Photo by Jeff Woodward
Co-Founder of the Vermont Performance Lab, Sara Coffey talks about creating spaces and community support for contemporary dance in rural Vermont. [26:06]
Adele Myers: What's incredible about what Sara is initiating with Vermont Performance Lab is it's really artist-centered. So it doesn't feel like we're just coming here, doing our work and leaving. We are now really becoming part of the community. Our classes are open to the public and so anyone can come in and take class with us. We're asking people to hang around for rehearsal, give us feedback, and so there's an investment on our part and on their part in terms of this particular project.
Jo Reed: That is dancer Adele Myers talking about the Vermont Performance Lab which is run by Sara Coffey. Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine reed.
Vermont performance Lab (or VPL) is just that: a laboratory for artistic experimentation and community engagement. Begun in 2006, Vermont Performance Lab's mission is to support the creation and development of contemporary dance, music and performance while fostering meaningful connections between artists and the local community. VPL provides a residency where performing artists have access to studio space in a small rural Vermont community. Here artists can concentrate on research and experimentation while trying out performance ideas to small audiences through open rehearsals or work-in-progress showings.
VPL is the brainchild of Sara Coffey, who joined me in the NEA studio to share her thinking about creating contemporary dance and performance that grow through community engagement. I began my conversation with Sara by asking her how she came to the idea of Vermont Performance Lab.
Sara Coffey: Well, Vermont Performance Lab really came out of my experience managing dance companies. And also presenting work, realizing that there needed to be more time and space to make work. And when my family and I moved to Vermont in 2004, I began to look at the landscape there. And Vermont was a really interesting place to do this kind of work. Vermont is often thought of as a retreat for artists, or just a retreat for people for people cause of the beautiful landscape. But what I discovered was there is a really interesting engaging community that was interested and open to experimental work. And so, we have a lab. We have a space but we don't have a space, which is a way for us to combine resources in support of an artist. So we have partnerships with a number of organizations in our community, including a small liberal arts college, a grange, and a recording studio are three of our partners where we collaborate for space for these artist projects.
Jo Reed: Okay, explain how that works. I am a dancer...
Sara Coffey: You're invited. I invite artists. Weââ so if you're a dancer and I know your work, which sounds awful to say it that way. But I'm interested in dancers who are interested in working, not just inside a studio. But who are interested in working in a community. So we're not, they're not necessarily making community based work, but who are interested in the relationship between their work, and a community, and a place. So if I invite an artist I say, I'd really like to talk with you about your work. And I'd like you to come up to Vermont. And the first visit is really a very exploratory visit. Hearing them talk about what theirââ the ideas that they're interested in. they may have a specific project. They might not have a specific project. And we really co-envision a project together that can take place in Vermont. And the, my hope is always that it will go well beyond Vermont. That it's not made only specifically for our community.
Jo Reed: So let's go back to the three spaces. How does that work? As the artist do I then have a choice or am I put in one space or another? How does it work?
Sara Coffey: How does it work? How does it work? Well, we offer what we've... We've tested out a number of different models. So the model, we've landed on a model that includes working with an artist over the trajectory of a year. So multiple visits over the course of a year. Starting with a planning visit and then weââ I with artists decide okay what does this artist need? So it alwaysââ we always give some kind of studio support. Usually it's at least 10 days, sometimes it's two weeks, sometimes it's longer. So access to a dance studio for a dance artist. For music artists sometimes its access to a recording studio. And recently we've had a very exciting partnership with a grange association. Now do you know what grange associations are?
Jo Reed: Explain what a grange is?
