The Other Dance Festival (coming up at the end of September) came out of a heated talk about the lack of performance opportunities for Chicago modern dance that turned into a mad plan for change. Six years ago Elizabeth Lentz and I were talking about what the community needed: a visible performance event that would draw audience,press attention, a venue that would give artists a good chunk of time to show work (new or existing), pay them well, and produce them. Then Elizabeth, being young, foolish and full of energy, and I being older and foolish thought, “Let’s stop talking. Let’s do it.” So we did. As Artist-in-Residence at Hamlin Park the Chicago Moving Company (where I work) had access to the wonderful theater there, which would make a good home for such a festival. The original idea (“a damn good one” Timeout Chicago) was to focus on Chicago modern dance artists with a clear/strong artistic sense, including both veteran and upstart choreographers. The fest started in 2002 as a 2-week event featuring 11 artists; in year three (with support from the Chicago Community Trust and National Endowment for the Arts) the fest grew to 3-weeks and 16 artists—right where we are today. Over 5 years the fest has become “an end of summer ritual for dance fans” (TimeOut Chicago)--a fun and comfortable place to see the best of Chicago’s modern dance artists in an intimate space at a democratic price.
What are the challenges in producing an annual festival, and what community support do you receive?
The challenges in producing the festival are immense--like all arts undertakings, most relate to time and money. Elizabeth and I are the fests only staff and we both have other full-time work and commitments; our hearts are into this program completely though, so we make it work. Raising the funds is always a challenge too—I work at it year-round . . . we’ve had wonderful support from local funders and the NEA—all partners in bringing the ODF to life. I’m always looking/hoping though for an angel who could support the festival for several years so that I could spend less time raising money and more time on programming.
It’s also a challenge to program the fest—we can’t include everyone in the community and that makes for hard decisions. Logistical challenges include the work-load of dealing with 16 artists/companies, producing in an alternative theater, promoting on a moderate budget, scheduling the performance weeks—a process that can take up to 6 months of juggling everyone’s different schedules, and trying to curate an event so that it makes artistic sense. Then there are challenges you can’t foresee. Last year a tornado touched down in Chicago knocking out power to the theater on a sold-out night. All of the audience came. We served them cake in the dark (it was our 5th Anniversary Celebration) and they waited patiently 45 minutes past show-start time—when the power was restored and the show went on.
In addition to the generous support of the funders, the ODF also has support from the Chicago Park District, where the festival and Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater are housed; the press, who have been avid champions of the fest and its artists, especially Lucia Mauro, Sid Smith and Asimina Chremos; the wonderful audiences who turn out in droves, are up for anything and shower the artists with warm/tremendous applause and response; and the community of modern dance artists who put their hearts, souls, bodies, and pocket books on the line daily in their work and at the ODF.
What importance does the festival have for the artists that participate?
I think of the festival as a home of sorts for Chicago modern dance. A place that participating artists can rely on for supportive, successful presentation of their work. A venue that is artist-centered. Every year the artists have a positive send-off to their season; an opening performance that they don’t have any production responsibility for—they can just concentrate on their work, what a luxury! The ODF is an audience builder too; as folks who come to see one artist see many—and may become future audience members of those groups . . .There’s usually a lot of positive press too—something that is important to the artists for artistic feedback, documentation of their work, and to use for marketing and funding. The fest is also important for artists because it draws them together—they can see each other’s work, talk, network, touch base, and continue building Chicago’s modern dance scene. Artistically the festival is important because of its focus on the artist and artistic product—new work, works in progress, site-specific works are welcomed. Or, if artists want to show a favorite work from repertory, that’s great too. Elizabeth and I work hard to make the festival comfortable for artists—to create an atmosphere of creativity, community, success, and support.
What is your perspective on the history of dance in Chicago and the place for experimental work?
I’ve been involved in the Chicago dance scene now for over 20 years (whew!). My perspective on dance in Chicago is that quality of work, activity, notice given to, funding, number of companies, etc—are fairly cyclical, with regular ebbs and flows. Overall, though, I think that dance in Chicago is growing and getting stronger—artistically and managerially. In my time here I have seen the disappearance of venues and companies (MoMing, Joseph Holmes, etc) but also the establishment of many others . . . the expanded Dance Center of Columbia College, the Harris Theater for Music & Dance, Hubbard Street’s new space(s), energy and vision; the Joffrey coming to town; young modern companies with staying power (Lucky Plush, Breakbone); stalwart experimental venues such as Links Hall remaining strong; and new spaces—such as the emergence of the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater as a center of sorts for modern dance. Funding is always up and down for dance and many real issues remain (need for space, money, adequate pay, press attention), but I think the overall trend is positive. Things are moving in the right direction.
Experimental dance has always had an important place in Chicago’s dance scene. Right now I think there’s a small group of folks who are really pushing the envelope and doing something new. A vital, strong and necessary group whose place is to keep modern dance “modern” and shake things (the community of artists, audiences, press, the art form) up. That’s a good thing. There’s also a small group of venues/funders/press that support this work too (Links Hall, TimeOut Chicago, the City of Chicago(!)—to name a few) who are part of the equation in keeping the Chicago experimental scene fresh and strong.
What are the roles that you play within the Chicago dance community? And which role do you identify with most?
I play/have played many roles in the Chicago dance community—choreographer, dancer (independent, for other’s companies, as a member of collaborative companies), administrator, producer, curator, dance fan. Right now I spend more time as an administrator—as with family commitments (my son is 10 now) I have less time, and especially less flexible time to dance and choreograph. Dancing is still my first love, though—the role I most identify with. I try to remain active as a dancer by taking class and performing occasionally (when I can work the schedule). I enjoy my work as a manager/curator/producer—which is really an avocation of sorts. I like the variety, independence, meaningfulness, creativity, flexibility, freedom, fun, great people, connection to the community.
Kay LaSota is an arts administrator, independent choreographer and dancer. She has created 23 original works that have been presented throughout Chicago, at venues such as the Dance Center of Columbia College, Storefront Theater for the Arts, Links Hall, the Next Dance Festival, and on tour. Kay currently works at the Chicago Moving Company—one of the city’s longest-lived, most celebrated modern dance companies, where she has created/managed/and funded many programs, including (with Elizabeth Lentz) The Other Dance Festival. Kay has a B.A. with honors/Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago; and an MBA from Tulane University. She is proud mom to Sam, a fabulous 10-year old, 5th grader.
Interview conducted by CAR Dance Researcher Rachel Thorne Germond