“Welcome Home @ 40” Interview Series: Christy Bolingbroke

RAWdance. Photo by Andrew Weeks

A self-described “recovering marketer turned curator,” Christy Bolingbroke was the performance curator at ODC Theater from 2011 to 2016. She recently took on the position of Executive/Artistic Director at the brand-new National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron in Ohio. Before she left the Bay Area, Christy and I talked about curation, artist residency programs, and the modes of production which are prevalent on the East and West Coasts.

Marie Tollon: Can you talk about your curatorial philosophy?

Christy Bolingbroke: My curatorial philosophy took time to develop through trial and error. I came in thinking about what was interesting to me but had the advantage to have Rob [Bailis]’ curation for the first year and a half that I was there. Seeing how people responded -and the response could be what people were excited about, via ticket foresight, or what they reported back after the show, what questions or criticism they had- gave me a very special liminal space to really ask: What do I really want to do? What can I do as a part of ODC Theater that other venues cannot [offer], because they are bigger or smaller? That did help shape the kind of project I would look for and the kind of artists I would want to partner with. At the end of the day, it became an invitation to really take it to a place where it was not about “the latest or hottest thing” but about being able to make a recommendation, to really acknowledge where our audience was, what they were interested in, and not necessarily catering to that, but use that as a departure point to maybe nudge them in a new direction or toward something they didn’t even think they would consider beforehand.

MT: The curatorial field has evolved so much these past decades. How have you seen that phenomenon affect the dance field?

CB: Professionalization of the field requires curators to be more mindful and collaborative. It is more of a marketplace now, it is more a real and ongoing conversation with artists about the economics of making and touring work. They have to be taken into consideration because the cost of living and making work is so much higher. I think the other changing factor is that both presenters and artists are grappling with the lack of context. In some ways, it’s even more equitable or democratic because of things like the internet but it’s harder to get traction and to get people to pay attention. I see a lot more artists who are acting as curators and community organizers, like Hope Mohr, FACT/SF, and the Danspace Platform Series. This is a similar place where the Walking Distance Dance Festival was established. How else could we create context if people come to only one thing a year?

MT: I’d love to hear about some projects that you presented that were especially meaningful to you.

CB: The thing that all of the projects that I am especially proud of have in common is that we got to the point where it was a real partnership. Whether it was with RAWdance’s Double Exposure or Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night, they were unusual undertakings. They required a certain level of trust that I, in my role, was seen as a collaborator and not just the bank. Another example is Music Moves. Once I gave the artists the context and framework about how we were thinking about music and dance and how we wanted to transform the space -with Sundays and Mondays more of a cabaret, Tuesdays as a standalone survey event, and Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays more traditional dance performances- they brought new ideas and delivered their work. Where it was successful is when I felt we could have a dialogue about how my vision could provide context, validation and opportunity for them to continue in a pathway that they were already working on.

MT: After 6 years of running ODC Theater, what would you say is unique about it?

CB: I am really grateful that I came in at a time of change. I could see that people’s expectations around the theater were changing. The renovation had just happened in 2010 and it opened in that fall. There was a lot of excitement of being in the space. Artists came in and constantly wanted to change it and do new things, which was equally exciting and challenging. Before the renovation, ODC really talked about being a house of risk. I think it is still a place of risk, but a different kind of risk because it is a nicer space. There was a different set of expectations after a nine million dollar investment.

That meant we had to be clarify with artists that we weren’t looking for half finished work. It was really important to be clear that if something was still in development, it needed to be billed as such, and maybe even relocated to Studio B. That was part of my learning curve — understanding what is special about ODC, what our viewers’ expectations are and then invite artists to really take advantage of the fact that ODC could do so much. When you think about the transformation required for Layla Means Night, there are very few other theaters that have that many studios, a space that is that deep with the hang space and that could be compartmentalized into different rooms… and have a resident teenage dance company to join the cast. There are still limitations. When some artists come in and say [they] want to have a chamber orchestra or live music, we might not be the right space for them because we don’t have a pit. Sometimes what I tend to observe is that artists are so desperate to get their work seen. I had to have a real honest conversation about whether it’s the right space or not. It’s similar for myself as a curator: there were a lot of projects that I really enjoyed and wanted to present and be a part of, but my space was not the one to support that work, financially and/or physically.

