Ina Loacmele interviews Sidra Bell – an artistic director of Sidra Bell Dance New York (SBDNY).

Sidra Bell: “Strong intuition, intelligence, quietness, thoughtfulness - those are the sort of qualities that are most attractive to me in a dancer.”


For a second time Derida Dance Center has the opportunity to host American choreographer - Sidra Bell. Since August 18th Sidra Bell has been doing a 3-week workshop with the participants in Derida Dance Center’s educational and training program Dance PORT Derida supported by America for Bulgaria Foundation.
Just before the end of residency and a couple of days before the presentation I was lucky enough to have a talk to the artist Sidra Bell.
After warming up with the Dance PORT Derida group, Sidra Bell and I had an opportunity to talk a little bit about the profession of a choreographer, dance piece structure, the qualities of the dancers, self- employed artists’ inspiration for life and work – life healthy balance.

IL: Do you remember how you started as a choreographer? What/ who inspired you?
SB: It was 2001 and I was 22, just graduated from Yale University. It wasn’t as common for people to start making dances before they have had performing career. I didn’t know where it was going to lead to. I just had the support of people from college.  I started to make choreography at Yale where was the student company called ‘’Yaledancers’’ .They allowed us to make student works and present them. So that was the first thing when the people started to say – “you should keep going". I also come from a family of artists, my parents are musicians. I was very young and I didn’t know where it was going to lead.  It was an interesting beginning, not having as much of performing career, just thinking I’m going to have a company right away.
 I think a lot about my inspirations and the impulse to start creating, more from the sense that I want to do work with communities. Not just dancing on the stage but actually bringing people together under an umbrella where they could either perform or teach, or be just part of the a family that can do things together. So a lot of the early shows I produced in the Harlem community. We just brought the artists together and had live music, by my dad who was the musical director. It was more like a community effort and less about being known. It was to bring people together. And also we were doing classes for young girls. There were a lot of different initiatives we were interested in. I’m still very interested in how the education is a parallel aspect of the company work. It’s very important. Last week Rebecca Margolick and Tushrik Fredericks were here and we taught together.  That’s very important, to not just perform but to be in communication and bring the other generation into what we are doing.

IL: Could you describe the most difficult part of your job and the most interesting part?
SB: It is all really pleasurable and enjoyable. Every day I feel so grateful that I am able to travel. It really is a gift- to share with so many different people. But it’s everyday, 20 hours a day.  This is the kind of job where you don’t turn off. Whereever you are, you are thinking about what you created in studio and processing it.  You are always working on getting more opportunities via grant or proposal writing. I like that kind of integration because it really causes me to use a lot of different muscles. I think that when it gets tiring I just remind myself how lucky I am.  It’s great- sharing with so many different kinds of people and interacting with communities across the world. It’s a very immediate process. Your are there and you are sharing very deeply. It removes a lot of social norms, because you have to connect with people right away.  There is no time to have social affects which causes people to interact distantly. You connect right away because it’s movement.  Really, it’s a social art for me, it’s immediate.
IL: Before having the interview, I was watching videos of your choreography, thinking about the movements - each dancer’s body is telling a story and if they just repeat the movement, probably wouldn’t be that , because it wouldn’t tell the story … So the question would be - is it needed to tell the dancer how to feel in a particular part of the movement?
SB: As a collaborator I don’t want to tell them everything. Because then it destroys the creative process. So there are a lot of directions and cues I’ve been giving. Like a blueprint or a line of thought, or the structure of movement theories. But what I feel more is the responsibility for them to interpret and for them to find the pleasure of what they are going. The most fulfilling aspect is to find how they narrate it. And I think it’s hard to know that. I think dance is this language - the language I am developing is authorship, so they have to learn the shape of what I am doing. They have to coordinate it (it’s like coordination, like walking). So it’s hard, you have to learn the language, but I think, there is a way they surpass it and it becomes their own.
It’s just another technique. It’s like acting - you learn the tasks, what you are doing, but then there is a moment that it becomes a second skin. That’s what I learned as a collaborator working for a long time with dancers. It’s like another body that they’re in, that’s what makes it really exciting.
IL: What qualities do you look for in a dancer?
SB: Confidence, fearlessness. And the emotional and physical bravery. Sometimes the work navigates rough terrain and is emotionally driven.  And strong intuition, intelligence, quietness, thoughtfulness. Those sort of qualities are the most attractive to me. And most of people I am attracted to, have this quiet burn. Their way of thinking is difficult, and it leads a darker quality.
I like a lot of different kinds of dancers. I work with so many. It has nothing to do with body type. It is all intuition and intelligence. I think physical bravery is important, to be able to take a risk, that has to do with an animal quality as well.

