Photo: Ken Arnold
|Ms. Cathy Edwards
Born in 1965, Cathy Edwards is Director of Performance Programs at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. She also serves as the guest artistic director of the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon, an annual program of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, where she is curating the TBA Festival for 2009, 2010 and 2011. At both festivals, Edwards is responsible for programming festival performing arts events. Prior to joining these festivals, Edwards' international reputation was cemented during her years at Dance Theater Workshop in New York City, where she was named co-artistic director in 2001 and artistic director in 2003. While she was with that organization (which she left for her current jobs), The New York Times
wrote that her “daring curatorial choices showed her to be as creative and imaginative as many of the artists she booked.” Before joining the staff of Dance Theater Workshop, Edwards was co-director of Movement Research, Inc., a dance and performance art-presenting organization in New York City, from 1990 to 1995. She is a graduate of Yale College and the mother of two children.
International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven
|Cathy Edwards is the former Artistic Director at Dance Theater Workshop (DTW), with its program of services for contemporary dance companies and choreographers, and is currently Director of Performance Programs at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and Artistic Director of the Time-Based Art Festival (TBA). About her role as one of the leading contemporary dance presenters in the USA, The New York Times wrote that “her daring curatorial choices showed her to be as creative and imaginative as many of the artists she booked.” We spoke with her about the career and philosophy behind her assertive curatorial standards and support for dance artists.
(Interview: Yoko Shioya, Artistic Director of Japan Society, NY)
Since 2009, you have been responsible for programming two of the highest-profile international festivals in the U.S. It is also well known that you were previously artistic director of Dance Theater Workshop (DTW). When did you start your career as a presenter?
Before DTW, I was at Movement Research, a dance service and presenting organization. Movement Research gave opportunities to emerging artists to focus on process and development. Although we didn't present finished works, we did provide a curated platform for artists to show what they were working on. Also, we programmed Monday Night Performances at the Judson Memorial Church, which is the birthplace of post-modern dance. We started that program during my tenure at Movement Research, and it is still going on today.
I remember you told me before that you had not really danced.
No. I took a little bit of jazz and modern dance in high school. But I did have the opportunity to see some modern dance while I was in high school, which I was struck by. My father was working for the U.S. Embassy in Athens, and we lived there for three years. I had the fantastic and moving experience of going to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform “Revelations” in Athens at the ancient amphitheatre of the Herodeiom, at the base of the Parthenon, still used now for live performances. It was like nothing I had ever seen before – so powerful and beautiful. The visceral thrill, the juxtaposition of a profoundly American art form with an ancient physical setting, in a modern European city—it had a deep impact on me.
Getting back to the Movement Research, was it your first job?
I started to work for Movement Research when I was 24, I think. I had a couple of years of doing other things before that. First I worked in publishing for a little while, including a job at Condé Nast as a copy editor. Then I got a job as an assistant to Betsy Gardella, who was starting a New York City office of the American Center in Paris, which has since closed as a result of big expansion plans that were not realized. One of the most promising outcomes of that job was the fact that Betsy introduced me to David White (Executive Director of DTW from1975 to 2003). Betsy was investigating interesting American artists to send to perform at the American Center In Paris, and also raising visibility for the Center in the U.S. David introduced me to Dance Theater Workshop and the artists who were working there at the time. I was also introduced to the executive director of PS 122, Mark Russell. So I went to PS 122 to see those artists, too. These experiences were almost like my initial encounter with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. It was in the late 1980s and I was a young person—until that time, I did not know people made that kind of performance—experimental, provocative, political, about identity and contemporary life. They were really different. Seeing these performances live was such an important experience. That time period opened to my eyes to a new artistic world.
But I left the American Center in Paris after about a year, partly because it was clear that the Center was facing profound problems, and it was not going to be an easy path to survival – in fact they didn't survive. Even though there were a lot of great ideas and good people behind it, and they built a gorgeous building in Paris designed by Frank Gehry, they were not able to raise money to program and maintain that new facility.
At one point, I got a phone call from an administrator whom I had met at PS 122, saying, “There is a job open at a place called Movement Research. You should apply for it. It's a managing directorship.” It was quite a leap to consider going from being an administrative assistant to becoming a managing director! But my colleague pointed out I shouldn’t be intimidated by the title, that this was a small organization with a two-person staff-- the executive director and managing director!
