One of the themes of this blog and the interviews that it runs, is the theme of having to do a little bit of everything. Whether it was Phoenix Artistic Director Matt Szymanski talking about how to juggle conducting with social media marketing, Ryan Lott talking about understanding classical music as a way to enrich his electronic samples, or soprano Julia Bullock bringing a program of both Schumann and Nina Simone to the concert stage, it seems that variety is the spice of art. Artists and non-artists alike are lucky to be in such a hub as Boston, where everywhere you look, people are curious and hungry for more. Coming from New York, I think of Boston as a town on steroids, we have all of the industry and niche pockets of a city, but somehow Boston has a smaller, more neighborhood feel. Boston has an ecosystem built out of neighborhoods and networks rather than an ecosystem built out of the individual. To me (and this is just my own personal speculation), this creates a more fertile ground for creativity.
I had the opportunity this week to sit down with Betsi Graves, founder and director of Urbanity Dance, to talk about what happens when you move away from silo-ing and reach out to the artistic community to create something new and fresh.
A native of Northwestern Kansas, Betsi Graves grew up in the wheatfields using every opportunity to cast her sister and neighbors in small choreographed dances. Graves’ early dance education was all of her own experimentation. Movement was movement. It was a way to express herself, free of any constraints and prejudices. It wasn’t until she was 9 years old and moved to Orlando, Florida that Graves had her first encounter with formal dance training and then she was training in both classical ballet and with teachers who were dancing at Disney and Universal Studios. This duality is evident in Graves’ choreography at Urbanity and in her mission at Urbanity to never turn away students that are curious about learning to dance.
Between reaching out to composers and fashion designers, and creating a space for adults and children to learn various styles of dance, Graves has created her own ecosystem of enriching the art being created and the audience it’s geared towards.
BG: What we do at Urbanity is encourage our dancers to go out and take Capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance and acrobatics) and other movement styles and see if it can bring that into our dancing style, we’re very much intersectional artists. Even outside of dance, we’re asking dancers now to speak on-stage and be able to improvise on-stage; they have to be able to take improvisation to a performance space. I think across the board even in classical techniques a lot of artists are being asked to step outside of their traditional area of focus, it’s crazy. For me, movement is movement. Movement is human. What I choreograph and with the artists that I’m interested in bringing in to choreograph the company, I’m just really interested in showing human emotion and inspiring empathy. So how do you do that? Well, it could be very pedestrian or it could be looking at a totally different discipline outside of our current wheelhouse and using some of the different techniques that they have to convey that emotion and then bringing it into our work.
What about your work with fashion designers and composers and artists outside of dance?
I just think that when we’re creating art, why not bring in more voices and more perspectives and more layers into it? I think it makes for a more interesting end-product and a more enjoyable process. As performance artists, we will be wearing something or not so why not being in experts from a different method of art like fashion? I might have some ideas about what might look good, but of course I’m not a trained fashion artist. If it could become a collaboration with someone who is trained then the end product could be further layered and more interesting. I think then you have the opportunity to intersect with other audiences too because you might draw in a fashion-inspired audience and they may then realize, “Oh, I never knew about dance, this is really cool!” I’m really interested in mobilizing our own networks and seeing if we can cross market to then build audiences.
Bringing in composers to work with makes a whole lot of sense because with most types of dance, we’re dancing to music. Music is what’s moving us and there are so many talented music makers in Boston that it’s insane! I was always really confused by the ‘silo-ing’ of these different cultures within art and I thought well if they’re making this music anyways, then why not take advantage of it? Some compositions are begging for dance to be layered on top of their piece and some composers were actually envisioning dance as they were composing this piece of music. It seemed crazy to me that in a place like Boston, they had no movers to make that dream come true! My dream was to dance to something new--not dance to something that has already existed for hundreds of years! Why not be creating something together and building something fresh and new and truly contemporary? I’m working on a piece now for the June 1 & 2 show with a Boston-based composer names Josh Knowles and we’ve through a fairly quick month-long process and have created a piece about 8 minutes long and it’s to premiere June 1 & 2 at Tsai Performance Center at Boston University. We just named it and it’s called “Last Won Standing” and we came in with a lot of divergent pieces of inspiration like moths and this concept of being chosen and who’s doing the choosing; when are you excited or even elated to be the one who was chosen or when is it actually not a great thing to be the selected one and when does that turn? We were also thinking about choosing in terms of our very strange dating culture with Tinder swipes, and then we wanted to bring that into a contemporary abstract dance narrative. Like lots of different points of inspiration and the way I work with josh is i’ll send him a video of what we worked on in terms of movement and then we’ll overlay a music composition over the movement but then its a conversation still back and forth because he might be hearing a score in his mind where it makes sense to draw out a certain part that may not work out with the timing that we’ve created with the dance. It’s this beautiful challenge and I love challenges because that’s where the innovation happens.
Speaking of collaborating, let’s talk about the Urbanity Gallery Dance Party on May 19 which is going to benefit Urbanity’s All-Access Scholarship Fund.
Yeah! I would say for everything that we do, whether it’s an in-house program or out-of-house, we work with 500 Boston school children a week, it’s all about what are the needs of our community and do we have the resources to respond. So the Access for All Fund that the fundraiser is benefitting is really for in-house programs. Right now, we have 2 studio locations, soon to be a third, and they’re all in the South End and so we’re trying to raise $40,000 annually so that we can continue our mission which is really not to turn any student away due to financial means. We really want to engage with our community to welcome anyone who wants to take dance. So how do we raise the money to not only pay our teachers and cover some of the bare minimum costs of the space but also make sure that our doors are open and that we welcome everyone no matter what? Some students pay if they can afford it but others may not be able to afford it and they will receive financial assistance through the Access for All Fund. It’s really scaled based on what families are able to afford. I think we have a wonderful opportunity in our neighborhood to bring people together and I would imagine that if the school continues to grow that the need for such a fund will continue to grow. Right now, we have about 1000 students at Urbanity when you combine our youth program, our adult program, our summer intensive program and then our Dance With Parkinson’s Program.
If you buy a ticket for the event, what can you expect?
The first hour is for VIP ticket-holders so if you pay a little bit more you get a very cool jazz and tap dancing show alongside Berklee students and Urbanity dancers will be improvising in a jazz style along with everyone else so that will be a really fun hour—unlimited drinks in a smaller and more intimate setting. Later, it’ll open up into more people and a larger space and one of our students will be DJ’ing. There will be pop-up company performances happening throughout the night, some of the performances will be previews of what’s to come for the June 1 & 2 concert, which is also great for us because we get to test out what works and what doesn’t work. We’re also doing a Camille Brown work and she’s a really renowned choreographer out of New York City who is choreographing a piece for our June 1 & 2 show and it’ll be cool to catch a glimpse of what her work is going to look like. Then, a couple of our dancers come from different backgrounds and so we have a dancer who is trained in Korean Pop and then a breakdancer and then another one of our teachers will be doing a Brazilian style called Zouk which is a social style similar to salsa but it was designed by a trained ballet dancer so it’s a very interesting cross section of ballroom style dance and then a lot of upward movement. Also, there will be a dance party for all along with some great food and drink!
This is the first time we’ve ever thrown something like this, it’s a test that we hope can become an annual event. Because we have so many communities, like our adult dance community and our professional dancers and our Parkinson’s community, people have always been like why can’t there be this one thing that everybody can come to and so here it is! The point of this event is yes to raise money for the access to all fund but also to bring people together and have a great time! I think it has a ton of potential!