Choreographer Artist Statements

Each of these statements have been gathered and used with the artists permission. Use of these statements in anyway is prohibited. McKnight Artist Fellowships reserves the right to the statements below.

Paula Mann | 2019 Choreographer Applicant

Language is not my first language.

I love this form and this process, and I relish my lifetime commitment to it. However, even after decades of writing, speaking and teaching, I still feel limited by the written word. Writing is not natural for me. Movement is my natural voice. If I could speak directly using my voice, I could convey that passion. That said, I am attempting to write to you as I speak, McKnight panelists, in a spontaneous voice.

What movement means to me:

Through the act of moving (dancing) I can access the inner most part of myself. This has come through years of training, practice and observation of my practice.
My innate movement hangs in a balance between what is expressed and what is withheld, a voluntary dialog between narrative and abstraction. I feel physical intensity (desire) a forceful drive that comes out through my movement, transferring abstract concepts into emotions It’s an attempt to reconcile my observation of the world with my own inner terrain, the story beneath the story. It’s a hope to unearth the daily hidden and often difficult thoughts, dreams and desires of experience, and bring them clearly into the light of day. An example of this is a new short work in progress “The End Of Something, Or Is It The Beginning, I Can’t Tell” (see work sample) about experiencing a deep realization of my own mortality and cycles of endings/beginnings.

On projected imagery

Though I’ve been using projected media imagery since the 1990’s, I still marvel at its complexity and power. Over time I’ve gained appreciation for the power of simplicity and the need for restraint. Clarifying intention sharpens the communicative power of the combination. Clear and specific images, representational and abstract, can supply a wealth of insight, content and context. These images open a door allowing access for audiences unfamiliar with dance to understand and allow those who are to pull rich and deep nuance and meaning.
In my work, projected imagery changes energy and space functioning as backdrop, (I Love Tomorrow 2009, Rules Of The Crowd 2015) texture, character, light source, and augmented reality when projected onto sets and moving bodies (Invisible 2018). The challenges, both artistically and technically, continue to draw me in. Some works are devised with heavier projected elements than others. The imagery is sometimes used to create a full immersive environment (Here & After 2012). At other times, it serves as an accent or a moment. I don’t think the actual amount of media should matter per se, the purpose of the images to the work is paramount. Examples of these included in work samples.
I’m on the lookout for new ways to use media-image-based technology and interactivity without losing the power of live performance. I continue to question how movement and media intermingle, shining light on cultural juxtapositions. I am constantly attempting to understand the experience of live performance and how it affects our perceptions of time. Embracing the emergence of immersive theater, I hope to implement techniques to enhance the sense of presence and community within audiences.
For me the power of collaborative process is amalgamation and pluralism; I want to reach deeper into myself and I want to reach a broader audience.

On community…...or who gets to dance?

My work has taken me into diverse communities, which has strengthened my resolve, and my ability to work with those with varying amounts of physical training and/or some specialized skill. In my next work I’ll be merging dancers and vocalists. 6 vocalists and 6 trained movers. The vocalists are members of One Voice Mixed Chorus --Minnesota's own - LGBT and straight allies community chorus.
Emotional catharsis is a real need; particularly at this moment in our national narrative. The beneficial effect of learning movement on the brain is well established. I have found that my movement is very well suited to a wide range of abilities. I don’t believe (an often-unacknowledged mindset in the dance community) that working with a wide range of skills means I must give up choreographic rigor.
As we age, should we stop dancing? And if not, would anyone want to watch.? This was the focus of my last evening-length work INVISIBLE (2018). INVISIBLE focused on a specific community, women who have danced their whole lives and continue to as they age. The cast is ten women, ages 25-76. Diversity of age, race, cultural identification and life experience was essential in this work, creating an environment of women working together, all with unique strengths, uniting with a common purpose. I tried to speak to the experience of women ageing in America and address the fallout of our changing roles and perceptions of our value. How they are tied to the loss of beauty and sex-appeal? Who are we when longer meet these standards?

