THE ARTFUL MIND
Interview by The Artful Mind (TAM)
The Artful Mind: The set design, the color, the whole art experience works together so beautifully with contemporary dance. I don’t think it’s just about dance for you, Ellen. Seeing what you have created, to make it a total experience, you have interweaved a whole gambit of different art forms into your work to make it a whole experience. Please explain how you work together with all these elements, and how have they developed over the years?
Ellen Sinopoli: The concept that collaboration would be an integral part of my creative process was not foremost in my mind when I began ESDC. What I have found is that there is a wealth of talent in this part of NY and MA - artists who are very generous with their genius and who often seek me out for projects. Peter Lesser, Executive Director of The Egg in Albany, NY, also has commissioned us several times to develop collaborative projects. Over the years, I have worked with at least 25 artists in the creation of new dance: poets like Pierre Joris, composers like Joel Chadabe, Don Byron, Hilary Tann, Zoe B. Zak and Maria Zemantauski, visual artists like Benigna Chilla and Tom Gagnon, sculptors like Jim Lewis and John Maas, architects like Frances Bronet, storytellers like Bairbre McCarthy and Pleasant DeSpain; actors like Mahmood Karimi-Hakak; musicians like Brian Melick, Don Knaack, Gideon Freudmann and Zorkie Nelson.
Understanding the essential components of a successful collaboration has taken time to sort through, however I have found that the two most essential aspects of this type of creativity are respect for each other’s artistry and for the end product of astonishing new dance.
From a production stand point, organizational skills must come into play. Working with the technical crew, both my own or the presenter’s, is an essential component of a successful concert. Costume design must also work towards a successful final product. My costume designer Kim Vanyo has a wonderful understanding of my artistic values. Her examination of each new dance as it is being developed allows her to design a costume that will not only enhance the dance but also make the dancers look wonderful. My company is made up of very individual dancers – in height, shape, dynamic and energy. The costume designer must be able to wrap all of this together when creating costumes and also make certain the dance itself is further enhanced. My lighting designer – either Jason Sinopoli or Studio Arts Entertainment – have the ability to design a look that embellishes upon the movement but does not overpower it. All of these elements are needed to make certain that our work is presented in its best light for our audiences.
TAM: Ellen, I am curious to know about your background. Aside from your colossal great work of today, let me in on your growing years. Start anywhere you like. I also wanted to know, are you a dancer?
Ellen Sinopoli: My parents were artists – mother/dancer and father/musician, so this lifestyle was part of me from very early on. In my teens, I had the opportunity to learn about and study modern dance. Ballet had been my earlier training, but modern dance really began to capture my imagination. I continued to study dance in college with teachers from the Taylor, Cunningham and Graham companies. I began choreographing while a dancer in Boston. Teaching at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts for many years gave me a taste of creating dance as well as teaching dance. When I moved to the Albany area, I decided that my next move in this field, since I was no longer performing, was to work with professional dancers and to create a company.
TAM: Who is Jason Sinopoli?
Ellen Sinopoli: Jason is my son. He began designing lights for me when he was still in high school at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in MA. I was on the faculty there and he was a Theater Tech major. He works with a fairly heavy and densely colored pallet which I love. He has a background in the visual arts and I find that this association plays a major role in how he selects his color choices. He does not light all of my shows, but designs when he is available.
TAM: What was your original vision and how did it all begin?
Ellen Sinopoli: My original vision when creating ESDC was to hone my skill as a choreographer and basically to “make dance”.
TAM: Developing and growing your business in dance, was it a smooth development up the totem pole? Was it automatically financially successful? I know there might be an interesting success story, after all I know— artists have all been through feast and famine times in their work.
Ellen Sinopoli: I began this company for the sole purpose of providing an outlet for my dance making. I was at a point in my career that a move into full time choreography seemed to be the next natural step. Since the very beginning I have had directors on my Board who are truly passionate about my work and its future. This has made the difficult process of growing as an arts organization feasible. For most not-for-profit arts organizations, there is always the struggle to remain fiscally viable and sound. Our concert and arts-in-education revenue accounts for half of our income. Therefore it has always been necessary to fundraise through individual and corporate sources and to seek grant funding. Our association with The Egg in Albany, NY has played a significant role in our growth artistically and administratively. We have been its resident company since 1992, one year after ESDC was formed. The Egg has commissioned us to create new dance many times and it continues to produce us in concert and to provide us with office space, rehearsal space and storage space for our costumes and sets.
