Dance In Conversation
Melanie George & Ali Rosas-Salas with Thomas Ford
“When Ali brings someone to the table who maybe I haven’t even thought of, we’re not doing them a favor … I reject that, and I refuse to bring that into my curatorial practice. We’re lucky to have them.”
This past September, Jacob’s Pillow announced that it would expand its curatorial team, adding two women of color—dramaturg and scholar Melanie George and live-performance curator Ali Rosa-Salas—to a powerful entity within the organization. The decision would reflect a larger issue within the dance world: gatekeeping positions are often held by those who uphold a dance culture that values white, Western art forms. But George and Rosa-Salas are deeply invested in pushing against those norms.
Instead, the two, with a team, have pulled from their vast experience in dance and performance to curate a festival line-up, among other projects for the Pillow, that platforms BIPOC dance artists, from the overlooked to the up-and-coming. Rejecting tokenism, they’ve managed to fully insert their personal ethics—and aesthetics—in and throughout this season’s programming. Over Zoom, we spoke about the upcoming season, their responsibility to the larger dance community in these positions, and what the future of curatorial practices—with an eye toward equity and inclusion—might look like.
Thomas Ford (Rail): You’re asked to be curators at Jacob’s Pillow; you accept the position—and then what? Where do you even begin?
Melanie George: Well, you have to remember: Before we came into the picture, curatorial decisions were Pam Tatge’s decisions, and before Pam, they were Ella Baff’s decisions. So, the first step was just learning, what does any of this mean? What is a “Pillow” artist, and how do the things that we’re drawn to fit with that vision? What are our social justice responsibilities in relation to this season? Because part of us even having these roles is pointing back to the very public statements that the organization made following George Floyd’s death. That said, I know these types of conversations were happening prior to his death. But I think pushing that vision forward, and the publicness of that work, is related to equity, inclusion, justice, and diversity.
Rail: Right. I imagined, because of where our nation is today—politically and socially, all those things would have an impact on the work you do. What does the actual process of considering, or emphasizing, those things in your curatorial practice look like?
George: We meet every week—and it’s just conversations, conversations, conversations.
Ali and I are associate curators at Jacob’s Pillow. Many people think that means we’re the associate curators for only the Festival—but we’re curating every public presentation. That includes the labs; that includes virtual commissions. We’re involved in all of that with this collective of people who are meeting every week. So, to answer your question: a group of us meets, discusses, makes lists, revises those lists, revises again—and we go through that process again and again and again.
Rail: It sounds like a rewarding yet difficult task.
George: There are a lot of moving parts. The Pillow had commitments, and continues to have commitments, to artists pre-pandemic. So how do those things fit in, now? What’s going to be ready to go? Then, we lost a whole theater, which changed everything, because we had already started curating a version of the festival, thinking the Duke Theater would still be around. And then, that email came in at, like, seven o’clock in the morning one day informing us the building burnt down?
Ali Rosa-Salas: I can’t even really believe that happened.
George: That was wild! And there were also some projects in the works that really needed lights … and tech … and other things that you cannot do on an outdoor stage. And so, those things got pushed to a later season, for pure pragmatic reasons. But aside from those technical concerns, it’s really about revision, revision, revision.
Rosa-Salas: So much of the curatorial practice that fuels the work is just this—I don’t know if imposter syndrome is the right term—but feeling like you don’t know everything you need to know. And as I get older, I realize we’re always hopefully learning. This experience has been a really great reminder of the ways in which curatorial practice is not about personifying an expertise, but, instead, being really passionate and clear about what it is you do really care about, and also being open, excited to learn about things you don’t.
George: I just want to add, specifically, how much I love working with this woman.
Rosa-Salas: Thanks! [Laughter]
George: How brilliant she is and how she is consistently, constantly realigning, refocusing, rethinking preconceived ideas I had walking into every curatorial meeting. And it makes me think about where my biases are, or what’s the stuff that I’m defaulting to. She’ll throw in something that I’d never thought of. It has just been a complete honor to go on this journey with Ali. Because, there’s an age difference between the two of us, right? Which doesn’t present itself at all in meetings, but I want to name that, because I feel like I’m learning from her in every single meeting. And, a lot of times, when you’re in work environments where there are those age gaps, the space isn’t always made for that reciprocal learning—and it’s regularly happening for me. And I’m just super grateful for it.
Rosa-Salas: Now you’ve opened the door to a love fest [laughter]. It’s been such an honor.
We have a lot of affinities, like the kind of art and art-making practices and histories that mean a lot to us, both personally and professionally. But there are so many aspects of learning from Melanie that I’ve been—not surprised by, but just, you know, things I hadn’t considered, from how you think about curatorial practice through a dramaturgy lens to having the perspective of an artist: a person who’s been in a position to create and has that embodied experience that I think is totally invaluable. And then, of course, there’s your work as a scholar. I think that brings such an important perspective into our work, and how we come to have similar curatorial values.
Rail: The operative word from both of you so far has been “learning.” What have you learned about yourself in this process?
George: What I’m learning is how I define curation for myself, as opposed to feeling like my philosophical underpinnings have to reflect how someone else might do the job. When I’m asked what I bring to curation, one of the things I always say first is I think I’m really good with artist relations, because that’s really what dramaturgy is. I approach the curatorial process very much the way I approached dramaturgy. And one of the beautiful gifts that gave me was letting go of “liking” things. I’m invested in the artists as opposed to the lifespan of an individual project.
