Sidra Bell (photo by David Flores)
Back in Vancouver for the third time, Sidra Bell Dance New York presents a double bill of STELLA and garment March 27-29. The performances are co-presented by the Chutzpah! Festival as part of its PLUS series and the Dance Centre. Artistic director Sidra Bell spoke with the Jewish Independent via email about her background, what inspires her, the power of dance theatre and what makes her company unique.
JI: Could you share a bit about your background?
SB: I was born in New York City to mixed heritage and grew up in the northernmost part of Manhattan in a neighborhood called Inwood. My father’s background is Italian, Irish and Bohemian (on my grandmother’s side) and my mom is African-American. Both of my parents were raised in New York City, in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively. My paternal grandparents came in through Ellis Island.
I identify with my mixed heritage and was always exposed to the various components that make me who I am although we didn’t specifically practise religion in our household. My parents are both pianists and met through music. They went to New York College of Music and went on to direct together, as well as teach. I am the youngest of four siblings who are all involved in the arts…. In some way or another, most of my family and extended family are artists or use art as an entry point into what they are doing now, and we are all largely entrepreneurs….
JI: How and when did you first discover dance? When did you discover choreography?
SB: I participated in preschool in an after-school dance program, Ms. Patti Ann’s Dance, in my kindergarten years. A couple of years later, my mom took me to an audition at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I resisted mainly because I was extremely shy and very nervous. I started taking classes in ballet there at age 7 and fell in love with the language of dance and its rigor. I was a very serious child and loved delving into the form that was being taught. I excelled very quickly and was asked to join the weekday program on scholarship, which increased my level and the number of classes a week. By 13, I was taking classes with the professional division, particularly in my summers when I could participate in the intensives.
At age 14, I realized I needed to stretch away from just a classical training and that is when I was accepted into the Ailey School, where I spent two-and-a-half years on scholarship. It was during that time, as I became more exposed to modern techniques, that I became interested in generating my own movement vocabulary. I was able to create a few solos for myself that were showcased at Ailey’s student showcases and also at my high school, the Spence School, where they had a dance program. Because both were New York City based, these showcases were taken very seriously and showcased in well-attended venues such as Symphony Space.
From an early age, I knew that I had to be very rigorous in my craft. In college at Yale, I was part of a student dance company called Yaledancers that produced its own shows in the New Haven, Conn., community. I became more active in my choreographic process and there started truly investigating and making work. This was outside of a conservatory environment and it allowed me to work with my own movement invention. My college years were formative exploration years.
JI: Can you describe how a piece comes together, from inspiration to the stage?
SB: I simply start with movement. Movement has been a driving force behind all of my works. There is always a question around why movement is an important means of expression. This question leads to larger subtexts within a work and perhaps characterizations. What is important to me is to challenge my collaborators to investigate movement with various qualities, tones and entry points. This collaborative focus has led to wildly different worlds onstage. The dancers ingest the vocabulary and regurgitate it based on the tasks or objectives at hand. I find that the concept evolves as we dig deeper each day into the vocabulary. There is a lot of trying and playing in the studio. Sometimes we are at ease and just talking, which leads to insights into what the dancers are thinking about in relationship to the world around us. How does movement bring in larger overtones about the world around us? I love form and that is a huge emphasis. Inventing forms is my primary concern. As we continue, the lens and environment come into play, as well as how the dancers are interpreting each relationship. More recently, I have been working more closely with my lighting designer to create limits onstage that inform how the dancers will interact with the arena or environment set up for them.
JI: Is this Vancouver performance part of a larger tour? I see that STELLA is from 2012, but garment is a brand new piece. How did garment come about? How do the two pieces work together, if at all?
SB: This has been a wonderful year of touring for the company. We have already completed residencies and tours in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh … and Atlanta’s Tanz Farm. [Two weeks ago], we world premièred garment as part of the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre’s commissioning series KST Presents. STELLA was created in 2012 and world premièred at NYC’s Baruch Performing Arts Centre. Before arriving at Chutzpah!, we will be showcasing the same program of garment and STELLA in our San Francisco Season at Dance Mission Theatre.
garment is about living in the skin you are in. Like STELLA, it deals with voyeurism and culture, but I think it drives towards the idea that we can rid ourselves of cultural constructs to re-establish or reclaim our personal and unique identities. Both works deal with popular constructs and individualism in an episodic framework. STELLA has a more cultish feeling, where you really see the dancers playing games and you can’t guess who “Stella” actually is until the end. garment sees the dancers reproducing trends and systems, and also working with joyful abandon. I think the two pieces are in conversation with each other and inhabit many different worlds within these general themes.