IL: It’s a lot for a dancer - they should be really intellectual and be updated about latest tendencies and also have a trained body. So, are you strict with the dancers and is it important for you that the dancers give all of them to the dance, like to be a good tool in the hands of achoreographer?
SB: Yeah, I think, I ask a lot from the dancers and luckily, I don’t know why, they give a lot. Because a lot of times even I think I don‘t know what I’m doing here. I mean, I’m right there with them training, pursuing something... but I don’t know what it is exactly.  Transparency is important.  As a director, feeling, coming and telling them that I don’t know what I am doing. So it’s more as a friend. Trusting not just giving directions. Knowing that I am in a discovery process.  I found that transparency allows the artists to drop a lot of walls, when there’s less of a hierarchy in the studio.  We’re searching together. I’ve been very lucky, I feel like I have been able to really build strong relationships with dancers, because it’s more of an honest process and they are able to share a lot more.

IL: Is the movement still important for you or is it more important than the story?  I mean in contemporary dance field you can sometimes notice the tendency, for example in Latvia, to make works more conceptual and in minimalistic style.
SB: Yes, I think, there is a part of me that still really wants to move (laughing). There is still part of me that exists in the work and as a mover. That’s part of the fascination in developing the language of movement.  It is interesting to look back ten years, when I first started… I still see some of those movements.  They just keep shifting and creating a new dialogue.  And I think there is something that happens in the translation of the body coordinating around itself.  It’s always interesting to see different bodies, their coordination. And I like to think it’s a dialogue in their language or… they are animals, or something cultural. It think it’s kind of fascinating how it plays out of movement, it’s interesting to me.
IL: As Tushrik Fredericks (one of the dancers in ‘’residuals’’) described the piece “residuals’’ – ‘’no high heights no low lows, all piece is a journey’’. If we think about a performance, are you still thinking about some classical forms related to choreography - the beginning, development or tension, endings?  What is your opinion about the dance piece structure?
SB: I have a background, a master degree in choreography. I actually wanted to find more classical techniques, and to discover how to create dances. Technique and composition are important also for the movement. For me training and processing has always been important. I think it’s also important for musicians or even visual arts. Having that knowledge allows you to deepen actually.  Is it necessary for everyone?  No, it just the way I understand making things.  But I can say that classical form gives you more range.  Similarly in ballet technique. The ability it requires.  I am making contemporary work but there is still attention to the usage of classical technique … Knowing you have the capability of rotation…  It allows for more range in the body. The same thing with composition knowing what the form is, allows you to go farther away.  I have talked a lot with my dad because he is a jazz musician and he teaches theory, and is a music teacher as well. We have talked a lot why the technique is so important, because we are trying to explain it to our students.  I think it’s really about range. But I don’t think it’s the only approach. It’s just the way how I understand creation.

