Annie’s Got a Brand New Bag: See It at the Philly Fringe

Annie Wilson, photo by Erin Desmond

Annie Wilson is a local dancer-choreographer-performer-art maker type who has been making her presence known these past several years since graduation from the University of the Arts. I first met Annie because she had written a story (“Hoagie”) which we published in Philly Fiction 2, and only later found out that her primary art was dance. Yet she loves to tell stories, something she often incorporates into her work. She will be performing her work in Grab Bag (thefidget space, 1714 North Mascher Street, Fishtown) this Friday and Saturday (Sept 2 & 3 at 7pm) along with a number of other choreographers.

Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: You are involved in the Philly Fringe show Grab Bag. How did the show come about and what will you be doing?

Annie Wilson: The folks at thefidget space asked me to present work in the show.  They described it to me as a “festival within a festival,” in that it was a smaller, curated festival within the melee of other Fringe performances that takes place over the first weekend of the festival. Seven artists will be presented over four nights, with a different lineup each night.

The piece I am presenting is a solo that has slowly been developing over the past year, although I realized recently that it is the same solo that I do every time I make a solo, just in a different form. There’s a passage from Beckett’s novella “Company,” that echoes the piece, and I think the passage is something along the lines of “Whether standing or sitting and lying down in the dark.”  This time I’m directly addressing the audience, as well as dancing to Girl Talk, as well as transposing spaces.

PPAA: In the solo work you do—or even the live, more improvised, work you do with other dancers in which you are the creator or co-creator of the piece—aside from being a performer, how do you see your role? Is choreographer an accurate title, or is there another word that more properly describes how you go about creating these performances?

AW: This is funny because it reminds me of improvising last summer.  A colleague and I both adopted the mantra “I am a human.”  I think in a lot of dance styles, there is an emphasis on being superhuman, on transcending our humanness through physical feats.  I find ballet to be a great example, and although I haven’t seen the show, I also imagine the Live Arts [urban circus] show Traces will probably be a great example of that. A lot of my work in dance is to integrate the humanness. So, I guess I start as a human. And often a piece will need choreographic tools, and often it will need theatrical tools, and sometimes it will need performance art, sometimes stand-up comedy. The solo in Grab Bag was described as stand-up when I performed it at Hybridge’s “Last Mondays.”  I think that holds true both for making set and improvised work.

PPAA: How difficult is it to dance with someone whom you don’t like personally at all, but who you may meld with really well in a work? Or on the other side, someone whom you love personally, but as dancers sharing the stage, it just doesn’t work at all. At the core of this question is how important are personalities when it comes to both creating/performing work with someone, or in a group collaborative project?

AW: This is a really excellent question.** The solo in Grab Bag actually addresses this. I think a collaboration is eerily similar to a romantic relationship. You bring your entire self to both collaboration and romantic intimacy, both the good and the bad. And some collaborations are one-night stands, some are short-term gigs, and some are really deep, long-term, slow-growing relationships. I actually have a hard time thinking of anyone that I dislike personally that I enjoy dancing with, although I’m sure it’s happened. I do, however, know a number people that I love as people that I’m not so excited to work with. I think in either case, if you want to make work, you have to focus on what will make work. To continue with the romantic analogy, you could have really great sex with someone and that makes you think you can build a great, long-term relationship, and that’s just not true. Building a relationship is way more than really liking or even loving someone. There’s nuts and bolts to it that have nothing to do with your emotions.  But you have to have the right personalities.

PPAA: Now that you are 4 years out of the UARTS dance program, are you living the life/involved in dance the way you anticipated/hope? What might be some of the biggest differences and surprises between your former expectations and now, and what has turned out so far pretty much as you envisioned it?

AW: Oh Josh, I am living a version of what I imagined, only it’s not at all how I imagined it would be. I actually achieved a great deal of my long-term goals within the first couple years out of college.  Definitely not all, but some big ones. Which was tough: I thought I would achieve those goals and then, yeah! I’d have made it. And then I got the things I wanted, and it was like what happens after the cowboy rides off into the sunset. Oh shit, there’s like, the rest of your life ahead of you. What happened then was that I had time to contemplate how utterly meaningless any human achievement at all actually is in the grand scheme of things. Hand in hand with that, I was shocked to learn that life does not AT ALL travel in the linear fashion that the structure of traditional education would have you believe. So in the past year or so, I’ve had to readdress what I actually want to  be as a human (back to the human mantra) and then what I want as a dancer-performer-choreographer, and to integrate those things.

