From the earliest days of the professional concert dance company, most companies have been run with a single artistic director whose tenure lasted indefinitely. Take for example one of America’s longest running companies, Martha Graham Dance Company, founded in 1926 by legendary modern dance icon, Martha Graham. This company is still going strong today, and the current artistic leadership team, dancers, master teachers and repetiteurs work tirelessly to keep her legacy alive. But not all dance companies are fortunate enough to have the support that will take them on a nearly century-long journey. While there are often a number of reasons for a concert dance company to cease operations (often involving or including financial hardship), many companies end up folding or disbanding their ensemble once their founding artistic director relinquishes their reign. There are some companies that have found success with finding new artistic directors, but often those companies already have a strong legacy and defined aesthetic that is well-known (most recently, think Nederlands Dans Theater’s appointment of Emily Molnar as AD). For lesser known or newer companies, it could be difficult to find a new leader who understands not only the creative aesthetics of the company, but whose ideals also align with the company’s mission and vision. In light of these plights, what is a concert dance company to do?
In Chicago, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater is implementing the same brilliance and innovation that has sustained them for over two decades to create leadership solutions that have the potential to keep the company around for many more decades to come. Over the last few years, DRDT has been working to create a rotating artistic leadership model, which we learned in a previous DancerMusic interview with Kevin Iega Jeff (DRDT’s former Artistic Director, now Creative Director) “is a natural outgrowth of the collaborative nature of Deeply Rooted’s artistic team process.” This new approach to artistic leadership helps alleviate creative and organizational fatigue that many artistic directors feel as they work to manage the company’s vision, mission and path to a brighter future. This rotating model works in tandem with the company’s Arts Management Workforce Development Program (AMWDP), which helps further secure the future of Deeply Rooted by providing the training and mentorship necessary to create a strong administrative team.
The rotating model is in effect for the company’s 2019-2020 season with Nicole Clarke-Springer taking the artistic directorship. DancerMusic Editor Kristi Licera recently caught up with Nicole to learn more about this groundbreaking model and get insights to her vision of the company’s future. Here’s what Nicole told us:
… I try to create an environment where we nurture young artists—especially young artists of color—holistically through the arts…
Kristi Licera: Your journey with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater began by taking a class with Kevin Iega Jeff. That single class changed the course of your professional dance career, leading to a long-lasting, passionate journey that has led you to your current position as the company’s Artistic Director. Can you tell us more about your journey and history with DRDT?
Nicole Clarke-Springer: Yes, that class definitely changed my life and the trajectory of what I thought my career could have possibly been. I began my career with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater as an apprentice and later as a company member, when I had the opportunity to perform with artists such as Roberta Flack and Jennifer Holliday as well as travel not only nationally, but internationally. As Dance Education Director, I try to create an environment where we nurture young artists—especially young artists of color—holistically through the arts, providing what Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbott gifted to me: the opportunity to work inside my genius. To be able to do the same for other artists is both humbling and exciting.
The rotational model allows support of a role that can be both challenging and demanding of one’s time and energy.
Kristi: One of the unique programs offered at DRDT is the Arts Management Workforce Development Program (AMWDP), developed by Kevin Iega Jeff. This dynamic internship program offers individuals the opportunity to hone the skills necessary to find success in the administrative side of the concert dance world. Can you tell us more about your experience in AMWDP and about the mentorship you received from Iega and Gary Abbott?
Nicole: The Arts Management Workforce Development Program created by Iega has been a key and critical component to the growth of our administrative staff. As support (both financial and institutional) for operations is necessary to move a company forward, it is sometimes difficult for smaller companies to hire complete staffing with the finances available. This program not only addresses this issue by allowing interns to work in a professional capacity but it reflects the Deeply artistic process of learning and stepping into one’s genius.
I did not officially go through the AMWDP but the same applies to the mentorship I received from Iega and Gary upon initially joining the Artistic Team. Iega allowed me to sit in on executive meetings, development calls, budget meetings, etc., where I could listen and learn the “ins and outs” of the role of Artistic Director. I had no designs at that time to fill the role; however, it was like my own personal master class. Both he and Gary are extremely giving in that way. Their guidance has always been natural. Simple. No fanfare.
I remember trying to figure out what to do with a particular costume. I stood there staring at it forever, and Gary walks by and says, “What if they wore them backwards?” He changed the look and tone of my entire ballet with his ability to think out of the box!! He gives me permission to break the rules. Whereas Iega and I will be sitting in the theater during tech, and he will lean in and whisper, “See that light? You don’t want it to wash onto the floor. It needs to be cleaner.” He provides the rules. That’s always been my relationship with the two of them—even when I danced for the company! They are perfect for each other, which speaks to the beauty and longevity of the company.
…it is extremely important to me to uphold and affirm who we are, yet reimagine the possibilities of who we can become.
