Sunday, June 11, 2017

Amelia Ehrhardt: Curator and Optimist

As Dancemakers launches into a new venture, the Mini Festival, it seems appropriate that I launch into an interview with Amelia Ehrhardt, Dancemakers' curator,  to get to know her better. Amelia and I have met a few times but never had a real conversation before this interview. It was a beauty. 

Read on to hear about the Mini-Festival and most engrossingly about Amelia's values of community, politics and space-creating.


Amelia Ehrhardt, photo by Yuula Benivolski

LR: This is really exciting, the Mini-Festival ….

AE: I’m really excited about it too.


LR: How did the idea for the Festival come about?

AE: It’s a festival of circumstances. We were in a situation of scheduling so many artists – international and those who work internationally. Dana Michel’s work we had planned and Antony Hamilton's work. But we discovered we could only present them within a week of each other. It was really tight timing to make this decision. The general manager [Frances Shakov] and I were both new to the organization and we knew it would be hard to market two major shows within a week of each other so we said, "Let’s make it a festival!"

As opposed to trying to market two separate shows, adding more to the time and more activities would make it more appealing to the public. Thank everything that Andrea Spaziani and Amanda Acorn were available at the same time. We added Andrea’s lecture and Antony’s classes and an artist panel and now we have a full roster of activity.

It wouldn’t have happened if we tried to plan it.


LR: I feel like in dance recently a lot of really cool things have emerged because of circumstances. 

AE: It's seasonal problem solving

LR: It’s an advantage we have in dance. We’re ephemeral and small. But we’re able to be responsive.

AE: Yes we’re able to be so flexible. The longer I’m in this job the more I realize there are certain things that have be nailed down, but we need to stay responsive to opportunities that arrive.

LR: On my way here, I was remembering you used to work for the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists, Ontario Chapter. I was on the board for 6 years and  that’s where I learned the advantage of what is sometimes posed as our weaknesses, the small size of our organizations and their lack of spaces and operating budgets. We can move more quickly without major physical or bureaucratic institutional weight.

AE: CADA-Ontario could still use an extra $80,000 a year but yes, absolutely. They could still be responsive even then.

LR: So all the artists in the Festival are or have been resident artists with Dancemakers?

AE: Yes. The core residency is three resident artists over three years with staggered starts so it’s a different company of people every year. Year one an artist brings a piece towards production, shows it in an informal setting. Year two the artist starts a second work, produces the first. Year three, the artist produces the second work. So they leave with two produced works, a lot of studio development time and dancers as needed. That is the model Michael Trent launched when he was running Dancemakers. Then there’s an emerging artist program as well. Doorbuster deals on studio rental, Emerging dance writers in residence, and Technical/Production residencies.  A lot of residencies are pretty specific, but we’re trying to make sure our programming stays open so more people are eligible.

LR: So this is the culmination of Dana Michel’s time?

AE: Yes. Dana’s first year was during the craziness of Dancemakers transition. And she plowed through year two. Year three she wanted to take a step back and reconsider her process for her residency time, after creating so much. So we asked her to show a piece of repertoire as a way of sharing publicly some of what she’s working on this year. Her solo "Yellow Towel" is astounding. It's toured all over the world and Impulstanz created an award to give to her for it.

LR: I remember meeting her at a Series 8:08 ages ago, probably more than ten years. She was so kind and her work so compelling.  She is an amazing artist and also just a great person.

Antony is from Australia, so did he come on board?

AE: Antony came on board when Emi [Forster, former co-curator with Ben Kamino] was still here. She is also from Australia and wanted to bring him. I wouldn't have come in contact with his work otherwise, I don't think. But I'm glad to know him. He is really sweet and works so fast. 


LR: One thing I find really interesting about the programming….I love it.... The "Is it Utopic Even to Ask? Artist Discussion"….where did this come from?

AE: We wanted to have an artist panel and this topic specifically is interesting to me. I worked really decidedly in DIY spaces for the first 5-6 years of my career, and then I got more institutional – programming at Summerworks and then this job. I am so dedicated to artist-run situations. They feel so important and pressing to hold on to as they are becoming more and more rare. Hub 14 is a miracle... how it keeps going.