I am mid-career choreographer. I have survived long enough to have experienced many cycles in my work. I started making work at age 14, about a week after I began studying dancing. During the 1970’s-1980’s I was part of the downtown dance scene in New York City. I’m part post-modernist and part expressionist, both influences have an alternating weight within me. I have developed, honed and crafted a unique movement style over the last 30 years in Minneapolis (and 10 years in New York).

Since my last McKnight (2008) I created 7 evening length works: Invisible (2018), Pie Equals Square (2018) Rules Of The Crowd (2015) The One And The Many (2014), Here And After (2012) O’ The Humanity (2011), I Love Tomorrow (2009- presented at New York Live Arts--NYC). I feel more courageous about presenting my point of view and have a renewed vision on how to say it. I think my movement has become more focused, and I’m clearer about what it is communicating. I have developed the discipline to stay with an idea and flesh it out and letting go or changing course when needed. I have greater perspective on the core of what I am saying (the overview) earlier in the process. I’m more open to and see the value in following a "wild card" idea intended to shake up the existing hierarchy. I still value the experimental process.

Ashwini Ramaswamy | 2019 Choreographer Applicant

I come from a family of female dancers/dancemakers, and the majority of my life has been spent steeped in the south Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. For 30 years I have fully given myself to this art form that I find continually challenging, internally thrilling, and a pure joy to perform. Bharatanatyam has innate cultural, social, religious, and historical roots; these roots do not bind, but rather deepen, the possibilities to create resonance and wonder within both artist and viewer.

Ranee Ramaswamy (my mother), Aparna Ramaswamy (my sister) and I each uniquely carry forward a tradition that has weathered thousands of years and remains relevant today. As part of this matriarchy, I am committed to maintaining certain traditions embedded within Bharatanatyam while creating my own personal vision of women’s representation in performance.

The strength of my work begins with decades of dance training. My teachers - my mother, sister and the legendary Smt. Alarmel Valli of Chennai, India – have spent countless hours with me in the studio to uphold the balance between technical rigor, physicality, grace, and expressive authenticity that is the hallmark of our form of Bharatanatyam. These attributes will always exist in my generative work. The years of practice and study has undeniably influenced my approach, which uses the Bharatanatyam form as a conduit to explore the multifaceted interrelation between traditional culture and its contemporary manifestations. The meticulous nature of my training has given me an extremely strong foundation upon which to build my own structures.

Like a phantom limb, my Indian ancestry lingers with me, informing my artistic work and daily interactions; my upbringing in both India and the U.S. has encouraged an aesthetic perspective with a hybrid internal compass. I believe in a continuum between what we perceive as real/tangible and what we accept as unknown/unknowable; this gravitation between the human, the natural, and the metaphysical—forever engaged in sacred movement—is a focal point in my work. Onstage, I reference ancient myths, global literature and poetry, and the mixed media contemporary culture I have absorbed for 35+ years, drawing from myriad influences to express a personal identity that has a collective resonance.

I gravitate towards concepts that have an underlying duality, and are potent with imagistic possibilities. My 2016 work, 'Nocturne,' explores night from the perspective of the natural, human, and spiritual worlds. Ancient belief in India sees the moon as the controller of the water, circulating through the universe, sustaining all living creatures. Nighttime represents the unknown, and can be a time to reconsider the misunderstood. I was inspired by movements of nocturnal plants and animals, and observed Indian rituals to recall the auspicious hours between midnight and sunrise.

Evoking mythography and ancestry, my current work, 'Let the Crows Come,' depicts crows as messengers for the living and guides for the departed. Myth and legend have painted crows as both harbingers of doom and divine messengers. Crows are often seen as ominous scavengers; rather, they are extremely intelligent and communal. Seeing a parallel between this misinterpretation and the perception of marginalized groups worldwide, the myth of the crow became a focal point for further exploration—and the significance of crows across culture, history, and geography emerged.