Kristi: The artistic leadership team at DRDT is one of the best examples of the power of collaboration and support. This season, DRDT implemented its rotating artistic leadership model; this model maintains the dynamic of the artistic leadership team while giving room for the individual who holds the Artistic Directorship to present their unique treatment of the company’s mission, vision and values. Now that the rotational model has been implemented, can you tell us more about how its structure and the current positions of the leadership team support your directorship and goals?
Nicole: The A-Team is quite special, and I’m extremely grateful for the model that exists. The rotational model allows support of a role that can be both challenging and demanding of one’s time and energy. The structure will consist of one consistent AD (myself) who is the constant thread between the administrative and artistic staffs while a seasonal Artistic Director will step into place to set the vision for the new season providing new and fresh ideas. The current positions for Deeply Rooted Dance Theater are myself as Artistic Director, Gary Abbott as Associate Artistic Director and Joshua L. Ishmon as Rehearsal Director and Kevin Iega Jeff as Creative Director of Deeply Rooted Productions.
Gary will continue to serve as Associate Artistic Director, choreographing and creating new works for the company, which is important because we inspire and feed off one another providing critical feedback that is honest and supportive. Joshua as Rehearsal Director, Company Member, and Choreographer helps me tremendously when I’m unable to be in the studio by keeping the company on track for the season. Joshua is an amazing artist and choreographer.
Our investment in the spiritual growth of our artists begins during an important feature entitled “The Continuum,” a series of workshops centered around self-awareness and growth in and out of the studio.
Kristi: As Artistic Director, it is not only your duty to continue the legacy of DRDT, but also to push the company into its next era of innovation and success as it pertains to the company’s mission and vision. DRDT has a long-standing history of excellence in dance, combining elements of modern, classical, American and African American movement vernaculars with impeccable artistry and storytelling. How do you intend to bring new energy and ideas to DRDT and continue to preserve and nurture the company’s legacy?
Nicole: Iega and Gary have given me a precious gift that is Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. The company is rooted in a spiritual, mental and technical excellence that is world-class. Therefore, it is extremely important to me to uphold and affirm who we are, yet reimagine the possibilities of who we can become. I want to create a space of “creative care” for new choreographic voices who not only understand but connect with our mission in order to support and nurture their genius. I am extremely interested in providing this space for female choreographers. There is a definite need for our voices to be added to the choreographic conversation and be heard.
To see their artistic lights activate upon making the connection between their humanity and their art is transformative.
Kristi: One of the many duties of an Artistic Director is to ensure the well-being and continuous growth of the company’s artists. This includes curating the works that the dancers will perform in a given season, as well as what comprises their artistic and supplemental training. Your experience as a former DRDT apprentice and company member gives you firsthand knowledge of the needs and wants of a working dancer. With that experience to guide you as well as the incredible mentorship that you have received in your tenure with the company, how do you envision being able to maintain and expand the artistic, technical and supplemental training of DRDT artists?
Nicole: I have always viewed leadership from a place of servitude. I want to serve the dancers, the company and its mission the best way possible. In order to do so, I have to envision the company at its finest, not only technically but spiritually, and invest in these accordingly.
I believe our technical investment begins within our educational programming. Many of our dancers enter Deeply through our summer intensive program and/or apprentice program with matriculation into our company. The technical standards required throughout these programs set the standard for the company. Our investment in the spiritual growth of our artists begins during an important feature entitled “The Continuum,” a series of workshops centered around self-awareness and growth in and out of the studio. These conversations are the highlight of my job as Dance Education Director. To see their artistic lights activate upon making the connection between their humanity and their art is transformative. I enjoyed it so much that I created “tick tock tens,” which requires each student to have a 10-minute meeting with me so that I get to know them and vice versa. I believe everyone deserves to be seen and know that they have a voice. This translates in how I find myself leading the company.
I want to create a space of “creative care” for new choreographic voices who not only understand but connect with our mission in order to support and nurture their genius.
Nicole: When the announcement was made of my transition to Artistic Director, I invited the dancers and staff to my home for a vision board party. I wanted to know how they envisioned themselves as artists inside the company and the world. I felt that their personal vision had a direct connection to our overall mission. We’ve had conversations collectively and individually to discuss both company and personal goals. It is important to invest not only in their technical/physical growth but their spiritual growth as well. This is my mission inside of leadership—to provide the love and care that I received under the guidance of these two incredible human beings, Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbott.
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater presents Reaffirmed/Reimagined Friday and Saturday, December 13 & 14, 2019 both at 7:30pm and Sunday, December 15, 2019 at 6pm at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (915 E. 60th St. Chicago, IL). The company will also present two special performances for Youth and Seniors Wednesday, December 11 at 10am and 12pm, also at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.
For tickets to the main performance series December 13-15, visit www.eventbrite.com/deeply-rooted-dance-theater-reaffirmedreimagined-tickets.
For tickets to the Youth and Seniors performances on December 11, visit www.eventbrite.com/deeply-rooted-dance-theater-reaffirmedreimagined-youth-senior-tickets.
For more information on Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, its artists and staff, visit deeplyrooteddancetheater.org.