Retreat from the Divided States of America
After a year of artistic stasis and isolation, Ivan Talijancic notices a trend of new international residencies dreamed up by New York artists. With tentative light at the end of the pandemic's tunnel, and a bleak political reality in America, three choreographers look to a hopeful future on foreign shores.
In the Tuscan city of Lucca, a former garage is transforming into an international residential dance center. At the same time, and to the same end, an old mill is finding new purpose in Dordogne, in the neighboring France. Closer to home, in Mexico’s Michoacán, an Indigenous ecotourism site has just begun welcoming artists-in-residence. What do these metamorphoses have in common? Behind them are New York dance professionals. When I became aware of these new residencies, all three appearing on my radar earlier this fall, the inevitable question emerged: to what extent were these enterprises prompted by the political turmoil stateside and, to a degree, the pandemic? I decided to reach out to the instigators of these initiatives in search for answers.
Several years ago, the New York choreographer Mari Meade found herself abroad at a residency in the wake of a divorce. Grateful she was not asked to produce a specific outcome, she was able to manage her time in a radically different fashion than what she’d grown accustomed to in the city. She moved when the inspiration struck, and learned to be with silence. “That residency in particular gave me space and time to process, heal, disconnect, and reconnect to myself, the earth, my work, and a new community,” Meade said in a recent interview we held via Messenger. So, when she started thinking about the next phase of her life, she and her partner Jérémy Galuret, a French chef, gardener, and carpenter, decided to draw from her experience and create a residency space on the edge of a 1,000-person village in the Dordogne region of France. The couple is currently renovating an old water mill, built in the 1800s, and readying it for the first generation of residents under the name Le Moulin de la Belle. “We started thinking, what can we offer?” Meade continued. “Many residencies are unattainable, so I wanted to make one that is affordable. You don't have to be an artist, you don't have to have a lot of money, anyone willing, kind, and open is welcome.”
Rightfully, Meade observed that even a "cheap" residency is expensive. Traveling, taking time off work, making sure there is work lined up when one returns home, stable housing; the list goes on. “So, we are building a mixed model that has full-paying guests, subsidized guests, and fully-funded residents. And, we are committing at least 50% of all of our awards and stipends to underrepresented artists. Right now, that looks like a travel stipend for selected individuals to help in work-exchange this year.”
Meade is part of a crop of New York dance professionals who are actively developing accessible work and retreat spaces on foreign shores. Further south from Le Moulin de la Belle, choreographer Stefanie Nelson, a stalwart of New York’s downtown dance scene, is the mastermind of the residency in Lucca, Italy. Like Meade’s, Nelson’s location of choice is not coincidental: she’s had a two-decade relationship with Italy, having spent several years living there post-9/11. During that time, she made many connections in the local dance scene. These relationships formed the foundation for what became Dance Italia, a contemporary, summer dance program that attracts students from all over the world. Now heading into its 10th edition, Dance Italia has grown steadily each year. Consequently, Nelson and her team decided to look for a more permanent home, affording them greater freedom to run more workshops, classes, and residencies throughout the year. Nelson is working with the architect Gabriella Bulckaen, who found and arranged the purchase of a former garage and is in charge of overseeing its gut-renovation, and Elisa D’Amico, Dance Italia’s Development Associate who has been facilitating and organizing many aspects of the project.
When asked about her impetus to create an international residency, Nelson’s response echoed Meade’s in many ways. “Because I grew so much as an artist while living in Italy, I’d like to be able to offer a similar experience to artists worldwide,” Nelson said. “This residency will offer artistic anonymity, which allows for greater experimentation, in my experience. People can choose to connect with the local community or stay somewhat isolated. Lucca is a small city. Artists will be given ample time and space to explore and develop work.
Why now? “We’ve been looking for space for a few years,” Nelson responded. “Since interest rates are now so low, we were able to finance a project of this magnitude.”
Back on the American continent, Jan Hanvik, a veteran of New York’s dance scene, has just recently launched a residency in Mexico’s Michoacán region. “I have loved Mexico for a very long time,” said Hanvik. “A good friend of mine, Cardiela Amezcua Luna, an Indigenous, environmental choreographer had, for about two years, been the Secretary of Culture for the city of Morelia, a UNESCO World Creative Capital for Music. We’ve been friends since 1990 when we both worked in dance in El Salvador during the civil war. About eight years ago, she asked me to come to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, to visit four Indigenous P’urhépecha ecotourism centers and see if they could be adapted into artist residencies. Day trippers only came by once in a while. They wanted to have visitors year-round. I visited them, with Mark DeGarmo, a Spanish-speaking dancer/choreographer. We both agreed they would make great artist residencies. Cardiela comes from dance. I come from dance. So we’re starting with the Pantzingo Ecotourism Center because the arts backbone is the Grupo Folklórico P’urhépecha, which is very heavily dance-based.
