Having your own dance company is great – except when it comes to all the stuff that has nothing to do with dancing. There are performance spaces to rent and publicity to drum up, not to mention the pesky business of raising money. But five clever graduates of the Mills College dance program found a way to avoid drowning in the non-dance details. Four years ago they formed Propel-her Dance Collective, an organization that allows them to share resources, ideas, contacts, fundraising efforts and administrative duties. Having all those extra hands – and feet – around frees up each member to spend more time focusing on the business of creating.
This weekend, Propel-her celebrates its third season with a performance at The Merce Cunningham Studio Theatre, featuring three new works by its members in addition to commissioned pieces by choreographers Lisa Race and Catherine Miller. They’re also involved in a cool new project called Trust Art, through which anyone can become a shareholder in their work for $1.
We recently caught up with Propel-her members Cara Liguori and Ani Javian to talk about working as part of a collective and what it means to be an “emerging choreographer.”
Flavorpill: It seems that you were able to get Propel-her off the ground pretty quickly after college. How did you do it?
Ani Javian: In school we were very much encouraged to keep choreographing, and we used each other as resources. We decided none of us could really do it on our own. So we formed Propel-her a few months after we graduated, and our first show was a year and four months after we graduated. We kind of just figured everything out as we went along for the first year. We’d produced our senior concert at school, and we had produced some smaller dance shows, so we knew the basics. We had just never done it in New York before.
FP: Did you run into any surprises that first year?
Cara Liguori: I don’t think we really did. During the first year out of school, I had taken some grant-writing workshops, and each of us had done internships with different dance organizations during school. So we learned a lot about running an organization. It was just a matter of locating the resources, but we were able to pull it together. I’d say it’s been more challenging each year after, because it’s like, what’s the next step? How do we obtain more funding and get deeper into our creative work? It requires a deep commitment into the development of the organization, which demands a lot of your time, and you have to find a balance between doing that and finding the time to create. That’s the most major challenge, and it’s something that we’re constantly discussing.
FP: What’s the division of labor like?
CL: The goal of the collective is to share the administrative weight by fifths. And we have to meet our responsibilities. I’m in charge of fundraising and development, Amy deals with our budgets and she’s the treasurer… Of course there’s constant e-mails back and forth.
FP: It seems that forming collective is a popular choice for artists these days. Did you have a particular model in mind when you formed Propel-her?
CL: I am noticing more people calling themselves a collective. From my experience doing development work for different artists and organizations, it seems like a lot of grant makers and foundations are encouraging artists to share resources. But when I hear of other people who are running collectives, it seems like generally they collaborate on all the work – they do the dancing and collaborate choreographically. Our model differs in that the collective nature is the administrative side and that is fueling five independent choreographers. As choreographers we’re building individual repertories. We built this bank and have professional video of all our material. So if and when we choose to forge our own companies, we’ve got this wealth of material.
FP: Your current program explores what it means to be an emerging choreographer. What are your thoughts about it?
AJ: The emerging artist is such a widely used term in all of the art world, but especially in the dance world – you are emerging from now until who knows when. It’s unclear if you finish being emerging when you reach a certain dollar budget or have your work produced by a certain theater or if you go commercial. We’re trying to show different examples of emerging artists in this show. There are people like the Propel-hers who have been in this world for four years and have had our work shown in very different venues, from White Wave to Dance Theater Workshop in Fresh Tracks, to the New York City Fringe Festival – we’ve kind of covered the gamut of the downtown festivals. And Catherine who’s never had her work produced, so she’s probably, by the most popular definition of the word, emerging. Then there’s Lisa who’s had reviews in The New York Times and won Bessie Awards. She stopped making work to have a family and is now teaching full-time at Connecticut college, and she’s emerging as well.
FP: So how do you define success?
CL: Obviously it’s personal for each person. But in terms of in the emerging choreographer category, we talked about how it’s most often when you develop a reputation or a style that sort of commodifies your artistic product. It makes it noticeable and identifiable to the public. In some instances it’s the market value; it’s when people want to fund you and you have a budget and you’re able to have a salaried company and make it last the entire year.
Propel-her is dedicated to continuing choreographic movement and exploration. It’s about making dance that resonates with people and finding personal vocabularies, not only working from a technical place or codified vocabulary. It’s a process that we are really dedicated to. Whether it’s going to result in a lifelong dedication will depend on how well we’re able to sustain ourselves.
AJ: We had a showing last week of all our works in progress, and a woman attended – I think she was about 70 years old and comes from an uptown, Broadway jazz/ballet world – and she was really shocked to find out how invested in process we were. Here we were, just weeks away from our show, and we were still very eager to receive feedback and get back into the studios and keep working. She was shocked at the idea that we were able to do that. She called it a luxury. She also mentioned something about a $14 million dollar budget and how you have to give the investors their product. But what’s so great about what we’re doing is that we trust each other so much aesthetically, and administratively we can rely on each other’s support to produce what we want to produce. That’s the true luxury, that no matter what we want to explore, the other four are right next to us, supporting us and giving us feedback along the way.
Image: Morrigan McCarthy