PPAA: Did you ever consider dancing on cruise ships while at UArts? Was it ever suggested to you?

AW: I actually considered dancing on cruise ships before UArts, which was part of my decision to go there. I had gone on a cruise as a teenager and it sounded like the life! And then I got to UArts, America’s premier cruise ship training ground and immediately realized how completely fucking terrible and soul-crushing and wrong a life path that would be for me. I think if it’s soul-nourishing for someone they should totally do it because the good parts of it sound like a lot of fun, and I’ve had worse jobs, but it’s not for me.

PPAA: You seem to be constantly involved either by performing or training or working with others in the dance world—i.e., it’s clearly part of your regular routine.  In the cases where talent/ability is more or less equal, what do you see as the biggest differences between those who are doing shit, and those who are on the path to giving it up (amongst your peers)?

AW: That’s a great question.**  My relationship to dance has changed so drastically since I first entered college. I often wonder what the hell I was thinking when I went to school to study dance, knowing who I was when I was 18. I mean I thought dancing on cruise ships would be fun! I think the way that dance feeds you changes when you start having to repay your student loans. It may still feed you in the way that it did when you were younger, or it may just shift a bit, or you realize that the thing that inspired you about dancing has nothing to do with being a professional dancer. It may be that you’re interested in body-centered healing, or you’re interested in the type of community that develops in making a dance, or that you actually want to be a lawyer and use your income to support the arts as well as other causes. So not “doing shit” in the “dance world” may mean that you’re doing shit in another world, and if you’re doing shit in another world because it nourishes you the most, then that is way way way better than doing shit in the dance world and not being your best self. However, I have seen a few people who have “given up” because the art world can barely nourish the number of people that it’s supporting right now.  And seriously, when you’ve got massive amounts of student loans to repay, a path in the arts is often just not an option.

America’s current stance on education is a major stake driving the separation between the rich and the poor. Kids are being told their entire lives they’ll end up working at Wendy’s if they don’t go to college, and then banks and handing out loans to students and parents that they cannot possibly afford to pay. Bankruptcy doesn’t even ease the burden of student debt, and the annual tuition for UArts is $33,500 per year. PER YEAR! Which is ten grand more per year than when I went, and I only went for three years.  The amount of debt professional dancers are graduating with is astronomical. The worst thing about it is that the debt that you carry for studying dance is exactly what precludes some people from being able to pursue it professionally.  I feel like when I talk about it people shrug, “What are you going to do?” And I don’t think that is an appropriate response if you want to continue to sustain the USA, and have the USA sustain you as a citizen.

PPAA: Is Philly a viable city for a dancer whose primarily motivation is to dance for a company? If you were not someone who had this urge to create performances , and was more of a dancer who focused solely on her craft (as actors often do), would you even be here?  

AW: First, almost no one dances on salary for one company anymore.  That model doesn’t work. But if you were looking to dance for several companies purely as a dancer, then no, Philly is not the place.  We don’t offer a great deal of technique classes, although Chi Mac and the Performing Arts Research and Development (PARD) studios are working on that. For that I would go to NYC or Amsterdam.

PPAA: Is there anything you think of as being down the road that you would like to delve into, dance-wise?

AW: I just took a breakdancing workshop, which was so awesome.  I really want to study aikido and butoh.  I took an Embodied Anatomy class with Nicole Bindler this past year which was pretty revolutionary.  The delicacy and intricacy and strength of the human body is astounding; I’d like to explore that work some more.  I also really want to participate in a performance that’s endurance-based, whether that means doing a piece where I just do pushups (it would last about 1.4 minutes), or somersault for as long as I can, or take part in a performance that lasts 8 or 36 hours.  As far as choreography, I’d really like to make a piece that’s only a beginning, or several beginnings.

Thanks Annie, have a great show!

Grab Bag

Lora Allen, Ellie Goudie-Averill, Christina Guesaldi, David Konyk, Gina Hoch-Stall, and Annie Wilson
September 2 at 7pm*, 3 at 6pm*, 4 at 4pm, 5 at 8pm
thefidget space
1714 North Mascher Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Tickets ($15) at www.livearts-fringe.org and at door.

*Annie will be performing in the Friday September 2nd, and Saturday Sept 3rd shows.

**Thanks.

P.S. Annie will also be showing her work in Wild Punch: 3 by Annie, John and Josh this November at the Papermill Theater, a performance we’ve dubbed “Dance Theater Adventures in Kensington.” I say “we” because am the Josh referred to in the title.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.