'Let the Crows Come' marks a major choreographic departure/risk, which is to create work on dancers based in completely different styles, with live music by three composers. In addition to creating a Bharatanatyam solo for myself, I am creating solos for two dancers of different disciplines and cultural backgrounds—using Bharatanatyam as the starting point—a big creative leap that will expand my abilities as a dancemaker. A solo for Alanna Morris-Van Tassel will use the intricate language of Bharatanatyam gesture and translate the hand movements onto the entire body. A solo for Berit Ahlgren uses a slow-motion recording of the Bharatanatyam movements played in reverse as the starting point for movement possibilities. Each section recalls the Bharatanatyam solo, evoking a memory that has a shared origin but is remembered differently from person to person.

During a creative residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC, I was interviewed by freelance journalist Mallika Rao (The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker). Her words capture the essence of this project - “ 'Let the Crows Come' is a piece of experimental Bharatanatyam that feels more of a kind with conceptual pop art than anything ‘fusion’ related. Ashwini is innovative not for the sake of trendiness but out of a sincere (even desperate) curiosity about what the art form can do.”

I believe that pushing myself to innovate with choreographic methods will open new avenues to create work for non-Bharatanatyam dancers and companies. When I read about or watch performances of companies that commission guest choreographers, I see an opportunity that is rarely filled by a classical Indian choreographer. This is one way I can continue to distinguish myself as an innovator and show the vast creative potential of culturally rooted art that has evolved over thousands of years.

My 2012 McKnight Fellowship was in the category of dancer/performer, and now I have established firm roots as a choreographer. Since my last fellowship, my career has experienced many milestones: examples include national and international tours of 'Nocturne'; a commission by The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s renowned Liquid Music Series; National Dance Project Production, Touring, Community Engagement, and Production Residency funding for 'Let the Crows Come,' which will tour nationally after its premiere in 2019; an inaugural Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, which allows advanced artistic or professional development; and residencies at respected organizations like the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron.

I aim to create a safe space for audiences to experience an unfamiliar culture and decode its mystery, and grasp their individual place as products of history and the present moment. After giving a recent public talk, I received this message from a young attendee:

“Thank you for leading the way dance wise into what being multi-racial or multi-cultural is like. It will mean a lot to young people going through some of the same things you have, like me!”

As a dance artist working within a culturally specific art form, it is my responsibility to humanize immigrants and demystify the ‘other’ through performance, outreach, and education. My work invites questions of how to preserve the inherited while evolving in new circumstances and places—a universal push and pull between tradition and modernity that is central to the American experience.

Deja Stowers | 2018 Choreographer applicant 

“I dance not to entertain but to help people better understand each other. Because through dance I have experienced the wordless joy of freedom, I seek it more fully now for my people and for all people everywhere” - Pearl Primus

I am liberated by ancestral dance. My art is rooted in my history and fed by the present. I am an artist who believes dance is a form of meditation or a means to elevate. I use choreography as a rites of passage; we are changed by the time we spend with the movement. I am interested in how dance can return to its most traditional roots. A non presentational model, used for ritual and healing.

My first encounter with dance was when I was three years old in the Frogtown community drill team named “African Perfection”. I grew up knowing who I was and where I fit in the equation of dance. I was the chunky little girl all the grown ups would ask to dance at family functions. I never seen myself as a dancer though, because I seen everyone dance. I didn't feel I was special, just thought I was immersed/a part of something much bigger. That feeling became elusive while attending arts high school. It was when I was taken under the wing of Kenna Cottman and her traditional west African dance company I felt saturated again. I knew I was of African decent, but putting traditional movement in my body activated a vocabulary that was so familiar. I began to choreograph solo work while working with Pramila Vasudevan, and exploring social justice art with Penumbra Theatre. I started to incorporating “Theater of the Oppressed” techniques (forum and image theater) into my dance generation process. I performed all over the Twin cities at places like Intermedia Arts, Southern Theater, and even produced a show a Patrick’s cabaret featuring most of my choreographed works.

