Danspace discussion

We talk to Judy Hussie-Taylor, 45, executive director of Danspace Project.

Photograph: Michael Kirby

I feel like people don’t really know a lot about you or know what your point of view is. What is your vision for Danspace Project?
[Laughs] It’s a big question. I was a presenter at the Colorado Dance Festival, and we brought a lot of artists from New York and from the downtown–New York community over many years. I always felt a personal connection to the generation of artists who came up in the ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s. I guess my point of view is that I’ve always felt that I learned more from artists than through books or having any particular concept or idea about what I’m looking for. I’ve always felt this back-and-forth engagement with artists as a curatorial process. I also stepped away and did other things: I taught at the university [in the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Colorado-Boulder] , I worked in several museums and curated some smaller performance programs, I’ve done the festival thing with international touring companies. I’ll tell you one thing that might give some insight into my point of view: In the mid-2000s I was a consultant for the National Dance Project and, as a teacher and writer, I was asked to be a part of the dance lab—the formal name is Regional Dance Development Initiative—and there was something about that process that made me realize that I wanted to be back in a position of advocating for dance artists. I love interdisciplinary work, or work that doesn’t fit neatly into categories. I’m very interested in those spaces between things, but I just felt like I wanted to directly serve dance. It was a personal thing and then I let it go; I stayed involved with that program and worked at a small contemporary museum, with the hope of bringing in performance to the museum context, and then I got the call about this job. It felt different than other jobs because it’s Danspace Project, and St. Mark’s Church is a particular space. That connected to my interest in artists and space and architecture, and how a dancer relates to space. It’s not just a regular theater situation, and I’ve always been interested in that. I guess my vision and challenge, in broad terms, is how do you hold onto what the history of Danspace Project is as you look toward the future? That’s very much on my mind.

In recent years, the programming at Danspace Project has become fairly stale. I know that there’s a space issue—that because you share the space with a church, there are restrictions. While that’s true to an extent, there’s been a lack of vitality. How can you make Danspace Project relevant again?
Hmm. It’s probably too early to ask me that in terms of specifics. The only thing that I can say is that I will look for opportunities to make aesthetics bump up against each other. I think about it in terms of textures and layers, and I don’t know specifically what that means yet. It’s hard because I’m someone who likes to settle in and pay attention and listen and look and not have to jump. I don’t like to come in with, “This is the kind of work I like, and here’s what we’re going to do.” I just don’t approach things like that. I love movement, I love dance. Show me a good spectacle and I’m in. I appreciate your perspective, but I also have the opportunity, over this year, to watch, and I am studying [former director] Laurie Uprichard’s approach. I think there’s value in some things she’s doing; she has a sense of dance history. I don’t know if people understand that she’s been doing that.

I think people realize that she pays attention to older artists. I’ve always liked that about her approach, also.
I’m trying not to jump to conclusions too early. It’s a long stretch, and shows come and go so quickly; that is really hard. Movement is ephemeral enough. I see that as a field issue overall.

I feel you’re in a tough position, too, because of plans to move to a new site in Brooklyn. Are you supposed to be out of the church next year?
We don’t have plans to out of the church next year. We will remain, if all goes well, through 2011. There are a number of issues; these building projects take a long time, and we’re still in Phase One planning with the architects and also still exploring partnerships with other organizations in the Brooklyn facility. This is subject to change, but the ground-breaking will probably be a year from now, and the construction, I think, will be spring of 2011. Part of my thinking and vision is to continue to explore the Out of Space series; I want to find some partnerships over a couple of years so that we can have some flexibility to be out in the community a little more. So there are challenges with our space, but we’re not moving out next year—or that’s not on the table right now. A little bit depends on… [Pauses]

The church?
Yeah, but I just hope to keep talking to them. I also expressed to some people in the church, that even when we’re in Brooklyn, I hope to have some project-specific programs—whether they’re site-specific or a mini festival—at the church, so that we maintain some relationship even when we move.

