Getting in Step

Austin Dance Artists Talk Connecting & Community

illustration by Robert Faires

Dancers are loners. At least, it's easy for us who watch them to think that. Their art is often wordless; we don't see them converse, and that suggests an image of aloofness, separation, each keeping to herself, himself. It's a stereotype based on a flawed perception, but in talking to local dancer-choreographers, it turns out the stereotype has a grain of truth. These artists work hard at their art -- and at making ends meet so they can work hard at their art -- and it frequently means toiling away in isolation, apart from dance fans and their colleagues. This week and next, more than a dozen of Austin's independent dance artists come out of isolation to join in a festival of movement at Hyde Park Theatre. Personal Dances, founded in 1996 by Margery Segal and produced by Margery Segal/NERVE Dance Company and Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, is an annual event that gives local dance makers a shot at trying new work and collaborating with peers they might not otherwise see. The Chronicle took advantage of this year's gathering of dancers to get several of them to talk together about what they do. Taking part were Andrea Ariel, Beverly Bajema, Lisa Fehrman, Heloise Gold, Jason Phelps, and Segal herself. As it turned out, these dancers were most interested in talking about connections -- to their work, to other artists in the community, and to their audiences.

Austin Chronicle: Is it fair to say there is a dance community in Austin? There are a lot of dancers doing pretty extraordinary work, but is there much cohesion among the people who do dance in Austin?

Margery Segal: If you say something insulting, you can offend a lot of people really quickly. That's one way of determining if there's a dance community. That's my flip answer. There is definitely a sense of pride here that I learned you can offend very quickly that's very different than in New York, where people criticize things regularly. So I think there is.

Andrea Ariel: I think people have a pretty good sense of all the different people who are part of the community and are very active. But there is certainly a trend toward isolation. I grapple with it all the time: how not to be so isolated and yet how to be completely absorbed in the piece that I'm doing and how to survive. With work and rehearsing and teaching, it takes a lot of effort to do something beyond that to bring us together.

Lisa Fehrman: At that gathering at Dance Umbrella in December, it was so nice to be able to see other people, to see faces that I haven't seen and don't see throughout the year. I know that we're busy, but we certainly have time for socializing, too, and we just don't really do that.

Beverly Bajema: I think there are many dance communities in Austin. There are folk dance communities, club dance communities, a ballroom dance community, and there is this kind of alternative artist dance community that we identify with, and that's what I think we talk about a lot when we talk about a dance community: people who are making their own work, not in ballet or modern dance set technique.

Margery Segal: One of the things about Austin is that it's in Texas, and there's a lot of individualism here. A lot of people move here, I think, because this is a place you can be an individual. I found that really attractive coming from New York; I was like, `Wow, there's so much energy here to make work.' At the same time, I feel that plays into the mentality that we're supposed to have it all together. This is a very product-oriented town. Playwrights can have a two-year development period with a play before it's on the boards. [In dance] we're lucky to get a year. I'm doing dance-theatre, and my expectation from dance was that I should have it together right away, as opposed to having time to develop it. If I could be a really smart parent for myself and for other dancers in Austin, I would encourage them to use the town and each other to develop work, to create some nurturing center for work where dancers could develop it in front of each other and to authorize choreographers to ask for the kind of support that they really want.

Lisa Fehrman: Kate Warren has that space [Cafe Dance], and I've told her that it would be really nice to have a situation where once a month people could come in and show works-in-progress and do something like `Critical Response' that's a real positive way to look at work and get some kind of feedback that's not just `I hated it' or `I liked it.' That's actual feedback in a non-defensive format. I think that would really help dancers in town support each other.

Andrea Ariel: That's often a thing that brings people together. Dance Umbrella used to do the New Choreography Project. For a week or two, you would see other dancers a lot, and you'd all workshop material and have somebody from the outside come in. That was one of the rare times each year when you could be among your peers.

I want to second what Margery said, because I was attracted to Austin for the same reason. When I first visited here, it seemed like a place where I could make something happen, as a free and independent person. Because I had Brandon, who was eight or nine, I wasn't going to do the New York thing. I knew that trying to support a son and my dancing would be a little difficult. So that was one of the things that attracted me here. There was support and there was room.

AC: It does seem like process is bubbling up as a concern. I hear other choreographers talk about process and wanting to get audiences involved earlier in the development of new works. Is it something that's bubbling up now, or is process something people have been concerned with for a long time?

