Rachel Damon in conversation with Tess Dworman

Chicago choreographer Rachel Damon speaks with Chicago expatriate Tess Dworman about Rachel’s experience growing up in the Chicago dance community.  Rachel’s company, the Synapse Art Collective recently performed her work at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis as part of the Tandem Dance Series.

Interview Date: November 17, 2010

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Tess Dworman: Let’s start out by getting an idea of what you’re doing right now for work, creative work and combinations thereof.

Rachel Damon: What’s really amazing about the balance of my life right now is that it’s pretty much 50/50; half creative work and half work for other people. The work I do for other people is creative as well. [It’s] production work but there’s definitely a collaborative element. Synapse [Art Collective] is my creative home and I’m working on two major projects.

One is called Factor Ricochet and that’s an exploration of the embodiment of gender. It’s evolving into a dance theater work. Right now I’m in a research process with quite a few different people from different places on the gender spectrum. I’m working with a movement coach who is using her dance movement therapy knowledge to guide and facilitate. So, that’s taking up a lot of my brain space. I’m planning to premiere that in Chicago in the Fall of 2011 and I’m doing excerpts here and there because I really appreciate work-in-progress feedback, especially on a topic that is really charged and different for everyone.

Tess: And you’re still working at Links Hall now, right?

Rachel: I’m the production and stage manager at Links now. I just work on Links Hall productions. I also work for a company called eighth blackbird. They’re a contemporary music ensemble and I’m their production and stage manager and lighting director. Those are my job jobs: to prepare and travel with eighth blackbird and to prepare and manage the Links Hall shows.

Tess: Cool! So it’s all performance-centered.

Rachel: Yeah, it’s great. Day in and day out I’m planning, seeing, producing, or managing performances.

Tess: How long have you been in Chicago?

Rachel: I moved here in 2002, so just over eight years.

Tess: …and you’ve been in the dance scene since then?

Rachel: Yeah. I moved here [Chicago] to transfer to Columbia College and I was a Theater major in production but I minored in Dance. I joined Breakbone Dance Co. in 2003.

Tess: I’m wondering what your experience has been since you moved there and how it’s changed over time. I know you do a lot for the dance community. You do all of this production work and then you also perform and make work. I’m curious about what you give to the community and what it gives back to you.

Rachel: I feel like I have the life I have because I started working at Links Hall. Asimina Chremos hired me when I was still an undergrad. Just working there in the technical aspect introduced me to so many dance artists. If Asimina hadn’t sat me down and said, “Here’s what I want. I want you to draw an outline of where the wrenches should hang and fix the curtain.” I wouldn’t have this life. So I thank her and my lucky stars.

Links is such a heart for the Chicago dance community, especially for contemporary dance and the younger dance makers. I started meeting people that way, and then we would go do shows together at other venues. My relationship with Links Hall is at the core of how the dance community is for me.

But how it’s changed over time… I started out in a 80-85% production capacity. Since, then I’ve been working to balance that with my creative work and I’d love to continue to shift the balance even more towards dance and performance making. But I’d love to continue doing production as well. [whispers] And there’s no money in being a dancer. [Both laugh]

Tess: Have you noticed how the Chicago dance audience has changed since you’ve lived there?

Rachel: I can’t speak like I’ve been there from the beginning but just in the time that I’ve been engaged with Chicago dance, it’s pretty clear that there are generations. Maybe that’s true universally. I definitely felt as an undergrad at Columbia that I was watching people like Carrie Hanson [Artistic Director of The Seldoms] form her company and her aesthetic while I was taking her technique class. Being in a piece of hers as a student and now watching her work, knowing that she’s touring internationally, it lays out a trajectory for me. Whether or not she set herself up as a mentor to me specifically, just watching the ways the generation ahead of me are forming their work and work life defines that group of people for me.

Photo: Ward Thompson

As an emerging person in this community, I am also starting to see the recent grab of the Chicago programs or people who are very recently doing the residency programs that we have. I’m watching work that is obviously a generation or two apart from Carrie Hanson and Julia Rhoads [Artistic Director of Lucky Plush Productions]. The work in the generation ahead of me, well this is obvious, but there’s a maturity to it. Often times I’m really engrossed in the investment of the performers on stage because it’s clear that those dance makers are spending time talking about how much of that performer’s self is brought on to the stage.

In the younger and new folks, I see so much energy and freshness that is really inspiring. I watch them and go “Yeah, I can’t do that anymore.”

There’s quite a definition of style between graduates of different programs in the area. Columbia style against people from [University of Illinois]…really different. Clearly, each program has their own goals and aesthetics. The more dance I watch, in Chicago, the more I can say “Oh look, it’s a Northwestern dancer next to a UIUC dancer on stage.” Or “This choreographer is clearly a Columbia choreographer.”

I’m making a dance right now where there’s one dancer from Northern [Illinois University] and one from [University of Illinois] and it’s really interesting to watch them do the “same” movement that’s entirely different because of their stylistic backgrounds. Even in rehearsal, it’s really clear [which of the dancers] went through programs where [they learned] you don’t talk in a rehearsal. Then, there are ones who talk all the time and there’s this interchange.

Tess: As a somewhat new transplant myself, I’ve been thinking about how the place where I live gets into my creative work. I don’t have a way to describe how that’s happened so far, but I’m curious if you experience that too. How does your habitat make its way into your work?

Rachel: The biggest thing I would say is the pace of life here. I’ve only been to New York a couple of times but it feels vibratory to me when I’m there. It almost puts me at a low-level anxiety.

The pace of life here settles in my body. I can go downtown and that bustle is there. But really, in Chicago, I don’t have to go downtown. I don’t have to leave my six block radius. It’s really neighborhoody and that’s so kind and supportive. In a way, it makes me feel like I’m not in a huge city. I have a town within a city. I think that has a large affect on how I structure my life and therefore how much time I’m spending in the studio or how many weeks or months I determine a rehearsal process should be. Our turn-over time is a little dictated by the pace of Chicago life.

Additionally, I think the way I make dances is really affected by the athleticism of Midwesterners who grew up doing sports year-round or grew up on farms and were doing chores in the morning before school. There’s a sturdiness to the people that I work with in body and in spirit that definitely affects the dances and how we make them.

Tess: I’m more sensitive to seasons here, for some reason. I mean the actual seasons and then the dance seasons of performing. You really notice when there’s stuff going on and then when there’s nothing going on. Are the people you work with ready to go all year? What’s that seasonal change in energy like for you?

Rachel: This is where production life effects my creative life because I work on a cycle of seasons rather than the calendar year. For pretty much everybody, seasons start in September and goes through May. Nobody’s working in August and nobody wants to go outside in January. Maybe it’s effected by the school year (which is harvest-influenced anyway). The hibernation period that begins after Thanksgiving, and we don’t really emerge until February, is really awesome. It’s dark and cold for 16 hours of the day! At that point, are you really going to get yourself to ballet and then the studio? We do our shows in April, May, September, and October. There seems to be a tacit agreement. In the winter, you’re less productive. You’re supposed to hibernate.

Photo: Ward Thompson

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