August 15, 2012
by Liz Auclair
Dancing to Connect teaching artists work with students in Madrid, Spain. Photo courtesy of Battery Dance Company
“Our mantra is ‘artistic excellence, social relevance.’” — Jonathan Hollander
“Completely unpredictable and uniformly fabulous”—that’s how Jonathan Hollander describes the results of Battery Dance Company‘s Dancing to Connect program. In more than 50 countries, Dancing to Connect has taught young people, most of whom have no previous dance training, how to use movement to express themselves. In just a week, Dancing to Connect teaching artists work with the students to create and perform a dance piece devised entirely from their own creativity. Recently, as part of a Mission Continues Fellowship, Roman Baca—a dancer, choreographer, and former U.S. Marine —collaborated with Battery Dance to bring Dancing to Continue to Iraq. (You can read more about Baca’s experience in our new edition of NEA Arts.)
To learn more about Dancing to Connect and Battery Dance Company’s cultural diplomacy efforts we spoke with Hollander, who founded Battery Dance Company in 1976 and leads the organization as artistic and executive director.
NEA: Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to create Battery Dance Company?
JONATHAN HOLLANDER: Like many other sort of ambitious young people who are drawn to the art of dance, I had been dancing in a company with a variety of choreographers in New York City and I realized that my passion was for choreography. I had been in a company for three years that was a collective and I had the opportunity to “try my wings” in choreography without going through the huge undertaking of starting an institution. But that collective sort of came apart at the seams; everyone went in different directions, and I realized that I wanted to continue with pursuing my craft as a choreographer. The only way to do that—that I could see at that point—was to create a company.
One of the critical factors that determined the path was that my partner, who was my wife-to-be, and I moved into a loft in the Wall Street area. At that time, New York was in a severe recession and old buildings in areas like the financial district were sort of leftover. Nobody wanted them. Soho was already over-populated with artists and had become expensive. But we found 3,000 square feet in a building on Stone Street, the first paved street in Manhattan. It was a historic district surrounded by office towers, but this low-rise, five-story building had wooden floors and exposures on four sides. It was the perfect laboratory for a dance company to take shape. And the fact that we were in an area of banking and insurance companies and law firms where there was really very little art was, I think, a key determining factor in what Battery Dance Company eventually became.
NEA: What is unique about the work of Battery Dance Company?
HOLLANDER: Our mantra is “artistic excellence, social relevance.” Those two parts of the puzzle are equal in terms of what our mission is. We want to make the arts accessible to all. In no way do we want to compromise the quality of the arts. We feel like all people deserve great art and you don’t know where you’re going to find a wonderful audience, a great student, or a budding dancer/choreographer. You can’t assume that these people know where to go to nourish their latent talent or passion. So being in an area like the financial district where there was not a single theater challenged us to figure out how [to] get our art to the people. We began performing out of doors on corporate plazas and parks and piers and attracting really large audiences—much, much larger audiences than we would have if we were in even a name-brand, small, black box theater in New York City. So we realized we can own this process—we don’t have to have anyone tell us we can do it. And I think that’s a huge key to who we are and what we became. We’ve made our own path. We haven’t accepted definitions of what a dance company can do. So you might find Battery Dance Company in a park, you might find Battery Dance Company in a public school, you might find Battery Dance Company at a main-street marquee theater, you might find Battery Dance Company in a small village in India. The variety of what we’ve been able to do has taken us to 54 countries around the world and to untold amounts of alternative spaces in New York. That’s what makes our life interesting; that’s what refreshes us constantly.
NEA: How did the idea for Dancing to Connect come about?
HOLLANDER: We’ve worked in the New York City public schools for over three decades. In addition to creating new work and pushing ourselves as artists, it’s been very important to us to nourish these relationships with young people in schools that don’t necessarily have access to the art. This propelled us to create a whole new vehicle for arts education called Dancing to Connect.
We found that wherever we go with this program the results are completely unpredictable and uniformly fabulous. It’s a program that was developed through our learning step-by-step about what works and what doesn’t work with high schools students, in terms of dance. What we found was, the longer the program, the less effective it was. We’re not talking about a dance conservatory program, we’re talking about a program that appeals to and can work with any group of participants, whether or not they’ve had any dance training before. That’s perhaps what’s so surprising or different. Obviously, we’re not going to remake dance training and say it can be done in an instant—you drop it into water and it flowers. No, no, no. But what we’ve figured out is that the art of choreography is something that very few people actually explore. Whereas visual arts, music, even theater, these are [art] forms that—as part of many young people’s educations—they get an exposure to it, they’re given the materials to work with [that discipline]. But they’re not given the materials to work with dance and choreography. So when we make those materials available, young people just grab onto it and make it their own. And that’s what this program is about. We do not bring in pre-fabricated choreography. We bring in our love for the art form, our understanding of the craft involved in building a piece of choreography. We hand over those tools to young people and in the course of 20 or 30 hours they make their own choreography. They stun us with the results.