artist as curator and Susan Rethorst

The artist as curator is hot.  Ralph Lemon’s curation of the some sweet day series at the MOMA has triggered a large critical dialogue.   Movement Research has its “Studies Project,” an “artist-curated series of panel discussions, performances and/or other formats that focuses on provocative and timely issues of aesthetics and philosophy in the intersection of dance and social politics, confronting and instigated by the dance and performance community.” Here in the Bay Area we have RAWdance’s Concept Series, Amy Siewert’s Sketch series, and Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project, among others.   Although commissioning is nothing new in the dance world, it seems worth including in a discussion of the current curatorial impulse: Note the commissioning projects of Robert Moses’ By Series and Levydance’s Amp program.  Noteworthy also is the recent Terra Incognita, an award-winning dance in which four choreographers–Alex Ketley, Kara Davis, Manuelito Biag, and Katie Faulkner–shared authorship of a single work.

Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project is in its 4th year of bringing notable choreographers to the Bay Area.  This year HMD hosts the acclaimed Susan Rethorst for a series of residency activities April 20-May 5, including a choreographic workshop, a book reading, and the performance of two of Rethorst’s works in HMD’s May home season at ODC Theater.  The Bridge Project is explicitly a curatorial project, not a commission.  In the interest of spreading the wealth of Rethorst’s presence in the Bay Area, I’ve cast her works with dancers (many of whom are also choreographers) who are not otherwise affiliated with my own company.

What does it mean for an artist to step into shoes historically occupied by presenters? On the one hand, it can be an act of taking control–taking control of the content that audiences consume and taking control of who speaks in an aesthetic conversation.  On the other hand, it is an act of letting go–letting go of authorship, ownership and ego by sharing space and exposing the intimacies of the creative process.   Where do aesthetics begin and end in an increasingly open source culture?

In light of these trends, it is especially fitting that Rethorst is coming to town: since the 1990s, Rethorst has been known for working with ‘wrecking’ as a choreographic methodology. For Rethorst this method involves inviting another choreographer midway through her process to take it over. There have been many iterations of the wrecking project, but in its original inception, Rethorst approached Tere O’Connor and asked him to come into her rehearsal process and “look[] at the piece as though it was to become his from that moment forward, changing it to his liking, imposing his own aesthetic with complete disregard for my intentions.” Rethorst describes the process further:

The very things that I would never have imagined being different were the ones that he changed. The experience was akin to culture shock, disorienting; the center of gravity shifted. I then took back the rehearsals with the same attitude toward his changes. The piece took on some attributes of his aesthetic; directions were opened that would otherwise not have been conceived of; moments exist in the piece for which no one can claim ownership, and yet there is no question of its authorship. As if in forcing a move that comes from the outside oneself, the self imposes itself with more clarity.

Reflecting on “wrecking” as a choreographic method, Rethorst says:
Fear of influence…and fear of being stolen from, on the other, have themselves becomes influences in the community. So I began from self-consciously borrowed  sources, engaging in the transformation that occurred as they filtered through me…I tried, in other words, to slip into another’s skin, knowing full well the impossibility of the attempt, using it rather as a means to expand my own definitions. By so doing, I meant to force my own definitions of what’s possible to put on stage….any part of any dance, aided by the power of suggestion….can be seen to be derivative or referential.  (“Stealing, Influence and Identity,” Contact Quarterly, Winter/Spring 2012, Vol. 36, No. 1)

Artists as curators face down the challenge, posed by Rethorst in the same essay:  “You think you’re in danger of losing yourself? Try it.”   Placing one’s own work in conversation with others gives a choreographer the opportunity to relocate and refine her voice.

Recently I came across this curatorial statement, by Juliette Mapp and Jen Rosenblit, who are curating the upcoming Movement Research series at Danspace Project (emphasis mine):

Through our process we have grappled with certain failures, locating a lack of true diversity. Curation has the potential to foster insular, closed spaces. We are working from what and who we know, have tried to brush up against some unknown, and have touched gaps of representation in our own thinking…The isolation of artists curating artists and ideas has been at the forefront of our concern….What is it to curate? What is it about the organization of information that tends to consolidate ideas, include/exclude, distinguish and name?

Interested in these questions? Sign up for Rethorst’s compositional workshop: Sunday, April 28th 12-4 PM, ODC Dance Commons. (To register, email Come hear her read from her new book, A Choreographic Mind,  Sunday April 28th at 7 PM in the ODC Theater Cafe (free and open to the public).  Come see her work, in conversation with mine, at ODC Theater, May 3-5.