How can I hold onto that ethos in the Dancemakers situation? I mean best-case scenario at Dancemakers is to be ground-level, grassroots and community-driven. What I’ve learned in the past 18 months about the implications of that is that it can seem utopic to even think it’s possible.

I’m reading this book that is fairly popular in contemporary art theory right now: Cruising Utopia by Jose Esteban Munoz. It's has me thinking.

Living more and more in this present that feels so oppressive, and less so for me than other people, well it has me thinking about where we can find or create utopias.  I see optimism as active and important labour. I hear many people saying we should give up on the institutions, and I understand that, I've hit my head against that wall. But there’s something about it that makes me want to dig my heels in. It seems provocative to ask these questions at Dancemakers. Is this working? How does it work? What is the point of artists investing time into these organizations? It might be easier to get a non-arts job and fund our art through that job?

LR: That’s clearly not for you. You’ve got a vision.

AE: Yes. What is it that we’re trying to do together? What are we trying to maintain?

LR: One of my favourtie bloggers Maria Popova published a 10 things I've learned list when her blog hit its 10th anniversary and I have a printed list of them in front of my desk at home. Number 10 is the most critical to me right now: Fight cynicism. Fists out to fight it in yourself and other, more gentle ways to resist and fight it in others. I’ve always felt bad about being an optimist. I can be morose, but deep down I am always hopeful. I can’t abide apathy.

AE: Optimism doesn’t preclude being fucking mad.

LR: Yes. That was another aspect of Maria Popova's writing on this: the difference between skepticism and cyncism. Cyncism being stagnant and skepticism still moves things forward because there's a question, a curiosity fuelling it.

AE: We have no choice but to be optimistic about these things. When Flowchart, my presenting project for experimental, conceptual work, started getting a lot of attention and gained a lot of energy, people said “Great you’re a presenter” And I thought “no I’m a choreographer! I’m an artist.” But I was doing it at Hub 14 and it’s wonderful but so small – performing for 30 people maximum…

LR: …And 30 people in there are getting sweaty just sitting still….

AE:…Yes and it’s so much work. So much hard work. I told myself not get bitter.

LR: It’s going to creep up but you have to keep it in check.

AE: Exactly. There are a lot of things I wish we could speak a little more openly about in our dance community.

LR: It’s our polite Canadianness and the smallness of the dance community….How can we speak to one another critically and without cruelty?

AE: Dissenting doesn’t mean that you don’t care about it. In fact it means you care a lot! You’re investing in it.

LR: It’s kind of exciting to see some of the restlessness and riled-upness happening politically right now. It feels shitty in the midst of it, but something is happening! Like a chemical reaction.

AE: It exists in the dance community too. There are certain boats you’re not supposed to rock….But things have started to change. About ten years ago when I got out of school, and the Toronto Dance Community Love-In started.

LR: Yes I felt that. A couple years after it got going I noticed more sharing going on, more openness or togetherness.

AE: Yes. And now I can see artists emerging about ten years younger than me who have a more open-minded approach to things. The New Blue Festival for instance. Open sharing is a really critical part of the process for them….That’s the upshot of dissent. "I’m going to stay here and these are things I don’t like of what’s going on and this is what I’m going to do about it." It wasn’t like that ten years ago. Then everyone was just forming companies and hoping something would happen with that.


LR: I’m so glad to have this conversation with you…I tend to be a bit awkward and shy moreso with people I know a little than with people I don't know at all. I don’t know what to say and I panic. We've had a few brief exchanges over the last few years but not a lot, I could've made this a really awkward interview. But now I feel like I want to get together with you once a month and get riled up and optimistic.

How do you feel all this coagulates into your role at Dancemakers?

AE: Everything is so rooted in studio work for me. Curation feels like a manifestation of studio practice. In my artistic practice I think about circumstances…that doesn’t necessarily manifest as a dance work, but as frames for dance works to happen. So it feels practice-based, not administrative. I am at my desk, just like independent artists doing the administrative work, but the rest of the time is thinking and reading and rolling around to get clear thoughts and ideas.

I’ve always been involved in advocacy.  Since I was in school.

LR: Where did you train?

