DANCE; New Lords of the (Downtown) Dance

Published: January 28, 2007

WHEN Cathy Edwards stepped down as artistic director of Dance Theater Workshop last summer, experimental dance lost a general. Ms. Edwards had the essential ingredients of a good curator: experience and guts. She put a slew of young artists on the map in her outstanding 2005-6 season, and her daring curatorial choices showed her to be as creative and imaginative as many of the artists she booked. Others in the field took note.

''All of the things that we were supposed to be at P.S. 122, in terms of the work we presented, Cathy did so much better than us,'' said Vallejo Gantner, who became artistic director of Performance Space 122 in 2004. ''I didn't love it all, but I realized that we were presenting much more dancey dance. And I was very distressed by that. It was very challenging for me to figure out what I liked and disliked.''

Mr. Gantner, an Australian who used to direct the Dublin Fringe Festival, is one of three relatively new directors on the downtown scene, along with Carla Peterson, Ms. Edwards's successor at Dance Theater Workshop, and Debra Singer, who became the executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen in 2004. Together they have injected an element of uncertainty into the way choreographers are chosen.
Although Ms. Singer and Mr. Gantner deal with other art forms as well, their theaters are integral to contemporary dance in New York. And in all three cases the directors' decisions carry weight beyond New York, even abroad.

Mr. Gantner is more at home in the world of experimental theater than in dance. Depending on the aesthetic preference of the viewer, that lack of dance experience has either set back contemporary dance or rejuvenated a practice of earthy, masculine physical theater.

''I like to think that I experience dance as theater,'' he said. ''I don't have any technique background, and I know very little about theory. I like really visceral work that is generous in terms of the energy it gives an audience. One of the things that I didn't like about a lot of the work I saw when I first came to New York was that there was a deadness about it. It was being performed in the heads, and I didn't find anything conceptually interesting in that.''

Partly in response, Mr. Gantner instituted Room, a commissioning program to encourage artists to collaborate with experts outside their disciplines. Next month Megan V. Sprenger works with Sara Grundel, a mathematician, in ''No Where.''

''I felt like there was too much self-referential work,'' Mr. Gantner said. ''Room is about globalization and trying to support work that is actively engaged with the bigger world. Not just the world of downtown dance or theater but actually thinking about theoretical ideas about contemporary society and culture and technology.''

While Mr. Gantner says he admires the work of Israeli choreographers like Ohad Naharin and Yasmeen Godder, and dances that create a catharsis for the audience, he is loath to define his curatorial approach specifically.

''I don't work in a way that is that predirected,'' he said. ''It's responsive to who wants to work with us and to seeing someone doing a showing or 10 minutes of something and thinking, 'We need to talk to that person.' ''

At the Kitchen, a space devoted not just to dance but also to theater, music and video, Ms. Singer, unlike Mr. Gantner and Ms. Peterson, is the organization's primary fund-raiser. Ms. Singer, who was a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is influenced by her experience in the visual arts as well as by the Kitchen's longtime practice of employing artists as curators.

Before she took over, the Kitchen usually had one dance curator, who served a five-year term. Now there are three primary curatorial advisers (Dean Moss, Sarah Michelson and Yasuko Yokoshi) and two others who work on individual projects, although Ms. Singer plans to add more. Sometimes it seems as though there are more curators than artists.

''We just broadened it out,'' Ms. Singer said. ''Artists always know more than curators; I don't care what the field is. That's where I always take the lead from: listening to other artists about what new things are happening.''

Ms. Singer, who presents fewer international works than the other curators, tries to put New York dance artists first. ''It's not like we're never doing international work,'' she said. ''When there are citywide festivals we participate, and there's a logic to that. But if you want to be able to show enough local choreographers, something's got to give.''

Ms. Peterson of Dance Theater Workshop faces the biggest challenge, because of the vital effect the organization has on the ecology of dance as well as the legacy left by Ms. Edwards. Some of next year's artists, including Jérôme Bel, were programmed by Ms. Edwards; Ms. Peterson's first full season will be 2008-9.
Since Ms. Peterson used to be the executive director of Movement Research, an organization that focuses more on investigation than on finished work, her curatorial stance remains a bit of a mystery. Her job there was to support creative effort. Now she must make clear-cut decisions regarding the choreographers she is willing to support.

''An artist who I have had a lot of conversations with said, 'I'm not even sure what your aesthetic bent is,' '' Ms. Peterson recalled. ''It so stunned me to hear that. I realized that I have to make decisions that I'm willing to stand by. That's something that I have to get used to. But it is exciting.''

While Ms. Peterson was reluctant to provide names of artists she wants to work with in the future, she did name a few who had impressed her in the recent past: Boris Charmatz and Dimitri Chamblas, Meg Stuart, Ms. Yokoshi, Rachid Ouramdane, Miguel Gutierrez and D D Dorvillier. She also said she was interested in working with progressive European presenters like Simon Dove of Springdance in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and Bettina Masuch of the Hebbel Theater in Berlin.

Because Ms. Peterson has focused mainly on artists in New York, her exposure to international performance and dance is less broad. After the summer, when she plans to travel to festivals in Berlin, Lisbon, Vienna and Utrecht, she expects to have a better sense of exactly who interests her.

''I want to test out my notions, and I am very much going to be in the process of doing that over the next year and a half,'' Ms. Peterson said. ''I have the right kind of intuition and intellect to approach international work, but I am not now standing on a strong two feet. I totally want to bring Rachid back if he's interested. I also want to work with artists who are making work in different cultural settings. Some of my travels will be to Africa.''

First and foremost, Ms. Peterson says, she is interested in working with artists at any point in their careers, as long as they are committed to provocative ideas. Those in the dance world are waiting eagerly to see the specifics.

''I am definitely in an eyes-wide-open place as opposed to knowing exactly what I'm going to do over the next few years,'' she said. ''Because I don't. I will continue to stay open to work that I may not be familiar with.''