By then, it had been several years since Movement Research was founded, right?
Yes, it was founded in the late 70s, inspired by the Judson Church Movement (*1). It was born very much out of principles shared by the Judson. The founders were those who came just after the Judson Church Movement and they wanted very much to continue its values, such as a commitment to the dance-making process, and creating an environment for innovation and ongoing research.
So, I went to Movement Research and interviewed with Richard Elovich, who was then the executive director. It was a tiny little office with a couple of desks at the back of the Ethnic Folk Arts Center, which had a beautiful studio space. We didn't pay any rent for the space. Instead we bartered our services. In exchange for desk space, we managed their studio space.
When I met Richard his response was, “Oh, great. If you want the job, start tomorrow.” I said, “I don’t really know anything about dance.” He said, “You will be fine.” (laughs) And that was that. All of a sudden I was working there and my first job was to program the next season of dance and performance workshops. I said, “I don't even know any of these people. Who shall I call?” Richard opened the list of last year's workshops and said, “Look and see what the enrollment was. Then think about who we should invite back.” I was like a fly on the wall for a month or two. Then all of a sudden I realized, “I don’t have time to be a fly on the wall! I have to be listen and learn, but I have to move forward.” I started to program, to write grants, to work on our budgets, to interact with our board of directors and with artists. But as long as I retained my humility (laughs), that was OK – I think.
*1 Movement Research was founded in 1978.
Eventually you became Executive Director of Movement Research. How did that happen?
Richard did the heavy-lifting on all of the important jobs during my first year there, but he left after a year and a half! He was very active in Act-Up (*2). It was an incredible time of activism regarding AIDS and he was very involved in Act-Up and the needle-exchange movement. He was also busy as a solo performance artist at the time and made a great one-man show that I was very inspired by. But his interests were moving toward activism, and he was offered a job by GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis.) (*3) He suggested I tell the board that I wanted to be the Executive Director once he left. He said, “If you don't do it, who is going to?” I approached Guy Yarden, who was on the board of Movement Research and had been working for PS 122 for a long time, doing the accounting and curating a music series – I think he was ready for a change. I asked him to consider leaving the board so that we could become co-directors of the organization, which is what happened.
*2 Non-profit organization committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.
*3 non-profit AIDS service organization
It sounds like those were the good old days! I guess Movement Research was an ideal job for someone like you starting out without a lot of knowledge about dance. I guess you didn't have to go out too much to see works because new things were always coming in to Movement Research.
It was a great place to be. It enabled me to see work by John Jasperse, Jennifer Monson, Arthur Aviles, and Donna Uchizono, among many others. I was being introduced to a new art form. It was so profound. I love the kind of roughness that aesthetic had, and the intimacy of the environment in which it was made. There were so many new things to think about all the time. Also, I learned a lot about the administrative aspects of the profession. I learned how to write press releases, learned how to program workshops, learned who the interesting artists were, how to put on small performances, and how to manage a box office. I learned a lot there.
It was also interesting because we had many international students coming to Movement Research. It had a reputation as a place to come to in New York and study. Often students got their visas through Merce Cunningham Company, to study in New York. They took classes at Cunningham, and then they came over to Movement Research to try new things. It was interesting for me to realize that the dance community in New York was actually such an international community.
There was another nice aspect of being at Movement Research. There were two artist groups that rented the studio of the Ethnic Folk Arts Center for their rehearsals on regular basis: Bebe Miller's Company and Stephen Petronio's company. I was able to follow their work and get to know it inside-out. It was great having our office right off their rehearsal studio. Seeing artists making work, seeing the process, was a great education.
As an organization, Movement Research was almost exclusively artist-focused. It was about development, research, and learning opportunities for artists. I think I have always carried those artist-focused values at the core of what I do, even though so much of what I do now is about championing artists to audiences. Back then, there wasn’t an audience, except for the other dancers or other choreographers. We didn't have to budget to try attract general public to performances.
Please explain a little more about what you meant by “artist-focused” – as opposed to what?
I would say as opposed to a focus on “audience experience.” Or, as opposed to organizations that are focused on having a civic or educational impact. In the case of Movement Research, perhaps the focus was not even on “artist careers,” because we did not help them to get gigs or tours or raise money for their companies. The focus was more on artistic research and development. The focus was the growth of artistic craft and further artistic investigation.
Then you moved on to NPN (National Performance Network)?
