Duke Dang. Photograph by Robert Altman

Duke Dang Leads Works & Process through the Storm

For fifteen years, Duke Dang has been the bright, capable force behind Works & Process, a series that offers behind-the-scenes conversations about the creative process. Regularly, choreographers, composers, and designers have converged upon the postage-stamp-sized theater beneath the Guggenheim Museum to discuss their work and to show sneak peeks of premieres.[1]

But in that time Works & Process’s ambitions have grown, driven largely by Duke Dang’s energy. More and more, it has branched out into commissioning new works. And then came the pandemic. It has proven to be Dang’s galvanizing moment. As soon as theaters began to shut down, he and the organization pivoted to virtual commissions. These appeared at a dizzying pace—85 in all. Some of the short films, released online, like Jamar Roberts’s Cooped, have become defining works of the period. Others, like Caleb Teicher’s Thank you, Central Park, provided much needed release and relief, a chance to escape into beauty.

After the virtual commissions came an ambitious series of “bubble” residencies, still ongoing. The “bubbles,” which emerged last summer, are creative residencies made possible through the use of repeated testing and quarantining at retreats for from population centers. Most have been located in the Hudson Valley, at places like Kaatsbaan, Catskill Mountain Foundation, and the Bridge Street Theater. More than two dozen groups (so far) have been able to make new work in safe conditions, pieces that will be performed in the coming months. Dang creates the conditions for them to work, and even brings them groceries.

Now he’s pushing for a return to live performance in New York City. I caught up with him recently after an afternoon pop-up performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Guggenheim Museum, beneath the giant dome of the atrium. The audience of museum-goers stood rapt, watching from behind the museum’s spiraling balustrades. Six dancers did a modified version of Morris’s “Words,” set to Mendelssohn pieces, played live. For half an hour, you could imagine a world where watching dance together was a normal part of life again.

Where were you when the pandemic hit?

It was so sad. Every four years, my good friend Anh-Tuyet Nguyen, a board member of the Joyce and a mentor of mine, would hold a big Leap Year birthday party. Last year it was in Portugal. She’s Vietnamese, like me, and there are so few Vietnamese people in the arts. After her birthday, we went on safari together. She left a week early to come back to New York before traveling to Nevada where she and her husband lived. That was on March 10th. In that week, she came down with Covid, and she died on April 7th.

I’m so sorry, what a terrible story.

It was really, really sad. After we landed in NY, my husband and I immediately packed up our bags and went up to the Hudson Valley where we have a place. And that’s when we started hearing from artists who were telling us that they were having all their performances canceled.

Dance Heginbotham in the rotunda with choreography by John Heginbotham. Photograph by Diego Quintanar

Works & Process pivoted so quickly, switching over to virtual commissions almost immediately. How did you know what needed to be done?

You know, it was so simple. When artists are coming to you saying, all my gigs are canceled, and you’re an arts administrator, it’s your job to respond. We’re here to support artists, right? We started approaching artists at the end of March. The only parameter we set was that the pieces had to be under five minutes, and made respecting social distancing. When you’re in a box, you have to work inside that box.

How did you fund these initiatives?

The good news is that Works & Process is a really small organization, with a fulltime staff of three. So our overhead is pretty low. And we had saved for a rainy day. By anybody’s definition this was a rainy day. So we said, we’re gonna put our money where our mouth is and start paying artists right now.

Did you see an evolution in the tech savviness of the commissions? I mean, we’ve all had a learning curve.

Absolutely. I looked at the stuff from April, and some of it looks like it was made in someone’s bedroom. But the films are this nugget, a moment in time. That’s why Linda Murray, curator of the New York Public Library’s Dance Collection, told us, we want to take all of these and put them in the library because they really are a record of this moment.

Are you worried that many dance artists may have left the city for good?

