A Choreographed Conversation : The Various Stages of DJ McDonald, Lead Curator of DanceFest 2013 by Chauncey Dandridge

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Our Social Media guru Chauncey recently fashioned a chat with his Dance Parade colleague DJ McDonald,  this year’s Lead Curator for DanceFest, the festival that immediately follows the parade every year in Tompkins Square Park.  The DanceFest 2013 program was comprised of four stages in total as well as a handful of site-specific performances planned throughout the park including an aerial rig and a synthetic ice skating rink.   The four hour celebration of ‘unity through dance’ and provocation of the expressive art form known as dance was an intricately woven display of various dance groups that participated in the parade representing cultures and styles from all over the world.  This smorgasbord of the traditional and unfettered fusions alike was curated into a tightly knit schedule choreographed down to the minute.  The person who was ultimately in charge of making it all work : DJ McDonald.

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The main stage in Tompkins Square Park is fully assembled by 9:00 am on the morning of Saturday, May 18th

Chauncey : Greetings DJ!  This year, you found yourself quite unexpectedly thrown into the fire as the lead curator for the whirlwind of performances that were planned for Dance Parade’s 7th Annual DanceFest, the all dance assault on New York CIty in Tompkins Square Park in which immediately followed the parade down Broadway.   

Let’s start with a simple question that may or may not have a simple answer.  What does the job of a dance festival curator entail?

DJ : Put simply, the job of curator involves assessing the submissions by groups interested in performing as part of Dance Fest, assigning them to one of the specific stages and determining the order in which the performances should unfold on each of those stages within the time limits allowed.

Sounds pretty straightforward but this herculean task has been ably undertaken over the past several years by Mariana Bekerman, more or less solo.  I had the help and input of Production Chair Nikki Creary, Executive Director Greg Miller, Social Media Team leader Chauncey Dandridge, and recent volunteer Marjorie Liebman who has a background in dance at least as long as my own.

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The Yosakoi Dance Project 10tecomai performing at “Dancing Through The Light” at Green-wood Cemetery October 2011

You have curated other events for Dance Parade in the past like “Dancing Through The Light” at Green-wood Cemetery in October of 2011 and most recently The Annual International Dance Day Gala at Dixon Place.  Can you describe those experiences and compare them to this project?

Green-Wood presented a particular challenge and opportunity. For that platform i found myself able to field an all-star team of Dance Parade groups whose work represented forms originating in eight distinct countries/cultures across 5 different continents (well, one subcontinent) and Hawai’i, and to get the audience to make up the Parade moving through various vistas in a cemetery that since 1838 has represented one of NYC’s hidden jewels. That informed my approach to the curation International Dance Day at Dixon both last April and this.

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click to view photos by Josef Pinlac from The 7th Annual International Dance Day Gala at Dixon Place

Dixon presents a formal theater arrangement with the audience on chairs and risers and a balcony, and the use of theatrical lighting, sound and video projection. It expands the number of groups available to perform to ten or 12 from the 7 at Green-Wood.

The main differences between those venues and Dance Fest have to do with setting and scale. We have almost all of Tompkins Square Park as a canvas, with two performing stages, a teaching stage, a social dance area and site specific work with which to paint. We also have to look at submissions from as many as 75 different groups who’ve requested a performance opportunity instead of the curator or curatorial committee hand selecting a few chosen groups to present.  We strive to accommodate and feature as many as we can.

What do you think was the most difficult part about curating a show with such a vast variety of dance styles and disciplines?

The variety doesn’t challenge me.  I consider it our greatest strength and the secret sauce that can give the Festival dishes their piquant flavorings. Three formidable challenges, however, do have to be met.

