$urvival of the Fittest: An Interview with Kate Mehan and Lynn Peterson of SYREN Modern Dance

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New York City Ballet cut loose eleven corps members. Merce Cunningham canned three of his longtime principal dancers. Ticket sales, individual donations, and corporate and foundation support for dance companies are down across the country. But college buddies Kate Mehan and Lynn Peterson, who graduated from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance in 2002, have been steadily building their dream company ever since — economy be damned.

The young co-artistic directors of New York City’s SYREN Modern Dance company, have good reason to be optimistic: Their sixth New York season opened last night to a full house at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre. Their choreography (by Mehan) is both visually engaging and emotionally stirring, and the dancers (including Peterson) are strong. And, as the pair told us (half-) jokingly, the recession has left them relatively unscathed because they didn’t have much to lose in the first place.

“We hear those stories of people who were used to getting a particular grant or funding … but all the things that are getting pulled from people, we don’t have,” Peterson said Wednesday during a rehearsal break.

Below, Peterson and Mehan talk about working toward their ideal company and their master plan to demystify modern dance.

Flavorwire: Did you know early on that you wanted to form a company?

Kate Mehan: We met freshman year, and we worked a lot together during school. We always worked well together – we lived together for a while, too. But I don’t think it was until the end of senior year that we visualized something professional unfolding in the future.

FW: Why did you decide to do this as a joint project?

Lynn Peterson: I think we wanted to have a company that would operate a certain way and had a certain feeling about it, and that was something we shared. And we also wanted to incorporate and establish it the right way. We thought it would take 10 with two people to do it right. We didn’t just want to be two more independent people doing projects here and there; we wanted to come together and do something that could eventually be full-time.

FW: How did you get started?

KM: We graduated in 2002, and we went to a few auditions, but it became clear very quickly that we had this vision that was forming very strongly. So we thought, OK — the first step is putting up a show. So it started with just renting a studio and inviting our friends and families to a showcase. We had no lights, very low-key costumes, and we just packed the place. And everything felt so right. So that was the first little step, and the production has just increased every year. Now we’re starting to fold in other sorts of outreach programming and collaborative projects.

FW: How do you balance the administrative and artistic demands of running the company?

LP: I don’t know about balance — we spend a lot of time doing everything. We don’t have a staff, but we have a great board of directors. The first couple of shows we both choreographed and danced. But over the last few years … Kate choreographed the last three shows, and I’ve danced them.

KM: We both have day jobs to pay the rent … and we rehearse on the clock Monday night, Tuesday and Thursday, so that’s creative time. Typically, after rehearsals on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon we go home and do satellite work on all the various projects.

FW: You’ve gone back to Purchase recently as teachers. What was that experience like?

LP: We did that last March, and it was really exciting. We’d like to do it more at some point. They had also commissioned us to make a piece, so be there as a choreographer, dancer and teacher … it was one of those experiences that makes you look back on everything you’ve accomplished in the last five or six years and realize how much you’ve learned, how much you know. And to be in a place where we could actually feel comfortable to give back … was pretty exciting.

FW: You’re collaborating with the Artemis Chamber Ensemble this season. Is this the first time you’re working with live music?

LP: With an orchestra, yeah. We’ve worked with two or three pieces here or there, a solo violinist or singer-songwriter, but never with twenty musicians. It brings a whole other level of presence, because you’re not just kicking back and listening to the same canned recording that you’ve danced to hundreds of times. You have to be engaging with them and actively listening, and everyone onstage is actively listening, which you don’t always do.

KM: It’s a whole different sound. It’s gorgeous to hear it alive and breathing. And we really want to remain committed … we want to try our hardest to continue having live music, in whatever form. It may not always be a twenty-piece orchestra, but having that element has become very important to us.

FW: Have you been working with the same group of dancers from the beginning?

LP: Up until last year we actually had been working with the same group of people for a couple of years. But people were interested in exploring other projects and it was also a natural time for us to look at other people. In June we had our first formal company audition. Over 120 people came, and it was great. With the exception of the two of us and Jeff [Lyon], everyone is new.

FW: What has it been like getting everyone up to speed?

KM: It’s worked out. It’s allowed us to come to a level of explaining the work and passing that work on. Jeff and Lynn have had a lot of experience working from the inside of it … and I guide from the outside. It’s allowed me to explore different things I don’t know I would have otherwise. It’s been a really broadening experience to share that.

FW: Can you describe the two pieces you’re showing this weekend?

KM: The first is Pelléas and Mlisande, which was composed by Sibelius. It’s a very specific, clear story, a love triangle, and after listening to the score and reading up about what the story was and who was who … I decided to follow the arc. I felt like his score was so tightly woven, and it made so much sense to me. So I tried to follow that arc but maybe in a way that would be universal.

The other is the last of the leaves, and this is its world premiere. It’s an exploration of birth, illness, death — the human cycles that we all experience. Last year, in my case, we experienced a death in January, we were all in ICU in May for another family member, and then a child was born in August. So in a very dense time frame, my immediate family experienced all these things. And I kept thinking about these cycles and … what it takes to process all of that and experience them.

FW: What’s your ultimate goal for the company?

KM: A penthouse office suite in our own building…

LP: A place where our company can work every day.

KM: Just to have a sustainable space we can work in and have our company come to work in and create.

LP: In the dance community, the company model is a hard one to sustain itself. But we’re planning on fighting for it and making it happen, even if we have to reinvent the wheel. And the larger reason for wanting to have a company that’s making work on an ongoing basis and building relationships … is to reach out to more audiences and say, This is all modern dance is. Nobody knows what it means when you say modern dance. We would like to make dance … something that people aren’t afraid of.

KM: And whatever you get out of it is what we’re trying to put out. I truly think it’s possible.