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Collaboration as Creative Outlet

A choreographer, a composer, and a pianist in the same room might sound like the set-up for some half-baked joke. But Barbie Diewald, Trevor Gureckis, and Sugar Vendil don’t intend to half-accomplish anything—nor would they solely prescribe to these titles. Committed to interdisciplinary work, these artists have fused everything from fashion and classical music to dance and community engagement. Potential Energies, premiering at BAM on May 29th, might be their most ambitious of collaborations. The three sat down with Stephanie Joy Del Rosso to discuss their work, how to survive as a young artist, and Kanye West.  

Stephanie Joy Del Rosso (Rail): Potential Energies is described as “inspired by the emerging adulthood of the Millennial Generation.” When I read that, I thought about how that label—the Millennial Generation—is often negatively charged, associated with political apathy, social media obsession, entitlement. Why do you think new depictions of this generation are important, and how is Potential Energies upending some of these more reductive narratives? What kind of portrait of a generation have you created?

Barbie Diewald: I didn’t think too deeply about my generation until I started working on Potential Energies. I rarely confront the present in my work because it hits so close to home, so this project was uncomfortable at first. We’re taking a look at how hard it is to sustain ourselves as artists, how difficult it is to make work, and what it means to be successful.

It feels a little bleak. As members of the Millennial Generation—at least according to the artists involved in Potential Energies—we were raised to believe that we could do whatever we put our minds to. And as much as that’s true, I finished college and moved here in 2008 during the worst economic climate in recent history, and couldn’t get a job. I managed to support myself financially, but the hardest thing I encountered was trying to make work, and make time for my work. I remember reading Twyla Tharp’s autobiography, Push Comes to Shove (1992), where she talks about working for hours each day with her dancers, touring, and making a living wage. And that’s just not a reality any more. The goals that we set out to make aren’t being met because they’re based on someone else’s definition of success from 40 years ago. It calls for a reexamining. But I think that’s one thing about our generation that’s really strong: we’re very adaptable.

Sugar Vendil: And resilient. We have to be.

Trevor Gureckis: We wanted Potential Energies to tell this story over the course of the work. The piece is in three acts. Act one is: This art form is my passion and I’m going to commit my life to it. Act two is: Alright, I’m out of school and I’m going to kill it. I’m going to be on top of the world. Act three is: This is really hard. Like Barbie said, it can be bleak. But it doesn’t have to be. Some people choose to dig in and some people don’t.

Diewald: Some people who we’re very close to are not pursuing their passions anymore. We’ve seen that trajectory: everyone jumps in head first, and then slowly but surely, some move out of the city or stop working altogether. Not everyone is still doing what they set out to do.

Rail: What has sustained you three?

Diewald: The dancers I work with. If I didn’t have people who depended on me, everything would be so much harder. When I enter the room, there are five dancers—in the case of Potential Energies,, 11 other people—who are present and engaged. I have a little team that wants to create alongside me. I don’t make solo work because I like to be a bit more on the outside, establishing authorship by creating material and then watching objectively and editing. What’s sustained me has been the faith that my dancers put in me, and the support and trust that they’ve had in me over the course of several years.

Rail: So avoiding the solitary nature of art, in a way?

Diewald: Kind of.  It’s two-fold. I do spend a long time researching, and listening, and working alone. But once I get into the studio for a formal rehearsal process, creating alongside other artists is very encouraging.

Rail: Absolutely. Collaboration seems to be a central tenet of the Nouveau Classical Project.

Vendil: It’s true. I’ve had the chance to work with some amazing people who are really invested in what we’re trying to do. People like Barbie, for instance!

I think that what’s kept me going is seeing the potential of all the hard work I’m doing. I have this tendency to look into the future. I ask myself, how am I going to feel when I’m 60 and I look back on my life? I know that if I didn’t do this, I would regret my life. But also, I know this is a long game. It takes not just hard work but some patience. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may not be successful at a young age.

It’s not always easy. Social media, you know? You look around you and you think, there are thousands of music people! And they’re doing so well! What am I doing? But I must constantly envision a future and take the steps to get there. Having a great group of musicians helps tremendously, and I know that if I stopped being a musician I would hate my life everyday. I would—

Diewald: Self-destruct?

Vendil: [Laughs.] And the way we sustain ourselves financially is through day jobs. I teach piano. I used to want to make sure that my public persona was separate from my teaching one. I didn’t want anyone to know that I do that. And now I think, screw smoke and mirrors.

Gureckis: A lot of people put up a façade of what they’re really doing to make ends meet, and what they want to do.

Rail: There’s a sense of romanticizing your vocation as an artist.

Vendil: Absolutely.

Rail: Who has sustained you artistically? Who are your main influences? 

Vendil: Robert Wilson, Phillip Glass, and Vivian Westwood. 

Diewald: George Balanchine and Antony Tudor are two choreographers who blow my mind to this day. I also find inspiration in people like Susan Marshall and Tere O’Connor, people who are making compelling, quality work now.

