By Erin McKay
Before the LINES Ballet | BFA at Dominican University of California seniors take to the stage for their culminating performance at YBCA, get to know the creative genius behind their choreographer Sidra Bell. Artistic Director of Sidra Bell Dance New Work, Master Lecturer at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the first Black female choreographer commissioned to create work for New York City Ballet, Sidra is an artistic force with deep insight. Ahead of tomorrow’s encore performance of her piece, make enough space without rippling the line, Sidra discusses dream states, circular learning, empathy in movement, the unlocking power of improvisation, and much more. Below are excerpts from our conversation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What did you do with the BFA seniors on your first day of rehearsal?
On the first day, I really devoted my body to the practice. I make material in a kind of mirroring way, improvising ideas and having the dancers replicate them. That material became a catalog of phrase sets that we refined when I came to San Francisco. We experimented with some somatic ideas through my warm-up and built out moments of clusters and partnering.
You mentioned your warmup. When I was talking to one of the seniors, she shared that you lead warm up from the center of the room. That really made an impact on her. Many choreographers lead their processes from the front. Where did your idea to lead from the center come from?
I think it was circular learning. I was exposed to it really early on in my childhood. I went to a Montessori school growing up from K through 8th grade, and everything was done within a circular format, even as we started to mature. Learning was very material based and that was something I carried through my subconscious mind and body. When I started to teach myself, I realized that I too was most effective when embedded in the group. If I was a physical element in the room, moving with everyone, almost like a wave form bouncing off ideas from body to body, that was much more effective. Things are being absorbed in a more three-dimensional way in this format, so it’s something I’ve constantly tried to integrate into my practice.
There’s a different kind of agency that the dancers take on when they’re not only relying on me but they’re also relying on each other peripherally through dialogue and space. Sometimes I’ll even structure a phrase from behind the artists, so they’ll have to lean in and refer to me in different ways. Improvisation is also a priority in my practice and class teachings. Whether someone is centering themselves within the circle or simply witnessing others move, improvisation teaches them how to integrate a more mirrored practice into everything they do, from free movement to codified ideas.
What do you think improvisation unlocks in an artist? Why is that practice so pivotal to going further in our artistic lives?
For me, improvisation is really representative of the child’s mind. It’s the play and joy that I try to connect with, every time I am in the studio. As we go further away from childhood developmentally, things shift and change; our awareness of time becomes more structured. It feels like time becomes constricted. If I can create an endlessness of time in my practice, like the one we experienced as children, then I can connect with the purest element of myself and my dance.
In durational improvisation, you create a kind of loop and constant reframing of the room. It’s like a laboratory of exchange, one that I am still learning. Improvisation is not something you ever truly understand in its entirety. It’s something that you’re inside; it’s life. We’re always responding to change and shifts. Connecting it with my practice helps me navigate the creative process, and the changing world, in the most elemental way. It asks me to really look, react, and respond to the things right in front of me. Artists and people in theater, we feel that pull inherently, but sometimes I think we lose the play and the willingness to fail. That has been essential in my sustaining practice and career, to have that notion that I can still fail, and it is okay.
Some of my favorite work actually would probably be considered unsuccessful, the things that were done in really off sites, sort of impromptu, where I let the mess fold out of the space. Those have been some of my favorite experiences as a creative artist because of the liveness of it all. The ability to really be inside of something unknown is rare. Improvisation brings me closer to that unknown. And in stepping closer, I find another edge to enter, another space to risk swimming through.
Does risk cause unease or fear for you? Or have you become so familiar with the feeling that it’s comfortable at this point?
I am still very afraid most of the time. I get butterflies when entering any space, whether it’s working with children or professional companies. Each space lends itself to trepidation because of the unknown.
Just meeting people and having to communicate ideas is a risk unto itself. But I think I have gotten better at negotiating my time. I can cultivate patience within that state of risk or fear, being more kind to myself if things aren’t working the way that I expected them to. There’s much more space and quiet time for reflection in my practice now.
The dancers I’m working with right now in the BFA at Dominican will tell you that I’ve given them a lot of agency in this work. It’s ultimately trust. We’re all on the ride together, creating something. That comradery allows for some ease even when we’re hitting a nerve or touching a space that feels unfamiliar. We can use each other as a community to navigate those worlds and return to circular learning, where we all are participants in crafting the piece.
Can you notice when students trust themselves and others in the room? How would you describe that trust in terms of movement?
I think the tension drops. When you first enter most formal spaces, there’s a veil of respect, which is lovely. I still have that feeling when I am being taught or mentored, where I get very still. But I think the body releases overtime. You can see the breath; the space seems to exhale. The students, they’re busier too. They start to bounce around with each other in the room like busy bees, workshopping things without my prompting and relying physically on one another.
