Independence/Movement: extended interview with Oakland’s SALTA dance collective

Pub date July 9, 2013
WriterRobert Avila
SectionPixel Vision

Note: this is an extended version of an article in this week’s Guardian.

The crowd outside the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Oakland was hopping. Fidgeting, really. Almost imperceptibly at first, while above it a bulging moon hung in the temperate June sky, just itching to go super as it would the following night. But soon enough bodies were bouncing and flailing, until finally the scrum of dancers packed shoulder-to-front-to-back on the sidewalk morphed their collective way through the front door.

We followed the dancers (choreographed by Abby Crain) inside, swept along by their momentum, and were deposited around the perimeter of the main reading room like dust mice by a strong breeze. On that same floor, a few hours later, choreographer Ronja Ver would be sending her supine audience into dreamland with a couple of Finnish lullabies. Before that, a bowl of liquid nitrogen would send a delicate fog creeping over its wooden surface as the spectators (temporarily wrapped in reflective emergency blankets) braced themselves for a performance by Daniel Stadulis that was part science experiment, part detailed meditation on the fragility of the body.

Much else went on during the event’s roughly four hours, which ended with a dance party. No one stayed put the whole time. Some wandered off to the back rooms to the free bar, or to partake in the desultory clothing swap at the free boutique (both the bar and boutique are voluntarily stocked by the guests). Upstairs, meanwhile, the ebb and flow offered other attractions — a mother and daughter did a duet; a young writer read her first novel aloud for the first time, offering each completed page to anyone who paused to listen…

June 22 marked one year’s worth of PPP, the monthly performance series instigated by Oakland-based dance collective SALTA. As much a scene as a performance platform, PPP has been building a platform for serious, unbridled experimentation in a low-key setting where failure is as valid as success, and no one ever encounters a price tag, a door charge, or a gate keeper.

As an attribute of its headlong dive into experimentation and openness, PPP never sits still but moves restlessly and freely from one donated space to another. Among these have been the Foundry, The Vulcan, The Public School, Subterranean Arthouse, Sri Louise’s Underground Yoga Parlour, private homes, Ellen Webb’s studio, and Zach Houston’s poemstore gallery (site of the inaugural PPP in June 2012). With each space come new networks as well as a growing number of PPP diehards.

Providing room for experimentation and cross-fertilization among artists — from the well known to the unknown, and as disparate as Tere O’Connor (interviewed by Monique Jenkinson), Jmy James Kidd, Peter Max Lawrence, Miriam Wolodorski, Keith Hennessy, Ethan Cowan, Laura Arrington, and Philip Huang, among many others — PPP has also been building a unique audience for contemporary dance/performance, while inspiring dialogue about the nature of art-making in the Bay Area.

The anniversary installment of PPP marked the beginning of a summer hiatus for the series, so that the collective can focus on advancing other projects — all geared to creating space, in the widest sense, for dance in Oakland.

SALTA is very much the restive and searching reflection of its monthly series. What began as necessity — a space for dance — has been embraced as ethic. Not that the two were entirely strangers to begin with. As suggested by the conversation below with the seven women who currently make up SALTA, the realities of dance today imply, more than ever, a confrontation with the values of the dominant culture.

Note: the dancers preferred to speak as members of the collective rather than use their individual names.

SF Bay Guardian Did PPP come first, or SALTA, and what’s the relationship?

SALTA It’s funny, we were just talking about this earlier — it’s so confusing!

SALTA I guess we, as a collective, came first.

SALTA And we named that SALTA.

SALTA But the name SALTA didn’t come until after we had the name PPP.

SALTA We all came together in the idea of making space for dance. We were talking a lot about having an actual space and, in the meantime, [we said] let’s do a performance series. So that came second, and then it eclipsed a lot of what we’d been doing. We’re actually going to take a break over the summer and focus on some other stuff.

SALTA We want to have classes. We would really like a dance publication. We want to work on networking. We’ve had some out of town people, but just because the West Coast can be very isolating. So that’s one of our goals, we’d really like to figure out some way to connect.

SFBG What’s the most urgent or exciting project you’re discussing now?

SALTA I think building a floor.

SALTA And also exploring what it might look like to do a pop-up for one or two months. That would then allow us to do classes and hold performance.

SALTA Yeah, I think classes and workshops and stuff. Not only us — we have a lot of things we’re interested in exploring in teaching — but also, again, people we might invite in from out of town who could come do a workshop and perform. So that kind of thing.

SALTA In that vein of dialogue, it’s important to mention that a lot of our work is multi-generational in curation. We try to reach out to people who have paved pathways for us. And we’ve been a little brazen about cold-emailing, cold-calling people who are in town, like Jeremy Wade.

SFBG I saw his performance at CounterPULSE at that time; really great. What did he do at PPP?

SALTA He tried something new!

SALTA Yeah, he took advantage.

SALTA He did a kind of magic act. He had a crazy magician’s outfit on. Yeah, it was pretty awesome.