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Aerial Dancer in Tompkins Square Park during DanceFest 2012

The first has to do with getting as good a sense as possible of what the work that will appear in the Park will actually look and feel like with the actual performers in place.  Those artists who’ve worked with me in the past know that i prefer to visit rehearsals whenever i can in leading up to the assignment of venues and the draft of a program order.  With so many groups applying from as far away as Toronto and Virginia, this proved, of course, to be impossible especially given the very narrow time frame in which we tried to make decisions.  Having just presented 12 different groups at IDD gave me something of a head start, but the list remained both long and formidable, especially since many groups had submitted videos either of past work or of work involving earlier casts of dancers and performers.

The second involves assigning groups to stages and/or sites. The vast majority of applications request presentation on the “Main Stage,” at the site of the old bandshell near the southern edge of the Park. We found ourselves blessed with a bumper crop of talent, experience and stylistic diversity, so we knew from the get go that some artists might be disappointed. How many Belly Dance or hip hop or contemporary groups should we have, for instance, when we have so many candidates from other styles and genres that we would like to see represented on each stage?

The last challenge constitutes the trickiest part:: placing the groups on an each stage in an order that balances aesthetic content considerations against technical and practical needs such as who needs to be teaching at a particular time, number of musicians, chairs, microphones, and dancers, etc. so as to create a pleasing whole that flows from one piece to another while maximizing contrast such as tempo, dynamics, level, even the number of dancers. if we succeed we show off each group to its best advantage among all the other groups, and the audience doesn’t even notice the hand of the curator in pointing up similarities and contrasts among the various types of performance she sees.249021_10151437380082153_231329549_n

You’re also a quite active professional dancer yourself.   How did that affect your decision making process when putting the shows together?

Having led my own company for 15 years, written three full length shows,  and having since directed musicals, straight plays, even opera and dinner theater and  stand up comedy shows, i’ve learned how to put a show together. And i keep trying to learn from contemporary artists such as the late Pina Bausch, Andy DeGroat, Robert Wilson, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, David Dorfman, Yoshiko Chuma, Dean Moss, Sylvain Emard and Sarah Michelson with whom i’ve had the privilege of working.

Name three of the groups that you think you would want to or could find yourself performing on stage someday with if you had the chance.

I’ve been blessed to be able to work with and hopefully contribute to the work of the artists i just mentioned.  I no longer look for particular groups or companies but rather projects to which i have an inkling that i might be able to contribute. Among those with whom i’ve yet to work might be Ralph Lemon, Jerome Bel, and Anna Deveare Smith, though how any of these might eventuate i have no pre-conceived idea.

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The 2013 All Volunteer Staff gathers on stage during the last few minutes of DanceFest on Saturday, May 18th in Tompkins Square Park

There is so much going on that day in the park, all in a mere four hours.  What advice would you have given someone attending in order to experience it properly?

I don’t know if one can conceive of a proper experience. In fact, my advice might be to be as improper as you can within the law and a sense of ethics. Really, i would say just try to keep your senses open and let your heart and your curiosity lead you.  It helps, of course, to look at the signs we have posted around the park that intimate  when and where things have been planned to take place.

Were you able to sit back and enjoy the show or will you be busy doing other things on Saturday, May 18th?

Both.  I had been choreographed to facilitate interviews for the live WBAI broadcast from 4 – 6p, and had assembled a crack team of smart, personable, perceptive and gorgeous assistants to help me wrangle folks from each of the different stages and venues to the microphones at the BAI booth.  This kind of insured that i’d keep moving from one end of the Park to another, which turned out to work out rather nicely as i got to see and keep my eye on more things than i’ve ever quite been able to at one time. BAI found itself beset by technical obstacles and we never got on the air live, so when that fell through, a great weight slipped from my shoulders, and i found myself bouyant and ready to dance with the entire DP Team when we got onstage briefly at the end of Dance Fest. It wouldn’t count as successful Parade and Festival if each of our volunteer staff, and we do, unbelievably, up to this point remain proudly and all-volunteer organization, didn’t get her and his chance to dance. In this way we live up to one of my favorite dance quotes. it comes from none other than the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

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DJ McDonald in the foreground on the steps of City Hall during Dance Parade Press Conference Monday, May 13th