I took a year off when my daughter was born. And my husband had a clerkship with a Supreme Court Justice in Washington, DC. So we lived in Washington for a year. When I came back to New York I started working as the Director of Inter/National Programs at Dance Theater Workshop. The “Inter” part was the Suitcase Fund project (*4), and the “National” part was the National Performance Network project. I arrived at a time of change. NPN had reached a point of maturity and size that mandated a shift in its structure. It had reached the point where it didn’t make sense for it to be a “project” of DTW. At the time, David White wanted to expand DTW's own building and facility, and had the opportunity to buy the building that DTW had rented the second floor of for years. Simultaneous to NPN's growth, it became clear that DTW couldn't mount three fundraising initiatives simultaneously: for the core operation of Dance Theater Workshop, for the core operation of National Performance Network, and for the capital campaign to expand the DTW facility. It was a good time to think about restructuring. Working closely with David and the steering committee of NPN, we decided to spin NPN off and set it up on its own as 501(c)3.
There were two years when NPN was still a part of DTW before it became an independent organization. It was a challenging two years for me because I was conducting ongoing management of the NPN while administering the restructuring of NPN. That involved very active participation by a steering committee that transitioned to become the board of directors; executing the financial separation of the two organizations; and also conducting a search process to find new director.
For me personally, it meant that I had to decide if I wanted to stay with NPN as its managing director, or stay at DTW. Looking back on those two years at NPN, I took away two important things. The first was that I was built national relationships with artists, funders and presenters that I didn’t have before. The second was that I had many opportunities to see work as I traveled around the country, and I was able to get an understanding of how presenters worked in varied and different ways depending on cities they were in.
Ultimately, I felt that it would be more exiting for me to be involved in the programming of DTW's season and working directly with artists, instead of working with presenters and venues. At that point my job switched to one of programming the national and international work at DTW. I began to work closely with Craig Peterson, who was working with most of the New York City artists on the DTW season. We became co-artistic directors, working for executive director and producer David White.
*4 Established in 1985, The Suitcase Fund’s mission is to support the research, creation, to fuel international dialogue and creates a global artistic community.
Did you travel a lot for “Inter/National” programming?
Yes. But, I've always been good at asking other people what they've been seeing; what artists are interesting; asking people where they have been, what artists they think I should be following up with. I don't ever feel the need to be the one scouring the world for talent all by myself. I need to be really good at maintaining relationships with a group of artists, presenters and journalists. I ask them what they have seen and who they think I should be looking at. That helps me to narrow my focus and to prioritize when it comes to travel.
Through such communication, you prioritize your travel destinations?
Exactly. I am essentially a researcher. I watch a lot of DVDs. A lot. I would almost never program something right from a DVD – that would be very, very rare. But I would certainly decide from a DVD, “Oh, this is really interesting, I need to go to see this work.” For example, the dance group that I am going to see tonight, Les Slovaks, will be giving their first performance in the U.S. A couple of people recommended them to me two years ago. I've been in touch with the manager for two years. He sent me DVDs, which looked very interesting. But I was not able to organize my travel so I could see their work live. Eight months ago the manager said, “We are comingto New York for two nights,” and therefore, here I am.
Do you try to expand the number of the people from whom you get information? Or, do you rather want to keep to with a group of familiar people?
I think I do have a core group of reliable people who, in a sense, I have grown up with in my job. Those are people with whom I don't always agree, we don't always love the same things, but I know what each of their worlds is like and I value their opinions, their experience, their ability to think about art. And, yes, I do meet new people, especially young people, who are also very valuable colleagues. I serve on a lot of grant panels and attend a lot of festivals. There I may happen to spend three days with a colleague I've never met before. Then we find that we have attended similar festivals and have followed the work of artists with relevant aesthetics or questions. Sometimes, those colleagues can be an ongoing resource for my programming and research.
I also check myself against other people's taste and ideas. I always try to question myself – interrogate my preferences and tastes – because I do think being a curator isn't purely about taste. There is also a mandate to be responsive to ideas and contemporary issues that artists are addressing. Sometimes you present a piece that you might not fall in love with 100%, but you really understand where this piece was coming from and why it's important that it be part of what you are doing as a curator, so that audiences can see its relevance and resonance.