I continued to delve into traditional African movement by taking classes from masters from all over West Africa. I learned the distinct line between choreographed ballet style and traditional African dance. In 2012, I travelled to Senegal to study traditional senegalese dance and ceremony. While attending these ceremonies, there was no distinct line between who was a “dancer” and who was solely an attendee. This made me change my perspective of dance. Rebelling against dance being some sort of elite occupation that separated us from civilians. But but a tool that unifies us.

After a short time studying dance at Howard University, I realized my non performative view was not reflected of what I saw on stage or how people talked about dance. I was rejected by the dance community because of my size and my unconventional approach to dance. When I started my dance company “BLAQ” in 2016, I was intentional about selecting dancers from whatever “skill level” and body type. I exist in community with other Black artists and activists. We mobilize and create around our queerness, our deafness and hearing status, our degree of liberation. It is important to me that the dancers of BLAQ are reflective of my community, and not just ‘dancers’. My movements are based in traditional West African and Black social dance. Presenting raw and unfiltered Black creative’s stories is important, because I believe that’s where true change and understanding lies. BLAQ’s saying is “be yourself at all times”, which is why we create observance as opposed to performance. I believe that when you begin to “perform” real life experiences, they are no longer true to you. That experience has somehow been manipulated in a way to make it palatable to others, which shouldn’t be the case when it comes to expressing our truth. The goal of observance is to LIVE that experience on stage and the audience is there to OBSERVE something they would not have seen otherwise.

I am actively exploring how to access dance holistically. I began incorporating ASL into my work 5 years ago because of a personal connection through the arts. Throughout my life, I have never seen a Deaf person present or represented in events that directly affect the Black community, though my personal experiences and studies have opened my eyes to the existence of the Black Deaf community. My work through movement uses art to unlock possibilities to raise more awareness. My social change work through dance can result in liberation, give rise to more unity, and create environments that are accessible to more. I am seeking ways to make my art and other important conversations accessible to the Deaf.

In July of 2017, I created a piece titled ‘Taneber/BLAQ Wall Street’. I rebelled against traditional choreography, transforming a proscenium stage into a Taneber (traditional Senegalese dance circle); with local Black vendors, food, ASL interpreters, and DJs. People got up from their seats to join in. BLAQ could be observed dancing amongst the babies, friends, strangers and elders. Choreographing dance that pays homage to my ancestry and ritual, redefines the expectations set upon both the artist and observer. My choreography is reliant upon the innate intuition of the artist to explore their environment and their internal journeys; observers are encouraged to do the same. I’m dedicated to transforming spaces in this way, using dance as embodied storytelling.

My goals include solidifying a choreographic process that reinforces ritual and healing for myself, my collaborators, and my community. These are some of the ways that art serves a larger purpose relating to Blackness. I value collaboration with other artists, of various genres who are driven to create an alternative to performative methods of presentation/storytelling.

I’d live to develop my methods to the point where Im sharing and learning from others around the country and globally. I see myself attending festivals and presenting as well as taking workshops and listening to elders. My new thinking and new experiences lead to generation of ideas for new ways of observance and discussion around traditions. Healing and liberation are the desired goal with our bodies as the means and the movement the tools.

Deborah Jinza Thayer | 2019 Choreographer Applicant

I bring all of who I am into expression when I choreograph – my genetics, experience, and ways of perceiving. I spent my first seven itinerant years in Burma and Japan (my mother’s ancestral home); my first language was Japanese. Although caucasoid in appearance, genetically and experientially, I am a hybrid of both cultures. I spent the next ten years in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn Friends School. My self-directed open classroom education blurred the distinction between work and play and any subject matter became an excuse to discover my world (I remember growing crawfish in a child’s inflatable pool and recording the results). My interest in science led me to Johns Hopkins University as a pre-med student where, strangely enough, I discovered dance. I returned to New York City to study dance and there began my quest in the art and science of perception through choreography.

