Interview: Sidra Bell
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Q: What has your professional dance journey been like, and what is the most recent show you were working on?

I started dancing when I was seven and a half at the Dance Theater of Harlem. I was in their pre-professional and professional programs for eight years. I studied ballet and tap. It was a very vigorous program after school and on the weekends. I went to Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in the summers. When I was 15, I went to The Ailey School on fellowship. I was in their pre-professional and professional programs. Then, I went to Yale University for my BA in History. Dance became extra-curricular. I was part of a student company, YaleDancers; I founded Alliance for Dance at Yale College. After Yale, I went back to Ailey. I wanted to re-enter professional practice. I immersed myself in NYC again and then I created Sidra Bell Dance New York (SBDNY, Inc.). I started self-producing, creating a company structure in Harlem. A few years after I was in NYC, I went back to SUNY Purchase to get my MFA in choreography. I was also studying pedagogy, professional practice, and choreographic technique. I kept the company going—it was a couple years of building. Out of SUNY, I started to mount evening-length shows. I created over 100 new works across the world for my company and for other companies and institutions. For SBDNY, Inc. I created 11 full-length evening shows. The company is very active now. This past year, we had an evening-length fall season of repertoire works and a winter season that was a split bill with a visiting company from Pittsburgh. We were recently in collaboration with a Slovenian director Karmina Šilec. We were set to present a new piece, but the pandemic cancelled that in March. Additionally, this year I created works for Whim W’Him Contemporary Dance in Seattle, Marymount Manhattan College, Tisch School of the Arts, Skidmore College, Ball State University, and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts in Dallas. I also have a platform called “MODULE.” It’s an improvisation laboratory that encourages research-based work. We had our tenth laboratory this past winter.

Q: Who are the mentors or important people in your life that have shaped the way you dance and or think about the arts?

My parents—who are artists and musicians—have been very influential. They are still teaching music, and are producers and recording artists. It was such a fruitful upbringing. They have always been extremely supportive as artistic consultants. I’ve also worked with many teachers in my training. Kevin Wynn from the Ailey School and SUNY Purchase; I was able to get a lot of information from him. He’s been super influential in my life. I always call to check in with him. Additionally, Alexandra Wells, a [former] master teacher at the Juilliard School. She’s now the artistic director of Springboard Danse Montréal and Hubbard Street Professional Project. Springboard is an immersion program I did with her for three summers. She always offered me opportunities for work and to meet directors. I also worked for Springboard as an artistic consultant and two other movement programs she founded -  The Movement Invention Project and SpringboardX. I also have a lot of memories from working under Denise Jefferson, the head of the Ailey School and the mother of Francesca Harper. (She passed away.) She founded the Ailey BFA Program and she was a model of resilience, leadership and forward thinking. That is what I strive to be. She was a leader in the field. She gave me one of my first commissions at the The Ailey School when I came out of my MFA program. I really appreciated her support and love. 

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre-professional or professional dance career?
(Adversity as a minority artist…)

As artists, I think we are shape-shifters. We constantly have to be adaptive to our resources and the community around us. I always try to reinvent the way I am connected to the world. I am always trying to find platforms that support my mission. My mission is performance, community, and education. I am always trying to find a way to integrate them all. As artists we are equipped to be confronted with challenges because we are constantly adapting. 

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how? and/or Have you used your art form to make a difference?

I think it is, inherently. Because, in my experience, dance has always been about agency, community and gathering. It naturally lends itself to embracing ideas around inclusivity and new ideas. It’s about embracing modalities that are non-traditional, so change is something inherent in the practice of dance. In my experience, dance is always underneath social change. When you look at how community moves and populations gather, if we go back in history, change has included protests. Singing, dance and song have always been a part of protest.

Q: What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist and a person?

It’s always been about teamwork for me, about bringing people together to create work. It’s never just been a product of me. It’s a product of many people with the same intention and drive. It’s so inspiring to see the collaboration. Thinking about the teams I direct and who I support helps me get up every day: the artists in the company, how they dedicate their lives to the work and strive for excellence. When I feel challenged I say to myself, “It’s not just about me.” Knowing you affect so many people by the choices you make moves us forward.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as an artist?