Andrea Ariel: Most of my training was through schools, and one thing they offer as a format is a place to develop work and continually get feedback and build rapport and discussion. It's a very vital part of creating work, so I think there's always the need. I don't know if it's become more prevalent or it's just that we're all doing it now.

Heloise Gold: It could be that different people are wanting different kinds of support right now and that we're coming to know what that is.

Jason Phelps: Personally, coming from doing a lot of theatre, where often the focus seems to be on having a finished product that you present the same as you can every night for a long period of time, I got really burned out with that. In the dance community, I saw this opportunity to explore things over longer periods of time and include all the influences and nuances of an idea in a piece -- and it could keep growing, it didn't have to be the same thing over and over again. I've worked with pretty much everyone here, and I've seen so much growth over time. I think that is so incredibly beneficial, as opposed to having something that's going to stand on its own and that's what it is, then you walk away from it.

Lisa Fehrman: I personally think that part of that growth comes from finishing a whole piece. My work changes when someone looks at what I've done. I've been looking at it in rehearsal, and when somebody else comes in and looks at it, that changes completely how I look at it. Of course, having people talk about it helps me figure it out, and that changes my whole perception of how I work and where I'm going. It is a learning experience for me. The reason I do this is that it's teaching me something about my life. The things that appeal to me to work on -- relationships, love, death, hate -- I'm learning something about them. That's the thing. If I wasn't learning anything, I'd go, `Well, I don't need to make any more dances.' Why would I want to? It's really not very glamorous. It's a lot of hard work for the return.

Andrea Ariel: For me, that process includes producing the work. Developing a work all the way through the production -- that part of the process is how I keep growing. Then I can come back to that work and produce it again and go further with it. And I think you can bring the audience and the community along with you.

Lisa Fehrman: It's about where you are, about how clear you are in your vision. I think clarity is the really important part, because dance can be so mysterious and non-literal -- especially alternative dance. My husband has been seeing it for years and years, and he says, `I still don't have a clue.' For me, that is part of the goal: trying to be clear without pantomiming it.

Margery Segal: Part of my interest in focusing on process with the festival was to educate audiences -- the idea that if you bring someone into your process they'll understand more. Because I've felt that a lot of dance is reviewed here by what it's not, or it's reviewed from a theatrical perspective, or it's viewed from another dance aesthetic. The movement will be trying to present a theatrical roughness or sadness or insanity, [and the reviewer will say], `It wasn't lyrical.' Well, yeah. That wasn't the intention. Can we talk about content? I think a lot of times people are afraid to ask dancers, `What is it? What are you talking about?' They're afraid. That fear of not knowing is a horrible feeling. `I don't know what's going on and everyone else in the room does.' Then they feel bad about themselves and they're really mad at you. So my idea is just a way of trying to talk about what is it, and bring people in so they have a chance to ask that. Beause I haven't seen that develop in Austin. We have the information and we don't know how to share it. I really don't know how to, but I would like to.

Andrea Ariel: Audiences always want to know. I have a lot of students, and I always engage them in conversations. When enough of them have gone to a performance, I open the class up to talk about it. Their first response is trying to figure out what the choreographer wanted them to understand. I'm trying to teach them their response is valid. `What did you think? Where did this take you?' I say, `Don't even try to think about what they want you to get. What did you get?'

Lisa Fehrman: I think that's difficult, too, in terms of how you get feedback from your audience. You can do after-performance discussions, but the people who tend to stay are not necessarily the people you need to hear from. I won't stay for [post-show talks] because it's not very comfortable, and it doesn't seem like a deep or clear dialogue. My company did an informal performance outside in November, and people really loved that. People who are intimidated being in theatres were really open and not fearful of it and had a different experience than they usually do.

AC: It's the same difference you see between people at a production of Shakespeare inside a theatre and in a park. Outside, there's a sense that they can relax, they can eat, they don't have to pay attention all the time if they don't want to, they aren't trapped. Sometimes you find they actually get the play more because they're out of that rigid box with all the expectations attached. And sometimes that's the problem with talkbacks: It feels like a classroom and you have to raise your hand and be called on, and your answer is going to be evaluated or judged by everybody else in the class.

Lisa Fehrman: That's the reason that I don't do those. I would like to hear what people say and I've tried to do it in a more informal setting, but people still tend to leave. I haven't figured it out. I've tried to talk before, to give a little information about it, but I can also see that as a [problem].

Heloise Gold: It's important for us as performers to treat these questions. Do we want to come out before and talk about the work? Do we want to come out afterward? Or in the middle?

Margery Segal: I did that in my performance the other night because the audience wasn't with me.

