Jefferson James & Carla Perlo

Challenged to be better at what I am doing…

by Eve Alpern

Carla Perlo, founding director at Dance Place and Jefferson James, Founder, Artistic and Executive Director of  Contemporary Dance Theatre [CDT] both got involved with NPN in its very first year. For both, that first meeting in Minneapolis set the stage for the next two and a half decades. James describes herself at the meeting as “extremely excited and also a little overwhelmed, but [I was] really delighted to be in at the beginning and to be surrounded by such committed people.” Twenty-five years later, NPN has had a profound impact on each of their organization’s programming, funding, relationships and visibility, and the Annual Meeting continues to be a valuable place for Perlo, James and their colleagues to challenge and learn from each other.

Both Perlo and James credit NPN with helping them to increase their visibility and ability to get funding. Before joining NPN, Dance Place had a space and was already presenting, but they weren’t doing the kinds of extensive presenting and curating that evolved in part because of NPN.

NPN’s consistent pool of money helped put Dance Place on the map as a presenter, not only locally, but nationally as well. The subsidies allowed CDT to leverage funds to bring “big name” acts like Bill T. Jones at a time when they hadn’t yet developed individual sponsors or significant national funding. NPN helped the two women and their organizations build diverse, lasting relationships. Through the Annual Meeting and subsequent conversations, the Network opened up an opportunity to view artists across the country, not just from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. According to James, this “amazing” list of artists and their visions have influenced the entire network, even those partners who didn’t present the specific artist. And vice versa: “So many artists that we launched through the NPN (from Joe Goode to B.B. Miller to the Blue Man Group, Urban Bush Women, Ron Brown, ODC and Donna Uchizono) have gone on to major theaters. And I really don’t think that, without that push in their early years through NPN, they would have been ready to go to those spaces,” says Perlo.

Perlo credits NPN’s flexibility with the success of programs such as the Creation Fund, a subsidy she values highly. That fund, among others, has helped NPN Partners make lasting commitments with specific artists. Referencing a long history with Mark Bamuthi Joseph, for example, Perlo says, “We want to be part of an artist’s process, and have relationships with artists over a long period of time. It’s about helping a variety of artists over the lifetime.. it’s not just a one shot deal.” James agrees, citing CDT’s relationships with Myrna Packer, Jane Comfort and Pat Graney.

Not only has the Network expanded their aesthetic choices and sensibilities, it actually shifted some of their community programming. James says, “That’s how Pat Graney and I met. She gave a workshop on working with incarcerated populations and I thought, ‘This is fabulous. We should do something in Cincinnati,’ and she just happened to be wanting to do a national training program.” Nine years later, CDT’s multi-discipline arts project, “Inside/Outside: the Prison Project” takes place at Cincinnati’s River City Correctional Center with a performance component inspired by their 2001 NPN residency with Graney.

There has even been an impact on the internal structures of CDT and Dance Place. Perlo believes that NPN is a model organization. Her exposure to the inner workings of NPN allowed her to learn from and avoid challenges and pitfalls – she even applied specific strategies to her board after coming home from an NPN meeting.

James would like to see her own board adopt some of NPN’s approach to taking responsibility for the further development of her organization, with strong leadership and increased ownership because of their familiarity with the field. She is inspired by MK Wegmann’s constant placement of NPN in a larger conversation, which she thinks connects the board more firmly to the work.

NPN kept Perlo interested long past when she thought she would’ve been done with “this administrative bit.” And it’s influenced the way in which James works with artists, her interest in leadership succession and in developing people within the community.

The two women note that NPN has changed over the years too — in the early days, there weren’t many women presenters, and presenters of color were not as well represented. Additionally, the role of artists at the table has shifted “for the better.”

James looks forward to being surprised, excited and energized. She is eager to see the artists’ new approach to their work. “Creativity is a really cool thing and somebody else’s creativity is just even better!”

December 2010

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