I do feel that over time my tastes also change. I remember a period of time when I was almost bored with dance, that I was seeing a similar physical movement vocabulary over and over again. And then it was really fantastic to start seeing conceptual work. Then there came a time when I felt, “Hey, I don't want to see another piece where they never move.” Things change again. Right now I am interested in work that allows me to have an intimate and ambiguous, but personal relationship with space, sound or movement. I am less interested in spectacles. However, there have been other times when I wanted to be shaken by something and needed a jolt of spectacle! I think some of this is a response to the political and cultural times we are in, because a lot of art-making and viewer response is rooted in a time and place, and a set of aesthetic concerns.
So you are saying that your preferences are dynamic.
Yes. However, some of the things like “aesthetic rigor” or “clear intention” --- though overused words, probably – remain as constants in anything I respond to strongly.
Let's talk about your current job at two annual festivals: International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut – taking place in mid-June, and the Time Based Art Festival of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) in Portland, Oregon, in early September. You sometimes mention that the audience in each festival is quite different. It is natural because the locations are different – New England vs. Northern Pacific Coast. And the time of year is different – there are no university students in town in June, whereas young people are ready to go out to have fun in early September. Then, how do you adjust your personal preferences in your programming of the different festivals? Taste and preference are reflected in your programming, but the programming will have to communicate with the local and core audience and have to be attractive to the potential audience. And you have two kinds of programming responsibilities for completely different audiences.
For me, being embedded in an organization, it is a huge part of my job to be attentive to the mission and the mandate of the organization. Certainly the mission of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas is different from the mission at Dance Theater Workshop, which at its core was about “moving dance forward.” Arts & Ideas has a mandate to bring world-class artistic experiences to the city of New Haven over a 15-day period, to animate the city of New Haven and bring people together in the city and the state of Connecticut to experience something transcendent and illuminating together. PICA’s mission is unique, also, and very artist-focused: supporting and presenting the work of the most interesting, innovative contemporary artists, working in both the performing and the visual arts. That often means works that are challenging and experimental.
None of these missions are oppositional, and they exist on a continuum. In New Haven I think about work that would be illuminating to a wide cross-section of audiences and viewers who are engaged citizens who care about the way culture can impact the community for the better, and expand people’s horizons and bring people together, and also channel issues and debate about the world around us. We also think a lot about “world class” artists and artists with unique visions that would not generally be visible here in our community unless we introduce them.
For example, this June we will present a concert by Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Project, as well as a keynote speech by Yo-Yo Ma. That will be a perfect vehicle to see the arts at the crossroads of a complex set of cultural, political and social visions of the world. It will demonstrate pan-Asian musical traditions and bring them together with western traditional instruments to illustrate points of connection as well as points of difference. The Silk Road concert illuminates a metaphor for connections between people, with music as the vehicle. That's an experience that will be very profound at Arts & Ideas, alongside the fact that The Silk Road Project has never performed in Connecticut.
How much do you explain to the board, or your colleagues or community people, about your program planning; how each of the projects would make sense in terms of the Festival mission?
We do a lot of explaining. One nice thing about a year-round venue such as DTW was that you focused on one artist or project at a time. So you gave it all your attention for a certain period. In a festival context, there are twenty projects happening at a same time. You cannot tell twenty stories exactly in the same depth. Some artistic projects or themes we decide to talk about extensively in advance. At Arts & Ideas, Mary Lou Aleskie, the executive director, spends many months of each year building specific relationships in our community around our core artistic projects, in order to build context for the work and to create partnerships to support the work. She meets with Congress people, business people, university administrators and our city government, as well as arts advocates and of course board members. At PICA, I host several member salons and events each spring leading up to TBA where I focus on introducing the work of the artists who will be part of the festival, showing videos and talking about artistic intentions and impact. I also visit with creative companies and participate in brown-bag lunches where PICA staff shows video material and talks about the upcoming festival themes and artists. Victoria Frey, executive director of PICA, and the PICA program directors Erin Doughton and Kristan Kennedy, are very committed to introducing festival artists and festival themes in advance, in order to convey to stakeholders in the Portland community the importance of the artists who are part of the festival, the vision behind the festival, and the unique experience of attending the festival.
Are most of the artists you present and work with at Arts & Ideas from outside of New Haven?
Our goal is to create an event that's unique and one that wouldn't happen otherwise in our community. We are trying to bring something unusual and out of the ordinary to the city, which by and large means artists and projects that are new to the city. But, of course, we embed local artists throughout the festival – especially through the outdoor series, with musicians and bands in particular.