What do you think about when you are immersed in quiet?
I have a lot of space because I travel alone often. I’m involved in many different communities but I’m by myself for about 75% of the day. I spend a lot of time in transit. That’s where my thinking happens.
Much of my work is informed by a kind of loneliness that isn’t sad. When the chatter dies away, something breaks through on the inside. Discovery and observation come to the forefront.
That sense of being alone is primary in my pieces, and it definitely comes out as a quantity. There are moments of absolute vacancy. Even the movement has this sort of baroness, this porousness to it. I’m often drawn to the peculiar, and I have a bit of an outlier perspective. Looking in from the outside is a thematic structure in my work, that sense of being there while somewhat removed.
Where do you think your interest in the peculiar comes from?
I grew up in New York City. It’s busy there but I lived in a quieter neighborhood, uptown and inward, closer to Washington Heights, so I had the best of both worlds. I was taken everywhere as a child: performances, studio sessions, clubs. My dad and mom are musicians, and so I was constantly surrounded by an eclectic mix of artists and makers from all walks of life. I developed an appreciation for community, of noticing and really being with people. I was very, very quiet as a child, but I was always watching and listening. Even though I didn’t speak much I loved being with others, understanding their behavior, their mannerisms, their language. Those that knew me in the early days can’t believe I’m a teacher now.
How did your relationship with LINES Education Programs take shape?
Marina Hotchkiss (BFA at Dominican Director) and Karah Abiog (LINES Ballet | Training Program Director) are two really strong examples of female leadership to me. I’ve been working with LINES Education Programs for a while now, and they believed in me and took a risk on me in my earlier years as a choreographer. I love coming out to San Francisco because I get to see my friends that are now my bosses too. I regard and respect them. They’re both very kind and that’s an important part of developing a space. You want to cultivate a civil and respectful atmosphere so that people feel like they have permission to just be themselves. I think that is the main thing. I’m not asking for anyone to be anything but themselves in the space, and I hope that they reciprocate that, allowing me to be myself, to not only take risks but to dream and allow challenge to come in.
Empathy is important to you, not only in the rooms you teach but in the work as well. How do you encourage artists to move with empathy?
I think guiding is very important. Sometimes there’s a time crunch that doesn’t allow for a class to happen, but I try to teach as much as possible at the beginning of a rehearsal process, even if it’s only for 20 minutes to a half hour. My warmup is a moving practice. It’s not codified but it draws upon a lot of codified language: breath work, yoga, pilates, GYROKINESIS®, ballet, Graham. I guide the artists through a version of my physical history and often it’s what my body needs too. I think that the sharing of breath, where we put our hands on the floor and work with our fascia while feeling, that is all we really need. We don’t need exercises, although this simple practice can become very rigorous depending on the direction of the session; the main purpose is to see each other and listen.
Even if the group I’m working with spends a lot of time together, you’d be surprised… they might know each other but how deep does that knowing go? The warmup allows for a process of unknowing and starting again. I find empathy is physical. Anything from grief to joy, it manifests physically in the body first and is often beyond words.
There are only six students in the senior class. It’s an intimate group. What did they bring to the process that inspired or intrigued you?
They’re all very different from each other. Their class is almost the same size as my company. With only six people, you look at everyone as a soloist. There’s a universal language within the piece that renders itself differently on every single person which is nice. I’ve embraced that in the structure of the work; there are moments of synchronized movement, but it’s really done within the dynamic rhythm of each pairing. I’ve asked them to contribute their way of phrasing the material to our rehearsals. Each of them has their own track, and they add to the ripple we’re creating throughout the piece.
When you begin a new choreographic process, do you have certain visuals, concepts, or phrases of movement that you want to explore from the start?
One of my goals is to disrupt my own habits when I’m working, which is very hard to do because there’s a sense that I need to deliver something. That’s an interesting tension. I often arrive with no material, but I do carry a physical history from many years of work. So trying to disrupt my habit and take a risk definitely feels like labor. I often ask myself, “What direction is my body going to take?” The artists, they all think I know something, but I don’t know anything. I feel like an imposter in a way, like I’m standing there, and I don’t know what I’m doing.
Ultimately I feel like I do the same arm pathway every single time. It’s probably my safety net. Then, after a few phrases, I start to arrive on a new motif. It takes a while though to break through the sense of comfort that I need, that feeling that I’m actually doing something productive, until I finally arrive at that new pathway. It’s usually one or two new ideas per process, but even those small breakthroughs are exciting! The movement largely feels repetitious because it’s always my body generating from the top of the rehearsal. Eventually though, the dancers start to contribute, and looking at them, and the way their bodies move within the material, informs possibilities that I can extrapolate.