Gureckis: Working with Phillip [Glass] for five years, seeing how a really great composer writes music—and having to constantly transcribe it to computer—influenced my music immensely. I got to see, first hand, how he thinks. But before I even met him, I was always interested in the affect, color, harmony, and technicality of what he does. I was definitely a superfan before I was his assistant. The other influence is Kanye West! Kanye commits to an idea all the way, which is rare in most popular music. Take “Runaway,” it’s a really simple piano melody, but the song is nine minutes long, starting as rap and somehow transforming to a string quartet at the end. Absolutely every piece of that little bit of music is explored. It’s almost like theme and variations in classical music. I like people who commit to an idea and then masterfully execute it, fleshing it out to its greatest potential.
Rail: Do you feel like you’ve succeeded in this artistic struggle that Potential Energies depicts? I know success is a tenuous word—

Diewald: Oh boy.

Gureckis: I went to school for classical music and composition. I love classical music and my plan was to follow that dream to the top. But my career sort of evolved in a different direction by creating a music company [Found Objects]. We do a lot of advertising, film, and television. Commercial work. But we’ve made it into something that’s still artistically fulfilling. I write music everyday and that’s a major achievement for a composer these days. Before we started, the question we had was: how do you make it as a composer? In our opinion, we were going to have a better chance by creating things that people would buy. And people don’t buy ballets. Certainly not at my level.

Diewald: [Laughs] What do you mean? We’re going to sell out!

Gureckis: [Laughs] But at the same time it’s really important for me to separate the two: where I put my first passion and where I put my business savvy. I’m very lucky that after fighting all day running a business in an incredibly competitive industry, I get to shut my studio door and write this ballet. And that’s a completely different experience.

Rail: So it’s a balancing act.

Diewald: It reminds me of that piece of relationship advice: the one key to staying together is not seeing too much of each other. I only get to rehearse six to eight hours a week, but it makes those hours really resonant and rich. I look forward to them. Maybe that’s how we avoid burn out: if we’re working really hard at our day jobs—waiting tables, bartending, teaching, whatever—then when we actually do get the time to really devote to our art, nothing’s wasted.

Rail: Sacred time.

Diewald: Yeah, it’s treasured. A very cherished time.

Rail: Is Potential Energies in any way a kind of call to action, a warning for artists who seem on the verge of quitting?

Vendil: It could be. Actually, Steve Caputo, who’s doing marketing for us, said, “Someone might see this and say, I’m going to get back to that screenplay!”

Diewald: I’m not sure about a call to action, but we wanted to do something big, something that people perceive as valuable and important. We weren’t going to do this in a 50-seater with folding chairs. That’s what I’m used to. I’ve been self-producing my work in small venues throughout the city for the past five years. Instead we thought, let’s do it at BAM. It was not thrown together in any way.

Vendil: We didn’t win any grants to make this happen—it was a lot of grassroots fundraising and some personal investment. I’m hoping that people experience a kind of catharsis. I want them to be moved, maybe see a bit of themselves in the piece. To make something that could really reach people on a personal level is why I picked this timely content—not Greek tragedy, not Shakespeare.

Diewald: And maybe for some people, seeing the show will feel similar to how I feel when I see the New York City Ballet. I love it, but my heart sinks.

Vendil: It hurts. When I watch videos on YouTube of top pianists playing piano concertos, I think, oh God, that’s not me anymore. It hurt, right there, just talking about it. [Laughter.] 

Rail: What drives you to work outside your genre? In light of Sugar’s frequent fashion collaborations as well, why are you ultimately not interested in focusing on a single discipline?

Vendil: I don’t think music exists on its own. That may bother a lot of people, but really, when you go to a performance you’re absorbing every bit of it with all your senses. People say, “Music touches the soul.” Well sure it does, but oftentimes it takes multiple listens before you fully experience a piece of music. Maybe music exists by itself on a recording, but not in concert.

I love entire experiences. I’m not a composer or a choreographer, like Trevor and Barbie. But I have big picture ideas, and I know how to put the pieces together and articulate what needs to be conveyed and changed, Collaboration is my creative outlet.

Rail: Do any of you ever worry about skimming the surface of multiple disciplines instead of wholly developing one?

Diewald: Aside from studying a little bit of music theory, I don’t know a great deal about music. My role was to create movement, so that’s what I did. Some of the movement is codified, recognized as part of an established tradition. In other ways, I’m playing with our expectations of how music and dance exist in the same space at the same time. But I think it’s actually been especially freeing to not have to touch the music. Obviously Trevor, Sugar, and I talk generally about where something’s going to go, but my input is primarily concerned with movement, not music. 

Vendil: Although there have been times when you’ve indirectly had musical input. When Trevor is stuck and we show him the choreography, he gets an idea. So we try to make it as deep and intertwining as possible. Because “just sort of doing it” is always a fear.