Sara Coffey: Yes, a grange, a grange hall is owned by the grange association. And traditionally it's been a group of farmers who have come together and the members of the grange. And the grange has a national president here in D.C., there's a national office. And the role of the office here is for advocacy for agriculture and farming. So in eachââ the national organization owns the building but the community takes care of the building. And really inhibits that building with programs. And recently in most grange halls the downââ there is a space for meals, and convening, and cooking, and eating together. And then there's often an other space for dancing. And traditionally it's been for square dancing and contra dancing. And so I was invited by our local grange association to think about bringing some of these dance residencies to that space. And we may, given a modest fee to the grange to help support the work that they do. But really what we do is open up that process to the community while the dancers are there. And we had the first residency over there with Emily Johnson, a Minneapolis-based choreographer there this summer. She was there working with composers and musicians. And it was incredible. You would think what does a grange hall have to offer contemporary dance? But really, it was a beautiful meeting. People came out. We could not have fit one more person into this space for the work in progress showing that we had of her work. And it was, it's very exciting to be thinking about how we can work in different spaces. And spaces that already exist. Sometimes the conversations about how we could support the research and development piece of choreographic research is so space heavy. And I think in our area in New England we have underutilized spaces such as this grange hall. Marlboro College is a liberal arts school and the dance studio goes... Had been going virtually unused in the summertime. So we used that, the dance studio in the summertime. And now with the new partnership with Guilford Town [ph?] we're able to support the music and dance component or collaboration by giving access to not just space but also technical support for the musical production. And rarely do you get to have a week or two as an artist to be in the same space like that. To work simultaneous, have 24-hour access to the spaces. And what we found is that artists work, work, work. <laughs> A little time for, and some time for swimming.
Jo Reed: On those long summer days, I'm sure.
Sara Coffey: Yes. And un-air conditioned spaces. I mean, Vermont doesn't require a lot of air conditioning, but for dancers it does get hot.
Jo Reed: Explain why you're drawn to dancers and performers who do work with the community?
Sara Coffey: Well, I think it comes out of my interest and concern for when I hear national presenters talking about the shrinking audience for dance. And I think we have to think in different ways. How do we really want to cultivate an audience, a new dance audience? Especially a new dance audience for sometimes experimental and sometimes difficult work. So that is really where I'm coming from. So artists, sometimes an artist doesn't have to be making a piece that involves community participants in the work but we're open to that also. But it can be about creating different kinds of entry points into the work. And what I've found is that if audience members are part of somebody's process they have direct access to the work. You know, sometimes you go to a performance and you feel so stupid. You feel like I don't know how to look at this. I don't know what I'm looking at. And that is so crushing to me to think that, that could happen. And I feel as aââ having been a presenter and a manager of a dance company, I've had the privilege of having access to that piece. That piece of the process that has really fed me as a dance aficionado. And to be able to figure out ways to open up the process to our local community has been really important. And it's been really well received. So I know we're doing something right because we are getting audiences to see unusual, non-traditional work ....
Jo Reed: Okay, I want to make sure I'm getting this because I think I am. And that is that you are presenting not just the dance. But you are presenting the process of how the dance was made?
Sara Coffey: Yes, and in fact we are probably presenting more of the process. And we do. What we have found however is that for our audiences it's important to see the process. But they've, they always ask me, âSo where does it go? What happens next?â And so we do what, either one of two things. We'll either present the work in a small festival format. Or we find a regional presenter so our audiences can go and follow. So we're sometimes developing audiences for other institutions as well who are within an hour's drive of where we are. It's an unusual model and we're continuing to experiment with it. And what we've been finding is that when we give artists the opportunity to think about how they would like to engage audience in their work, it really cracks open a whole new way of thinking for them. And I think that's really important. We often do master classes and workshops. But I'll give you an example. This year we're working with a Minneapolis based choreographer, Emily Johnson who is native Alaskan. Her work is very contemporary and it's also infused with the native Alaskan perspective. And for this new work that she's developing she's working with another. There are two, another, she's working with another dancer and two musician composers. And she's envisioning this piece as being a piece that takesââ a dance that takes place inside an installation of fish skin lanterns. Now fish skin sewing is a native Alaskan craft. And she's imagining the installation having light inside these lanterns and sound emanating from them. So when she was in Vermont they made some prototypes of the lanterns, and they miked them for sound. And they developed the beginning, the beginning of the movement, and text, the spoken text for this piece. She's coming back in January and we're creating a sewing circle. And people, so the people can learn about fish skin sewing. And that's part of her dance residency, which is, you think that sounds crazy. But we have a veryââ we have a rich community of hand workers. People who are really fantastic with their hands. And so people who normally wouldn't come, perhaps wouldn't come to see a contemporary dance performance, they'll get to work with Emily to learn about how to make these objects. And they're actually going to make them for her. Emily needs to make 50 of these over the course of two years. And so people will have a chance to really leave their mark on her project.