Allow me to go on a tangent for a minute: It came out in some article that Jeremy O. Harris was getting all this HBO money. And as part of getting that money, he had it written in his contract that he was allowed to develop two projects: one for someone new and one for someone who maybe had support in the beginning of their career, but has been overlooked since, or hadn’t had the support after that first big break. And that just got my brain going, because that is so common—you get that first big push and then you do the next couple of projects, and the critics don’t respond the way you need them to or you don’t have the right relationship with a certain presenter. And then your work just falls off because the field has decided to no longer support you. So, I’m really thinking about, what does it mean to ethically support artists to be able to have careers as opposed to supporting specific projects? What does it mean to support artists?
I’m not saying I don’t still have things that I love, that really turn me on, that are exciting. But, at the end of the day, there are choreographers who have long careers whose individual works I’m not really attached to, but I’m fascinated by their journey. Or maybe I’m not even aware of the names of an artist’s individual works, but I’m aware of what their perspective is. I’m learning to identify my values in relationship to aesthetics and ethics—because those things are not the same.
Rosa-Salas: Yes. I work from a very interdisciplinary place. So, having the opportunity to work at the Pillow, and think about, how does my practice relate to an institution that was founded on the presentation and preservation of dance with a capital D? For most of my career, I’ve been curious about what that means—who defines what dance is, just on a very basic level. In that question, there’s so much to unpack. Having the opportunity to be part of a curatorial vision of a festival that champions movement-based performance was a really exciting opportunity for me to be able to actively consider what dance means to me. What does movement mean? What does it look like? What moves me? I love what Melanie said—that you can advocate for something but not necessarily love it. Advocacy doesn’t equate to, “This is my favorite piece ever.”
I work in New York City, and I think a lot of the movement forms I have been interested in have some sort of lifecycle in this place or have been informed by the communities I’ve met living here. So, it’s been such an exciting journey to think about how I transpose that interest that I have as a curator, particularly on this rural campus. Working in a rural context has been an exciting opportunity for me to question my own aesthetic perspective.
Rail: As an organization, the Pillow has chosen to exclusively amplify the work of BIPOC dance artists at this year’s festival. What do you hope that accomplishes, in a real, tangible, forward-looking way? You know, it’s easy to do performative things in the name of social movements. But what will this work accomplish?
George: Visibility and sustainability. For me, it’s about platforming artists who are on the level of artists that the Pillow was already presenting but haven’t been at the Pillow; platforming artists who are on the come up and need someone like me or Ali to advocate for them; and platforming artists who should have been there a while ago—like Dallas Black Dance Theatre.
Rail: Yes! I was really excited to see them on the program.
George: The visibility of a platform like the Pillow will hopefully help lay a foundation over time. And that goes for Brother(hood) Dance! too, who’s doing a shorter project for us in collaboration with some other folks to, sort of, inaugurate our garden. That goes for Dallas Black, LaTasha Barnes, Marjani Forté-Saunders. It’s all part of the same agenda for me. You know, I’m fully aware that a major reason I have this position is because I’m a Black woman. And with that comes a responsibility that I willingly and happily accept to platform these artists. It’s also about getting people work after a year that gutted the financial foundations of many institutions.
Rosa-Salas: I want to be clear that I don’t think that an institution like the Pillow validates these artists—and I think Melanie would agree. This institution doesn’t validate the historical, cultural, artistic significance of the artists we’re platforming. If anything, you know, the Pillow’s just catching up. And the Pillow is not singular in this; the entire dance world is reckoning with this. The Pillow is envisioning what it wants to become and is doing that work very actively and intentionally.
George: That reminds me: In the fall, Ali began a discussion around what it means to be “established.” How are we defining that word? What does it mean for an artist to be established in their career, as opposed to the perception of the institution? Or what does “longevity” mean? And that speaks to this whole idea of platforming, as opposed to a word like “validating,” right? You know, Archie Burnett—we’re not validating Archie Burnett. Archie has been validated.
Rosa-Salas: Exactly. I always say, “I’m not on the City Council, but I do think that a facet of curatorial work is thinking about how the work can serve the public good.” And when I say the “public good,” I mean: how are we thinking about equity in terms of how we are contributing to repairing centuries of damage that has been done?
George: When I was in academia—I taught in academia for 13 years—one of the narratives that I kept running up against, that is pervasive with Black and brown and Asian and indigenous folks in academia, is some version of this refrain of, “Oh, you’re so lucky to be here.” And for me, I was always like, “No, you’re lucky to have me. This is reciprocal.” And that’s also how I’m thinking about this curatorial thing.
When Ali brings someone to the table who maybe I haven’t even thought of, we’re not doing them a favor.
George: We’re lucky to have them. And in the same way, I think they’re happy to have the work. But we cannot approach this thing from a place of benevolence. That is such a settler-colonizer mindset—as if we’re doing people a favor. No, no. I reject that, and I refuse to bring that into my curatorial practice. And I refuse to relate to any of the artists that I’m engaging with in that way. It’s gross.
Rail: I think that’s a beautiful and necessary approach to the work. With that in mind, what are you excited about as you look forward in your curatorial practice?
George: I feel like we need to get through the summer [laughter].
Rosa-Salas: Great answer!
George: It’s an experiment. And while I have nothing but strong belief that everything’s going to go off as planned, I’m also doing double duties as a scholar-in-residence. So, I’m doing a lot over the next two months, and part of me can’t even look forward.
Rosa-Salas: I’m super excited to see what lands and what needs to be reconsidered in this summer’s festival. And in the context of this globally unprecedented time, I’m interested in how that’ll shift our priorities, and what we’ll continue to learn about ourselves.