Catching Up With Anne Bluethenthal

by Karen Krolak
After my trip to the archives on my first day at the Jacob’s Pillow Choreographers’ Lab, I returned to my cabin and bumped into Anne Bluethenthal from San Francisco. Her eyes were full of an inviting sense of mischief and we quickly became friends. She seemed like a natural choice to begin this series of interviews with the other Lab participants.

KK: What brought you to the Choreographers' Lab?

AB: Artistic isolation; career transition; temporary unemployment which allowed me some time; hunger for input; and the urging of a best friend who said this was something I should do.

KK: This sounds eerily familiar. No wonder we connected so immediately.

AB: Yes, I have been creating what I consider community based art for much of my career, and although I am certainly part of one of the richest and most interesting dance communities in the country, and in spite of the fact that I am blessed with many friends, colleagues, collaborators, and students, I have little if any opportunity to work, dialogue, and reflect with a group of like-minded, community oriented/interested choreographers.

KK: Was it strange not to be in charge of the artistic process?

AB: After 25 years as teacher, director, choreographer, Artistic Director, I was keen to spend a week in the role of student and peer.

KK: So, what was the hardest part of the Lab for you?

AB: I realized during the week long Lab that I am a very solitary creature. Human interaction is actually extremely difficult for me. To be in a situation – lovely, stimulating, exciting as it was – where I was called upon to be in constant interaction, was unusually challenging for me.

KK: So how did that affect your work there?

AB: For example, by being compelled to collaborate on choreographies of someone else’s initiation, I had to confront that I am fairly addicted to listening and waiting. That was utterly impossible in that environment of continual interaction. Anyway, all of this was both hard and fascinating and self-enlightening and stretching and learning for me. Finally, being set in the beautiful Berkshire Hills with virtually no time to walk and contemplate was quite torturous.

KK: I looked at your website and realized that Nora Chipamire danced for you. I can't believe that this never came up in any of our conversations because I love her work.

AB: Nora is a gem. She danced with me for just a year, a few years back, but we have stayed in touch. She was delightful. As a dancer, she was a striking performer, hungry to learn what I had to teach, completely embracing of the 'underlying philosophy' of my work, and ready to engage with the material physically, intellectually, politically, and emotionally. She left to go work for Urban Bush Women and is now Associate Artistic Director for Jowalle while being very successful in her own work. We have had a great dialogue about the language of dance, the African contemporary scene, the europeanization of these emerging forms, etc. She's a talented, intelligent, artist -- I'm enjoying watching her make her mark.

KK: I'm really impressed that you have managed to keep a company afloat in San Francisco for 25 years and have a family. What advice do you have about building a sustainable company?

AB: This is not exactly advice, because I don’t know about building a viable company.

KK: What do you mean? Tons of companies never make it to 10 years let alone 25.

AB: Every year or so, I seem to have to reconstruct mine out of nothing. Ephemeral is the art; so is the company. Others may be different.

KK: So how did you start?

AB: My intention was to make work I felt was necessary for me to make…to speak the only way I know how about my passions, my rages, my outrages, my heartbreaks… to try to make sense of a world that otherwise festers inside me and threatens my life. (so dramatic, but true) … so, if you want some idea of success, make that your goal and stick to it.. if you want money, make that your goal and make decisions accordingly… if you want community, make work in a way and in a context that builds that or draws that to you.. I set out to survive and to make work. I have been extremely fortunate to have maintained this enterprise (even if it feels marginal) for as long as I have… and I did it while working a few jobs always. My brilliance was to have all my jobs feed me and my art in the most important ways.

KK: Ok, before I interrupted you, you were going to share some advice…

AB: Yes, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Don’t be obsessed about growth.

KK: That last part is so tough though.

AB: Well, it helps to be very clear about what your intentions are and work constantly on becoming mindful about whether your artistic and career choices are in line with these intentions.

KK: And how do you suggest people balance that mindfulness with a budget?

AB: Find multiple streams of income all of which relate back to your heart-goals…. I think we all have some core values that manifest in heart-goals… we can either construct our lives in a way that emerges from and feeds back to this point of tether, or we can construct our lives in a way that is antagonistic to it. Without any effort, being in the world and putting our work out and being in relation is going to cause ample antagonism, so best to consciously construct your life and your company in a way that minimizes that.

KK: Anything else?

AB: Get lots of help from friends, family, dancers, administrators, spirits, animals, plants, and anything else that feeds you, gives you perspective, makes you laugh, reminds you that you are beautiful, unique, talented, that your voice is important… and then let them remind you that, at the same time, you are not at all unique and that we are all drops in an enormous ocean and that no particular success or failure matters as much as the fact that we are staying on our heart course, living according to our particular necessity, speaking our truth no matter how popular or unpopular it may be

KK: Any big plans for your 25th season?

AB: I have no idea.. I have no money, little support, few dancers, no venue, and ideas that don’t fit the circumstances… but this is always how it begins… I will no doubt draw a community together for it… I envision big wild retrospective excerpts; raw, intimate, new solo experiments; and some opportunities to pass on to a few younger dancers, old solos I have worn for long enough…

KK: One of the nights when we were sitting on our cabin "porch" chatting, you mentioned that you were considering producing your work in a new venue. Have you had any ideas about that?

AB: My thought about venue change is part and parcel of trying to re-conceive myself as an artist. I'm trying to reconcile some opposing passions and circumstances: my love of the big proscenium stage - my desire to do intimate, visceral work; my love of large scale productions - my lack of resources to support that; my love of ensemble choreography - the unavailability of dancers due to economics and the instability of dancer commitments (they used to stay in a company for years, now a year or 2 is the average); my distaste for the increasing commodification of the arts - the performing artist's need to have audience in order to support the work which is expensive to produce; my body of work which relies on a company - my desire to create a solo repertoire; my desire to create solo work - my age, which is drawing me into a new form for dance-theater...

KK: What are you working on at the moment?

AB: I've gotten caught up in the rush of this upcoming 'dance in the streets' event on October 31, creating a new solo for a show called 'Dancing the Dead/Karma' for November 1, and working on a film on the women's movement in SF mission district. These are 'different' and a nice change for the moment from the large scale company production. So, I'm pausing this moment to allow whatever is formulating itself in me to celebrate this 25th year... maybe it will be a little black box, invited audience, intimate solo retrospective... something where I can feel really free to depart entirely from the prevailing aesthetic forms of my earlier works... a discovery of dance after 50...

KK: Whatever it is please invite me. Well, thanks for taking the time for this interview. I do miss the luxury of talking with you on a daily basis.

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