Problem solved, folks: "Just get scrappy"

TICKS. It’s what I’m excited for at the moment, but not those little blood suckers. Yes, ticks are gross, but ticks also mark the passing of time and a pedestrian type of dance gesture. In this case, it’s a clever name for a carefully curated, yet informal, summer dance event on July 19th, hosted by three conspirators, friends, and cultural entrepreneurs: Josh Kohn, Juliana Mascelli, and Irfana Jetha Noorani. 

“So the impetus was because I moved into this new place in February, that has a massive back yard…just a big, flat, open green space, that has a sense of privacy but also of an open public space,” Josh said. “And when Irfana first came back there, her eyes just kinda…(mimicking bulging eyes)…and she said ‘we need to DO something.’" 

Irfana chimed in, “I just saw it and said, ‘I have to dance here,’ but not really because I don’t really dance anymore, but just the grandeur of the space… I could see moving bodies in it, but moving bodies on purpose and a collective gathering of people.”

And with that, a backyard explorative BBQ dance happening was born. Josh’s backyard, smack-dab between the Hill and the H Street corridor, will be transformed into a low-fi performance space for three contemporary/modern dance artists: Stephanie Miracle (DC),  Meredith Bove (DC), and Helen Hale (Philly), with visual art shown by Kathryn Zaremba (DC). But Josh, Irfana, and Juliana weren’t about to tackle this in the traditionally lame we-don’t-have-money-so-we-can’t-pay-the-artists fashion. Quite the opposite, actually. They had been talking a lot about curating DIY events and approaching the projects in a need-based way, then taking it from there.

Irfana explained, “Let’s think about what we want to do in the space, engage the artists that we want in the space, and ask them what their needs are. Then find the money to do it. What’s holding us up a lot of the time is the roadblock of money, so we’re like, ‘let’s pool our resources together and work the opposite way' and have a very transparent conversation with [the artists] about their needs.” 

Stephanie Miracle. Photo by Meghan Bowden.

As always, I brought up the conversation of how this event contributes to, or affects, the DC dance community asking if this was considered in the process of curating and designing the event, or is it isolated and not necessarily created with a purpose of community involvement? But just as I proposed this new topic of conversation, I realized that there is practically zero way for a grassroots project, such as TICKS, to not consider the community. What would be the point?

“Two of the artists performing are based n DC”, Juliana remarked, “and that was certainly a priority.”

“We also really wanted to provide an alternate platform to show work, but also something that is more lab-based, and show something that you are designing that may have a different interaction with an audience. So when we wrote to our artists, we emphasized their ability to experiment in this space and in this environment,” Irfana added. Stephanie is showing a piece she is creating for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in the fall, and Helen is doing something site-specific, working it out in Josh's backyard moments before the BBQ. 

Digging for a little more insight about what to expect from the event, I asked if there were certain devices (terrible word) they had in mind to get the non-contemporary dance peeps involved in the action. “There’s no talk of conversation, and I don’t think conversation would work," Josh replied. "It’s not like we’re going to say, ‘so, let’s talk about what we just saw.' It is really meant to be as relaxed of an environment as possible. It’s gonna be 4:30 on a Saturday... a grill's going... and the whole idea was to create something that is welcoming to those not that familiar with the [art] being presented."

“As someone who is coming from outside of the dance community,” Josh continued, “you go into a space and you feel like somewhat like an outsider. It’s a dark room, it’s a dark space, you don’t know what you are going to be getting into, you’re not familiar with the language… we purposefully invited our friends from both within the arts community and outside the arts community… you can engage in whatever way you feel like you need to engage. And the other thing is, [the space] is semi-private. There are parents with kids walking up and down the street, and if they come in, wanna hot dog and wanna check it out, that’s totally fine.”

So I was surrounded by three very individual and influential voices in the DC arts community, and I felt the urge to steer the conversation toward the big picture. I launched into a rant from the perspective of an artist and arts manager in DC, more specifically a dance artist in DC, often feeling depleted by the trials and tribulations of trying to activate a community toward an interest in dance. Hell, even dancers have a hard time making time to see dance; there are far too many barriers, options, and obstacles to work around on a Friday night in the DC metro area. 