Jo Reed: And then it will be used within the dance.
Sara Coffey: Yes.
Jo Reed: So if they're not let's say particularly drawn to come to the dance they might well want to come to see their work on the stage?
Sara Coffey: Yes. And they've gotten to get to see their work on the stage. Or they've gotten to know Emily who is a really pretty, an amazing person. And they have different entry points into the work is what we're trying to create. And I find that very exciting. And we're working on a very small scale. I mean, where we are in Southeastern Vermont. The largest town in Brattleboro, Vermont, which is about 12,000 people. Guilford, Vermont, which is where we're physically based is 2,000 people. And we work in other rural communities such as Marlboro, Vermont, which is a 1,000 families live there. So we're really talking small. It's a small, rural community that doesn't get to have access to contemporary work on a regular basis. Boston is three hours away and New York is four hours away. I think you get the picture.
Jo Reed: Yes, it's a schlep.
Sara Coffey: It's a schlep, yes. And also we don't have the venues to actually fully produce and execute some of these larger scale works. And so by bringing an artist in their process we're able to, we're able to bring this work into our community in a way that is really on a very flexible model. We were able to share resources and bring in lots of community partners along the way. And so it's been very well received in our, in our area even though we're a young, new organization. You know, I probably shouldn't say this. But sometimes I pinch myself because we work on a small scale. We work with three or four artists a year. But those of artists each come back three or four times throughout the year. So I feel we're working on a small scale but we're working deeply. And we're able to give some space around a project and perspective. Some of these artists they often make work in their own communities. And it's really useful for them to bring it to a new audience who is not familiar with them and their work. And to put in front of new eyes. And we have a really interesting kind of socio-economic mix that we have a lot of people working in agriculture. And then we have two, we have a small liberal arts college. We have the School for International Training, which brings in an international group. And we have, we have aââ there's a long musical tradition in our area. Both traditional music and chamber music. Where Marlboro is the home of the Marlboro Music Festival, which is an international festival, chamber music festival. So it's a very interesting mix of people who are curious.
Jo Reed: Well explain to me Sara how when you first began the performance lab how you involved people in the community. Before they knew what you were? Before even you actually knew what you were?
Sara Coffey: Well, we started really slowly. And I feel like it was all about relationships. I started with some people who I knew really well. Who, well I first started with a group of advisors who informally advised me on the idea. I brought together a college professor who had been teaching dance. A woman who started a dance program at a local private school. A woman who was leading a dance program at the career center program and a few other non-dance people. And I asked them for their advice and to get feedback on this idea. And we started out very small. We stated with two projects. We started with two projects and an important partner in the beginning was Marlboro College. And I knew the college because I'm an alum of the college. And Dana Holby, who had been the, my professor there, was still teaching in the dance program. And she invited us to come, and she said, âPlease bring this program.â And the college president, Ellen Lovel, who was the first Executive Director of the Vermont's State Arts Council, and who also worked in Washington with Senator Leahy, and she has a real deep appreciation of the power of the arts. And she really saw that the college should be utilized to support this kind of work. Because it could, you could see the obvious connections between the role of a college or university in supporting that work. And how college can be a resource for the community not just the students who are enrolled, and taking classes, and working with faculty.
Jo Reed: You started actually with someone who had very deep roots in the community. And you had roots where as well...