We have about twenty main-stage ticketed events. Then we have hundreds of other artists who perform under Festival auspices on stages on the New Haven Green, giving concerts and providing family events that are free to the public. Every day on the New Haven Green we host a noontime concert, an afternoon concert for children and an early-evening concert for people who are leaving work. That's three major free events a day. So there are a huge amount of activities in addition to the main-stage ticketed events.
I found that Arts & Ideas has also done commissioning of works. What is the motivation and criteria of commissioning works?
We want to be contributing to the performing arts field and to the ability of artists to make new work. Providing a place for artists to perform is essential, but supporting the generation of new projects and ideas is also critical. It's the right thing to do. It's an important part of being in the performing arts ecosystem that we invest in artists, and in their ability to create new work. We have to do that, I think. We have to be responsible citizens.
One sad reality is that, across the board, I've been doing less commissioning. In the current economic climate, and in the Festival context, we prioritize presenting the festival. At both Arts & Ideas and TBA Festival, we continue commissioning but our resources are not as robust as we would like them to be. At a place like Dance Theater Workshop, commissioning has to remain central, because it's in New York and that is where artists are making things. Whereas for a festival and for presenters around the country, it is arguably more critical to provide artists with places for their work to be seen and to reach a wider public.
Let's move on to talk about PICA's TBA Festival. What kind of things did you feel are new to you, and familiar to you?
When I came to Portland and attended the TBA Festival for the first time, I was under the impression that the audience was very similar to my audience in New York: young people, artists, very hip and immersed in art-world currents. But in fact, a lot of the audience at TBA Festival is involved in creative industries – design, advertising, architecture--but not necessarily the performing arts. It is an incredibly vibrant and interesting creative community. But it is not characterized by connoisseurship of particular art forms.
The TBA Festival is an immersive marathon festival experience where viewers are exposed to an incredible range of creative voices. The TBA Festival presents artists who are working in diverse forms and are really reframing conventional expectations. And, it's a festival that values a party! (Laughs) That is nice. One thing that I love and was very inspired by is the late-night environment called “The Works.” Every night, the audience and all the artists who have been performing turn out when the main-stage events are done. There is a beer garden and bar, and a stage where you can watch late-night performances and talk about what you saw during the day. It builds community to share these experiences and share the fun of being a part of something immersive and unconventional. It's like a non-stop art party for 10 days!
Both TBA and Arts & Ideas are festivals of “international” performing arts. Let us hear your thoughts about locating Japanese artists in the international programming.
There is a very active interest in Japanese work and aesthetics in Portland and at TBA Festival. There has often been Japanese work as part of PICA's season. There is always interest. This past year, the site-specific performances by two dancer/choreographers from Japan (Yukio Suzuki and Zan Yamashita) curated by Off-Site Dance Projects for the TBA Festival, were fantastic. But I would say that basically it is a process of looking for the right projects. I would like to find the right projects from Japan to include as part of the September 2011 program – in part because this past year at TBA was so successful. I was really taken by the work of these two artists, Yukio and Zan. They renewed my own curiosity and appetite for what's happening in Japan. It's been a few years since I had the opportunity to have a broad view [of work in Japan]. Also, a coinciding factor now is that I've been serving as a member of the Japan Foundation’s Performing Arts Japan panel, which I started participating in last year. So it's been a fruitful time for me to begin to learn again about what is happening in Japan – especially in dance.
I am curious about Japanese theater, too. Some of the projects on my list to learn about this year include English translations of Toshiki Okada, whose plays Dan Safer and Dan Rothenberg (*5) worked on toward their [English-language] productions. Many people highly recommended them, including Yoko Shioya. (Laughs). Portland is Pacific Rim – it makes sense to present work from Japan. Also, Japan is one of the countries in which there are a lot of contemporary artists. There is a huge contemporary and experimental scene in Japan.
*5 Dan Safer is NY-based American theater director, who directed Okada'’ play Five Days in March in May 2010. Dan Rothenberg is Philadelphia-based American theater director, who directed also Okada’s Enjoy.
So you think Japanese artists work is a natural fit for PICA?
Yes, it's because of the geography, and a population of contemporary artists. But, I would love to bring some Japanese artists to Arts & Ideas as well. I need to get to work identifying the right projects!