Currently I am ESDC’s Executive Director. Learning what it means to hold this type of position has been a significant learning curve for me. My goal is reach a level of financial stability that will allow me to step down and to bring in someone with the type of expertise ESDC really needs as we continue to grow artistically and administratively.
TAM: For those that know nothing about dance, please explain a technical example of what describes “contemporary” dance.
Ellen Sinopoli: Contemporary or modern dance began in the early 20 th century as a statement of rebellion primarily against classical ballet and what the pioneers of this new art form considered to be unnecessary constraints and inertia. There are many styles of modern dance and I often tell people that they should try to experience the work of several dance companies to get a better sense of this expansive dynamic art form.
I believe that modern dance choreographers observe, explore and therefore reveal in very unique ways. Each choreographer’s movement vocabulary is singularly his or her own.
We don’t have names for the moves that we create. There is not the codification the takes place in ballet. We are not asked to stay within the familiar. In fact, it is our role to utilize and create new movement that allows the dancer and the audience to see and feel with an entirely new perspective and thoughtfulness.
TAM: Do all your dancers get along well with each other? Do they ever create together something they surprise you with?
Ellen Sinopoli: I try very hard to employ a group of highly trained and professional dancers who respect my work and the artistry of the company. We mostly work with 6 -7 dancers and that is too small a group to be dealing with super egos or immature personalities. I depend on my dancers to embellish upon my choreographic ideas. I like my dancers to be distinct. This allows for much more choreographic inspiration. I am amazed at their musicality, phrasing and their ability to be completely present and committed to each phrase of movement.
TAM: Who has been your mentor? And, why.
Ellen Sinopoli: When I was in college I had the opportunity to study with members of the Paul Taylor Company. This was an inspiring experience that deepened my love of dance and its possibilities.
TAM: The performances you create and direct have such beautiful and rich stories you translate through dance. What was one of your most favorites? Tell us in detail what it was about, what it looked like, and how it came to fruition.
Ellen Sinopoli: I worked in collaboration with the sculptor Jim Lewis to create “From the mind of a single long vine, one hundred opening lives”. It is a 70 minute 11 part dance whose original concept was a series of photographs of carved wooden seats from Africa. I was intrigued by the kinds of stories that would reveal themselves if these types of seats were strewn across the stage. We had many characters – calabash women/the leaders, the child who becomes a victim of war, an engaged couple, a magical diviner - whose tales are very individual but at the same time universal. Jim carved nine wooden seats for me out of red and white cedar. This set design comes to life on stage and literally glows in response to the light. We began creating this dance at the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, NY and premiered it at The Egg in Albany.
TAM: I wanted to know, who is your favorite artist. Who is your favorite author?
Ellen Sinopoli: I cannot say that I have one favorite in either category. I do favor artists who take me places I have not been or allow me to see things differently. I need to see a depth and probing in their artistry that causes you to sit up and take notice. I truly dislike selfishness, shock for the sake of shock and lack of professional standards.
TAM: Ellen, how do you spend your free time? I mean, if there is any stress related release activities you do, what works for you?
Ellen Sinopoli: My work does not allow for much free time. My husband and I will celebrate our 42nd anniversary this May. Although we are sometimes like ships passing in the night, our companionship and time together is extremely important.
TAM: You have really spent most of your time in NY State, have you ever thought of taking a production out of state? Out of country?
Ellen Sinopoli: Touring is always an important possibility. However, it does take a staff that can dedicate time to developing tours and raising the money needed to produce these tours. This is one of our goals. “Spill Out!” would be a perfect piece to tour and we are working towards this end.
TAM: What has been the draw for you to get involved in teaching and giving so much to the community?
Ellen Sinopoli: I actually taught a great deal before I began choreographing. I do enjoy working with college students. As a teacher I try to help them to understand how to make a technique work on their individual bodies and what is involved with moving from student to artist. ESDC does a great deal of work in public schools. Dance is often the forgotten art and the responsibility of introducing students to this extraordinary art form often falls on the shoulders of performing artists. It is essential that we build young audiences. If we fail to do this who will be the future artists and who will come to see them and enjoy them?