Full video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLUA4ucOwXXeYme8y-MMYlKNRQvpnH67BR&v=1XoiKFX8kUU

IL: If you are watching the dance performance, what is the first you pay the attention?
SB: I always look at how resourceful the dancers seem or how skilled they seem. Especially, when I’m watching someone else’s choreography, what I like to see is the resource that they have been seeking in the body forever, like ancient. That really attracts me to the work itself. You can’t separate the choreography and the dancer. I think a lot of people are trying to do that. It’s like an ecosystem of ideas, it’s not a separate thing. Dancers know what they are doing, they know what they are saying. I don’t have to like what they’re saying but they know what they are saying. So I try to take “like and dislike” out of the conversation. Because I think a live performance is more about ideas propagated on stage. I think people still get caught up with liking and not liking. I know it may come from my background, how I was academically looking at information as information only. So, thinking about the performance, it’s not about liking or disliking, it’s about approaching the material and seeing material.  And I feel that way about watching performance. I try to exercise that mindset.

IL: On your website is written ‘’Think. feel. play. experience’’.  Could you describe how do you relate it to your work?
SB: Those words came up for me few years ago -common and simple. Lots of the language, jargon even, the social media stuff what I put out is like a diary. And it obviously helps with the consumption of the ideas. Those words were clear ideas about what I really need as an artist and that’s it, really - the capability to think and play all the time. Feel – that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. So that helps to sort out things. And also as a small framework that is understandable from so many points of view.  Whoever I’m working with - professional dancers, elderly people, break dancers. It translates to anyone or anything that I am doing. Yes, I guess I like to set boundaries. Sometimes it changes, for example, last year I said I want to think more, feel more …I can’t remember, but I wrote it down, there was something about more, it’s always more (laughing)!
I like writing, creating words that go with images.

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IL: So, about the workshops at Derida Dance Center, it has been almost three weeks 5 hours every day …
SB: Yeah, I mean I structured them as real rehearsals. Some of the students are from last year. But I didn’t want to do the same thing as last year; it’s more challenging. The system that I have is really simple, as you could see from the warm up, it’s not a hard warm up. It is just connecting to the center of your body and breathing where you are. From there you go farther out.
Last year the group was more playful. They had a synergy together, it also was smaller group. This year it took about a week for them to get on board. They were a little bit suspicious about what we’ were trying to do. They were often questioning why we are playing so much, because the first thing I do is a lot of play games, improvisation. There is a lot of sensitivity.
But by the second week, I started to sort of break down why the games existed, pulled back to some of the tasks that had been done on the previous week.  We focused on structuring. It took a while for them to trust, to trust the environment, to trust the process. They are really physically talented. It’s always that, bringing the group together and finding the center of our practice again, like why we are doing this or that.  So it takes trust and often fearlessness, you know you don’t know where you are going, just doing this research. I think it’s hard because I have some classical history and people might think - I know what I’ve been doing, but that’s not what I am doing as an artist. I like to not know what I am doing (laughing). It is a tricky field.

IL: It’s also probably a bit going out of your comfort zone?
SB: Yeah, it’s good now, I’m having great time. And I think, I am more settled now, to being in Bulgaria.  First of all knowing that, and then - trusting my thoughts, not needing common language. Now I feel more accustomed to the city and then trusting the process with them and even when they are questioning, you know it will be fine.
And also having Rebecca Margolik and Tushrik Fredericks here on the first week, I think it was nice for the students to see their performance. Many said that it was a turning point for them, because they could see how the process leads to performance. So I think that was an important moment. It’s been good here, I am going to miss them.

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IL: To my mind, it’s like the changes of the way they are thinking. And it changes the way they see and explore the world. And as the world pretty much is how we see and feel it, so basically you are changing the world.  Is your aim to change the world?
SB: I think, it’s parallel to any research. If I am thinking about that, then I somehow feel like it’s a microsystem that I am developing. And I sometimes feel like I am so small … So, I try to encourage that in the students’ thoughts, that owning your small power will affect change. So it’s hard because it feels that what we are doing is so small. But I think energy is real. So, what you are putting forth will have a return. It’s really a balance to keep.  And, I always try to encourage them to embrace playfulness, you know, there is always this little instability, to play upside down, and to be ready for a change.  Changes are necessary.