Sara Coffey: And I had as well. And I had returned because I had gone to the college and I knew people. So I returned to an area. And we started slow. It took us two years. I wanted to see. You know, in a small place you want to make sure that you're not duplicating somebody else's efforts. And I wanted to make sure that we were working synergistically rather than competitively with people. So there was some interesting dance training. That we have Brattleboro School of Dance and the career, there was also a high school career center program in dance. And they were doing such good work in training. And training dancers. Students coming out of that program would get dance scholarships to some of the leading dance schools in the country. And so we worked in partnership rather than separate from. We worked in partnership with these organizations. And we started small. We didn't want to invest in building a space that would require overhead and maintenance. We wanted to really tap into what was already available. And that's how we got started. And that's where we've reached out to expand those partnerships to include museums, the youth services program in our area, the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project. We've worked with Amtrak. I mean we really, we work with the municipalities in very small ways that they can understand. That they, that we see a meeting ground. For example, we did a project that took place on the train and in two train depots. With So Percussion in 2008... And the buy in from businesses, the railroads, it was, it was kind of incredible. So I am a firm believer in collaboration, and partnership, and I think that's why we have been able to do what we've been able to do with a very small budget.
Jo Reed: And did bringing the audience in at first, how were you able to do that? How could you fill up the grange?
Sara Coffey: How did we fill up the grange? Well the grange, what we... It was interesting because now we have a following. So I can't almost answer that. But what we do is we let people know through the Guilford Gazette, which is a homegrown newsletter that goes out through of course Facebook, e-mail, and other mailing lists. And when we collaborate with our other organizations such as our local museum, we share mailing lists. We promote, we get press coverage in the local paper. But also it's really becoming about word of mouth. Like we are involved, engaging different people in the community who I consider leaders in the community. And that's how things are spreading, I believe. Because in Guilford when we did it this summer it was, I was a little nervous about doing it at the grange. Thinking, oh my gosh, is anybody going to show up? And when we couldn't. We were so happy that we were able to fit in everybody who showed up. It was fantastic. And it was a whole new audience. Sometimes when we first started out it would be people I knew at the college. And students, and faculty, and then a core group of people who always attend kind of cultural events. And then by bringing in different partners in the process, we're able to kind of build and expand on that audience. And what I love about working in Vermont is you can pick up the phone and get your state legislator on the phone. And it's easy to make things happen because of that.
Jo Reed: Now you also said. And you referred to it earlier. You have free master classes?
Jo Reed: And are the performances free?
Sara Coffey: The works in progress showings are always free. And then we're working on a model where we're going to do a festival every other year. And those are ticketed performances.
Jo Reed: Now tell me about the master classes?
Sara Coffey: The master classes take so many different forms. So someââ most recently, we had Adele Meyers of New Haven, a New York based choreographer come. And she did a master class with high school students at the career center program. And also with college students at Marlboro College. And there were two very different master classes. Because she came up I spoke with the teachers and the professors to find out where the students were coming from and what they needed. And then I could, I could connect that with what Adele was working on her piece. So for example, that with the high school students, they have some pretty good technical training. And she was able to teach them a phrase from this new work that she is developing, like a section. And she was able to teach them the physicality, and she was able to let them know where it was coming from. But what was almost as important that she was trying to communicate is the idea that she has been working on which is presence in performance. And the students were really excited talking about this idea of presence. And it was done to a Blondie song. And so one of the students brought, had already loaded the Blondie song on her iPod, and brought it to class. The sparks started going. And they could see first hand how somebody other than their teachers is putting together choreography, and making the work. So the workshops relate directly to the work that's being made. That'sââ and I've been encouraging artists to do that rather than doing a modern dance technique class. So they're, we try to make them very connected and melded to the work of the artist so that it makes sense. That it's not an added on thing that they have to do. But really that it's part of them communicating what the, what they are all about as an artist.
Jo Reed: So it seems as thought that there is a lot of interaction between the artist and the community.
Sara Coffey: I think so. I mean, it's on a small scale in a way. But it's pretty deep. Like these students, these high school students are already saying, âWhen is she coming back?â And we're going to. We're doing a daytime performance for a few schools. And these students will be able to come, and see her work during their school period, and for free.
Jo Reed: And talk to her about it.