My philosophical basis in Buddhism believes that an individual’s inner life is reflected in the environment; hence, my fascination with creating structured environments as a way to probe one’s internal world. We all have perceptual frameworks, such as biases and assumptions, that limit or filter how we interface with the world. In my work, I use large abstract props to create altered metaphorical spaces that the dancers must navigate in the same way that we, as individuals are limited or guided by our own mental models. By rendering these models visible and concrete on stage, my hope is to inspire awareness of, and reflection on, how we interpret and express being in the world. I call my choreographic work, “Movement Architecture.”

From a choreographic perspective, instead of pulling the viewer out of oneself with virtuosic athleticism, my work draws the viewer into a meditative state evoked by the scenic “atmosphere” and sustained or intensified through movement. Sometimes I pull the viewer down the rabbit hole and enter a skewed reality. Sometimes I create a physical mantra and through repetition, I cycle the viewer into a different kind of focusing. In "Antarctica" (video sample #2), I manipulate both environment and movement to provoke meditative states. Using the frozen landscape with the sense of glacial time as inspiration, it evokes a liminal state between life and death -- of flow and stillness.

I previously received the McKnight Fellowship in 2004. Since 2009, I have created dance installations which allow the audience to be immersed inside of a structured environment -- to be part of a fabricated world, not just seated outside watching. In addition, I have become increasingly aware of the power of women and have used an all female cast for the past fifteen years. I am interested in women’s bodies as the site of both political and personal contest.

"Ode to Dolly, the sheep, inter alia" (see video sample #3) is a dance installation about artificial reproduction. It reflects the human tendency to create things in the likeness of ourselves and becoming all tangled up and confused in the process. The birthing of offspring once claimed to be “female” territory is now confronted with cloning and genetic manipulation becoming the more seductive and selective means of reproduction. And when are women reduced to their reproductive capacities and become just like Dolly, the sheep?

Most recently, my work has gravitated toward social and cultural conflict. Heterosexual male dominated culture can be seen as a result of lack of female empowerment and the historical censoring of the female voice and sexuality. As an antidote, "All Hail the Queen" (video sample #1) celebrates the voice and the vagina. The vocal apparatus and pelvic floor show anatomical similarities — lips/vulva, throat/vagina, glottis/cervix—that suffer from cultural restrictions. In this work, I used somatic practices to unearth movement, sounds, and emotional states generated by these organs and to use these as an underpinning for subsequent choreography. AHTQ works to remove the term vagina from our negative cultural associations — unwholesome, dirty, and pornographic. Nor does the vagina need to be cleaned or sanitized. It is a self-cleaning oven. Not only evolutionary practical but smart.

Just revealing the truths of female anatomy can be a revolutionary act. Recent research has shown that the organization of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in the sexual organs is wired differently in females and males. The ANS regulates all involuntary processes of the body — heart rate, breathing, etc. — and the sexual neural network sends signals back and forth from the vagina to the brain to reveal a profound, reciprocal communication highway.  Historically, the female psyche and the vagina have been associated with hysteria, or other types of “female disorders.”  On the contrary, healthy sexuality releases oxytocin, dopamine, opioids/endorphins from the vagina and imbue the female brain to feel a sense of power, creativity, and connection (see text from "Vagina Cheerleading," video sample #1). A healthy vagina is a healthy brain.

In a scene from "Menses" (video sample #1), the four dancers vocalize “quim” while scrubbing their dresses. Quim, an eighteenth century slang term for vagina is literally plucked up from the past, scrubbed off, and re-purposed into an oceanic sea of red. The scene strives to shift the perception of the dreaded menstrual cycle to one of a beautiful cleansing ritual. AHTQ is an effort to re-claim the narrative of the vagina and our bodies as both sacred and powerful.

By contributing another women’s voice about women’s bodies into the overall cultural discourse, my belief is that this can help shift the societal perception of women. My intention is to develop original and evocative work that creates an imaginative space in the hope of transforming ourselves in our worlds.