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Exploring Experimental Dance of AUNTS with Its Directors

Stern Interviews Dirks-Goodman and Berg at Luluc in Cobble Hill

By Carrie Stern

My first encounter with AUNTS was recorded in a May 3, 2007, Eagle column. Jmy Leary (who at the time went by Jamm) and Rebecca Brooks, with Biba Bell and others, had started producing multi-disciplinary performance experiences in which audience and performers were equally important, where artists of many levels of experience performed alongside each other. Events had the quality of early 70s happenings.

Leary left Brooklyn returning to her home state of California in 2010. Before leaving she handed the future of AUNTS to Liliana Dirks-Goodman, a visual artist, graphic designer and architect, who maintains the web for New York Live Arts, and Laurie Berg, a jewelry designer, dancer and choreographer. Last week we chatted about how they are making AUNTS their own. Their words often tumbled over each other, two voices telling one story.

CS: How did you inherit AUNTS?

LD-G: Laurie and I met in our dorm at the University of Arizona. I left U of A but we stayed in touch. When I moved to New York City in 2006, I moved in with Laurie. I started seeing dance with her and began doing design work for her friend’s dance shows. I met AUNTS through her.

LB: I’m not sure how I got involved with AUNTS. I was new to New York and I had a work-study position at Movement Research [a producer of performances of new dance, classes and discussions], when I got an email from Rebecca Brooks asking if I wanted to help with a show. I started going to AUNTS events and was blown away by their structure, organization, how people reacted. I brought friends and they got attached too.

L D-G: At that time I was working as an architect. Architecture, as a worldview, is about envisioning space, how people interact with their environment. I didn’t like the practice of architecture, but I got into dance from that end.

CS: [Summarizing] Berg and Dirks-Goodman made themselves available for anything AUNTS needed. Dirks-Goodman designed and silk-screened posters. They collected donations at the door, worked the Free Boutique, served drinks and cleaned up.

LB: I felt committed to what they were trying to do. When Jmy asked us to take over we were hesitant at first; we’re not Jmy, they were big shoes to fill. We came to the realization it would be interesting to try and administer this thing. For the first year we kept it anonymous. We signed everything “AUNTS.” As we kept going we began putting our names on things. We don’t know how long we’ll do it, but it’s [been] three years. We’ve done it as long or longer than Jmy.

L D-G: That first year we kept asking, ‘What would Jmy do?’ We try to apply her personal rules — ‘You always say yes. It’s not a party. There are no works in progress, only work.’ We try to stick to the manifesto. It’s magical. Jmy and Rebecca set it up so everyone knows how it works. Jmy’s available to answer questions and it’s fun to hear what she thinks, but we don’t rely on her in the same way anymore, we want to figure it out, to branch out a little. We’re OK with not everything being successful. We’re realizing we’re good at some things that are different than what Jmy and Rebecca were good at. It’s ok for AUNTS to evolve with who we are. And we’re trying to figure out how to keep it fresh and alive for a new generation of dancers who need it.

CS: Describe AUNTS.

L D-G: The feedback I’ve gotten is that AUNTS is unique because it’s a safe place for people to do things you can’t do other places. We put no restrictions on performers. It’s an open space for experience and exploration, an open environment for performers to learn something. If you want to lip-synch to Madonna to see if you can, to learn about how that feels or the audience’s response — that’s what we’re about. It’s important to us that young performers who want to try things out can do that alongside someone who is experienced and is happy to use the AUNTS model to experiment, who is still glad to be thought of in this context. Hopefully the audience appreciates this openness too. We share and exchange, have a drink, do a dance, are with other people in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen everywhere.

CS: What is the relationship between established and beginning dancers at an event?

LB: We don’t have many true beginners. It’s more a mix of dancers who are at the level of performing in showcases, studio series and shared programs with established choreographers who want to experiment. And there are some great people who don’t fit into those models. We get a lot of music and video installations too. That’s different. We want to be interdisciplinary. It encourages real-time collaborations, different performances overlaying each other. It’s easier to have happenstance collaborations between a musician and a dancer or a video that someone chooses to perform in front of them than instant collaborations between two dancers, though that happens too, and that’s what we like.

CS: How do you invite performers and audience?

LB: We still pretty much use Jmy and Rebecca’s open models — chain curation starts when we invite 10 performers. They each invite someone else. People also write in asking to participate. The most important thing is that people want to perform. We wanted a lot of variety in our next event. We asked some busy people to perform but said, ‘If you can’t, do you have someone you‘d like to invite?’ That way their influence is present and maybe it’s someone we [didn’t] know.

LD-G: We use one venue where people live. Those people become involved with the process so it’s about the space too.

CS: How do AUNTS’ events differ from “Catch?” [“Catch” is another periodic series.]

LB: From what I see they have a show format — the audience watches. AUNTS is about everyone inhabiting a space and sharing an event, with no clear-cut boundaries between peoples’ work, between audience and performer, no beginning, middle and end. Performances are personal, not typical. You may be performing alongside someone whether you know it or not. It’s how you view it.

L D-G: I think our intentions might be different. It’s a tool that artists can use as opposed to a presentation.

CS: How do you fund what you do?

LD-G/LB: We go back and forth on the money and how the economy relates to what we do. We have a small grant from a private donor and we do things on the cheap. We don’t like fundraising; we have Kickstarter fatigue. Instead we throw a party and sell homemade beer; we get donations for the beer. It feels better to have a party than to ask for money in other ways. You need time, space, food and shelter to be an artist, and I think you can say you need money to get those things. But there are alternative methods. So, if you realize that your number one goal is to make artwork, there are a lot of ways to do that, and it’s not always about getting paid. AUNTS provides a means of getting those things — you get time and space through performing at an event, and food, drink and new clothes from the Free Boutique and Bar. You won’t get everything you dreamed in life, but it’s a supplement.

CS: What’s new for AUNTS?

L D-G: It’s hard to give AUNTS the attention it needs when you’re focused on other things, your own projects. Last year I reached a point where I wasn’t interested in continuing AUNTS if we were always going to do the same types of events.

LB: We had an opportunity to run an AUNTS event on a boat, Clipper City, in New York Harbor. In November we went to Berlin to try doing an AUNTS event outside NYC. It’s not the first time AUNTS has left town, but for us it was. It was fun, interesting and difficult. It taught us what info we took for granted and what we need to disseminate. Try ordering sound equipment in German. We learned so much interacting with artists in Berlin and seeing how they perform and respond. Now we want to do an exchange with Philly, two events, two chances in different spaces to play and interact.  

L D-G/LB: We’re not Jmy, but we do our own thing.

 AUNTS “thunderdome” can be seen in Brooklyn on March 3 at 8 p.m., at the Secret Works Loft, 59 Jefferson St. #301. Admission is by a contribution to the Free Bar or Boutique. More information can be found at www.auntsisdance.com.

February 27, 2012 - 11:47am


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