“Welcome Home @ 40” Interview Series: Rob Bailis

Valda Setterfield in David Gordon’s “Dancing Henry Five.” Photo by Paula Court

In September 2010, ODC Theater celebrated a much awaited reopening, after a two-year, $9 million renovation, overseen by Director of ODC Theater Rob Bailis. Bailis and I talked about the curatorial decisions that come from investing in long-term relationships with artists through residency programs and the life-altering experiences dance viewing can offer.

Marie Tollon: Can you talk about your curatorial philosophy?

Rob Bailis: For me, the art and the task of curation — if I’m willing to use the word- are both a celebration of the self and a complete dismantling of your own ego. I think there really is no way to do exceptional curation except to know yourself very, very well. And at the same time –and this is the tricky part- knowing yourself is being able to celebrate both what you like and what you don’t, and being able to see the values, particularly the formal and creative concerns, that are supporting the environment of a work. In your mode of evaluation, all of these pieces come together, and if you are not certain of where you are located when you are looking at work, then I don’t think you can look at it professionally. I think you can look at it the way every human being looks at it, which is in this incredibly loaded way.

Where we have to start to take this apart is really genuinely getting into a very nuanced understanding of precisely how a work is made. The construction of it is the first part of learning how to curate: knowing how something is made, knowing why it was made, knowing every intention you can know about it, bringing into your thinking every piece of context that was available to that artist at the time of the making. You also need to look deeply at how that artist was located in their inquiry, so that the essence of where someone is going with a question is just as important, if not more important, to the understanding of the making of the work than viewing the actual work itself. What happens as the product of an inquiry is an entirely different thing and perhaps an even greater responsibility for a curator to consider.

At the end of the day, curation is research, plain and simple. This art form, this practice we call curation, one that emphasizes the organizing of ideas, realizations, moments, objects and persons that do not belong to you — it is that last point (it doesn’t belong to you) — that makes it so important to know yourself while you do this work, know that your thinking is so carefully wrought, and know that you are powerfully researched. This allows you to approach creating a frame for a viewer, for a public to receive the works you are so fortunate to steward.

MT: How did your background inform your curation at ODC?

RB: Being a classically trained musician, I come from a tradition where in order to have a career playing an instrument, you absolutely have to go beyond physical technique and get to know everything about how a piece of music operates. You can’t just study the mechanics of an instrument and be a musician — you need to have a deep understanding of the context in which your own playing occurs, and that is a very layered reality for more reasons than we need to discuss today. But I mention this because that really was my first lens into looking at dance. I had only these musician’s instincts at first and so I asked myself how I could learn to take dance apart the same way that I would take apart something that is as notated, as documented, as concrete as a musical score.

When I came into the curatorial conversation with ODC, I had a career in music, I had very serious training and some artistic experience in contemporary theater, but none in dance, which of course was the primary focus. What I knew about dance was ballet, and that mostly because I had been in the orchestra pit! I knew the Nutcracker, I knew Swan Lake — and bless them for paying the bills. The only other exception was that I had the opportunity to teach with these incredible principal dancers from the Nederlands Dans Theater in the summers in Colorado at Perry Mansfield in the mid to late 90s. I was teaching music and they were teaching dance. So my first serious introduction to contemporary dance of any kind was through two of Jiri Kylian’s muses. Not a bad place to start! But back to ODC, it was an odd thing to be completely fluent in contemporary practices in music and theater, and find myself in a dance space where I had to start from scratch, to figure out in a very short time frame how to add value in a community where I spoke a foreign language and where a wave of artists who were just astonishing and so ready to make meteoric leaps into the public arena were hungry and waiting for tipping-point resources. Quite frankly, in that sense, ODC raised me. It was an incredible investment on their part, and on the part of the dance community, to say: “We’ll get you caught up!”

It was clear who was moving in the community and what was going on — ultimately where there was some critical mass. It was just so rich in the early 2000s, one could sense this burgeoning emergence of artists who were ready to rise and leave a mark. So initially it was really about relationships, about who could work together to make a movement happen — not as much about deeper conversations on aesthetics — that came later. As time went on, we got very serious about the programming intentions of how we put our seasons together. Some of those curations were very time intensive and very laden. I think about the “Generations” one we did where we took on Judson Church and its legacy. That season had both David Gordon and Deborah Hay come to the theater with their artists, and was tracing their very divergent paths from that similar point of departure — that was incredibly rich and we were so lucky to have those opportunities. But initially, we needed to make a community happen, if you’ll allow the phrase. We needed to celebrate who was here, who was among us, what we were concerned with, and to create a hotbed of cultural investment that was very aware of the fact that there is amazing work all over the world, and that includes this very place. We could import all we wanted (if the money held together), but if our own community was silent and the voices of our best and our most experimental alike were not held up for our community to celebrate, what hope did we have of inviting farther reaching conversations, what context could we provide another artist if we cared not for our own? So we started at home, we made a commitment to that.