AE: George Brown. I was surprised at the ways of talking to students that were still acceptable in dance training. I was the one to go into the office and give voice to the problems. At that point I was beyond caring about my grades, so advocating for the students became important. That sticks with me. I care about the labour of dancers.

LR: It sounds like this ties in to what we spoke of earlier about developing healthy dialogues, dissent and optimism.

AE: My mom worked at a Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, so I was raised in a space that was working hard at equity and access. When I got into dance I noticed these ideas were still guiding me. I’m politically motivated and social justice oriented and a Sagittarius so I keep at this.

LR: Something you said earlier struck me, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As curator you need to roll around on the floor and be in your body. I know this place. I’m at my desk trying to work  and inevitably I stand up and dance around a flood of ideas rush out of me so I have a notebook beside where I dance to get it down on paper. I think of Besser Van der Kolk who a researcher in psychology and trauma. He's developed a program for people with PTSD that involves a yoga practice, his ideas being that moving the body moves the emotion and helps the sufferer get un-stuck. It's all one system. When I read about his work, I couldn't help but understand in a new light the power our art form can have.

So off on another track: what’s the most exciting thing about the Mini Fest?

AE: Having all the artists in the space at the same time. First time. For one day they will all be here together.  From the transition of a company to this model, we lost a company and the community of artists immediately around me is not much or not often.  That has been hard.

LR: The physical interaction is important. There's definite synergy to it. It's not popular to say this but I believe our devices are good for us. There is so much we can offload to them that I think we will become more embodied because we are freed from some info we don’t need to keep in our heads. We'll be more able to be present with each other.

AE: I was an early Internet adopter. An early blogger. I always felt I didn’t know how to interact with people. The Internet used to be a thing that only weird teenagers were using. So social media has always been, for me, about connecting communities even before it was called social media.

LR: It must be challenging  and maybe lonely to be solo at the helm of a historied organization like Dancemakers.

AE: When I started the job I noticed a shift in how people talked to me…not my close friends…but more peripheral people. When I first started I was reticent to talk about the power in my position. But then I realized it’s important to own up to it. My job affects others. When one person gets a residency, it means saying no to 20. It was really hard in the first year. I found refuge in the queer community and art community and places where I was more anonymous. I’m not a CEO or anything, but I have one of very few paid jobs in a sector where very few get paid to do their work. I get paid to write and answer my email…. It’s really different.

LR: It’s a tough thing to be handed at a young age. 

AE: I just turned 30. 

LR: Probably wouldn’t matter how old I was be, I would have a hard time in that position. I doubted it when other women in their 40s used to tell me how good it would be to get there, but age definitely bring more of the I don’t give a fuck what people think about me, which is so liberating. However we are also in a line of work where we have to care, because it's the artists' responsiblity to reflect the society they are immersed in and many of us receive public funding for our works. So we have to care what people think. It doesn't mean we have to have them like us or what we do. 

There's this thing that happens for women as you go through the 30s and into the 40s: I know what I am good at and what I’m not good at it….I think men get there earlier, they are encouraged to or learn to fake it earlier?

AE: For sure. 

Dancemakers was in a wacky place when I started.  There were a lot of questions from the community. There was no general manager. People didn't know what was happening. I was definitely entering the organization in a tricky transition. 

I’m ambitious and I get in over my head really quickly. I have a panic disorder and my health is really important to me and at the same time I’m attracted to stressful jobs and situations. I don’t want to give up the work and I don’t get to give up my health.

LR: I say this from a certain kinship. I bet there’s something that deep down is really attractive to you in the challenge of that balance. I think dancers tend to be perfectionists, not because they want to be perfect but because the challenge of getting to perfection is actually unattainable, especially in contemporary dance because what that perfection might be can change instantaneously. It’s values, physicality, and goals. I think we reset the goals if we get close to them. It’s admirable on some levels and also addictive.

AE: You just don’t know what perfection is in contemporary dance and that’s the point of it…. I feel good right now…I’m not in my technical chops but I feel good about my dancing body right now. This is how I do this. And it’s ok. …I wish we could claim that at a younger age.  

LR: Thanks Amelia. Good luck with the Mini-Festival and all its events!

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There's so much happening in the Mini-Festival I can't put it all here, so click on this link for the info. And get out there. Have a healthy, critically optimistic time. 




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