTS fashion, there will be overlapping performances—artists include Christine Elmo, Stacy Grossfield, Joey Kipp, Karl Scholz and Adam Smith—as well as five video works. The show ushers in a new era for AUNTS, which will host presentations more frequently beginning in the fall. The group, started by the galvanizing Jmy James Kidd, is now in the hands of Laurie Berg and Liliana Dirks-Goodman; Kidd, a creative force in all aspects of dance world, asked them to take over after she moved to Los Angeles, where she now runs Pieter, a dance studio and performance space. Recently, the current heads of AUNTS sat down for a chat.
Time Out New York: When did you discover AUNTS?
Laurie Berg: I remember going to an AUNTS show in 2005 or 2006 in Williamsburg and thinking, Oh my God—why didn’t I know about this? I’d been living in New York for a couple of years, trying to figure out how am I a dancer, where do I fit, and what am I supposed to be doing here? I felt like there was this community of all these young people that I related to, and it got me really excited, and somehow I started helping Jmy and Rebecca [Brooks] with events. They would dress me up in an outfit, and I would stand at the door and check people in; I started inviting all of my friends to come to the events.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: I think at one event, I was like, “Oh Jmy, this is so cool—I love it. I want to help or do something,” and so I started helping too. I’m a visual artist, and I went to architecture school. When I first started going to AUNTS, I was working as an architect. I really liked the freedom and the playful atmosphere that was going on there. My mom’s an artist, and it was kind of like all that art-happening stuff that I always thought should exist and I knew did exist, but I hadn’t seen it yet. It was an easy way to interact with people that wasn’t just hanging out and drinking—it was dancing and being weird.
Laurie Berg: I also remember seeing people that I was taking classes with at Movement Research—and seeing my teachers. They were performing alongside their students. It wasn’t necessarily intergenerational, but people at different stages of their artistic careers were interacting. That was important.
Time Out New York: When did you take over?
Laurie Berg: In 2009, when Jmy was still running AUNTS, we helped with an event for the Movement Research Festival called Factory/Market. We also helped with “Team One,” which was at the Chocolate Factory. [It featured three artists chosen by a 30-person curatorial team.]
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: And I helped with “Populous,” which features ten simultaneous performances, depending on what the space can take. The audience also occupies a place on the stage, even though there’s not really a traditional stage; the audience has a designated space that’s similar to how the performers have a designated space. We came up with ways to almost draw this map of boundaries on the floor.
Time Out New York: Didn’t you even provide maps for the performances?
Laurie Berg: Yes! That was your program.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: You could see who was performing where in the space. We both really liked “Populous,” and we’ve tried to make it happen again. I think we’ll bring it back for sure.
Laurie Berg: It needs a particular type of space.
Time Out New York: When I saw it, the performance took place on a rooftop in Bushwick, right?
Laurie Berg: Yes. And the second time was at the Gym at Judson gym.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Jmy used me to do more of the administrative work and some of the design. I think she saw that I wanted to be around all of the artists and to have that interaction.
Laurie Berg: And you started designing posters, too.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: I got laid off in October of 2009 at the height of the economy crashing—and maybe an hour after I found out, I e-mailed Jmy and she was like, “Great. I have tons of things I need you to do.” [Laughs] I said, “I was really sad for a minute, but then I realized I get to be on unemployment.” I told her that I thought we should screen-print all of our posters, and she said, “Let’s do it.” I worked on the “I Believe in You” poster for a while. The next thing that happened was that Jmy said, “I’m moving to L.A., and I think you guys should do AUNTS.”
Laurie Berg: For the first couple of years, we didn’t tell anybody, and we kept our names off of everything. There were a few times when people invited AUNTS to speak on a panel, and I think some people thought that Jmy was going to show up; when we did, they were like, “Who are you?” And sometimes they had no idea who was going to show up, and that was kind of great—to be completely anonymous. AUNTS is its own entity; it’s not really about us.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Now it’s functional for people to know that we’re doing it.
Time Out New York: What do you want AUNTS to be now? How has it changed?
Laurie Berg: I think that one of the most important things is that it’s always a place for the community; the community will shift and morph, but it always needs to be open so that it never becomes an insular thing. Also, that it stays interesting for us as artists creating events—and this sounds bad—but not making other people our experiments. It needs to be about the community and not about our ovearching ideas. To me, that becomes choreography, as opposed to an open-forum event and structure. That’s interesting to think about. But I don’t want AUNTS to be that.
Time Out New York: Or a platform for the people who started it?
Laurie Berg: That’s exactly what we don’t want. We’re trying to find new spaces.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: That’s what this event is about, too. We have never used Littlefield. But Laurie met the man who runs it and worked us in there. It’s a little bit of a different format. We have had shows before where we had a door price. This is a cabaret space; we usually use nontraditional spaces that aren’t used for any kind of performance.