Diewald: In any good work you still feel like you’re just scratching the surface. To me, that opens up future projects and possibilities, a whole different mode of practice. It’s a good feeling to have. I’m just now beginning to understand music on a deeper level, or really understand how the body functions when a musician is playing an instrument. And I think that my understanding will only continue to deepen.

Vendil: It’s the first time. We’ll get it right on the tenth. Maybe the fifth, or the sixth. That’s something we’re all keeping in mind—while still going all the way, as much as we can at this moment.

Rail: (Le) poisson rouge’s Justin Kantor told the New York Times, “When people think of fashion they think of the superficial, and of classical music as intellectual and academic. But Sugar [is]…playing with how fashion and classical music can meld.” Have any of you experienced resistance from collaborators? Have any collaborations failed simply because either party did not want to blend, did not understand why they should exist on the same plane? 

Vendil: No, not really. There have been misunderstandings about what I do, but not so much in terms of collaborations. Some tend to think that what I do is superficial. Miniskirts and runways. People have a set idea about what music is and the way it should be performed. And you can’t do anything about it. Someone once statused on Facebook: “More signs the world is ending,” and posted my New York Times article.

Gureckis: He probably didn’t even read it.

Vendil: Someone else Tweeted: “So Sugar Vendil is more attractive than Myra Hess, but will she have as long and lasting a career?” People think putting classical music and fashion together is a gimmick.

Gureckis: There are a lot of really creative people who work in fashion. There’s a big difference between ready-to-wear and designers. And the pairing of fashion and music is complementary, offering up a new interpretation of the piece of music that’s being played.

Diewald: It’s about bringing together people who are true makers: musicians who are making the performance, a composer who is making the piece, the true craftsman who has made the garment. That is a unifying factor: if you are a maker. I make dance.

Rail: Sugar, you were quoted as saying, “Classical musicians hide behind the screen of trying to save the current art form. But a lot of things have changed.” Your blog, of course, has the tongue-in-cheek title of “Classical music is dead.” What changes do the dance and music communities need to capitalize on?

Diewald: The anti-establishment kind of attitude—down with technique—is getting a little old, but I think it is turning around a bit. At base, someone like Pam Tanowitz utilizes a lot of classicism, but she twists the movement around and turns it on its head. Her dancers are incredible technicians, but her work has this modern and minimalist sensibility. She’s a really good example of how virtuosity can exist in our current dance landscape. I really admire her. I find true value in technique and discipline. I think that’s one of the most impressive things about being an artist: enduring the process of learning an art form and being able to effectively communicate through it.

Vendil: Why do I, and many of my colleagues, choose to do this? It’s not because we’re so concerned with saving the art form. It’s because we love it. I feel like I have something valuable to say through art. You need to be level headed about what you’re doing as an artist, and in classical music, the idea that what we’re doing is heroic and holy has created a narrow-mindedness that is stifling to creativity. I definitely don’t like lots of things, but it’s really hard for me to hate anything now because I know how much work it takes, and I know that we’re all just trying to do our best. For someone to hate what I do, just because they revere classical music in a religious way, is a complete misunderstanding of what I feel is creative and honest.

Gureckis: There’s definitely a valid question of the sustainability of the classical music audience because it’s getting older. The people who most consistently go to the see the New York Philharmonic are aging. I don’t think the younger N.Y. Phil audiences are replacing the older generation at a 1:1 rate. But there’s a whole community downtown that’s full and lively, people who don’t need Carnegie Hall to do well. And actually would rather not have it in the first place. That’s not the scene for them. It’s not really dying; it’s just different. It feels separate. It’s like two different languages. Certainly Beethoven should be played often and to the highest level possible. That’s an incredibly important part of our society. But some young people don’t connect to that as much as they do with music by Nico Muhly, or—

Vendil: Trevor Gureckis. [Laughter.] I don’t know if there is a solution. When I was more naïve I thought that maybe if you do x, y, and z there’s an answer.

Rail: Are you only interested in this new, young, “hip” audience? How do you reconcile this need for change, this need to break out of the doomsday mentality, with the desires of these older audiences? Do we care about them?

Vendil: I do care about older audiences. I don’t think that just because you’re older you wouldn’t be interested in this. If you’re cool, you’re cool, for lack of better words. That’s an ageless thing. I target an audience by seeking them out, not by sacrificing my own voice. Plus, there are young people who hate what I do. Like that guy who put up that status.

Diewald: I’ve heard people critique our generation, saying, “where have all the great choreographers gone?” That attitude exists in the minds of older generations, but I don’t think the people who say that are really looking beyond well-exposed institutions. I think that people of our generation are making really beautiful and provocative work, but it’s not being supported yet. I would love for classical ballet audiences to see Potential Energies. I think those people would really appreciate seeing something recognizable in this new context.


Stephanie Del Rosso

STEPHANIE JOY DEL ROSSO is the Dance Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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