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Platform 2010: Back to NYC: Juliette Mapp in conversation with Jean Butler
This three-part interview series investigates the relationship between executive director, curator and artist in Danspace Project’s exciting new curatorial initiative, Platforms 2010. First off in the series, artist Jen Rosenblit describes the Platform as a holistic approach to curating artists—“I feel like Juliette dove into my experience of making this work. Even Judy, when she is in front of me, all she wants to do is understand.” In the second interview, curator Juliette Mapp talks about the sustainability of the Platform and its need to be malleable—“It is so brand new, and it would have to have the ability to recreate itself every year, which is difficult. Maybe it wouldn’t be important in the future. It feels responsive to the moment now.” Rounding off the series is an upcoming interview with Danspace executive director Judy Hussie-Taylor.
[See also The New York Times article “Choreographers Are Becoming Curators, Too”]
Jean Butler: I am talking to Juliette Mapp about her current role as curator in Danspace’s new initiative called Platforms. I was wondering if you could talk about how and when you first heard about it.
Juliette Mapp: The whole thing just started with a conversation without focusing on this idea of a platform or curation. Two years ago I had a show at Danspace called Anna, Ikea, and I, which focused on teachers, how influences are passed on, and things that fall away or remain between choreographers, teachers, and students. Judy Hussie-Taylor, the executive director, and I were talking about these subjects and about something I didn’t address in my piece – how women tend to be the ones that continue passing information on. So often dance teachers are women. How does this happen?
She then called me up saying she was thinking about doing this project of inviting artists to guest-curate at Danspace Project. I remember thinking it was so brave of her to come in to Danspace and hand over the reins. I agreed and one thing she asked me to do was to focus on artists making work in New York. I wasn’t thinking about anything but New York dance anyway, and it became a prism to structure my ideas around the artists that I wanted to bring in and the conversations that I wanted to be having around dance making. New York became the framework.
Jean: The complexities of living and working in New York are a metaphor for dancers’ lives. That is represented in the bios of the booklet, which are invitingly alternative and interesting to read.
Juliette: When I decided on Jen Rosenblit and Katie Pyle, I wanted to tell Judy more about them- more than I knew. She asked them to send me a bio. They both sent these ‘back of the program bios’ that we are all so familiar with.
Jean: That are one-dimensional.
Juliette: It doesn’t give us any information about what the influences are or what has brought us to this point. So I asked for more information about what has inspired you and what teachers have brought you to this place. I got back these beautiful rambling essays. I was so moved by them. I started to ask for similar things from other people. These are the center of what the catalog has become—these artists writing about themselves and claiming their own histories. It is not about achievements. It is about interweaving experiences that have brought them to New York.
Jean: Reading the catalog was really comforting, and it points to your exploration of the intersection of people. Being a dancer in New York is not always about dancing, per se. Recently, I’ve gotten to this stage where I feel that it’s about who my friends are, what I see, what I listen to, what I read. It is not a separate thing that happens on the side.
Juliette: Dance is so defined by the community in which it exists. We witness each other dance and then it is over. But there is an energetic interplay between creating, making, performing, and being witnessed. This bleeds into other aspects of our lives.
Jean: The language that is used in the catalog struck me. It is not the language of funding institutions. It is artists speaking directly.
Juliette: I have a deeper respect for that having worked with Deborah Hay. She has done a great service to dance with her rigorous relationship to language and in her effort to communicate what is happening in her dances. She claims authorship of the experience as opposed to leaving that up to someone else. There is a certain responsibility we have to deal in the world of words. That is the real history. Without that, the history is lost and rewritten. This is potentially a tragedy if these documents don’t exist. Judy was a visionary in terms of the catalog. Using our own language ups the ante. Critics, historians, and students can reference it.
Jean: There is validity to it.
Juliette: And accessibility. Language is always open to interpretation, but there is something so great about having it on the page. I remember reading Movement Research Performance Journal and Contact Quarterly in college and thinking how amazing it was there were these documents. I could enter into it because it was on paper.
Jean: These journals are not academic or scholarly.
Juliette: That is a different thing entirely. I am in graduate school right now, and I see how academia chooses to frame these things within their own power structure, not to disparage it.
Jean: Different writing techniques and power structures change the intention of something. If an artist is talking about their work and has to put it into a different structure, it changes the meaning of what an artist is trying to communicate because those words don’t suit the work.
Juliette: It is important that the voice of artists is heard. Not just about their work, but what are the conditions of art-making now? What are the ways in which people are inspired by each other? How do people manage to make a living? That is inspiring.
Jean: Could you talk about why Judy’s Platform is a brave step in the ecology of the downtown dance scene in terms of how dance is presented?
Juliette: Giving the curation to an artist is an act of trust in that artist’s process. She is enlivening curation with the presence of individual artists.
Disassembling that power structure is brave especially when there is such limited funding. You look at our experimental performance makers from decades ago and they can’t even get gigs. Their work is still considered too experimental somehow, or there hasn’t been an evolution in critical thought to keep up with where they are. Or they are not fashionable. With the economy tanking, Judy went the opposite direction. Instead of clamping down and narrowing what Danspace does, she has blown it open. It was a brave move because it goes against prevailing instincts.