Laurie Berg: Who knows what will happen? But they’re open. Ideally, it’s great to have no admission price—to have the free bar and the boutique, which is a great thing that Jmy started. [In lieu of admission, attendees donate alcohol or an item for the boutique] It allows the audience to fuel the night. But at Littlefield, people will pay for drinks, and we’re collecting $5 at the door. All of that money will go to the artists. I guess a dream for AUNTS is to pay all of the artists every time.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: We were talking about this last night: There are some interesting models, either at the fringe of dance or outside of dance, and one that I’ve been interested in is the East Village party-club scene from the ’80s and ’90s. At places like the Pyramid, it seemed that artists didn’t get a lot of money from performing, but they could perform pretty regularly. Ideally, if we could help add to this whole ecological system so that artists had more opportunities to perform, it would be great.
Time Out New York: I’m excited about that. Like, it could be a club situation, but it wouldn’t be so burlesque-heavy?
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Yeah. It would be really mixed, like we are right now.
Laurie Berg: It would be like a club with no chairs and no stage. It would just be a space.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Part of the whole AUNTS ethos is that the artists get better at their craft through actually doing it, so there’s this practical education. You want to perform? You go and perform.
Laurie Berg: I feel one of the most important things I learned performing is: How much attention do I need, and why? At an AUNTS event, does everyone need to watch me? Can I go in my corner and do my thing and learn something? You discover things in this real-time environment.
Time Out New York: Without a ton of pressure.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Yeah. But there is some pressure. You always want to succeed, and you feel bad when there’s failure, even in an AUNTS situation. But I don’t think the audience ever notices.
Laurie Berg: No. But you want to push yourself.
Time Out New York: How did you curate “AUNTS style”?
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Joey Kipp has been trying to do an AUNTS show for a really long time, and it hasn’t worked out. This is actually his first time—same thing with Caitlin Marz.
Laurie Berg: Adam Smith is going to be rapping about the economy. Anna Sperber is working on some new material.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: It’s been a little while for Christine Elmo, too; we were just talking to her one day before we knew what day this show was going to be, and we asked, “Do you want to do an AUNTS [event] again sometime soon?” It kind of comes together like that. In the case of Joey, I saw him dancing in so many people’s pieces, and I was like, “Do you want to do your own work sometime?” And he said, “Oh! I didn’t think that anyone was ever going to ask!” Stuff like that happens, where we’re like, “Come and try something.” We do like to mix it up in terms of, we know this person is not going to be doing a dancey piece with an intended front. Then, there are choreographers and dancers who are making a show that’s intended to go into a [more conventional] space later. So there’s some of that and others who are like, it’s free time, I’m going to do an experiment. Karl Scholz—he’s actually my roommate, and he writes musical apps for the iPad. He’ll do some musical-performance experimental thing.
Time Out New York: Who are the Good to Go Girls?
Laurie Berg: They are a burlesque group and they’ve performed at Littlefield, and one of the girls who performs in that group is one of the reasons why I found Littlefield. So I said, “I would love for you all to be present, because we wouldn’t have known about this venue [without you].” They know the stage. They’ll do something fun at the end of the night.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Also on the program is Adam Scher, who actually did one of the most amazing performances at an AUNTS [show]—maybe ever. It wasn’t necessarily amazing for what it was; it was amazing for the way that the crowd got into it. He had a video of himself as a five-year-old singing some song from The Little Mermaid, and then he danced and sang with his younger self. People were cheering. It was like listening to a crowd at a football game. It’s that kind of thing that makes us think we have to keep doing this.
Time Out New York: There aren’t a lot of opportunities for artists like this, right?
Laurie Berg: No—not that are open. Maybe there are opportunities, but they’re focused in a certain direction and this is more about, you pick your direction and we’ll provide you with space.
Time Out New York: Are either of you showing work?
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: I am. I made a video of Emily Wexler a couple of months ago. She was doing a very disturbing dance, and I could hardly watch it. She was dragging this pin around her body and it was leaving this bloody trail.
Laurie Berg: She actualized the piece at the Tank.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: I recorded the audience instead of her. It’s video of the crowd. When I watch it, I relive my emotional discomfort of watching this woman harm herself and inflict pain. The video is going to be looping all night near the bar.
Time Out New York: As an architect, what drew you to dance and performance?
