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The Buzz, 2-6: To Boldly Go
Uprichard on Russell; Pilobolus, Jones on Jacobs; Monte's Mind Meld; the Big Picture

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

Asked to comment on Mark Russell's imminent departure as executive and artistic director of downtown neighbor PS 122, Laurie Uprichard, executive director of Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, writes:

"This is not a new story, neither for Mark in particular nor for the not-for-profit world in general. It seems to be very difficult for boards to value and understand the strengths of their executive directors and complement their weaknesses in effective and affirming ways. I know that when I returned from France in the summer of '02, Mark had been trying to address/improve the administrative structure of PS and he and the board could not reach an agreement on what that should be. I have a very good friend in a health care organization who is currently in a horrible situation -- the board president is trying to undermine her completely.

"The other issue that is always difficult to resolve is what they (the pundits) call "founder syndrome." I tend to sympathize with the folks who put in blood, sweat and tears with little recompense. But there's another side that says, times change, organizations grow, and people with different skill sets are needed to run them. The Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation has been doing a lot of research on succession (see www.artsalliance.org) that lays this out in a very cogent way....

"I really don't know the exact details of Mark's departure but just heard that FEVA, the Federation of East Village Artists, is going to honor him at its spring gala. His 20 years of brilliant programming and tireless commitment to artists should indeed be celebrated. However, the artists need PS to continue as well so, hopefully, it can be somehow resolved for everyone...."

In light of Paul Taylor's decision to fire Ellen Jacobs after 23 years EXTREMELY loyal service as his publicist, The Buzz asked two other longtime clients, Pilobolus Dance Theater and Bill T. Jones, to share their opinions of Jacobs. Robby Barnett, co-artistic director of Pilobolus, writes:

"Ellen is a personal as well as a professional friend, so I'm doubly sorry to hear about this. PDT's relationship with Ellen goes back to our first Joyce season in 1984, so we, too, have had a long relationship. Ellen is a very smart and thoughtful person and she's done a terrific job for Pilobolus during our 16 seasons at the Joyce. She also has a great sense of humor, which, in this company, means a lot. It has also been our pleasure to have this first-rate professional interaction grow into a genuine friendship, and we in Pilobolus can testify that Ellen possesses warmth and kindness and generosity in equal measure with her professional acumen."

Bill T. Jones, artistic director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (performing tonight at BAM), adds:

"Ellen Jacobs has been a wonderful and passionate advocate for the dance world in general and for my company as well. It has been my pleasure to collaborate with her for some 20 years."

Let's look at that statement again, because it bears on a troubling bigger picture here. (As usual, Jones says a lot in a few words.)

If you've been reading the DI for the past year, you know that seven employees of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters were callously fired last March by executive director Sandra Gibson; you know that APAP's current management has responded to the DI's coverage of this by threatening legal action and by banning the DI from the recent APAP Members' (note that apostrophe, dance insider) conference, notwithstanding the APAP web site's extolling of the free exchange of ideas (just not ideas that bother us, thank you!); and you know that this column urged APAP members to speak up about the firings at the conference, and award recipient Tim Miller to use the bully pulpit of his keynote speech for the same purpose.

Well: Miller, who relied on arts infrastructure workers to protest when his public funds were threatened, and who beats his breast to those on his e-mail list about the threatened expulsion of his non-citizen partner from the States, could not be bothered to defend these lowly art workers. Sure, he ranted (I'm told -- remember, we were banned) about Russell's departure from PS, but where's the risk there, Tim? Does being fearless merely mean being weird in public to audiences who expect it, or does it involve taking an action that involves real consequences?