A great example of that is when the theater was dark and we were presenting at other venues, we took on this idea of the festival format. That [curation] was driven by the 2008 [presidential] election. We took the four things that were most being talked about in the election and the four things that were most defining and pivotal of the Bay Area’s own identity and we put them on matrix. We started seeing where ideas lined up and where artists could occupy an idea. Across the topline of defining characteristics for the Bay Area, we had put the physical beauty, the booms and busts, the thirst for innovation and the progressive social values. When we were talking about the high points of the election, there was the whole context of environmental change, sexuality, immigrant experience, and the state of our governmental system. We made this map and started populating these ideas. That festival ended up having such a wonderful, totally disparate collection of artists but the frame that brought them together was so clear that it really did allow things that should have never gone together to make a very collective sense of where our values were in our community.

I do believe in this concept that I would call an aesthetic democracy. What I mean by that is this: if we think of a democracy as a place where there are many voices, and they are, with any luck, heard in some balance, and that the thing holding them together is discourse, and through that discourse a degree of consensus can be reached, then it’s reasonable to assume one can have that conversation about aesthetics. It’s possible to accept that if we take the classical definition of aesthetics — that it has to do with an understanding of beauty — those things pertaining to or defining “beauty”- you could go so far as to say that actually, in an aesthetic democracy, it’s a conversation about how our values show up in expression of beauty. It’s about how the members of a society are agreeing or disagreeing about values, are seeing what is there, what is not there, what needs to be there.

I believe the most progressive expressions of human potential are found deeply embedded in creative inquiry — our art doesn’t capture us, it advances us — it doesn’t just represent, it catalyzes and catapults our vision for our shared potential. That is the ultimate power of live art for me. When I encounter work, the first thing I think I am taken by is certainly not any traditional notion of beauty or any traditional notion of the organization of that work. I’m really wondering how that work is organizing itself — how it is operating on all of us. I’m trying to see what that work is meant to do, what its perspective, what voice it is giving to a human possibility, even if it is utterly divisive in order to create that.

What I got so excited about in the later years when we were really curating in that theater was precisely this discourse around what is important to us as a community, what is important to us as a form of art, as a field of artists and audiences. How do we want to be changed? What do we want to embrace? What terrifies us about who we are as human animals? When I looked at who was around at that time and who came through the theater, it’s a pretty amazing array of extraordinary people. What we were trying to build as a curatorial frame was not at all a certain stripe of work, it was truly about having a robust conversation and about framing and celebrating how we rigorously make.

It mattered if you were there, at ODC Theater, because that amazing conversation was going on — one had room to be seen in one’s own light. It’s also the case that we had invested in artists, not only in art works, but just as much in the actual life cycle of a career. It was ok to come to ODC and have three pieces over 5 years and have two of them flop. It wasn’t going to be the end of the world and we were going to figure out how to be together in that sense of discovery.

From my perspective, that’s something that was in the blood, in the bone of ODC. When I came to the organization, the first thing I understood is that it was artist-led, women-led and that it was there to be a profound resource, first and foremost. So I think that really influenced this idea of aesthetic democracy in my head. The way that ODC approached everything — from leadership, to intention, to the value of the artist as a citizen, to the civic platform that is a theater (the theater that gives a city its beating heart), this really came from the values that were in the foundation of ODC. And that ran through me very intensely in those years in terms of figuring out how to craft a vision, a voice and an intention for the organization.

For me, the biggest difference between performing arts curation and any other kind is that you simply have to be there live, in that moment, or you cannot know what you are actually encountering. The dance becomes a document because of the witness. It lives in that body after it’s seen. Everything else you are going to work with in the performing arts other than dance has some other way that we get to know it — we get to read it, look at it, listen to it … There’s something that is a full spectrum document that allows for the recreation, the celebration, the understanding and the study of that thing. Not so in dance. Even in the day and age of internet, and videos, all the ways that we can be live and yet not live, nothing can create that imprint that is carried in the live experience. That too is a huge part of the practice. Dance has become for me not just a second home but it’s also at this point my preferred form to engage. If you have the great good fortune to be someone who can actually let dance in, I think your life will be forever enriched. Your capacities are forever altered and enhanced by the ways in which dance will change you at a cellular level.