Andrea Ariel: You broke in the middle and started talking to the audience?

Margery Segal: They really weren't with me. And I was just, `Okay, I've been naked for 20 minutes up here, and I can't get any more naked.' I was thinking, `I'm tired of this.' So then I talked to them because I needed them with me.

Heloise Gold: It shifted the energy. It was smart on your part.

Lisa Fehrman: But sometimes I'm afraid of what it could be or what it will be. I want to tell people what I'm doing, but I don't want them to think that I have to explain everything.

Andrea Ariel: There's something very raw about the people who do linger after a performance. I try to get out there as fast as I can, just to be able to talk to people. Granted, after a performance it is difficult to talk about work right away. You need to savor it and think about it. But one format I've tried is a reception, where I actually am offering food and drink and a chance to hang out. Then I can hang out with them and they can relax for a little while. I've found that to be really good.

Lisa Fehrman: I've done that, too, but all I get are really positive comments. Which is great, but what I want to hear is what they're saying on the ride home. I really do.

Margery Segal: That's brave.

Lisa Fehrman: I don't think of it as brave. I think of it as necessary for me. It's necessary to go to the next place. Of course, it's nice to hear people slobber on you, but it doesn't feel like it's a real thing. They want to be nice to you, they want you to feel good... you know, you go see one of your friends, you don't want to go, `Oh... interesting.'

AC: You want to peel back a layer from their reaction, to get beyond what they liked or didn't like to why they liked or didn't like something, until you reach whatever meaning they found, the inner understanding of why they responded a particular way.

Andrea Ariel: I work with a community group of kids between the ages of 8 and 12. They had never gone to see any kind of dance performance, so I took them to one, and we did a talk after. A lot of adults stayed, but the kids were the ones who had a lot of questions. We adults analyze what we're going to say, and we have so much stuff before we can even get to peeling those layers, whereas kids are like, `What was that?' `I was confused about this.' `How did you do that?' They could ask those questions. It was a really good learning experience to have this horde of kids with a zillion questions.

Heloise Gold: You got a lot of direct feedback?

Andrea Ariel: I got a lot of direct feedback because they're so honest. It's interesting to me because they don't have any experience that they're bringing with them to understand it in the first place. But I'm interested in that raw response. I'm interested in those people who come to a performance who have never gone to see something before. I'm interested in how they got my work on the value of what happened that moment, without explanation. Where did they go? What did they see? Sometimes I find if you talk to them long enough and ask the right questions, you can get that information. You as the artist can create a dialogue. Maybe that's because I teach and I practice that a lot with students, try to talk in a way that will help get them questioning and commenting from themselves and not trying to please or compliment me.

Heloise Gold: Often after a performance, I'll call people I know were there and get feedback. I try to make it a lot of different kinds of people -- people who are other performance people to people who never go to performance, the gamut. I love it! It's fascinating because it's so varied, and it gives me a lot of information.

Lisa Fehrman: I think the thing about reviews that have to be different than that and the thing that has frustrated me is that they're not in any larger world context. When Pina Bausch was here, several of my students went to see her and they were so upset about it, so we talked about it. Well, they had some expectation that it was going to be ballet or something. And after we talked about it, they calmed down a bit and started to think about the things that they enjoyed in it. Sometimes that's the way reviews seem, like is there any other kind of place where you get this information? Once, a reviewer referenced all my work to Merce Cunningham because somehow that person got the idea that I had studied Cunningham, which I never have. But the whole review was from that point of view.

Andrea Ariel: I agree that reviewers should have an understanding of dance historically and of the dance they're writing about. People look to that to help them understand and know how to look at work.

Margery Segal: It's interesting to take that heritage. It's nice to feel part of something, and it's nice for the audience to feel that they're watching something that is part of something. And I feel like not doing that keeps Austin out of the national scene. That's sad. Not referencing the reviews in terms of historical perspective... last year, a promo [article] for Personal Dances was very offensive to me because it kind of bad-mouthed performance art. Performance art is many things, some very beautiful and some about people telling their own stories. People have been doing work with multimedia for 30 years -- deep important work about all kinds of issues use multimedia, so why are reviews still saying, `This is a genre of work that bears no respect,' and people can talk to you about it by telling you how bad people are at it? I was so offended by that; that's a small-town mentality, which is unnecessary. That doesn't educate the audience at all. The writer could be saying, `Look at Bill T. Jones. Look at Pina Bausch. Look at Butoh. Look at all these places where different people use different mediums to get across their message from their soul, or from their bodies.'