Speaking of Russell, a while ago, in response to a request for comment from members of the DI e-mail list, I heard from a choreographer who supported Russell, but asked that I not use his name in any article because he hoped to get programmed by PS next year. On outraged impulse, I forwarded the e-mail to the entire list, including the correspondent's name. Some dance insiders, notably artist Dan Froot and presenter Bill Bragin, objected to this. Why had I explicitly done what the writer asked me not to do? I responded, in part, that the usual procedure is for the source to ask first if he or she can speak off the record or not for attribution -- thus giving the reporter the choice whether to accept the conditions; this writer had not done that. Additionally, his request was that I not publish his name in an "article," and I had not done so. Bragin suggested, with some merit, that this was "parsing" the issue. But my third reason, which I think is a good one for my impulsive reaction, was that it was Russell's unique gift of taking risks that got this choreographer onto the PS 122 stage in the first place, and I thought it was, to say the least, ungrateful that he was unwilling to publicly stand by Russell if it meant the least risk to his career.

Bill prefaced his objection by saying he appreciated this column's defense of dancers. But you know -- we in the arts infrastructure have rights too. All of these workers -- the fired APAP employees, Mark Russell, and Ellen Jacobs -- have devoted their tireless energy to the arts, beyond what their paychecks justify. As Jones said of Jacobs, their devotion has extended beyond their immediate clients to a conscience and a vision for the field as well. Yes, we have the return of being able to work among wonderful artists; but, unlike the artists, we don't have the return of the glory onstage. We do what we do so that you can do what you do. In this context, I don't think it's too much to ask that artists look beyond the interests of their own immediate careers and regard the big picture, as arts workers like those APAP employees, Russell, and Jacobs have always done.

Now then: Bragin also noted, "I don't know if it's fair for you to pull (Russell) deeper into the fight against his wishes."

As noted by the Village Voice's Alissa Solomon, Russell -- who officially has "resigned" -- is prevented by his severance deal from discussing the terms of his departure. As well, the PS board has not exactly adopted a neutral posture, with board chair Don Guarnieri telling the Voice that Russell has "accomplished everything he was going to accomplish at PS 122. It is time to move on" (can a programming gestalt driven by risk-taking have an expiration date?) and that the venue needs a director with a "philosophy for the digital age." Even were Russell himself to write me and say "enough already," there's frankly more at stake here than one person's fate. Russell's departure, on the heels of those of Dance Theater Workshop directors David White and, soon, Craig Peterson, plus that of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Liz Thompson, significantly depletes the roster of downtown leaders. And at PS, the board has done little to indicate how it will fill the gap at that theater. PS 122 can't even be bothered to provide a CV for its outspoken board chair (we've asked), on whom -- notwithstanding his enthusiasm for "the digital age" -- there is little information available on the 'Net either.

....Ah, if only Spock were around -- maybe he could do a mind meld with Guarnieri to intuit exactly what he means by "digital age." But wait! Spock -- well, Leonard Nimoy, who played him on Star Trek, anyway -- is around, dance insider! And he is mind-melding -- with Elisa Monte, whose company opens its Joyce season Tuesday with "Shekhina," a collaboration between choreographer Monte and photographer Nimoy.

"Shekhina" is also the title of Nimoy's first book of photography, which takes its inspiration from the concept of the female manifestation of G-d in the Jewish Kabbalah.

"Nimoy's photos depict feminine aspects of existence," Monte told the DI. "I felt very drawn to investigate the female energies and that focus of existence after seeing the photos. It is a subject that needs to be looked at and better understood. Are we moving into a time were these aspects are becoming more important and having more influence? The photos are a glorious vision of our feminine aspect of existence, and one I would hope to bring to movement. They look at the female in the mystical sense. In Proverbs I've found particularly inspiring words: 'Happy is the one who finds wisdom (Shekhina) and the one who gets understanding.... Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasure, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her, and happy are those who hold her fast.'"

Says Nimoy of working with Elisa Monte Dance: "They're a very distinguished and eclectic company. They will make an interesting, universal statement about the concept of a feminine divinity. I'm looking forward to seeing their interpretation."

To find out how you can see it, too, trek on over to the Joyce web site why don'tchya, dance insider? And to see some of Nimoy's breathtaking photos, you can boldly go to his web site.

Oh, I can't resist: Live long and prosper, dance insider.



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