SALTA But even he, who is touring at that time with specific ideas, still adhered to this idea of coming and experimenting with us.

SALTA That’s something we’re trying to work more. Inviting people, colleagues, or people whose work we’re interested in that we don’t actually know, from other places but also from the Bay Area. I think last month was a pretty harmonious example of that because we had Ellen Webb. She runs a space for so long and had a company in the ’80s. We didn’t really know her work. We use her space all the time — we’ve actually used it for PPP as well. So we had her come and just share. She showed some video of an amazing piece she did with a hundred dancers on Mandela Parkway, right after the [1989] earthquake. She was there, and then Keith [Hennessy] was there — who’s kind of the next [generation] — and then Jmy [Leary, a.k.a. James Kidd] from LA, who is just a little bit older than us.

SFBG How did you start working together?

SALTA We’re all based in Oakland, and we wanted to have a space for dance to happen here — there are not a lot of venues that are really open for experimental work. That was the big thing: we’re sick of going to San Francisco all the time, and we want to figure out what the community is in Oakland and see what we can build. Something that’s been really cool from the beginning is that a lot of non-dancers come to PPP, a lot of Oakland people who hear about it from different arenas.

SALTA We were also not interested in institutionalizing art, in the way that it’s done. Also, financially, making it a free event — no one is paid, free boutique, free bar  —that was really important to us as artists and the way we want to make art. Not having to play this whole [who do you know] game. It was modeled, or got a lot of guidance from Jmy in LA, who started [dance organizers/activists] AUNTS in New York. That’s been a model that we’ve been in dialogue with.

SALTA She’s a mentor of ours, and a benefactor actually, through the Yellow House fund. So we’ve been working with her. We originally wanted to create a space here in Oakland similar to Pieter Pasd in LA, but the realities of being who we are as artists and where we are in our lives, as transient people, we thought we’d keep the space moving. We figured out that that worked over the past year. We actually made a list before you got here of all the [12] spaces we’ve been in, here in Oakland.

SFBG I like this ethic of moving around, of asking for a free space each time. It seems a good thing to encourage, and it really pushes back against the spirit of the times.

SALTA It’s interesting who has said no, at the proposal, and who has been really willing to donate space and time and their art.

SALTA I feel as we continue to exist and assert ourselves into spaces, it opens up more. We have to find a space, and ask for a free space, because as dancers we don’t have the resources to be renting all the time. So where there’s this huge scene of First Friday or whatever — “art’s happening all the time in Oakland” — we’re not a part of that. It would be interesting at some point. Well, we WILL be a part of that. [Laughter.] But what does that mean? And how much more legit, in a certain sense, do we have to become?

SFBG How did your thinking about a physical space evolve into this broader idea of creating space for dance?

SALTA I live between here and LA. And when I’m in LA I spent a lot of time at Pieter, and I kept asking Jmy questions about how she runs it and how the funding worked. About a year and half ago she asked me to have coffee with her and said, ‘It seems like you really just want to run a space.’ So that planted the seed. I’d danced with some of the people here, so I just brought up the conversation, “Should we start something?” And Ethan [a founding member not currently with SALTA] used to live in New York and we would go to AUNTS events. I think Ethan had an idea to start an event series. So we thought, let’s start an events series and hopefully that will snowball into something bigger.

SALTA Into an actual space.

SALTA Before we even talked about having a performance series, it was very much, “We want a space in Oakland that is about dance/experimental performance.” But, soon we found out: that’s hard!

SALTA I think, too, we like going to different spaces, and we like how that pulls in different people. [We realized] we want to actually make space, however that can happen. One of our ideas — there have been these pop-up spaces; different people have gotten subsidies from the city and empty buildings. We want to see if we can do that kind of thing. Build a moveable floor. So, yeah, it’s just kind of expanded.

SALTA I think too there’s something about the impermanence about it that’s special and that we like. So instead of focusing on the brick-and-mortar — “We’re going to have a space. That’s our jam” — opening it up and being a bit more flexible has allowed us to think a bit more creatively about, “What does it mean to really promote dance and make space for dance in Oakland?”

SALTA All of us are dancers. But something that feels important to us in creating this event is that it’s really not about us, or our agenda as dancers. All of us at some point have performed at a PPP. There’ve been 12, so we’ve all at some point done something. We’ve talked about doing a group dance — there’s this event called Oakland Nights Live that happens once a month. They invited SALTA to perform at it, even though we’ve never made a dance together before. We thought, OK, we’ll go do something there. So there is that fluidity and it definitely feeds into the work that we do, and we’re doing other projects too. But PPP is really about creating space for dance and really trying to open it up to the community.

SFBG It sounds like you’re really creating an audience too. Do you have a lot of return people?

SALTA Yeah! We have diehards.

SALTA We have a following! It’s crazy.