MT: An important part of ODC Theater’s mission consists in investing in long-term relationships with artists through the resident artist program. Can you talk about your role in shaping that program?

RB: If you look back at the things that came before, that were hallmarks well before I showed up, ODC had gone a long way programmatically, taking the theater to a credible visibility. There was always some kind of presenting program which helped cement that visibility, but underneath it the most important point was ultimately the caption for our capital campaign: “Creativity Needs a Home.” The idea that the most essential element for enabling creativity in dance is space itself came straight from Brenda [Way], Lori [Laqua], KT [Nelson] and Kimi [Okada]. In terms of what dance needs, it is time, water, food and space. Even when we were a one-room school house, the venue was servicing four or five companies, teachers, programs and rentals in a day. Space and time were really hard to find! That is part of what made a great case for building the Commons and expanding the theater. And it’s been booked ever since and with great partners!

But to your question, I think this is the foundation of why we moved so intensely into residencies. There had always been a resident artist program, I certainly didn’t invent that! But I did create and steward the residency program that ultimately shaped how the Theater made its way from 2003 to 2011, arguably its period of greatest sustained growth and transformation. The program was based on ODCs values. The deeper the relationship with the life cycle of a maker, the better situated you are to help and to really advocate for them, in any way, whether it’s being in the studio and helping out with what you think you are seeing or from all the other vantage points that you get as a presenter, you can really think about different ways in which to engage [the artist], and help them think through what they are facing.

The creative community that we first established in the early 2003 and grew for nearly a decade, really co-authored the ODC incubator — they powerfully helped anchor our presenting program because audiences could watch an artist evolve over time and thereby really learn how to see work. It was having these constant creative partners and the time and presence of mind to think about seasons together — knowing you’ve been in rehearsal with the artists for a year, you know what they are up to, what they are asking. Bringing in complimentary works that will help contextualize the discussion we are having here in our theater with guests from around the world is a different task. Curation takes on a believable and clear shape when you are driving it from a residency program of artists you see every day. In this sense the residency program shaped artistic direction very deeply — the stewardship of a community, the way that it is growing to view things, how we are engaging with values, what you are hoping to do for the way a community can embrace an art form — all this is a wholly different matter than thinking about what to program in the absence of a resident community of makers. I do think these things have to cohabit — the local and the international — and that was also an enormous facet of what I got to imagine and implement at ODC.

MT: Can you talk about the projects that were most meaningful to you?

RB: I do think the structures we built -InnerState, Scuba- were tremendous. What other regional theater was willing to do that? The curation we did at Project Artaud Theater (now Z Space) was also game changing. Allan Ulrich wrote a very loving review about the thinking behind that curation. It was a highlight from that part of my career to have the thinking behind a series of festival presentations be rigorously regarded by someone so knowledgeable. The building of the theater itself is something I will never outgrow and maybe even never even live up to! It was an incredible gift to be given this opportunity, to have worked so hard and to see that it is still shining.

The residency program is the other piece of it — the relationships that were built among a group of dance makers who are now in an extraordinary prime, thriving in our community and changing the nation. It was such a broad range of people, from a Sara Shelton Mann to a Nora Chipaumire, from an Alex Ketley to a Shinichi Iova Koga. Chimurenga, which became Nora Chipaumire’s massive career-making success, was in part built in residence at ODC. I’ll never forget first seeing that. But I don’t mean to favor any one work — it was a body of work and the accomplishment of so many artists and arts workers. Knowing that these transformative episodes took place, that the theater was that kind of a springboard; knowing that companies redefining our view of how we look at work and to be thinking that so many of them are out in the field in a very big way; knowing that we spent years deeply fostering the Black Choreographers Festival and that it is still going strong, all of this is incredibly rewarding.

From my first day on the job, we had this wonderful confluence of people like Sara Shelton Mann or the late Pandit Chitresh Das, these living masters who were completely willing to be in very close community with these artists who were just barely coming along, finishing their second and third seasons as companies. Those deep, long process residencies [offered] a place to come, a place that was powerfully going to support you no matter what, a place where you could experiment not in the shadows of masters or suffering from anticipation of great fame or great failure, but in the frame of a community that didn’t just think it, but knew it, really truly knew that you mattered, that your work mattered, that making is important work. If the world mercilessly makes you prove that every day, then at least when you are here within these four walls you have nothing to prove — there’s just work to be done. I know the theater building itself is amazing, and I treasure it. But the residency as an incubator, the success it had at longevity with artists and the platform it provided for generational exchange among artists are for me the single most important accomplishment of my tenure.