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: I don’t know if I can explain it in a way that makes total sense. The thing I was drawn to with architecture was the idea that you can make something, and it’s an extension of yourself and people use it. It can stay there forever. Dance is so much more ephemeral and temporary, but it has an extreme partnership with all of that infrastructure. Some of it probably goes to a lot of ideas of postmodernism that I’m interested in as a designer and artist and architect. There is meaning embedded in things, and with dance, you really see the way something is made and organized, and how it affects people and makes them interact in certain ways and feel certain things. I think both practices are extremely tied to an unseen [infrastructure]. There’s a political system, there’s a social system, there’s even a system of thought. It’s about culture. Both architecture and dance look at those things and try to pull out meaning.
Time Out New York: And as a dancer, where did you begin?
Laurie Berg: I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, and I grew up at a Midwestern dance studio: Merle Scheff School of Dance. I didn’t know what modern dance was until I got to college, and actually, Lili [Dirks-Goodman] and I met at the University of Arizona. I went to school for dance there because they had a jazz-dance program, and I thought that was going to be what I did. But then I realized… [Winces] I have a soft spot for jazz dance though.
Time Out New York: It’s coming back.
Laurie Berg: Oh yeah. I’ve still got it. [Laughs] But we lived next door to each other in the dorms, and we became partners in crime. Troublemakers! But we didn’t interact artistically until New York. I moved here in 2003.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: I moved in 2006.
Laurie Berg: I ended up discovering Movement Research, and that was really the way I came in. I didn’t know anything. There was no connection from Arizona. They didn’t teach us anything about being an artist and a dancer. They kind of taught us how to maybe open up a Pilates studio or go into a company in Chicago.
Time Out New York: What do you think of the New York dance world right now?
Laurie Berg: That’s a huge question. Since I’ve been here, I feel like it got lost, but it’s coming back around—maybe it’s constructing itself again. I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but it does feel like it was trying to process too much, and now it’s like, No—we’re a community; we’re going to look at dance again. It became very ironic and afraid to be what it is. Now people are going back to that idea of, I love to dance, and it’s an important facet of art, and I’m a valuable part of society. I deserve to be here. Dance is reasserting itself. And this dance community in New York—for all the things people complain about, it’s kind of amazing. You go to an AUNTS event, or to a party or a performance, and you see people, and you’re like, Wow—you’re my cousin, my sister, my brother. Maybe it’s not unique, but it feels unique to me. It feels like you have this crazy family.
Time Out New York: How do you maintain the Jmy-ness of AUNTS without actually having her around?
Laurie Berg: We’ve actually talked a lot about that.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: She’s present on a level. We’re friends with her, and we talk to her. I think now we are more confident about doing things that we think are right without consulting her. Before, we would be like, “Do you think it would be okay if we changed it a little…?” and she’d be like, “Oh, yeah. Done that before; it’s totally fine. Just do it.”
Laurie Berg: I think the free boutique and the free bar are awesome. Also, there is the idea of just being unafraid to go for it, to be unapologetic, to be messy—Jmy is messy in a composed way. I don’t know how she does that! But to do it on your own and to figure out what it is you want to do and what you need, and to just make something happen… Don’t wait for anyone to do it for you. That’s what we think. Which can be a really hard thing in the dance community—people wait for opportunities, and that’s what’s so great about AUNTS: Don’t wait—just do it.
Time Out New York: You will have an event at September, which will likely be at the Secret Works Loft in Bushwick. Are you going to try for more regularity in the coming year?
Laurie Berg: I think every other month. We have a few things cooking.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: You asked about the future of AUNTS and about the dance community. The company model is really dying. So is this a model for how you create and develop your artwork? And how does that end up influencing the form in the future? A lot of this stuff has yet to be seen. I think we can see a little bit of it with some artists. I definitely think that [choreographer] Jen Rosenblit is totally up-and-coming, and she was a fairly early AUNTS artist. We’re about having fun, but the most important thing really is the dance and the performance. There might be music and video and live drawing, but that is there because it’s something that influences dance; there can be an interaction between those different artists in a way that helps dance grow. That’s the point.
Laurie Berg: This is something that we were talking to Jmy about. Someone else coined this phrase, but she spoke about “peer education”—taking control of your education and learning from your peers.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: It’s totally decentralized and community-sourced. You don’t need to go to a special place where they can give you some certificate. It’s more about talking to your friends and seeing if they know how to do something.
Time Out New York: Do you think you can be very honest with each other within AUNTS? That’s sometimes the problem with “peer education,” right?
Laurie Berg: I hope so. I think that people should feel comfortable enough to say, “I didn’t like it, but it’s not a personal affront.” It’s more, “Hey, that didn’t work for me, and this is why.” I don’t want us to lie to each other. I’m tired of that. We can’t afford that.
Liliana Dirks-Goodman: At AUNTS though, I don’t know that you actually need to tell someone you liked it or not.
Laurie Berg: [Laughs] You know.
“AUNTS style” is at Littlefield Thu 19. Visit auntsisdance.com for information about future events.