IL: How sizable role plays the audience and its attitude in your work?
SB: I don‘t know if I even think about the audience anymore. I don’t know, it seems all the same to me (laughing). I don’t know, I am trying to be clear as an artist. There was a time when my career started to expand and I started to receive reviews and some of them were devastating, very critical. Receiving those first strong criticisms, put me in a stronger place with what I want to deal with and what I want to do.  I think the hardest part is to get people on board with what you are doing and also to be able to find foundational support.  I think there is an attempt to brand always what you are doing.  And it’s kind of annoying, because it takes you away from the sense of research – I have to know what I am doing, to understand the audience interests. But I don‘t know. So, I have been trying actively to create my own space, where the research is at the front of all what I am doing. And that means self- producing, raising money on my own, and creating more programs.  That’s why I love the partnership with Derida, because they do not put pressure on the process. They just want for artists to have an experience and there isn’t pressure to create something specific at the end. The real growth of the artists is Derida’s main purpose and it’s very nice to be in this kind of environment.

IL: I guess, you have had a lot of residencies, if you compare, can you say what’s always different, or similar. Maybe there is something what always surprises you or what you miss?
SB: During residencies - I am more engaged and concentrated. For the Derida PORT dancers they don’t have to worry about outside jobs or pressures during this time. They are totally focused on what they are doing for five hours each day. I am not sure how it is the structured here generally, but in New York it is very hard to create rigor. During a residency you don’t need to constantly produce, you can have a coffee, chat - there is more relief in the process. Actually Petia (one of Derida PORT dancers and workshop participant) and I have coffee sessions every day. It’s already part of the day, which I have to go out for coffee (laughing).  I can‘t be absolutely focused on the one thing all day long. It’s also training to let your mind flow.  It lets you structure your day in a healthy way. With all this rush what’s going to become of humanity, where is the relief, where is the play? I realized that I breathe more normally. I am lucky not to be pressured by the constancy of daily life. When I am going abroad I am happy to not worry so much about work, but to concentrate on the particular thing. I love bringing my company with me. But I enjoy going alone as well. It’s like a mental retreat and then I come back a little bit fresher.

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IL: Also in Latvia artists need to be part of many projects to provide finances and in the end of the day - has no strength to create, do things what they really want to do.
SB: It’s tricky, I think it is everywhere.  On the one hand, in New York it’s a good option if you’re not in the repertoire company and you are able to dance for a few people. With my dancers we silently agreed to keep the sense of rigor we have now. I’m very lucky that’s it’s mutually understood and that they make the work we do together a priority.  As I said, I ask a lot from them and it’s really being nice to say I have had amazing collaborators in my career.

IL: How about your daily work and life balance?
SB: It is like 20 hours per day. It does seem like a lot. I mean people ask how you are doing that (laughing).  I think that one thing that keeps me balanced is that dance is a very healthy form. When I think about people that have to work behind the desk and their off time is a separate thing. For me it’s all together, the ecosystem of the work, that you can play constantly. It seems like a lot and it’s a lot. But I like to think it’s a quite healthy balance – it is connected to the body and it’s connected to continually interacting to people in the very immediate sense. So I think it’s probably healthier than it may look (laughing).

IL:  What about your choreographic future ambitions?  What is what you are planning to work on?
SB: Yeah, it’s very hard again especially because of the work I am doing. I sometimes catch myself - I don’t want to think about the future!  But I always am thinking about the future. I am thinking where I would like to be in many ways. There is definitely a future for the company. There is a bigger project coming soon, with support from New England Foundation for the Arts (NDP) with a production grant that I received.  We are going to collaborate with a Swedish band over the next year. The company and the band will tour together. We hope once we start touring especially in Europe, that we will build more stability for our organization.  And also we were discussing opportunities to bring one artist from Derida to New York. I think, you need to, at some point, keep making small steps and then - to progress every time. I am positive about the future and lucky to be here. Just trying to be more grounded in how lucky I am.


Ina Loacmele is an art management intern in Derida Dance Center for the period September and October 2015.
Her internship is supported from the program Erasmus +