Artists Talking to Artists: Ryan Casey & Karen Krolak PART ONE

Blogger in Residence Ryan Casey had some wonderful questions for Monkeyhouse Artistic Director Karen Krolak.  Here are just a few of them...  More to come soon!

RC:  I know you received a lot of entries for the festival and have a wonderfully broad range of performers and styles sharing the stage. Were you surprised by the range of ideas that choreographers developed in response to the theme? How have your notions of "Imperfect(ive) Experiments" changed through the process of talking with everyone involved in the show?
kK:  I love the process of curating and this festival brought up a lot of great conversations. Nicole Harris and I enjoyed that idea that the imperfective aspect is used in many languages to describe actions that are ongoing and wanted to give people a space to try something new with their work so some of the guest artists were asked to adapt their pieces for the festival while others created work specifically for this theme. Each application opened up a totally different line of investigation for me. For instance, yours delved into how the prescribed definition of perfection on reality television shows like So You Think You Can Dance alters the contestants afterwards whereas Janelle Gilchrist's made me wonder how the technical precision of a pointe piece could wrestle with our theme. 

One of my favorite aha moments occurred after I reviewed Audra Carabetta's duet. Her application described the piece as being about waiting and learning to have patience which seemed to be somewhat abstract for the festival's theme. I really liked her work, though, and wanted to include it. I contacted her and she mentioned that she was pregnant and suddenly I understood exactly how the piece fit in. Since I have not had children, I had not considered how the sense of expectancy in one's body might evolve into a dance. Being pregnant is of course a very natural event but it brings up tons of questions about perfection especially in our culture but I would not have thought about them before seeing Audra's duet. 

Also, three of the guest artists, Eva Dean, Dance'N Feet, and Mariah Steele, that were going to be included in the festival have had to back out recently. Monkeyhouse will still be presenting Mariah's new quintet but Mariah will not be able to perform her scheduled solo. Each person was so clearly dreading telling me that they she would not be able to participate because of a death in the family, a recent injury, or critically ill family member. In other professions, people are allowed personal time for such events but performers are rarely given such latitude. RIght before Monkeyhouse's first performance in Philadelphia, for example, I destroyed my ACL and was advised not to dance and two days later my close friend, Michael Maggio died. When I called the festival curator, however, to see if there were any options to vary the pieces in the concert or postpone til the following year, she explained that my reputation as an artist could be tarnished if I did not produce the work that had been accepted.

RC:  How did the theme for this year's "Against the Odds" Festival come about? 
kK:  Well, eighteen months ago when Nicole had four strokes. I found myself living through a very surreal nightmare. Nicole could not remember why she, an otherwise healthy 30 year old, was in the hospital. So just like some warped version of Groundhog's Day, we would have the same conversation over and over again. As soon as I explained about the stroke, she would begin to cry, something she really ever did, and it broke my heart to see one of my closest friends and longest running collaborator so obviously crushed. Her first question was always,"Will I be able to choreograph the musical at Natick High School?" and then it was followed by, "Does this mean that we won't be able to dance together anymore?" At the time, the doctors had not identified what had caused the strokes and kept telling her family and I that it was dangerous to let her get too upset or stressed. To calm her down, I reassured her that she would be able to return to both things but I can admit to you now that I was terrified that I might not be able to actually guarantee that either thing would be possible. When I tried to ask questions about her former movement range, the doctors were not encouraging.

Now might be a good time to also explain that I was living with a rather large professional secret at that time. In 2003, I was diagnosed with a very rare condition that doctors colloquially refer to as "rocks in my chest".  Really, what it means is that I have a large mass that is attached to my heart, esophagus, and lungs. The mass had been there for decades but was starting to cause breathing problems that were interfering with my ability to teach and perform. By 2009, I was also having recurrent bouts of unpredictable chest pain, similar to a heart attack.

I was distraught. I thought that if people found out, I would stop getting hired even though LuAnn Pagella, the Director at Impulse Dance Center, and Monkeyhouse were amazingly supportive of me. I have heard about dance studios that reduce teachers' pay if they have an injury but LuAnn has gone to incredible lengths to help me, for example, allowing me to take a week off with almost no advance warning when the Mayo Clinic had an appointment open up. Monkeyhouse often has elaborate strategies for how to rearrange a concert if something happens to me mid show and no one even blinks anymore when I being slithering around the floor choreographing through pain episodes.

So back to the stroke ward with Nicole. One night she awoke from a nap confused again about why she was in the hospital and I was the only one around. Err...by around I mean that I was having an awful bout of pain and did not want her to see that as I knew it would cause her tremendous stress. As she opened her eyes I slid to the floor and began scrounging through my purse for medicine. I told her I was searching for my phone and answered her questions from the floor. Thankfully, she does not remember this incident but it made me realize how often I was using my choreography and improvisation background to find ways to create the illusion that things were ok.

I knew that if we were ever going to get Nicole back on stage that two things were necessary. First, I was going to have to start publicly addressing my own physical issues so that it would be easier for Nicole to do so. Then, we were going to need inspiration from anywhere we could find it. I figured that bringing in other artists who were thinking about what it means to be perfect or imperfect would provide some of that. I know I just revealed a lot, did that answer your question?

Do you have a question for Karen that Ryan didn't ask?  Well then, why don't you ask her here!?  All of the Against the Odds artists and everyone at Monkeyhouse wants to know what YOU are thinking, so let's keep the conversation going!

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