We made a deliberate decision about two years ago, before the pandemic, to think about what dance traditions were underrepresented in dance concerts. And that’s why we started to commission choreographers like Omari Wiles, who comes from the ballroom community, Ephrat Asherie who wanted to work with house dance club culture, and others. We’re working with dancers from the ballroom, hip hop, club, and street dance community. They never left the city. They didn’t have the option to leave New York.

Natasha M Diamond Walker in Martha Graham’s “Spectre-1914” excerpt from “Chronicle.” Photograph by Diego Quintanar

Are you still commissioning virtual works?

We’ve sunsetted that. Once we got news from the Department of Health that we had guidelines to reopen [shows at the Guggenheim], we decided to shut down all our virtual programming. We started doing bubble residences. We asked the artists, what do you need right now? And they told us that they needed fees and they wanted to be able to work safely together again. So I started reaching out to the dance community in the Hudson Valley. We’re very plugged in there. My husband and I founded the Hudson Valley Dance Festival nine years ago, with DRA (Dancers Responding to Aids).

When was this?

Early May.  

When were the first residencies?

August.

How did you come up with your Covid-proof “bubble protocols”?

I called Nikki Feirt Atkins, who runs American Dance machine For the 21st Century, because she’s a doctor, and she’s in dance. And she put me in touch with Dr. Wendy Ziecheck [a Manhattan internist who happens to have been trained by George Balanchine’s personal physician]. She said, why don’t you draft a protocol? I was able to get my hands on [the producer] Tyler Perry’s protocol; he was doing a bubble in Atlanta. We duplicated that protocol, but with a nonprofit budget in mind. I sent it to Dr. Ziecheck, and she said she thought it could work, especially because she had access to rapid testing.

Do you think this movement toward hosting creative residencies in the Hudson Valley is going to continue after the pandemic?

I think so. I mean, it’s always been the case—just think of the Hudson River School. There’s an ecosystem there. I think it’s going to continue to be a place where things are created. What I would love is for these new creations to also be presented to the community in the Hudson Valley. That’s why I wanted to produce a docu-series [Isolation to Creation] that highlights these residencies in upstate New York to really highlight this creative ecosystem that exists there.

What’s next?

As of now, we’ve completed twenty-two bubbles. All these productions will be premiered at Works & Process in 2021/2022. Right now, we’re doing pop up performances in the rotunda at the Guggenheim, as well as evening performances. And we’ve been collaborating with Lincoln Center. I can see more happening there as well.

Do you think you’ll you ever go back to your old format of presenting  discussions of the creation process?

We’ll always have lectures and demonstrations and discussions, always. We’re not doing it now in the rotunda because the acoustics are so horrible. But that’s our mission.

The performances in the rotunda are among the few live indoor performances going on in New York now. Was the Guggenheim Museum on board from that start?

We’ve had to really, really advocate for the performing arts from the get go. This is a moment where, across the board, many organizations have retreated into their corner and their core competency. And the museum told us, we’re a museum. But they said, if you can secure permission, then we’ll play ball. I started calling politicians and the Department of Health and Empire State Development. It was so clear to me that if the rotunda is open, and people are standing on the ramp, looking at art on the wall, why can’t they stand in that same position and look at performers in the rotunda? We had the pipeline built, we just needed a venue. That’s how we were able get onto the pilot program for “Flex Venues.” We had our first performance on March 19.

Do you think the performing arts are going to have a comeback in New York?

Yes, I think it’s inevitable. It’s more about how fast will it come back. And the faster it comes back, the better off we’re all going to be. That’s why we’ve been pushing so hard. It’s about the health of the performing arts in this city.

Do you think this period has changed you?

It has made me less hesitant. If there’s an idea, I pick up the phone, I write the email, there’s no hesitancy. One of my strengths is not really taking no for an answer. If I get a no, then I just keep on finding a way to somehow get to yes. It might mean working with different people. It might mean a more circuitous route. But at the heart of it, we’re very process oriented. And processes change, processes evolve.


[1] Full disclosure: on occasion, I was a moderator at these discussions.

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