Why is that important?
There’s a great emotional attachment to the church, and I think it’s a good thing to have a presence there: To always know where you came from. And I’m attached to it! [Laughs] I go in there, and I know it’s not great from an artist’s perspective, but I feel like it represents something. It feels like a community. I even love the way you can see the other audience members when you’re watching a performance. You’re really aware of where you are. It’s such a smart and intelligent audience. When you’ve been in Colorado—and I’m not saying that they aren’t intelligent, but there’s a critical mass of really wonderful, engaged, vigorous people here, and I love that. That space reminds me of all those things. And it’s just beautiful. It’s a romantic space. The challenge is how do you create a new space that’s not just like another theater? That’s been a conversation with the architect. I almost want to say: “Don’t think of it as a theater; think of it as a space where you want things to happen.” That’s very conceptual, but we’re looking for flexibility. Certainly you don’t want to replicate anything that’s already out there.

Is your job a two-person job?
Two point five? [Laughs] Yeah.

Would you rather be an artistic director and have an executive director?
That’s certainly the best possible world to live in. I think that is challenging for me: focusing on the building and the big picture. I enjoy all of that actually, but I also want to be able to see a lot of work and be with artists and go to rehearsals and be in studios. So yes, probably. There’s only so much time in the day.

When does your curation take over?
I guess not until late ’09. That’s the one thing I would love to tell younger artists especially who are trying to reach me for the first time—to just be realistic and patient because it can take a year and a half to two years. It’s sort of shocking when you’re in a conversation with an artist and you start looking at your calendar, and you’re already saying, “2010 in the spring.…” That’s just difficult on both sides. It might be fun to actually play with keeping certain spots open so you can be nimble and reactive. It would give a little bit of flexibility. Also, I’ve thought about “back by popular demand.” I’d love to create a way to bring certain pieces or evenings back. I don’t know if it’s having people vote or write in? So you’re getting a real conversation going about getting the community to participate.

That’ll never work.
I know. I wish it would. I’m idealistic.

Are you going to curate everything? Will you have artist curation or anything like that?
It’s been on my mind, I just haven’t landed somewhere with it. I haven’t mapped it out. We could talk in six months; I’m six weeks in, and since I hit the ground, I’ve been very consumed with the space-design program for the Brooklyn project.

Who are some choreographers that you admire?
Many. Gosh. It opens up a list of in-out.…

Actually, I think it’s important that you put your opinion on the line and say something.
I love Tere O’Connor. I’m always interested in the long career of Ralph Lemon. Eiko & Koma have always played an important part in my own personal worldview. I was just thinking about Sarah Skaggs lately.

Because I love the way she moves, and I want to see her in that space. I keep thinking, I’d like to see so-and-so in there. There’s other work that I don’t know quite as well but that I’m interested in: a young choreographer from Seattle, Zoe Scofield. Julian Barnett and Daniel Linehan are young and interesting—these are recent people that I’ve gotten to know.

Why are you interested in Barnett or Linehan?
I’ve only seen excerpts of both. Julian, I like the intensity that I’ve seen, and the intense repetition and a quality of remix that, again I’ve only seen a bit. With Daniel, I was thinking, What would the next generation’s manifesto be? We have the “no” manifesto. I think the piece that I saw, even though there was a lot of text in it, was kind of an embodiment of a lot of the issues. I thought it was smart and sincere and difficult and full of the questions that I think are on everyone’s mind, so I’m interested in that.

How much work do you see outside of Danspace Project?
I’m trying to get out to as many places as possible; what I’d really like to get into are the smaller spaces—to see what Aunts is doing. I’d like to get into Brooklyn more. But six weeks in, I’ve been going to Dance Theater Workshop and a couple of rehearsals. There’s a lot to see, and I’m interested in things that are happening in the main venues that we know about and outside of that.

Do you go to Judson Church on Monday nights?
I haven’t been there a lot, but it’s on my radar. I haven’t been anywhere enough.

What sorts of artists were you showing in Colorado?
It was mostly national. The international was focused on looking at the work of the Caribbean and the Americas. One project I was involved with was looking at the way popular dance forms move to the concert stage. For example, how does Latin popular dance creep into a contemporary-dance idiom? I think I’ve always been interested in the interplay between popular culture and contemporary work as well as traditional culture and contemporary work. Traditional meaning dance forms like Kathak—not just that someone’s borrowing that, but what does it mean to be working in that form? What makes that contemporary? What makes it old or new? Those were some of the ideas that we were exploring. At the same time, there are things that we were interested in that popped up and were just beautiful and wonderful, and we would present them because they didn’t fit into any particular idea.

