Developing accessibility to dance: A conversation with Melissa Gendreau

Developing accessibility to dance: A conversation with Melissa Gendreau

In a place so vast and swimming with talented but hidden dance artists, Perceptions Dance company is a growing voice in New York City. Three years ago, when the company relocated its Boston home to New York, it was a troupe with handful of dancers.  Now, it’s expanded to having two performing companies – its second is in San Francisco – and it supports an education program along with a choreographic showcase for artists.

The company’s most recent artistic endeavor, the Perceptions Dance Festival, which was held Sept. 21-23 at Brooklyn’s Triskelion Arts Center, helped more than 20 up-and-coming companies and artists present their voice.  The Sept. 21 program featured 13 companies and/or solo artists, with styles ranging from lyrical-contemporary jazz to visceral modern dance. The technical and artistic maturity of the dancers varied from company to company, as did the quality of each choreographic work. However, the program was extraordinarily well balanced, with all of the works paired together well, one after another. There were a variety of voices, some more articulate than others. One artist who was exceptionally articulate is Melissa Gendreau, the founder, artistic director and choreographer of Perceptions Dance and the instigator of its festival.

Gendreau, a graduate of Dean College School of Dance, spoke with World Arts Today about the many hats she wears within the company.

Perceptions Dance in Synchronized Rat Race. Photo by Adam Kohut.

Why did you start your own company instead of being a freelance choreographer for different companies?

MGI’ve always had a very particular dream of not just choreographing but developing accessibility of dance.  This dream encompasses creating dance that is accessible to all audiences, presenting dance, and creating an accessible studio and theater space for dance to grow. Perceptions Dance can incorporate all of these aspects as a single organization.  As a freelance choreographer, I can’t accomplish all of the goals.  I’ve created work at several university programs, including Salve Regina University and Providence College, and would love to continue to do that, but my heart and soul are firmly dedicated to building Perceptions Dance.

Do you oversee Perceptions Dance activities on the West Coast as well?

MG: The West Coast branch of the company incorporates my own work while also providing an exploratory collaboration between long time Perceptions dancer Molly Fletcher Lynch, and several other San Francisco area dancers. Through this project, we work collaboratively to create work through distance, an interesting and challenging process.  Most recently, we collaborated to create work for the San Francisco Choral Society’s “No Ordinary Carmina Burana,”and have created works that embody the distance connections.  My work “Synchronized Rat Race” was set this summer on these dancers and performed at the 8th Annual Fashion on the Square to benefit the SFArts Commission. 

What inspired the Perceptions Dance Festival? 

MGAs a developing choreographer, I constantly search for ways to show my work. Many platforms provided a stage and some marketing, some provided photos, and very little provided video documentation, significant advertising, or a way to meet people in the industry, and none offered all of the above.  I found ways to showcase my work to small audiences here and there, usually in random locations that weren’t ideal and didn’t really help to refer audiences to me.  It was difficult to gain interest from presenters at times, as there was no funding to pay for video or photos to document the work for future opportunities. I wanted to create a financially accessible way to significantly boost an artist’s visibility and development without altering their work.  I developed a platform that professionally presents artist’s work in the best light, complete with appropriate dance theaters, professional lighting and lots of support for as little financial commitment as possible.  This platform allows artists to grow through visibility on stage, online and through advertising.  We also provide artists with tools such as high quality video and photos, tools necessary for any dance artist to [promote] their work. And lastly, one of the most important aspects, we provide an opportunity to network with audience members, press, industry professionals, and other artists though the free wine and hors d’oeuvres [post-performance] receptions.  I aim to create a festival that not only provides a performance opportunity for choreographers and dancers, but an opportunity to boost their careers significantly in so many ways.  Hopefully, in the future the festival will not just be affordable, but will provide artists with payment for their work. 

Laura Colon in Beyond the Veil by Melissa Gendreau. Photo by Scott Brownlee.

You featured your own work in the program. “Beyond the Veil,” the solo danced by Laura Colon, was beautifully performed and choreographed. What inspired it? 

MG: ‘Beyond the Veil’ is a story of the loss of a loved one, and the difficulty of no longer having that person physically there, [which is] represented by the flower.  The missing presence [of that loved one] heavily influences the movement, and she tries to fill the negative space with herself, her emotions, and the life of the single flower, which she realizes is as fragile as human life. We all experience loss at some point in our lives, and though our coping stories are all different, we all must come to the realization that [after a] life ends, the spirit remains vibrantly around us, like the peddles of the flower circling the dancer at the end of the piece. Eventually, we have to let go of the physical beauty of one’s soul, and embrace the idea that we can remember what it was to have that beauty and carry it into our lives in another manner.

How would you describe your movement style to those who’ve never seen your work?