Hanvik was bold in explaining his motivations for building up an international residency. “I am giving up on the Divided States of America,” he said during our interview. “I don’t see the US resolving its racism in my lifetime, or by legislation. Mexico did horrible things to its Indigenous populations and its African slaves. But they have been integrating for 500+ years, not the 200+ of the US, which has never not been in a colonial war. I think the mestizaje (roughly, ‘racial mixing’) movement has been going on longer. When I was presenting their work, two close mestiza/Indigenous friends asked if they had to identify what percentage of various ethnicities they were, for US and Canadian audiences. In their words: ‘You know that means nothing to us here.’ There is a newish ‘No Borders’ movement for the free flow of culture among Canada, the US, and Mexico. I want to be here to be part of that. Not in the US, where—while so much better than doing nothing about it or sweeping it under the carpet as we've done—we are trying to legislate out of it.”
Meade shared much of the sentiment: “I would say the disaster that was 2020 has demonstrated the need for spaces like this. … We are all going to need a break more than ever! It also has widened my lens, and I'm taking some trauma therapy training because I think we will be addressing collective trauma this next year (or years). I'm hoping this space can be magical enough to alleviate some of the grief from this year. We have been planning this space for years and purchased the property in December 2019. [The year’s events] definitely expedited our move here, and also forced me to look at my priorities—which were family- and nature-centered much more than I knew. As my vision of globe-trotting doesn't seem as appealing, I'm so thankful to have a warm, brave space to move forward in.”
Nelson’s Dance Italia program began in 2011, pre-Trump administration, and the space was purchased pre-pandemic, so her Lucca residency was not a direct outcome of either. However, Nelson adds: “The political landscape may have pushed us over the edge when thinking about whether or not to put down roots in Europe.”
One thing all of my conversation partners seem to agree on is the inherent value of international residencies, and the benefits afforded by such spaces, that are otherwise unattainable within New York’s cultural landscape. “There is a sense of home, of landing, permanence, access to new ideas and community. I could never realize my goal of creating a cross-disciplinary cultural center for international artists in New York City, since space is not affordable here,” said Nelson. “It also allows me to make braver choices since there’s a physical and cultural separation. I can support other artists in a meaningful way.”
Meade appreciates the opportunity to begin working with a clean slate. “It can be that no one knows you, or that you don't know the town, or that you allow yourself to look at things differently. Here in Dordogne, there is a certain slowing down that allows for a deeper connection—like, actually taking an hour for lunch every day. In New York, if someone asks you how you are, one often replies ‘busy,’ and then, ‘it's good to be busy.’ Here the response to ‘busy’ would be ‘I'm sorry.’ Also, when I returned to that same residency in Berlin the following year with my company, taking classes from the other artists, getting feedback or sharing meals was exciting and eye opening. To be on an adventure and be supported through it: that's what we aim to do.”
“Only by listening to and learning about other, non-US-centric, points of view do we stand a chance of making the arts sustainable on a global basis and from rural to urban areas, and from tiny to large organizations, in short, an ecosystem,” Hanvik opined. “I count myself quite fortunate that circumstances led me to become fluent not only in the Spanish language, but in the codes and norms of a culture numbering 22 countries where Spanish is the dominant language. Chauvinism, I’m sure, is unconscious in my many, many dance and arts colleagues. But it is still real. We must erase those false borders, to make sustainable the North American arts and environmental ecosystems.”
Personally, it is exciting to see that at least three new equitable residency spaces to create and retreat are becoming available after a period of deep isolation, affording New York artists much-needed opportunities to engage in international exchange when it is safe to do so. For Hanvik, the work has already started, with two Brooklyn-based artists—choreographer Isabel Umali and composer Dustin Carlson—attending the Pantzingo residency in Mexico as of this article’s writing; Nelson’s and Meade’s spaces are hoping to welcome the first wave of residents later in 2021 when international travel is less fraught.