More installation-like pieces?
There’s dance that’s made for the stage, concert dance, but then I guess I was really interested in how dance has a social function as well. So when I talked about Sarah Skaggs’s work—there was a piece called Higher Ground, and I was interested in that because she was putting it in different places and pushing on Dionysian group themes. You get together and you dance and there’s a letting go, but at the same time, how do you take those ideas and translate them into your work? I’m not too sure I’m answering the question at all.

It’s okay. I know more than I did when I asked it.What would that be? [Laughs nervously] I guess I always go back to: Why am I attracted to this? If I sound like I’m resisting answering, it’s only because I always go back to when I’m watching something. I try—and this is very idealistic—to push aside any thought of, Is this the kind of dance that I like? It’s rather, What am I seeing? How is my body reacting? It’s more of that then an aesthetic that I’m looking for at the end of the day. You can bring that in later, but I try to maintain openness and to let someone take me where they’re going to take me. The question I always come back to is, Have I stayed with them? Even if I don’t like the piece, have they made me pay attention? That’s really important. I guess I’m a little postmodern in that way. I’m not after a particular lineage or form. I love pure commitment. I do love the moving body. During Tere O’Connor’s piece at the Chocolate Factory, I kept thinking, This is so economical. There was no waste. He knew what he was doing and why. I wasn’t sitting there analyzing it, but it was precise. When I was at the festival, we used a lot of venues. But I felt like I wanted a home. You feel like a nomad when you work like that, as a presenter or a curator, and when I worked at this little theater at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art it was very limited. You couldn’t do a whole lot of dance; you would have to make choices accordingly. I just want to say that each space, each kind of limitation brings with it something that you have to take into account in terms of your vision. They speak to you if you’re really paying attention. But it’s not just like, Oh I love this work, let’s put it here. It’s not that simple for me. And it’s my hesitation to say, “I like this kind of work!” It’s broad.

I don’t understand why it’s so hard for a director to talk about personal taste. I could name ten favorite artists off the top of my head and they would all be different. Is it such a political game?
I take it very seriously, and I just think it’s that I’m in this new process in this new place and I’m looking at things with fresh eyes. I want to keep that available.

How familiar are you with New York dance?
I think there are generations of work that I know, but they are probably older. One of the reasons I wanted to move back here is that there is so little work touring around the country, especially in Colorado. I feel like I’ve missed a generation and a half. That’s why I’m here—I didn’t want to live the rest of my life without seeing work. I love it, and I miss it when I’m not around it. Whatever that conversation is about New York, it’s still the most vital place for dance in the U.S. It’s hard out there. It is.

What does it mean to design a choreographic center?
This is partly what I’ve been thinking about, which is maybe why I’m so hesitant on giving names. What’s the bigger and broader question? I’m obsessively thinking about that. I feel like I need more time before I can give you any sense of what Judy’s mark is going to be, because I’m actually thinking, What does New York need? We know it’s space—that comes up again and again. Even with some of the younger artists it’s like, sometimes we have a space but we can’t afford to pay anyone to be in it. So that’s another issue. Is it possible to create a way that the choreographic center would not only provide space, but also some per diem so that they could afford to have performers using the space? I think this board should have a role in weighing in on what it means to have a choreographic center? Once you have the space, what do you do with it? How do you design it? Who gets access to it and for how long? How long does it take to develop a work? And the other thing I mentioned: You scramble to get a work up, and you do your three or four nights. Can we look at a two-year cycle for a work? And be committed to that cycle? Those are the kinds of things I’ve been asking and talking and thinking about, because that is the next step when we move to Brooklyn. Affordable workspace is very much a part of the plan. On top of that, I see another layer, which are other kinds of mechanisms for supporting the development of a work—from inception or early on to midpoint and later—and then how could that center provide resources? My dream is to have an endowment out of which funds could go to anything that’s needed for a particular work. So there could be some flexibility.

Is there one overriding quality that is important for a dance to have?
Absolute physical commitment or presence. I look for that in a performer, too, or in a whole ensemble. The ability, whether in stillness or pure movement, to command a space.