Q&A: Sam Miller talks about programming the River to River Festival

Sam Miller, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, talks about how dance brings new life to Governors Island and lower Manhattan

Trisha Brown Dance Company is part of the River to River Festival

Trisha Brown Dance Company is part of the River to River Festival CYRILLE GUIR

This River to River Festival is back with an exciting lineup that includes Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, Eiko, Maria Hassabi and Reggie Wilson. Sam Miller, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, talks about his plan going into this year and looking to the future.

Dance artists seeking nontraditional spaces have a history in New York City, and no one has done more to fulfill that need—at least on Governors Island and in lower Manhattan—than Sam Miller. As the esteemed president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Miller masterminds the River to River Festival, which brings sophisticated dance to atypical venues. But these aren’t just one-off affairs; part of the point of the festival is to provide choreographers and groups—including Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, Eiko, Maria Hassabi and Reggie Wilson—opportunities to expand their theatrical experiences. In showing new versions of past productions, the art deepens. It’s reciprocal for audiences too. What is the role of River to River in a changing downtown? Miller spoke about the role artists can play.

How did you think about changing River to River this year?
Each year, I try to build on the year before, because it’s an idea that has to be proved and improved. This is the second year for the extended-life artists, and we are developing a new version of it, so I’m thinking about the future of that program. At the same time, we’re developing a whole building at Governors Island over the next two years. We’ve been in a third of it—about 15,000 square feet—and I’ve received approval from the Trust for Governors Island to develop the whole building. The Trisha Brown Dance Company is not part of extended life, but what we did with Trisha in 2012, when the company was in residence, is emblematic of the kind of role the island can play as we go forward. This year, there will be the exhibit around Trisha’s work and the company will perform on Pier 15. In my head, I was thinking not only about how extended life has evolved, but also—in relationship to dance—what role Governors Island island plays in the development of work that can be seen both on the island and elsewhere in lower Manhattan. The Trisha Brown Dance Company is very much part of this idea of how we can support the development, contextualization and presentation of work. Originally when we worked with Trisha Brown, the company was headed to the [Park Avenue] Armory. This year, they’ve been doing a proscenium tour, but we talked to them about looking at Trisha’s seminal role in thinking about the built environment: lower Manhattan as your venue. These two things are playing out: You have Reggie Wilson, Vanessa Anspaugh, Okwui Okpokwasili and Eiko all presenting their work in the festival on Governors Island. Wally and Maria, Enrico Wey, Souleymane [Badolo] and Tere O’Connor have had their residencies there and are presenting at other places. But what’s really exciting to me is that both Eiko and Okwui are showing their work on the first floor of Governors Island, which is our new floor.

Did they choose it? Did you guide them?

They chose it. One of the nice things about this site-based work is that we basically give the artist studio time and then show them available sites and they choose. We see Governors Island as both a place where you can incubate work that lands in lower Manhattan and as a potential site. These conversations are reciprocal. I knew Eiko would be attracted to the first floor, which is a whole floor with pillars. When I talked to Okwui and [director, visual and sound designer] Peter [Born], having been part of the development of Bronx Gothic and seeing it at Danspace, I had a sense that they would be interested in revisiting it as an installation in a space that gave you room to observe it from the outside. If you work in a traditional studio, you’re basically in the piece, which is the mood they created at Danspace. But when you do it on the first floor of Governors Island, you can create the installation and experience it from the outside and from the inside, which is a little different.

How did you choose the building?
The original RFP [Request for Proposals for the redevelopment and adaptive reuse of over 40 existing historic buildings on Governors Island], which was four years ago, was for that building, and we won that for a five-year term. There are 20 studios for visual artists and two for performance. Then when the second RFP went out about 15 months ago, any response had to be for whole buildings, not a part of a building, and only we had the ability to unify [a building]. If anyone else had bid for our building, we would have been a tenant. We could have made a proposal for another building at Governors Island, but it’s kind of the best building.

How are you considering dance off the island?
We’re thinking pretty hard about the development of lower Manhattan and the waterfront and how putting dance and music—to a lesser degree—at these sites, running from Governors Island to South Street Seaport and beyond, opens up these spaces to people. We really gave people an idea of what Pier 15 was when we presented Beth Gill. Wally Cardona gave them another look at it last year. This year, Trisha Brown will give them a third version of it. This summer, Wally’s working at 120 Wall Street, which was a storefront space that basically looks out at Pier 15. Maria is doing something at Bowling Green in front of the Custom House. The nice thing about extended life is we also work with Jennifer Monson and Joanna Haigood to help the artists learn how to engage the site and what the opportunities are.

Can you explain what extended life is?
We give artists two years to develop work in a studio for both a venue partner and the River to River Festival as a site-based work. But one of the nice evolutions is, say I’m an artist. I’m in the studio. I take the work to the venue—Danspace or the Chocolate Factory or the Kitchen—then I go back into the studio and begin to work on it as a site-based piece, but then the fourth step is treating the site as the studio. They don’t just go there and open the show; they get to work at the site. And then the last stage is that it’s presented as part of the festival. Throughout that time, in addition to the studio and financial and technical support, there’s both a peer-to-peer relationship where they get to talk to each other about what they’re doing and what’s working and what’s not and advisers: Jennifer Monson, who is smart about engaging the outdoors, and Joanna Haigood, who is smart about the narratives that communities can reveal. We also did a small workshop a couple of weeks ago with Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh, who was part of the French festival that was about, how do you do this kind of work? So it’s a journey that everybody takes together. And the nice thing about bringing Trisha and Eiko in this year—and particularly with the exhibit—is to put this into a longer history: Dance artists who have thought about nontraditional spaces, indoors and outdoors, have a history in New York City. Trisha was clearly the central figure in that, but Eiko and Koma go back to Art on the Beach, so it’s nice to have multiple generations to give both audiences and artists a sense of what kind of continuum we can put them in.

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