It was not only about spending more time in the space and with artists, but also seeing where our peers are. They are not static either. Dance Mission has been an ongoing strong hold and has really grown into, in my opinion, a community-based performance space. CounterPulse leads with a social message first. And it is also half the size of ODC Theater, so it comes back to that question of what is the right space [for a specific work.] SAFEhouse continues to evolve and be a fertile space for creation and a funnel for artists to emerge.

MT: You have invested a lot of your time in the resident artist program. Can you talk about it?

CB: It has been mutually beneficial. When I came on board, the current class had 10 resident artists. They were everything from musical theater composers to dance makers and filmmakers. We had 6 months before the renewal of The Andrew Mellon Foundation grant which supported the resident artist program. Although the initial commitment had only been until December 2011, I extended it by 6 months to give myself some time to look around. I realized that there were many other programs that were new compared to when ODC had formalized its resident artist program. SAFEhouse was in place. The Garage was offering Resident Artist Workshops and they were mostly for emerging artists. CounterPulse had its spring and winter residencies that were mostly for emerging artists, although not exclusively so. I think Dance Mission started the DIRT Festival shortly after that too.

With the growth of so many emerging artist support, I saw a unique opportunity that ODC could step in and help mid-career artists. I immediately got some push back at the time of application because mid career is not something you can quantify. We did create a basis that, to be considered, artists needed to make work for a minimum of 5 years. It required a lot of questioning on our part internally: What does quality look like? Is it virtuosity? Is it craftsmanship? Is it a combination of both? Who do we want in the space to represent a diverse spread of the dance field? I often curated and programmed with the flagship company as a reference point because that’s one of the things that ODC is most known for. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have 4 mini-ODC dance companies. The [resident artists] needed to be a counterpoint aesthetically to a lot of that work.

Then it’s the longitudinal, three-year commitment that I think is so special about the resident artist program because you really get time to build the relationship, the reciprocity and the understanding. Where I felt that I benefited so much as a curator is that I had these artistic mentors of my own, each with their own unique choreographic process, who were generous to invite me in. The relationship with both cohorts that I saw through was as invaluable to me as I hope it was to them.

MT: Being in San Francisco for 6 years, how would you define what is happening in the West? And how has your perception of it possibly changed throughout the years?

CB: I would confess that, having made my way to New York in the earlier years of my career, I saw New York as the dance capital and didn’t know, nor realized, that was a systemic bias I had absorbed. The first, immediate impression and surprise landing in San Francisco was how prolific it was. I knew of the larger companies (Joe Goode, Margaret Jenkins, ODC) and a little bit about LEVYdance and AXIS Dance, but [was surprised] to see how many emerging choreographers, how many devotees of Anna Halprin, how many culturally specific dance companies there are.

I knew of the big names in New York but I don’t know that the clear lineages were as widespread in terms of the proliferation of upcoming artists. New York still tends to be very much divided into uptown and downtown dance aesthetics — which I think is dismantling but in my time there was very prevalent. Around 2014 or 2015, there was a New York Magazine issue about the business of music. Their point was that music was being innovated everywhere else except in New York. New York was very good at the business of music, at producing and distributing it. I think some of that is true for dance too when it comes to the East Coast and West Coast. It’s both a calling card and a potential criticism that the West Coast is very good at process — room to explore — and many times that needs to be edited. The East Coast is a bit tighter at producing work. The business of it could sometimes use a bit more latitude to explore. I think some of the things are inherent in the cost of living and making there. I don’t think one is better than the other. I think that is something that each region offers differently for artists. With the rising cost of living here in the Bay Area, we’ll see if that space to explore continues.