Sara Coffey: And be able to talk to her about it and to see the larger company perform work. I'm always delighted because every residency that we've had there have been such interesting outcomes, including that some of the students then have their own relationships with these artists. And e-mail them, and call them, and stay in touch with them, which is great. Because I just love it that relationships are made. And there have been a few artists who have, after they've been up to the college for example, they've developed a relationship with a professor. And one of our artists now is in conversation with a professor about making a piece together. Not a dance teacher but a professor of religion at the college. And I just love it when things like that happen that extend beyond the boundaries of a residency.
Jo Reed: Yes. And it sounds as though the audience members have a stake in the performer?
Sara Coffey: I think that happens. I feel like we're developing a fan base. Because the artists are revealing themselves, every artist. And I don't ask the artist to do that. They just do it. That they are revealing themselves to these people. They're not in a, not in a therapeutic kind of way. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying, but they just, they make it real. They give access.
Jo Reed: Right, it's not like this dance has come full blown out of the choreographer's mind like Athena from the head of Zeus.
Sara Coffey: Exactly.
Jo Reed: Which is what we think often.
Sara Coffey: Exactly, I mean. And you'd think I could never do that. And what we had a few years ago. We worked on a project that took place over the course of 20 months, which involved some of these same high school students. Well, students from the same program. And Yasoko Yakoshi , a New York based choreographer who was originally from Japan worked with them over 20 months to make a new work. And we brought the kids to New York three times to participate in the Arts Presenters Conference twice. And to perform at Judson Church, and the culmination of the project was a performance at The Kitchen in New York. And they got previewed and reviewed. I think they got two reviews in the New York Times. And it was an incredible experience for those 12 students to be able to have this high level engagement with a professional choreographer. It wasn't a kid's piece. She was treating them as if they were professional artists. And what we bring to that. What we brought to that project is we broughtââ those students were paid. They each received a stipend of $500.00 for participating in the project. And we provided housing for them. And we also supported the roles of different collaborators in that project. And so, Yasoko's process really cracked open a whole like post modern dance for them in a very personal way. They have this personal experience with what it means to make work that's somebody's, a choreographer's. And just coming in and saying do this. Do this with your arms. Do this with your feet and move this way. But that, a work that's generated from your own personal story, which is the method that she, that she worked on with them. So I find it very inspiring and I feel like it's a privilege to be inside and that close to an artist's process. And I think that's why the people do become invested in these artists in a, in a way that is really... Beâ at first, it really caught me by surprise how quickly people became invested in the work.
Jo Reed: Let me just ask you. What do you think the role is of the artist in the community?
Sara Coffey: I've been asking, what's the role of the artist? And what's the role of an art's organization in a community? I think that it's so important for there to be a two-way exchange between an artist and a community. That it's not just an artist coming from the outside and bringing knowledge from outside into a community in kind of a expert to non-expert kind of way. So I do think however, that there is a great value though, to bring outside perspective into a, in a community. And I think that an artistââthe role of artists as I see as being a mirror to our to society. And the act of putting up that mirror, I think powerful things can happen. It can provide a community with agency. For example, when these students saw that there was, that people were interested in what they had to say. It was really powerful to both the students in the work, but also to the community saying, âOh, this is what they see. They are so much wiser than we think they are.â So I think the role of the artist is to reflect and see. And that can manifest some artists and take it very, quite seriously and rigorously they bring artist social action. And I'm interested in this idea but not all of our work is, I would say, would be cast in that way. But I do think that artists can be catalysts for change. And it's important that we keep those voices and support those voices in our communities. Especially when there's so many cuts to education right now with the, not just with the arts. But just education in general that we have to keep these voices alive and empower individuals to be able to speak up. And offer their opinion or stand their ground. And I think artists can help communities do that.
Jo Reed: Yes. Sara Coffey, thank you so much.
Sara Coffey: Oh, thank you it has been a, it's been an honor.
Jo Reed: That was Sara Coffey and we were talking about The Vermont Performance Lab, a laboratory for creative experimentation and community engagement. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
The music was composed by Joshua Quillen for Adele Myers' Theater in the Head.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.Next week, you may know him as the musician John Wesley Harding, but as a novelist, he writes under his own name of Wesley Stace.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.