JI: Critics have called your work powerful, atmospheric, surreal, sensual and ferocious. I would add that your work is also in many ways hyper-modern, with industrial or “futuristic” qualities, from the costumes to the electronic soundscape you work within. It’s also very theatrical. Is there an overarching aspect of contemporary life that you’re exploring through your choreography?
SB: The main thread of my work is the personal questions that I grapple with. I think they are universal questions about our condition in contemporary life. As the world changes more rapidly, I grapple with my individual questions around identity, legacy, the afterlife, politics, community. The list can go on. I think I deal with these questions in my work, and not in a politicized way. The dancers contribute to this probing research and we work with play to reach and deconstruct content around these themes. Personas get developed through movement research and worlds get built from our collective thinking. I like playing this out on stage. There is often no resolution, but I am happy that there are always more questions. There is no one way to view the work and I like that the audience can reach in and find their own personal story. I am always surprised and pleased at the level of analysis an audience can bring to a moment. They bring up aspects I didn’t see and I think that is the beautiful quality that dance has. Its ephemeral and abstract nature can really make you feel. You may not know why you feel a certain way because it is truly coming from a visceral space. I like the fact that dance doesn’t have to deal with realism in such a direct way.
JI: What are the lines between dance and theatre, and what elements of performance bring them together? As well, can you share something about your work on Test and what draws you to work in the medium of film?
SB: I actively aim to eliminate the lines between dance, theatre and visual art. They are mediums that create a mutual, shared experience for the performers and the audience. I use whatever elements help me create those experiences for the viewer. I think this is why I have explored so many different aspects of dance and theatre. I use whatever technique or model that I believe services the work in the moment. I was the lead choreographer on Test (testthefilm.com), which has now been seen and awarded prizes worldwide. The film was shot and created on location in San Francisco. It was an incredible process working with Chris Mason Johnson, who wrote the screenplay and directed. He was a former dancer with Frankfurt Ballet and White Oak Project. I learned so much about the process of film making that I believe has improved my skills as a dance maker. Everything that was created on set was to service the storyline about dancers in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. My material was tempered to that era and I found it refreshing to have such a guide. It made me much more clear in the process of creating a choreographic work, which I consider to be a directorial act as well.
JI: How does your academic orientation and background impact your dance work, if at all? Are you currently teaching?
SB: I guest teach internationally. Teaching is a passion and I truly love the exchange I get to have with dancers from all over the world. My mind expands each time I lead a workshop because of the collaborative nature of working with such diverse communities. My academic background gave me a strong sense of language and articulation. My analytical nature has kept me interested in the research of movement not just its results.
JI: Are there differences in how you approach choreography for your own company versus commissions from other companies?
SB: My process is highly collaborative and I always go into a studio with very little expectation. This has produced very different works in each environment I visit. I like going into a new community on commission and introducing my language, but also learning about what gets that particular company excited about movement. With my company, we have such a history together that each work seems to be a reflection or a response to the last. I have been working with my dancers for some years and there is rich history that they bring to the studio but also a curiosity in moving forward.
JI: Vancouverite Rebecca Margolick is one of your dancers. Is there anything you can tell me about Rebecca’s contributions to SBDNY for her hometown audience?
SB: I met Rebecca when she was 16 years old at Arts Umbrella, where I taught and staged work. She was so wise and left a great impression on me. She brings a beautiful physical quality to the work but is also highly theatrical. When she is on stage she inhabits another aura. I find that fascinating about her. She is very discrete offstage but onstage she is a bold performer. She is a chameleon.
JI: Is there is anything else you would like our readers to know?
SB: This is our third visit to the Chutzpah! Festival as a company and I am so excited to be returning with these two works. I’m also thrilled to be co-presented by Chutzpah! PLUS and the Dance Centre. We love the city and can’t wait to see our Vancouver friends.
Sidra Bell Dance New York presents STELLA and garment March 27-29, 8 p.m., and March 29, 2 p.m., at Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie St. Tickets, $28/$24/$20, are available at chutzpahfestival.com or ticketstonight.ca.