by Karen Krolak
Ok, as promised today will feature an email interview with Peter Carpenter, one of my favorite choreographers. His creations are infused with a potent personal storytelling and somehow build an almost combustible level of tension. Peter graduated from Northwestern University a year ahead of me and his bold artistic voice encouraged me to enroll in Lynne Blom's choreography classes.
While at a pig roast in Kentucky on an October evening 17 years ago, Peter listened patiently as I rambled on about my dilemma about whether to pursue a graduate degree in Linguistics or to risk becoming a professional choreographer. Even though I had been driving Peter insane during his dance rehearsals for a production of The Tempest, he bolstered my confidence and told me to trust my instincts. A little more than a year later cancer cut short Lynne Blom's life. And, then tragically, our other mentor, Tim O"Slynne passed away from AIDS. It was often Peter who generously guided me along and taught me how to write grants and produce shows. In this highly competitive field, Peter is an exceptionally nuturing artist and I am deeply indebted to his kindness and inspiration. His dedication and resilience leave me speechless. Congratulations Peter on your position at Columbia College and all your recent success.
kK: So, how are you enjoying being back in Chicago and teaching at Columbia College?
PC: Love it. The dance community in Chicago, though small, is really thriving these days. And, in an era of shrinking enrollments nationwide, the Dance Center’s enrollment is higher than ever. The faculty here is fantastic and, unlike the infighting that goes on in many institutions, we all actually like each other. Go figure.
kK: How did your current project My Fellow Americans begin?
PC: Wow, way back in 1994 when Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I remember talking with Lee Anne Schmitt about it in our apartment on Summerdale. It was such a crazy time, so much death from AIDS. I remember Tim O'Slynne being completely crazy the last time I saw him, and I just thought it made such perfect sense that Reagan was going to lose his mind too. It seemed like poetic justice given the fact that he did next to nothing to stop the disease at its beginning stages.
Then in grad school I did an ethnography on a gay country western bar in Los Angeles and started thinking about cowboys and “American-ness” and Reagan in terms of manifest destiny and all that weirdly codified movement that signals masculinity in the U.S. I worked with that in a piece called Bareback Into the Sunset, but left Reagan out of it. The first time I addressed Reagan directly was in a solo titled “Cowboy Down” that I made in May 2006 on a split bill with Kristen Smiarowski (Los Angeles-based choreographer) for an evening titled Rehearsing the Body Politic at Links Hall.
I revised that solo for The Other Dance Festival in the Fall of 2007 and then started researching grant opportunities for a larger scale project. This research resulted in the Chicago Dancemakers Forum Grant, a Columbia College Faculty Development Grant and a Space Grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. I also have used the yearly inclusion of a slot at The Other Dance Festival (also at Hamlin) to develop the work.
kK: How did your grant from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum influence this project?
PC: I could pay the dancers something closer to what they’re worth. Not what they’re worth, mind you, but a tiny bit closer. Tiny bit. Tiny. Bit. I also visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley California for research. I’m not sure how that influenced the project, but it was really weird. Images and video EVERYWHERE. Written text, nowhere. So Reagan. So teflon.
kK: What has been the biggest challenge for you during the creation of this piece?
PC: Where to begin. We were originally slotted for a two-weekend run at Links Hall in May, but then I got really sick with pneumonia and complications in the recovery, so we had to cancel. I think you know me well enough to see how hard that was. Though the piece has certainly been steeped in a recognition of that human frailty and vulnerability that illness brings about. Breath, or the struggle for breath is omnipresent in the work. Let me thank the cast here for their loyalty to the project and their willingness to be on standby over the summer as I slowly regained my health.
kK: I have never heard of the Hamlin Park Studio Theater. Is this a new space?
PC: I think its going on 10 years now. It’s run by Nana Shineflug/The Chicago Moving Company. CMC is an Arts Partner with the Chicago Park District in Residence at Hamlin Park.
kK: Was there a reason why you choose it for this particular piece?
PC: It started as a necessity because we lost the space at Links due to my illness. It’s turned into a blessing and it feels especially appropriate since I’ve developed almost half of the work for performances of The Other Dance Festival over the past several years. It's also one of the nicest dance floors in town.
kK: I was startled a few years ago when I was discussing the impact of AIDS on the dance community for an article for The Boston Globe. The writer had never realized how many dancers and choreographers had struggled with AIDS. Can you explain more about why this is such an important topic in your work?
PC: Gosh, I really wish I could articulate this better. I guess I just never understood why it was, and is, okay for some people to die and not okay for others. In the 80s it was gays and junkies, they were expendable. Why? What was it? What kind of belief system believes in punishment. I really don’t get it. A recent aspect of my research has been attending a very queer-friendly Presbyterian Church (Lakeview Presbyterian in Boystown). It’s been so healing to look at Christianity from a different viewpoint—a viewpoint of ethical responsibility to care for those we’d rather forget. So, yes, at heart I’m a little farm kid who didn’t understand why the people with the power to save lives ignored those who needed saving. I think I’m genetically wired to call out hypocrisy. Gets me in trouble in relationships, but ah well....
kK: While at Jacob's Pillow this summer, I heard Rachel Maddow give an impassioned plea to support the arts in the US. She asserted that "A country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not being a great country." How do you feel about this statement?
PC: Oh I couldn’t agree more. Artistic cultivation is crucial for the development of a healthy democracy. Artists voice the unspeakable and speak truth to power on a daily basis. It is our modus operandi. Though I would say that the artists are often doing a good job of shooting themselves in the foot. Let us please stop feeling sorry for ourselves and make our own opportunities. You know very well (because you were there) that the only reason I have the relative success I have now is because I made my own opportunities. I produced my own work and waited tables to support my dancing habit and that was just how it was. My work now is absolutely shaped by that position of relative exile. Now I am fortunate enough to be in a tenure-track position, but the work ethic is still the same. I think we need to keep fighting complacency and bitterness as artists—and we need to demand a place at the table in civic discourse. We need to recognize that it is the most profound privilege to dream and play with the most potent media imaginable, human bodies.
kK: Anything else that you would like to add?
PC: Nah, I think I twisted my ankle on the way off the soapbox.
kK: Thanks Peter. I really wish that I could be there to see it. You have no idea how much I miss your artistry.
PC: Miss you and yours.
My Fellow Americans
Thursday & Friday performances: October 8, 9, 15, & 16 at 7:30pm