Heloise Gold: The early Eighties was a ripe time of educating reviewers. Deborah [Hay] would do performances, then there were others of us that sort of came out of that, and we would do our performances, then whoever it was at the time who were the dance reviewers would come and give us horrible reviews. Then we'd talk to them and give them information, and it would change. And then the next review would come.... But some of them got it. And it was exciting. All of that was out in the open, about new performance and what it means and how we look at it. I think the reviewers were really trying, they just didn't understand. When they understood, it got better.

Lisa Fehrman: And it doesn't have to be just, `Oh, now I got it. It's a great performance.' I know that's not what you meant, and it sounds like we're bashing reviewers, and it's not that. I don't think that perception is based on, `Well, gee, I got a bad review and now I hate reviewers.' I wouldn't mind at all a bad review based on some clarity of what they were talking about.

Andrea Ariel: That goes back to talking about the content. In reviews of my work, everything has always been, `My dancers are not as good as me' or `Technically, yadda-yadda...' and that avoids what the work's about. I agree, it's not that it has to be a good review. It's that it talks about the work, that it gives a context to explore how that's working or confusing or not working.

Margery Segal: It educates the audience.

Heloise Gold: That's what I was saying, that's what happened. Actually, those early dance reviewers were very open to hearing more from the artists, so that they could write and help educate audiences. Then audiences came with different kinds of expectations, and I think it got exciting.

AC: I know that it is a lot of hard work, and that artists are undervalued in this town, and so many frustrations rise up against you. What inspires you or keeps you going as an artist in the face of all that?

Jason Phelps: I have to say visiting artists. My experience here is that the people who come here come into contact with people who have a commitment to their work in a place where they feel they can comfortably live, and people from other cities almost immediately get a sense of that from the artists here. And that kind of validates what I do and what other people do here. And when people come here and see that, I think it helps them open up more, and in a sense, I feel fed because they've opened themselves here and I get to see that in a place where I am. Then they leave and I get to take that and do that for myself, reach deeper into my experience. Then I want to give that to the community that exists. It's also going out and seeing people in the community who inspire me, seeing them grow and seeing what they're exploring now, where they are in their process. I want to be a part of that. I want to say, `Hey, I'm growing, too,' and share my experience with other people who are doing that, too.

Andrea Ariel: It definitely starts with a complete drive to make work. I think that's inherent. I don't know where that started and if it will ever stop, but that's always there. In addition to that are people -- not just the audiences but the people who are part of the productions that I create. I always find that when I have a seed of an idea, and I begin working on that idea with the dancers and other artists, and I have all these people working with this idea that I started with that is now not just my idea any longer, it's all of ours -- that to me is the most powerful, magical moment. All of this is happening because of that one seed that has been unleashed. To me, that is a thrill. To see everybody all of a sudden owning a part of it. And then that builds with the audience. That's when I go, `Ah, it's the people!' It is the people that really, really keeps me going.

Heloise Gold: For me, I love art and I love the energy of art, so even if I don't see what everybody is doing, knowing that art is always happening is incredibly exciting to me. And amazing. Artists keep doing this all the time. It's that essence of the energy of art and creativity, that's what keeps me going. When I commit myself to making art, I am so fulfilled. It's breathing and it's eating and it's being creative. It's all part of living.

Lisa Fehrman: For me, it's a desire for wisdom. I want to be wise, and I can't figure out any other way to get that. I think in a lot of ways it would be easier to go through an eight-hour or a
10-hour day to survive instead of a 16-hour day. At the end of the day when I'm crying because I'm so tired and I want to sleep and I have to wake up at six, I'm sorry. But then life really wouldn't be very much fun. It would not be very exciting.

Margery Segal: Everything keeps me going: the water, the air, the sky, everything. Someone ignoring me, someone pissing me off in the newspaper keeps me going. Everything drives me to something else. Since I've been here, the fact that nothing has been going on here was fantastic for me. I had to learn how to work alone after being in a really intense community in New York, and that was great. Going through feeling like my work wasn't understood to being called the best dancer in Austin for 10 minutes -- going through each thing has kept me going. Each step has helped me grow and I continue to grow.

Beverly Bajema: I grew up on a dairy farm, and my brother and I would stand by the road and do performances for people driving by at 50 miles an hour. Why? Because we wanted to play and communicate and have fun and do stuff together. I have these ideas of doing. I love getting ideas and doing them. And the relationships with people that are really meaningful to me are all based in doing work together. Those people are my best friends. We create this history together that is so rich and beautiful and meaningful.

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