Jean: There is much more transparency than in the traditional structure of having work presented. You have been presented as a dance artist. Could you compare the two models?
Juliette: I came at dance-making circuitously through being a dancer. The primary information I was getting was through my body and the experience of dancing. There came a point after working with John Jasperse for seven years when I realized I could use dance to talk about what I care about in the world. Dance is a big enough container for me to explore these other things. Once I realized that choreographing gives you so much more freedom, I wanted to make dances. It felt liberating and exciting to create that context for myself. I am an artist of circumstance inspired by possibilities that are present. I feel lucky that what I have had to say with my work has resonated with people.
This process is really different. Some of these artists have been around for decades and are part of a particular canon. With other artists I have chosen, it is not about their work. It is who they are, how they are working, and the ways in which they are unique members of the dance community. You can look at David [Thomson], who has worked with so many people–Trisha, Ralph, and Bebe. It wasn’t about look at David as a choreographer, but look at David at this moment doing something that he made and appreciate who this person is. Same with Shelley [Senter]. She sets Trisha’s work all over the world and is a renowned Alexander teacher. Here is Shelley onstage with something she has been working on- Shelley the artist, the teacher, the person.
Jean: Did you ask the artists for specific works or did you give them free reign to do whatever they wanted?
Juliette: I was really hands-off in terms of the work but not in terms of the context. It is about cultivating these connections and relationships to each other. How that enters into the work is for the artist to decide. I don’t think it is the curator’s role to decide what the work is. It can help the piece if the artist elects to have feedback. I knew that I wanted to be engaged with Jen and Katy’s processes because they are younger artists. It was an opportunity to be in a mentor role. It was not about getting my hands inside people’s work and I don’t feel that what people were showing is a reflection of me. The artists that I have chosen are a reflection of how I am engaged in the dance community. I don’t think the work reflects my aesthetic values or what I care about. It is more about the people and what they have done.
Jean: The Platform could, however, be viewed as a direct reflection on your personal aesthetic, your current dialogue with the community, and your relationship to specific people. Where is the line that separates these?
Juliette: There is some reverberation from me in what these artists are up to. But then there are people like Paige Martin, whose work I haven’t seen in a long time. She is such a rigorous artist in the way she engages with the world. I wanted her to make something for the theater, for people to see. She does not want to call it a dance. She wants to call it an exhibit for mature audiences only. I was interested in creating a context for her creativity.
Jean: Jen’s opening night at Danspace felt less about expectation and more about relevance and currency. There is value in creating a context for people to be able to work well in.
Juliette: I think there are other contexts for the pressure for success or failure, which can be a vital pressure cooker for good work to emerge. But having this space to make and not project in which the artists can dive in… They have to make their piece, but they don’t have to create the context.
Jean: Was it hard to know who was going to share a bill? How was the creative process within the curation?
Juliette: I respect what curators do now. Judy said to think about curating as an extension of my own work. That energy of making a dance fueled the whole thing- how does this feel to me? I work directly with circumstance. A lot of this had to do with who was available when. I would have done it differently in terms of who opened and closed it, but because of the way it lined up, it has its own logic. Some things I had to push to make happen, like Deborah’s travel from Australia. I wanted Deborah to do this thing called A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty, where she talks about the experience of performing this piece called Beauty. She agreed, and then called back later and said she wanted to do a solo.
Jean: Was it something you wanted to ask her and thought she wouldn’t be into it? She hasn’t done a solo in a long time.
Juliette: I know Deborah pretty well. I know she was working on this book. The solo is in relationship to the book and is a culmination of what she has been experiencing in the last seven years. She has a daily practice in the studio. This is an example of the exciting detours from what I thought would happen.
When I approached Paige, I had an idea of what I thought she could do. But she is doing her own thing that has nothing to do with what I suggested. I knew that it was important to me to have a number of generations present. There is a constant flood of inspiration that comes from knowing that people have struggled to make work long before I got here. Young people are coming here and making work with great determination despite difficult circumstances. Rents are higher than when I moved here, and it is more difficult to secure affordable rehearsal space.
Jean: The platform seems to be about being open and opening.
Juliette: All of that openness needs to be protected. There has to be a context for being open and trusting. As we see other structures fail under this economy, like real estate, what better time to come back to the possibilities that dance offers us? It is clearly of value.
Jean: You mentioned that this process has changed your understanding of the role of curator in relation to artistic director.
Juliette: Artistic directors can protect the act of curation. Judy has done that. Doing this art of curation would be very difficult without support from above. Judy and I have had lots of wonderful conversations. She has been a participant in every aspect of this.
Jean: What is the sustainability of this as an ongoing project?
Juliette: Judy wanted me to focus on New York, and I came up with the title, Back to New York, which is from a Dylan song that I have used in my work. “I am going back to New York City. I think I have had enough.” There is an underlying theme of coming home to the things that inspire you. I would hope that as a sustainable structure, these things would be open. Maybe there would be a year with no artists from New York or only young artists. It would have to be a malleable structure. It is so brand new, and it would have to have the ability to recreate itself every year, which is difficult. It is hard for artists to do it in their work and [difficult] for organizations, as well.
Jean: Three years down the line and twelve people have gone through the process, would it feel as fresh?
Juliette: Maybe it wouldn’t be important in the future. It feels responsive to the moment now.