"What are your perspectives?" I asked these three, and the flood gates finally broke.

They admitted that they are approaching this project as administrators, not as artists, but their overall observations are that in DC “there are a lot of moving parts and no real central community,” Irfana offered. “My sense is that everyone is really spread out, doing a lot of different things, and I think that this is true for a lot of the arts, and for people who go to see work. There is a geographical barrier… sometimes people don’t even want to leave their neighborhoods.”

So is there a solution for better supporting and fostering these highly motivated parts of a nonfunctioning whole? 

“It just feels like there isn’t a central community that continuously supports each other’s works,” Juliana said, remarking on how often she goes to dance performances and knows no one else there. Irfana and I recalled similar experiences. There are so many contributors and concentric circles of dance in this city, but what is the common link? What is our axis? And if that axis is missing, what can be done about it?

As the conversation deepened we struck upon a comparison of the inspiring history and strength behind the DC DIY music scene. But the local music scene wouldn’t have the longevity it has if it weren't for a solid backbone and a willingness to share resources. That is something that DC dance needs to learn how to do. Why can't we just link arms and go at it together?

Juliana questioned if there is an opportunity to cross-pollinate audiences, saying, “People in the music scene aren’t really going to dance performances,” to which I interjected, “Sometimes they are, if there is a personal connection to that artist or work, but you're right in that it's not happening regularly." 

As I’ve said before, and will say over and over again, as dancers we all share a common audience, so why be stingy? Don't we all want to build artists, build audiences, and then bask in the growth of our scene? (Ok, maybe “bask” is a little too luxurious.) The goal is a strong, cohesive, and vibrant community that encourages each other and in turn benefits from that fortification. 

But we can't thrive on determination alone. The quality of work that comes out of that scene is just as important. The notion of mentorships was brought to the table by Irfana, which once again had me nodding my head in agreement. 

“There are a lack of mentorships [in DC], and the ability of those established artists that are here to be mentors... There is a lack of rigor, and no editing that is happening, or assistance in the creation of work. I think that the artists performing at the BBQ, they have intensely rigorous work, and have all been a part of mentorships outside of DC.”

Helen Hale. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks

“And isn’t getting dancers also a problem?” Juliana asked.  We lament that there is little opportunity or ability to work solely as a professional dancer in this city. “Just being able to work with a really strong group of dancers is often just not an option, so how can you take your work to the next level when you don’t have a strong group of dancers to work with?”

These are such a crucial points, and ones that we are often squeamish about as creators or advocates for our field; it’s not comfortable to poke our bruises. It's cyclical though: if there is no guidance towards better quality art, than there is less appreciation for art from the viewer, and a depletion of your audience. 

And then we kicked the positivities again. "I think there is still room for more experimental work. People just have to get scrappy," Juliana said matter-of-factly.

And I do believe she is on to something.

Maybe we’re just not scrappy enough yet. Maybe we need to demand more, and have voices and visions that transcend all of these barriers for entry. Or maybe we still haven't found the right platform. Sitting around the table that night we all agreed it had to be ignited from the bottom up. 

“People just need to ban together, decide they want to do something, to make something, and then just make it happen,” Juliana said. “I don’t think relying on any of the institutions that already exist is a viable solution.” 

“Yeah, it’s impenetrable,” I remarked, to which Josh corrected me. “I don’t think ‘impenetrable’ is the right word. You have very limited funding streams for the arts in this country and it’s highly competitive. So those sources of funds are great, and they’re important, but it’s not what makes a community, and that’s not what can make an artist… so you just have to get scrappy. And in a city where it feels like you can’t get scrappy, and it feels like everything is working against you to be scrappy, that’s even more impetus to do it”.

So there, DC. Get scrappy. And in the process come to this BBQ and watch some dance. And no one will make you talk about what you just saw (but I bet it’ll happen anyway). TICKS will be held Saturday, July 19th at 4:30pm, at 319 12th St NE Washington, DC 20002. It is a free event, but they ask that you RSVP.

See you there.