Sarah Best

Dance Films Kino: Making My Own Path

Dance Films Kino
is a three-week project that I am presenting as an artist in residence at Hyde Park Art Center,
from March 4th to 25th, 2012. Over three weeks, I will present 30 works
of dance on film, as well as more than a dozen live music and dance
performances and literary readings. All of the programs will be free to
the public.

The seeds of this project were planted ten years ago, back when I was in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities
(MAPH) at the University of Chicago. I was sitting in Yuri Tsivian’s
Intro. to Film class, learning about how filmmakers whose works were
censored, or considered to be too experimental for mainstream
distribution, showed films out of their own homes.

The films and performance I am presenting will be shown in an
environment inspired by kinos—underground, avant-grade art clubs of
the 1920s and '30s. I’m currently getting ready to paint the walls of my
residency studio red, and put out the cabaret tables and art deco
objects I’ve sourced from Etsy. I’m creating artwork inspired by
movement to hang on the walls of the space.

My first goal is to show movies in a place that feels like someone’s
home, so that people are a little more willing to give something they’ve
never seen before a try. My second goal is to bring all kinds of
artists, writers, musicians, dance makers, and filmmakers together to
create a lot of different points of access into the work. My third aim is to invite people to help create the space by imagining
what it would be like to be a part of an underground society, to feel
nostalgia for a fictional place situated in the past. I think there is a
collective desire to engage in this type of activity. I think it's part
of the reason why bars inspired by speakeasies are so popular and why
people like to fantasize about travel, even in tough economic times.

Dance is something I came to through many hours of volunteer work,
rather than by exposure to performances. In between my years as an
undergraduate at New York University and my first years in Chicago (I
moved here in 2002, right after graduating, to start MAPH), I logged
about seven years worth of internships and volunteer work.

When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t know a thing about dance. But as a volunteer at Links Hall,
a dance venue in Wrigleyville—selling tickets to people’s shows,
bumping into dancers in lobbies and dressing rooms, being at every
performance—I started to make dancer friends. I saw more and more work; I
asked questions; I developed a sense of what I liked and didn’t like; I
fell into conversations. By the time I started writing about dance,
producing and curating it, I knew whom to call and what work to choose. My early experiences curating arts festivals in high school and college
taught me that curating across disciplines is a smart way to bring
different types of people together, and to create many points of access
into the work. When I curated a monthly reading series at NYU, people
came because of the bands we presented, but they stayed to hear the
poets read.

My own artwork is also multidisciplinary in nature and it took time to
accept that being a multidisciplinary artist with a nontraditional
career path is OK, and even a good thing.

When I left MAPH, I had failed to become an academic, and I didn’t have a
job but I knew two things deep down in my gut: that I needed to make
art rather than study it; and that I didn’t, at that moment in time,
know how to become a successful artist or what success would even look
like for me.

All I can say is that I threw myself into it. I might have, in my
private life post-MAPH, been totally miserable, and broke, and feeling
really uncertain about what I wanted to do to “when I grew up,” but
there I was, on stage next to Mayor Daley, dressed in a kimono wearing
David Bowie makeup because I’d responded to a call for volunteers for a
Redmoon Spectacle that was to celebrate the opening of Millennium Park. I just kept at it. Later that year I marched in three Fourth of July
parades wearing naught but a union suit and giant papier mache baby head
in the name of the art of patriotism.

I took classes that, as an introvert, terrified me—with people who, I
presumed, actually knew what they were doing. There was the time that my
LeCoq-trained physical performance teacher applauded me for creating a
true moment of drama, when in fact I was just getting winded from being
chased by a professional actor through an invisible obstacle course. I
took classes in mask-making, physical theater, performance art, textile
art, photography, and printmaking.

I took a class with Goat Island,
a company whose performance work was inspired by all kinds of things:
architectural spaces, obscure literary quotes, computer code, Lenny
Bruce. Taking this class I learned that what I wanted to do was make
visual art, not get on stage, but that it was OK for my work to be
deeply informed by movement. It was satisfying to engage with a really
rich creative process and let in a lot of different forms of

There is a lot of pressure in the art world, just as there is in the
academic world, to achieve success in a very specific way: to pick a
discipline; to get an art degree from a prestigious institution in that
discipline; to create work that is on trend or to relentlessly pursue a
single subject; to only show your work at certain galleries; to price
your work for a certain type of collector; and to strive for perfection.
I learned about these pressures from my friends who’d graduated from
art school.

