Hitting Her Stride
The Current Sessions | Alexis Convento
After the final bow of The Big Balloon on April 15, choreographer Roya Carreras, and producer Alexis Convento likely breathed a sigh of relief. After all, the performance was a major first for both of them: Carreras’s first choreography of an evening-length work, and Convento’s first production of a solo show through her presenting series “The Current Sessions,” founded in 2011.
“The Current Sessions” (TCS) had been steadily functioning as a mixed-bill series, hosting a variety of emerging and established choreographers in four shows over the course of a weekend. In recent years, Convento adjusted her methods, adding guest curators and loose themes to further refine each series. The aesthetic of her programming has been largely guided by her own conservatory training (meaning, a dance education that favors a ballet basis and classical Western aesthetics in general, with an emphasis on technical virtuosity), and is shared by TCS’ core audience. TCS performances have been, historically, a bit uneven, with fantastic work bookended by less
When Convento realized she was interested in using TCS as a platform to better unite the mostly separate worlds of performance art and contemporary dance, and began to program accordingly, she noticed that attendance at TCS performances dropped off. Her original audience wasn’t ready to make the jump into potentially more abrasive, experimental work, yet Convento wasn’t willing to reverse course on her newfound purpose.
She spent 2016 participating in a Field Leadership Fund Fellowship provided by the Field, an arts service organization, and considered the experience to be pivotal in awakening the power of her own identity. “Every person in the fellowship was a person of color, and they were all heavily rooted in their politicized selves,” Convento told me over coffee when we spoke in mid-May, shortly after Carreras’s show. “The experience helped me recognize who I need to give space to, as a curator,” she said. “I realized I didn’t know anything about my heritage. And why is that? I’m so privileged to be where I am now, but how do I honor that?” Adhering to the tastes and interests developed during her conservatory training would continue to limit her new effort to bridge different parts of the dance world. As TCS grows into Convento’s expanded vision, she plans to cultivate a more challenging space—both for herself and for her audience.
In many ways, The Big Balloon was Convento’s new curatorial direction writ large on the Wild Project stage: Carreras’s work investigated racial and cultural identity and included a booklet of poems (translated into Farsi and Spanish), plus a tightly-executed gallery installation in the Wild Project lobby, further informing the performance. It was also a smart business choice: Convento knew that Carreras’s work would appeal to the core TCS audience because of its technicality and dreamy aesthetic quality. The quintet, for three women and two men could easily have been a staple TCS production from the mixed-bill days, if not for its length. The choreography was delicate, quiet and gestural, punctuated by some traditional partnering. During a uniquely intriguing scene, one of the female dancers rolled across the stage in a chair. Her posture and face were decidedly un-prim, almost as if she were on the prowl. Generally, though, The Big Balloon was very pretty and a bit opaque, and it completely sold out two performances.
Convento had wondered how an evening-length show would fare across a weekend of performances, but, nonetheless, the first step in making changes to TCS had involved examining her tried-and-true mixed-bill format. She quickly realized it wouldn’t work for what she hoped to accomplish. The multiplicity of voices, and brief performance slots, limited choreographic exploration. An evening-length program is an opportunity for the choreographer to dig deeper—but also gives her ample time to get lost inside her own work. As with all TCS shows, Convento has a hands-on relationship with the choreographers. However, as she pointed out, with a mixed-bill, she knew ahead of time what she’d be putting onstage.
Working with Carreras was an experiment in how Convento’s politicized identity could support her curatorial decision-making. Thanks to some of the shared aspects of their identities, Convento and Carreras were able to be real with one another to a degree that Convento hadn’t attempted in her prior curation. “A lot of [Carreras’s] friends are white, and we’re the two non-white people in the group. We have this great brown sister connection,” Convento said. The two talked about Convento’s personal experiences, and she encouraged Carreras to seek out and locate similar experiences within herself. “I really tried to push Roya to tap into the duality of her heritage,” Convento said.
Convento has long been interested in dance in museum or gallery settings, and worked to bring that quality to TCS performances. As a result, she has made an effort to embrace the possibilities of the Wild Project’s lobby/gallery space, which, while cramped, offers artists a chance to do something outside of the (black) box. “I seek out artists who are comfortable working from the stage to the gallery and vice versa,” Convento said. “From the beginning, I tell artists that I’ll be giving them suggestions on how to present in the gallery.” Each time TCS presents at the Wild Project, Convento tries something new to determine what works best in the gallery. During one show, the gallery was filled with silk rose petals while two women performed a savagely physical duet amidst the crowd. Another time, a group of dancers simply paced through the space, eventually leading the audience back to the theater. “Dance stuck on the stage becomes this pretty thing you can’t touch,” she said. “My goal is to have dance in a gallery be meaningful to that space.”
For The Big Balloon, the gallery became a transitional space for audience members to focus their attention and energy on the work at hand. A stand-alone installation featured performer Fana Fraser as she carefully navigated a large wooden planter filled with dirt, while video projections and sound installations worked to invoke fractured memories, and what Convento described as a deconstruction of home. A particularly affecting video projection on the floor right outside the theater door was formatted like a rectangular welcome mat, forcing audience members to choose whether they walked over Carreras’s face in the video, or stepped around it.
For now, Convento will continue to flex her curatorial muscles with a newfound purpose and breadth of vision. Her partnerships with Kickstarter and Fourth Arts Block have brought TCS off the Wild Project stage and into new spaces. On June 3 and 4, she’ll present TCS x La Mama Moves. “Each performance is a shared bill with three artists, and it’s based around a more socio-political space,” she said. In the fall, she’ll return to the mixed-bill format at the Wild Project, but this time there will be a clear theme: Resistance. TCS is also, for the first time, inviting non-dance movers to apply, including skateboarders and martial arts practitioners. “My goal,” she says, “is for the audience to realize that choreography exists outside of dancer bodies.”
In embracing and articulating her identity, Convento has elevated the possibilities for TCS to produce meaningful work, though she has already accomplished much, just by creating TCS in the first place. In considering the arc of the organization’s growth, it’s important to remember that carving out a space in New York’s hyper-saturated performance community is a political achievement in and of itself, considering that the city’s arts administrators, in dance at least, are primarily older white people.
Convento questions aesthetic traditions and the reasons her identity has been written out of them. As she continues to champion marginalized voices within the dance community, the richness of her curatorial work will likely continue to grow. “I’m not the only one doing this, there’s a community scene of dance curators,” she says. “I’m really trying to listen to what’s around me, and I hope we’re starting to hit our stride.”
Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a performer, choreographer, writer, and curator living in Brooklyn. She's a graduate of Hampshire College and is interested in dismantling capitalism.