Paul Gordon Emerson of Company | E and Kristopher McDowell of KMP Artists talk to IAM about the power and purpose of art in deeply challenging times. Interview by Maria Roberts
Read the full interview in the April edition of International Arts Manager, available to download FREE now!
“Programmes and events created specifically for the web dramatically expand reach and, at the same time, create an investment – and emotional attachment – in the viewer to the art.” – co-artistic director Kathryn Sydell Pilkington.
Company | E is a truly 21st century dance and interdisciplinary performing arts company; not only does it create contemporary repertoire by seeking out exciting new choreographers from off the beaten track, but it is also harnessing the power of technology to unite remote audiences. In the age of COVID-19, this dynamism couldn’t be more prescient.
Executive and co-artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson is on the phone to IAM from Washington DC, we’re in Manchester, UK, and as we talk my email pings continually with news that yet another show or festival has been cancelled, or another venue has closed.
We are chatting at a time when COVID-19 has been elevated to pandemic status: on Broadway, it’s lights out everywhere. Meanwhile, the UK, the Netherlands, and Denmark join Italy and Spain on lockdown. With each glance of my email, I get the sense that the sector is in shock. We are all asking, what on earth is going to happen?
But now is not the time to panic. Company | E is working closely with creative management company KMP Artists to use this fallow period to inject energy into some truly innovative projects that will create unique multicontinental experiences. This optimism – this eye to the future – shines through during our chat.
Building on their foundation as a contemporary repertory dance company, Company | E enlists multiple choreographers to maximise their shows to create a “bang for the buck” experience for presenters and audiences alike. Their repertoire has included newcomers and world-renowned choreographers like Ohad Naharin and Paul Taylor.
Emerson says that his interest in international work, especially working with lesser-known countries like Kazakhstan, was inspired by his move from New York to Washington DC, initially to join the US Department of State but, ultimately, as Legislative Director for a Member of the US House of Representatives.
“Cultural engagement – cultural diplomacy in the parlance – is something I have always believed in very deeply, it’s one of those long-standing parts of our DNA. And that philosophy opens the artistic and creative doors very wide. We’ve always believed that if you are dependent on one person to be brilliant all the time, then you are setting a very high bar for yourself.
“For us the best way to be successful is to draw on as much talent from around the world as we can, all the time. You have the best chance of gathering up inspired choreographers and inspired artists, giving yourself a chance to create the most exceptional concerts every time out.
This approach allows you to consistently share something fresh and something new – and that’s often seen most powerfully in site-specific work.”
While Company | E is closely connected to the scene in Europe and North America, they’ve also delivered site-specific projects in the Gulf of Mexico, Shanghai, Havana, Astana (Kazakhstan), the UK and with partners in, among others, Ukraine, Russia and, soon, Madagascar as well as in the US.
The fabric of the company is made up not just of a diverse range of choreographers, but also of international filmmakers, digital developers and visual artists.
Their repertoire, coupled with diplomatic initiatives, has made them a “go-to” partner for the US Department of State for over a decade.
A core part of Company | E’s ethos is teaching: “We teach everywhere we go. Our core mission is to build communities and investment via live and digital experiences,” says co-artistic director Kathryn Sydell Pilkington.
“What we do with the State Department is create ongoing relationships,” she continues. “And we know that’s also what presenters want and need. Programmes and events created specifically for the web dramatically expand reach and, at the same time, create an investment – and emotional attachment – in the viewer to the art.
“We’re talking narrative, story-driven work that uses movement and music to bind a viewer to us. That’s particularly powerful in this moment. At the same time, though, even now, we have to look ahead and build for the future. So, in the midst of this we embrace technology that allows for dance works to have a hook – a catch.
“We are all about connectivity and illumination,” expands Emerson. “That’s one of the things we love most about working with KMP – they embrace the new and also search for the artists who must be seen but who, often, are outside the mainstream and so are too easily missed.
“That collaboration with KMP is what led us to the creation of our Asia-USA Dance Platform, for which we have built alliances in Beijing, People’s Republic of China, and Daegu, South Korea. There’s so much power and elegance coming out of the Asian region, including from South and Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.
“There is such an abundance of creativity in this region that we dedicated a platform to it so that we could really give these artists visibility. And, in line with this dual commitment to live and digital engagement, we can embrace it in a very deep way.”
Company | E has long experimented with new technologies and Emerson’s interest in innovation has put the company ahead of the curve in this area.
“It started with film.” Emerson says. “We’ve always believed in the power of film in dance. That’s where I learned to love the art form – watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on late night TV.
“It’s a natural platform for movement if you tackle it as an art form unto itself, not just as a way to get what should be on stage squeezed into a camera. And now, with the emergence of augmented and virtual reality, combined with the immediacy of the internet – dance broadcasts are a whole new ballgame, we can bring entire generations of viewers and patrons into our world and, ultimately, into our theatres and to site-specific encounters. At Company | E we see the digital experience as a draw towards live performance, not a replacement for it.”