MGMy work is athletic yet theatrical.  The movement creates a story, one that is accessible to all audiences.  I pull movement styles from all genres to create visual works of art that speak to our souls.  The body of work I have created ranges from extreme athleticism to gestural and theatrical, from abstract movement to full length stories pulled straight from human life, but one common theme is that the story is always present, yet always able to be interpreted through individual perception. 

How does the festival application process work for the participating companies and artists? 

MGArtists go through a quick and painless process to be considered for the Perceptions Dance Festival. We have a short online form that asks the basic questions: Who are you? What have you previously done?  What work are you proposing for the festival?  The online form is about 10 questions, including a description of their work.  Artists submit a resume, a bio, a video link of the work they would like to have considered, a small application fee, and that’s it! I and Managing Director Laura Colon review all of the work, and once accepted, there is currently a small production fee, which in the future we hope to eliminate entirely, that assists in covering the costs of producing the festival. 

Festival Baggage (Literally.) by Andrea Palesh. Photo by Scott Brownlee.

What factors played into your choices for the festival?

MGWhat I look for in the applications are dances that speak to its audience, tell us stories, and change our perceptions.  The term ‘contemporary’ stretches in so many directions.  The decisions were difficult as there was an incredible amount of dance to choose from.  We looked for work that moved us via video.  We considered artists who were established and [those] just starting out.  We wanted to create a blend of artists that could meet and learn from each other, a blend of international and national who all bring something very different to the term ‘contemporary’ to create a cohesive, inspiring and exciting festival of what contemporary dance can be and is.

How would you would like to do expand or develop the festival?

MGFor future festivals, I would like to increase the programming even more.  The first festival was held on one evening with nine [East Coast-based] artists.  The 2012 festival, the second festival, we’ve produced was held over three days with 25 artists from across the globe.  I believe the next festival, with the proper funding and support, can present even more choreographers over a longer stretch of time.  The artists providing video and photos have volunteered their time and products to the festival in support. In the future I hope we can provide payment to both these artists and the choreographers for their work. In addition, I’d truly love to build a series of free workshops taught by participating choreographers throughout the festival for the public.  This is a great method of networking for teaching artists, students and professional dancers that isn’t accessible through our [post-performance] receptions. 

As a student at Dean College, did you consider yourself more of a dancer or choreographer?  
MG: I always considered myself more of a choreographer than a performer, more of a creator than anything.  Shortly after I began dancing, I began choreographing and producing.  As an artist who has tapped into many [disciplines] including painting, sculpture, film and more, dance inspired me to create more than any other medium, and [I have found it] more interesting to put emotion and visual art into movement and energy.  

Jaclyn Walsh Dancers in Forsaken Angels from Perceptions Dance Festival. Photo by Scott Brownlee.

When you create a new work, what is your choreographic process?

MG: Creation for me starts with a mood or emotion.  This can be from a story, or [I create] a story as we go, but there is always a specific emotion as the start.  Sometimes this leads to full phrases of work taught on dancers, like my evening piece Will/Work, or it ends up being quite a collaborative, improvisational piece like Magnetic Affixion. The process changes so much from inspiration to inspiration.  Many times I come in to rehearsal with choreography written out like a storybook, covering pages and pages; other times it involves me squatting at the front of the rehearsal studio dictating the movement verbally without ever having done it myself. Fifty percent of the time, music has been selected, but not choreographed to, it’s just a mood enhancer to see what happens to the choreography.  If I like it, it stays.  If it doesn’t enhance the mood of the piece or accentuate the work, it goes.  Creating new work is more fun for me than digging up past work, the exploration of it is exhilarating, and the process is much more enjoyable then the conclusion!

What events are coming up for the company?

MG: PCDC will be heading back to Boston, our home city for the second time since relocating to New York in 2009.  The performance will be held on Oct. 6 at Boston University Dance Theater, and will feature an array of works created over the past two years. We’ve also added to the bill a few local artists, in conjunction with our mission of presentation to create a mini-festival of sorts.  Twelve dancers will be performing the works by me and Laura Colon throughout the evening.  Later in October, PCDC on the West Coast will be touring a collaborative work created by Molly Fletcher Lynch and the San Francisco dancers.  ArtBark is lead by Misa and Stephen Kelly, the creators of SonneBlauma Dancz Theatre, whom we met in February 2012 at our shared show at Greenspace in Long Island City. ArtBark presents a series of shared shows, with a similar mission to ours ,of building networks outside of an artist’s home cities.  We are thrilled to be a part of this festival.

Linda Huang, a graduate of Southern Methodist University’s Dance Program, is a New York-based dancer and writer.

(Top photo: Melissa Gendreau. Photo by Adam Teixeira.)

468 ad