By relentlessly having at it, not ever really knowing where I was
heading, I arrived at a place where it was more important to me to gain
new technical skills as an artist than it was to get a degree. I started
to care more about showing my work in galleries that my friends
own—where there’s always good beer and good company, and work that I
respect and am intrigued by—than I cared about how “good” my CV looked.

That doesn’t mean that I still don’t wrestle with anxiety. I was
terrified to approach the Director of Exhibitions at Hyde Park Art
Center about whether I could present what some part of me felt was a
totally crazy idea. (Seriously, can you imagine asking someone whether
it’s OK to build a Soviet bar in the middle of their museum?) I was
equally terrified to cold call the Executive Director of the Chicago
Dancing Festival to see if there was a way we could work together.
(There was: I emceed their inaugural program of dance on film and am
co-curating their second annual program this coming July).

I am currently doing what I can—exercise, meditate, take nights off—to
manage my anxiety about what people will think of the art work that I am
producing for the space.

It’s just that I don’t ever stop trying.

There are days when I have fantastic successes that I want to yawp off
of rooftops (or more likely proclaim to Facebook), like the day someone
gave me a couple thousand dollars because they thought my idea for the
kino was a really great one. There are days when I have major
setbacks—when I got the rejection letter for the grant I really needed;
the day when I had to sign over my firstborn to get a large photographic
work professionally framed; the day I learned one of the press releases
about the project was going out about two months late.

More often, there are days when I wish that I didn’t have to work two or
three nights a week on top of having a demanding day job, and that I
could just kick back and watch Khloe and Kim Take New York with a joyful sense of abandon like a “normal” person. I just keep going. Some days are better than others.

I once heard the photographer Carrie Mae Weems talk about this
concept of “economy of scale.” Ms. Weems makes really powerful work, but
she often uses her own home as a photo studio (some of her iconic works
are set at her dinner table). She also often uses her own body in her
work, because, she says, she knows how photographing someone else can
make them feel. She talked about certain male photographers who travel
with huge crews, running their photo shoots like they were movie sets,
delegating work to assistants rather than having their own hand in it.
Carrie Mae Weems doesn’t think that you need a hundred assistants to
make meaningful work and to be successful.

I think the point is that you have to make your own path based on what,
in your gut, you feel is really crucial to your happiness, and that
there are going to be days on that so-called path to happiness that
still kind of suck. I have learned that terror often precedes major
breakthroughs; that sometimes it is helpful to have an antagonist in
your life; and that you have to commit to being disciplined and living
your life in equal measure in order to not feel chronically stressed out
(Sorry, Kardashians: I can only watch your reality shows or contemplate
your general welfare on Mondays and Tuesdays. Sorry, important
filmmakers: I can only respond to your emails on Wednesdays and

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that while you’re
slogging through, you have to celebrate the really minor victories. You
have to say, “I am celebrating this small thing that I’ve accomplished.
See, here I am, I’m really doing it. I’m celebrating it because it’s
pretty awesome thing I just did.” If you wait for the “big payoff” of
finishing your thesis, or reaching a certain point in your career,
you’re going to continuously feel like a failure and feel kind of pissed
that you don’t have business cards with a badass title on them.

Who cares about the business cards? My friend Jennifer once gave me a
business card with a frog in a bucket on it which said “Jennifer Keeney,
In-Between Jobs."

Having a sense of humor helps. You just keep going.

Sarah Best received a BA from the Gallatin School of
Individualized Study at New York University and has continued her
education in Chicago with Goat Island Performance Group, Morganville,
Sprung Physical Theatre, Redmoon Theater, Lillstreet Art Center, and at
the University of Chicago. She has curated numerous programs of dance on
film at the Chicago Cultural Center, Links Hall, and Hyde Park Art
Center and in 2012 will co-curate the Chicago Dancing Festival's second
annual MOVIES program in August 2012. Best has drawn and photographed
dance and has written about dance for 
Time Out Chicago. A multidisciplinary artist, Best’s photography has been featured or reviewed by Chicago Public Radio, The Chicago ReaderChicago Art Magazine,
and Bad at Sports, among others, and has been exhibited by Antena
Gallery and Cobalt Studio in Chicago. She has additionally presented
projects at the Poetry Foundation's Printers' Ball and Version Festival.

Published by CAR_Laura on Tue, 01/31/2012 - 2:48pm
Updated on Wed, 02/01/2012 - 4:56pm