TAM: Ellen, can you tell me what one of your fondest inspirational memories you had with dance?
Ellen Sinopoli: Many of my teachers have been extraordinary – Clive Thompson, Helen McGehee, Sharon Kinney, to name a few. Each has instilled in me a love of movement and a deep respect for dance.
TAM: I think you have found people in your company, all the areas needed, that share a similar vision that you do, and all of you work off of each other to create new and exciting, cutting edge works of art on the stage. What are some of the issues you have faced in solving a creative problem, like, how do make something difficult take shape, and actually materialize. What group efforts are involved, and do you always have the final say?
Ellen Sinopoli: Sometimes when developing a collaboration not all the pieces come together at the same time. There may be a delay in the completion of music or a set. The challenge is to keep creating the dance in the midst of this. I depend on my dancers for their feedback on whether the movement feels right. They will often suggest changes regarding direction, speed, body dynamic, flow of the arms. I trust their input. However I often have the final say. I am observing and constantly trying to determine what is the most effective phrasing. It is fun to watch the dancers view a video of a new work after its premiere. They often do not realize what is happening elsewhere on the stage and they are often surprised on how it all fits and flows together.
TAM: Are you attracted to gravity defying dance movement? What is your fave movement that, by the way, may still be something you are working on?
Ellen Sinopoli: Modern dance has a unique relationship to gravity, the ground we move on and therefore the way we breathe. There is a wonderful suspension before the fall. Doris Humphrey called it “the arc between two deaths”. I love using the floor and exploring how to move along it, fall to it, rise from it, push away from it and give into it.
TAM: Tell me little about the making of one of your earliest pieces, called, “Clusters”.
Ellen Sinopoli: "Clusters" is a dance that I originally co-choreographed with a company dancer, Rob Kitsos. Most of our repertory is of my choreography, so this was an unusual experience for me. Sometimes we each brought in phrases and sometimes we worked on phrases jointly. After the first version of the dance was complete, it was eventually dissected and rearranged to become its final form. Thematically as I watched the dance develop, I kept seeing the dancers group, separate and regroup – hence the name Clusters.
TAM: What was one mistake you made, and learned from through the years creating dance and working with performers, musicians, lighting, set design, carpenters, etc… from business to creative.
Ellen Sinopoli: I often collaborate with other artists, more than 25 over the last 17 years. Throughout this process, I have found that it is essential that all involved have the same goal – to make the dance and its artistic components as effective, innovative and captivating as we possibly can. It means that the artists must respect their own vision and the vision of their collaborators. There will be give and take, but without sacrificing the common goal.
TAM: I know dancers have to be in such amazing control over their bodies and minds. I was wondering, what would a good general diet be for a dancer to live with?
Ellen Sinopoli: It is very important for dancers to eat intelligently. We have 4+ hours of rehearsal several times a week and the dancers need to have the energy and stamina to stay focused and engaged. When we perform, the dancers often are in three, four or five dances. My dancers often lift each other and partner in many unusual ways. It is therefore necessary to have a good sense of what your body needs to maintain this kind of extreme physicality. Fluids are very important. Sugars provide a type of energy that is short lived and fairly useless. To me dancers need to be lean but not overly thin. These are two very different things.
TAM: Ellen, tell me what you say to aspiring young dancers to keep them motivated to meet their goal in such insecure times we live in. I know you must be extremely positive, so part 2 of this question is, when are you not so positive, and how do you make sense of it.
Ellen Sinopoli: An artist is an artist because without this engagement, there is no fulfillment. This is not an easy lifestyle and for dancers it can be fairly short-lived. I have learned over the years, that dance must be a part of my life even when it exhausts me or disappoints me. However, my most exhilarating moments have always occurred in the studio or on the stage. It is these moments of immersion in the moment, of seeing a solution come into being, of being surprised, of trusting that your dance will speak to you in a most unique and intimate way that makes you stay.
TAM: How do you see your future taking shape for Sinopoli Dance Troupe? Are you excited about something new you are planning, exploring?
Ellen Sinopoli: I will continue to create dance as long as it is viable and as long as it continues to fulfill. New projects are in the making, new collaborators are suggesting a partnership, new venues are seeking out work. That is all very exciting.
TAM: What is one belief you have about the art of today, and where do you think the art world is headed?
Ellen Sinopoli: We will always have artists for without them we have nothing.
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