How would you say our work changes as we mature?
The digestion is much clearer. I think as a movement practitioner, I feel the digestion in my pores, skin, and joints in a much more heightened way than I did when I was training because I can listen more. I can feel and find the experience now without having to produce it in a way that’s outward.
What do you dream about? Do your dreams or daydreams inspire your work?
The things that happen during the day often come into my dream world. I’ve dreamt of giant horses diving into the sea. I love fantastical, lyrical dreams like that. I’ll write them down in a journal when I can remember them. I like daydreaming too; I think a lot of my creative ideas have come from daydreaming. I do a lot of dreaming when I teach as well. I can get to this space through the meditation of moving and the improvisational realms where I’m almost asleep while teaching. I feel like I’m being guided by another voice, not my own. I’ve made a sort of system for myself to fall asleep and be taken during guided improvisation. A lot of those experiences I can’t even remember so I do voice recordings. It’s similar to lucid dreaming; I feel awake, but I’m also imagining things.
I’ve listened back to some of the class recordings; sometimes they feel like mania, sometimes they feel like a lullaby. It might be more of a self-soothing thing that I do to temper something inside. Sometimes I’ll voice whole conversations from the day before during an improvisation. There’s a sense that I’m bringing other people into the room with me. In embodying someone else’s voice and then bringing it forth, I’m inviting them into the process and the room. It’s not mimicry; I hope it honors them, bringing them to life in another space.
Why do you think it’s important to study performance?
Exploring meaning is very important in studying performance. Not that everything has to take on meaning but everything has a kind of meaning. We can make meaning out of anything, and that’s what our brains do. So rather than framing it as like or dislike, we can frame it in terms of the making of meaning. How we structure that in relationship to the things we know and the things we don’t know is a healthy exercise. It helps reveal to us what we need to explore further. We have that choice to know more. I think it’s our responsibility as artists to put ourselves in the context of what’s happening and make meaning out of it.
You have shared that the space of change is most interesting to you. Does this reign true in all areas of your life?
I think philosophically or emotionally, the space of change can be very narrow. It’s hard to radically shift, but I have experienced it on occasion, where my worldview completely adjusts. I think that is more attainable through the empathetic structure of dance and movement. With it, my sense of the world and humanity expands. It’s a narrow space for most people, to be really empathetic, to truly understand and be open. But it’s something we can constantly strive for.
Dance allows for our access to empathy to be more nimble, but there are other things that do that too. The ability to travel, to have a nomadic existence, that can help. It’s an interesting space of change, similar to shape-shifting. It’s not that you are less committed; it’s that you are constantly trying on different hats.
What would you want to tell the BFA seniors before they shared this work with an audience?
I hold a lot of gratitude for this process. They’ve been very patient with me as we built out this work. I would want to leave a sense of ownership with them. Ultimately, it’s a world that they’ve built together, and I’ve been privy to it. It will continually develop as they dance it which is one of the wonderful things about performance. It’s just the beginning. We’ve gone through the process and developed all of these physical skills in the body, but they’ll learn a lot in the moment. It’s one of the special things about what we do; it lives, it just lives.
What wisdom would you want to share with a young artist today? Is there something you wish you would have been introduced to earlier on?
Look at the seams. I think that has been taught, but you will continue to learn it. It’s like any process of deepening knowledge; acquiring it takes the rigor of doing. Repetition, soaking, immersing, it leads to understanding. Look in a more infinite way at possibility; there’s not one way or blueprint of doing anything. There’s only you. There’s only the way that you react and respond. I think that helps me navigate my individualism. As much as I try, I can’t run away from who I am, and that helps me live in an easier relationship to myself. You don’t have to put more on; this is what it is. This is me. This is the way that I perceive. Not that it’s necessarily right, we just all have our individual ways of walking on the earth, and that’s okay. The goal is to understand more, to learn more, and to look closer, to look into the seams to see what opportunities can exist. There’s so much more than meets the eye.
Tickets to see our BFA at Dominican seniors perform Sidra Bell’s work on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 at 7:30pm are available at cityboxoffice.com/lines. The grand finale to their four-year college journey, the Senior Showcase brings our seniors to the beautiful YBCA stage in a celebration of artistic achievement. This one-show-only event also features the second-year students of the LINES Training Program.
LINES BFA at Dominican University of California is a technically rigorous and artistically expansive four-year program, which culminates in a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. During the program, students acquire the skills and knowledge needed for a professional dance career along with the life-long benefits of an excellent liberal arts education. LEARN MORE
Video edited by Jamie Lyons
Excerpts of choreography filmed by Andy Mogg
Banner photography of Sidra Bell by Samantha Lawton Photography