SALTA Our first PPP: Zach Houston had a space in downtown Oakland. It was a poetry space, specifically; he’s a poet…

SALTA That was our first one. And I think because of that we’ve had this nice relationship with the poetry community. And so we’ve had a lot of people from that community that come and watch. So people who are around the arts, or friends of friends — I mean one of the great thing about inviting all these performers is that they bring their people. And their people maybe bring someone else. And they go to the next one. Someone last night was like, “I feel like the more I come to these I get it more, I know how to watch it better.” I thought, wow, that’s a really cool thing.

SALTA It’s very unassuming. We don’t demand a lot. People can come and leave.

SALTA There’s literally an open door policy. Like at Niebyl-Proctor last night, the front door is open and people from the street walk in. That’s happened at a lot of the events we do. And that’s really nice, to have people that are called to it.

SALTA People come to it from so many different places too, which is exciting.

SALTA I think it’s important to us all as dancers, that it is a richer audience with various interests. Because we as dancers are like that, as people, we have varied interests outside of dance that informs our dancing.

SFBG Is performing in this kind of event is more satisfying in some ways? What are the advantages to you and others, as performers, with this kind of format?

SALTA We’ve had performers who are performing on the same night together who maybe have never met each other. There have been connections that have been made there between their work and their interests that might not have happened otherwise.

SALTA It’s a space for experimentation. I think that’s one thing we’re trying to be really intentional about it, how to create a space where people will take experimentation seriously. Not just come do whatever and don’t give a shit. That’s why we were really excited about what Keith [Hennessy] did [at the May PPP at Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse]. He was actually late to the pre-performer meeting, saying, “I’m sorry I was late. I was rehearsing!” People come with that mindset often. Not necessarily that they’re creating their masterwork — how can they? We’re not funding them. We don’t have any money. But it’s just a chance to try things out and be able to fail or do something absolutely spectacular, and everything in between. Really, most months, there is something that’s like oh god and also something that’s so inspiring …

SALTA I like that: take experimentation seriously.

SALTA And also it’s not like a critique. We didn’t want that. It’s just a time to try something out, and then you can have conversations about it afterward if you want.

SALTA That said, whenever I’ve performed at PPP there’s always someone who comes up to me who has a really interesting, deep perspective because it’s not your typical dance, performance audience member.

SALTA And I think too that there’s something freeing in that there’s not a whole lot at stake. Oh, you finally got a show at CounterPULSE and you have to make it good if you want to show anywhere else. I think there’s a lot of freedom in knowing that everyone’s there to do the same kind of experiment.

SFBG What’s the financial model that makes possible bringing artists in from out of town, and the other projects you’re looking at?

SALTA I think, at this point, we’re trying to go for the free and grant-supported. That might not be something we continue with.

SFBG So you’ve been getting grants.

SALTA Well, we got one. [Laughter.]

SALTA That’s how it started. It was from Jmy…

SALTA But that’s what we’ve talked about — more than trying to make it a viable business.

SALTA I think it’s really important for it to stay free and non-commodified. [SALTA] has lots of thoughts about the realm of recreation, and dance as recreation rather than something you make money off of.

SALTA One more thing about the name. We had a deadline to submit a fiscal sponsorship application. So there was one meeting where we had to come up with a name. I had the idea of wanting it to be a name, like Pieter, so it could be like a sister or brother [to Pieter Pasd]. But then no one else really liked that idea. So PPP was this compromise where it would be like initials but it wouldn’t refer to a name. But then I was reading a book by Marx and I came across the term, Hic Rhodus, hic salta, which is from an Aesop fable. But Marx translates it as, “Here is the rose, dance here.” Salta is a Latin term that means both to leap and to dance. The way Marx uses it, [the phrase means], “You want to do something? OK, do it. Show the dance. Do the leap.”

So for me it was this nice metaphor for what we were doing. And it’s also something about the dance world, and the disintegration of what it means to be a professional dancer; the eclipse of a company model, where you train and then suddenly there’s this company that will employ you to dance. So it’s also part of this question: What does it mean to dance in this post-Fordist moment when it’s not financially viable to dance? (And also everyone else seemed to like the name SALTA.)

SALTA She even put that on our website: “Hic Oakland, hic salta!”

SFBG In this one year since starting, has the collective or vision changed in ways you didn’t foresee?

SALTA I feel the main change is we’ve let go of trying to have an actual, permanent space. Because a year ago we were looking at Craigslist, and biking around to different buildings, and trying to figure out square footage — and that’s — just the logistics of everyone’s lives …

SALTA And the reality of the rental market right now, it’s insane.

SALTA We were like, “How can we do that with our grant?” The grant is generous but it’s not enough to last over a year of rent.

SALTA And a lot of us do travel a lot, or live in various cities, and we all have different creative projects…

SALTA Originally we had a little flyer saying SALTA is looking for a space. We said that a lot: “PPP is this, a project of SALTA. We are looking for a space. Please contact us.” And we’ve decided we’re just always looking for a space. That’s going to be our new flyer.