First, I feel very lucky to have the support that I have. I know so many people are struggling—those that don’t have resources or homes. I am lucky. I have a home and a healthy family. I have an aunt in the hospital right now who is fighting this virus. It’s been a hard couple of days because it isolates people. Usually you are able to visit your family, but because of the isolation, we must deal with these things in a remote way. My whole family feels lucky we are connected. We’re thankful for that every day. I have had a lot of work cancellations. The tour to Slovenia was cancelled, for example. I try to remind myself that it’s not about me. It’s about public health. My university teaching has gone online. The Marymount rehearsal process will happen online. Thank god we live in the age of information. I have been trying to be in a space of gratitude because I am one of the luckier ones. I have work that continues while the company is on a hiatus right now. But we will be able to come back and have another season. I pray for those who are sick. I’m grateful to those who have to work and be on the frontlines. The emergency personnel who are always there for us remind me how connected we are with everything in our community. We’ve had a lot of cancellations, uncertainty and income loss. The uncertainty is hard. What will the field look like, what platform will emerge? As teachers and dancers we have a lot of questions. It’s been nice to see people navigate in inventive ways. I’m busy—I have classes throughout the week on Zoom and Google. I have reading and assignment work. I devise assignments the students can work on between our movement sessions. It’s been interesting and scary. But we’re always moving forward. 

Q: How do you think we can continue to create and share art during this time?

I think it’s fantastic that everything is online. I’ve taken more classes this week than usual. It’s been fun to see all these technique classes. I’ve been taking class with someone from the University of Colorado, a friend of mine. Without this situation, I’d never have had time for it. It’s been nice to see all these opportunities at affordable rates. I think that may be a change for the better. Dance training should be more inclusive and less exclusive. A lot has to be considered because being together is a part of training, but we can also develop pedagogies in the online space. I’ve been calling people again. You have your colleagues you are always in touch with, but I think people are a bit more tuned in. I’ve seen a movement towards compassion and simplicity. People I haven’t heard from in a long time. I think we live in a rat race as art makers. Sometimes it’s hard to get that sense of grounding. We don’t know how long we will be in this and we are not doing it for ourselves. It’s for the people in our lives that can be affected by this both in terms of health and economics. We’re staying home so we can care for our community and those who may be affected in real ways by this virus. It’s a time of learning but we will come out of it stronger as a community of art makers.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?

It’s been great to see emergency funding platforms and resources for dancers. One thing I’m hoping is that there is now a sense of how hard it is to be an artist. I hope that we make more moves towards sustainability. I hope that we don’t rest in this but that there’s more action towards creating equity and fairness in terms of the people that work in the field. I can still work as part of the University. But for performers, what do they do? How do they manage if they are independent contractors? I think the job instability that has always been a question is now in our faces. How do we create a more ethical culture for us to work in? Even in schools. What do seniors in college think now that they are considering going into the field in such turbulent times? I think we need to create a field that has a sustainable structure. This is a very telling time because the rug was pulled out from under us. The ugly seams are being revealed. As a director, maker, and producer, the seams always felt fragile. And now we are seeing the seams. They are not all pretty. How do we make things more viable?

Q: Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society? If so, how?

I’m hopeful. I can only speak from my position. I think it’s important to remember that we’re a small part of the universe. I think it’s a good time to remind ourselves how small we are in the fabric, to be grateful for those who make our life easy, for those who work for our safety. A lot of the time I forget how easy my life is. Maybe that’s the product of vanity. I’d like to see that change in myself. I’d like to change my self-centeredness. I try to be socially aware but it’s easy to get wrapped up in our own world. We need to shift the narcissism and look at the larger picture. We need to see what we can do to be better citizens. I was in NYC during 9/11. I was at the barre at Ailey when it happened. It was a marker in my life, the sort every generation has where the bottom drops out. And you learn a lot. You learn how to connect with things bigger than ourselves. In terms of my adult life, my whole consciousness shifted after 9/11. This is like part two for me. You never think this will happen, but it did.

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