Happy Hour on the Fringe: Dawn States
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager at FringeArts, and today we invite you to grab a drink, relax, and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Today we are joined by Dawn States, Lead Choreographer and Director for their emergent dance group Dawn States Company. Dawn has earned their MFA in dance from Temple University and is invested in finding ways to make ballet and dance more accessible to people with physical disabilities. They premiered the independent piece Healing Connections during last year’s virtual Fringe Festival as a recorded dance, performed by themself and two other performers Jamie Ray-Leonetti and Dynah Haubert. Welcome, Dawn.
Dawn States: Hi! Thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Raina: We’re happy to have you. So, just jumping right in, this is Happy Hour on the Fringe. We do record at any number of times throughout the day, but we do always want to ask, “What are you drinking today?”
Dawn: A lot of water and a lot of coffee.
Raina: That is fair today I am actually having an ice lemonade which is—I think—just a fancy way of saying I put ice in my lemonade, but it is very sweet and very delicious and also refreshing, though I don’t think I need it after being out in the cold earlier today.
Dawn: It is super cold out there. I was very surprised when I went out this morning.
Raina: Yeah, no, for anyone listening, we are recording this on February 3rd so it’s now like day three…or I think four of our snowy intro to the second month of 2021 and, you know, we’ve been snowed in. It’s been a time, even more than previous—I guess—stay at home has been.
Dawn: Yes. I actually, when I went out this morning…this is very unrelated to anything that we’re probably going to talk about, but I found a stray cat so I’m currently in my house with a stray cat that I’m going to go find out if I find a microchip or what have you so…
Raina: Oh yeah!
Dawn: It’s very eventful, but I couldn’t leave it out there because it’s way too cold.
Raina: Oh, that’s so much fun! I mean, I’ve never actually taken a stray cat home, but I definitely have seen them and have been, you know, now wondering where all of them, who I normally stay outside, are during this snowstorm.
Dawn: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never seen this cat before in the neighborhood, so I think that it either got out or something. So I was like, “You cannot stay out here, because you really don’t belong out here.” Very friendly cat, but we’re trying to find out where it actually belongs.
Raina: That definitely sounds like a worthwhile project.
Raina: So, to give our audiences our listeners a little bit of background, can you tell me a little bit about your decision last year to participate in the Fringe Festival and how you ended up devising Healing Connections?
Dawn: Sure! So last year I, you know, everybody was in quarantine, especially disabled folks. We’ve all been really trying to be separate and staying home and keeping safe—I think—the majority of us. So I started offering some free dance classes via Zoom over the summer. I had a very steady group, and a couple of people expressed interest in taking the classes further and exploring with some of the material that we had created in the class and creating a performance piece. So that’s what we ended up doing, and the Fringe Festival just happened to be around the same time, so I said, “Okay. Great! Like, is everybody okay if I put this in the Fringe,” and Dynah and Jamie were excited about that, so we went ahead. And then it just sort of worked out when we put it in the Fringe for that time. Yeah.
Raina: That’s awesome. Had you taught dance before or, like, was that part of your normal daily routine, and you switched to zoom, or was that new?
Dawn: So I have taught dance before actually. For my thesis concert I ended up creating dance classes for disabled folks because I didn’t have any dancers that I wanted for my thesis, so I realized that I was going to have to actually start classes to bring in the type of people that I wanted to work with, you know, my community. So I ended up starting some free classes, and from that I found a couple of individuals that were really excited to dance further and wanted to be in my thesis, and that worked out. So that was how it started, and then it just sort of continued, switched to Zoom. People like Jamie and Dynah and myself, we were all really excited to be dancing and moving during that time because it was, you know, it’s very isolating. So just trying to keep that connection and continue some of what we had started earlier—or I’d started earlier—with teaching. So Zoom was new but teaching wasn’t.
Raina: Okay. And what was that rehearsal process like?
Dawn: Well, it’s very interesting. Some of the things that I usually employ in a physical space obviously doesn’t carry over one-for-one when everybody’s dancing in this, like, digital box world. So I had to get creative with everybody, and we were trying to figure out what worked/what didn’t work, so it’s a very collaborative process of, you know, asking them to contribute different movements and figuring out how to piece everything together once we had some movements created, and it was very different to do that in a digital space and then try to translate that to live space, so…
Raina: Yeah. And one thing I also want to touch on with Healing Connections is that there was a version that was, you know, purely the music and the dance performance, and then there was also a version that was audio described. But the audio description, you know, felt like it was a part of the piece. It felt very poetic. It felt very, you know, like it went along with the movements and in a really beautiful way; and I was curious, you know, how purposeful that was and how you worked with the audio describer Nicole Sardella to really create that experience.
Dawn: Yeah, well, first of all Nicole is really awesome and I have a really amazing experience with her; she audio described my thesis concert, so we had already had a working relationship prior to the Fringe. So she’s familiar with my work and kind of what I do, so that—I think—is really helpful to build a relationship with the people providing your accessibility services. And I think that’s kind of something that I always think about in providing access is that, to me, it’s like another layer of art, and I think that it can only enhance and enrich the piece for the most part. I mean, sometimes there’s people who have different access needs, and maybe it doesn’t always work that way, but overall I think it is like another art form that you can add into your work and create this multi-dimensional piece then.
Raina: Yeah, I think that definitely came through really well. And, you know, the piece is still up online. It is accessible for people to view so definitely go and check it out. It’s still up on Vimeo. But, you know, obviously pandemic has extended long past any of us would have hoped, but what’s keeping you busy these days whether work or personal projects, you know. What’s going on for you?
Dawn: Yeah, so I’m very excited! After Healing Connections I found out about a group in Philadelphia called Hook and Loop, and I reached out to this group. And they are also working, you know, with creating and providing space for disabled folks to move and have a good time and all that great stuff. They just actually had a dance party last Saturday, so that was pretty cool.
Dawn: Stuff like that. Yeah, so working with them has been really great. I really enjoyed that. I’m going to actually start classes again for disabled folks who want to dance on Monday nights, and I also just started rehearsal with a company in Florida, so that’s cool.
Raina: Awesome. Is this work premiering in Florida later this year?
Dawn: That is the goal. So right now I’m in for five rehearsals, and it’s all be a Zoom for now, and then we’ll see how things go, and maybe I’ll travel down there and perform with them. We’re just in the early phases of figuring everything out, so as things progress we see what happens, but it’s great to be dancing and rehearsals again.
Raina: For sure. I think that’s one of the things where, you know, when we all started this year it was…I think, depending on how you look at it, either the beginning or the end of a new decade, and it was kind of a turning point in a lot of ways, just thinking about time. But then I feel like the pandemic really just shifted the way that we do things on such a major scale that, you know, if you would have asked me, like, oh you know, “So, like, what’s Fringe going to be up to this next decade? Like, what are going to be the innovations in art the next decade,” my answer would have been very different before. So much shifted to being online and remote and, you know, participating in something happening across the country. And so it’s a pretty hefty question, to think on the future, but I think maybe even just taking a step back and looking at the past, you know, what have been some of the changes that you’ve seen in the last 10 years, just like, that have really impressed you in terms of what you’re excited to see more of and see increase and grow?
Dawn: Yeah, definitely this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because when I first decided to get back into dance and go for my MFA, I didn’t really know a lot of people who were focusing on disability and dance. There were a few individuals that I really was fortunate enough to connect with and they became, you know, my mentors, a few companies that I was able to connect with that was really an awesome experience for me. But whenever I first started, even for myself, personally, I wasn’t really always connecting with my disability identity, and now I’m in a space where I’ve been able to do that more fully and that’s exciting. And I now I’m hearing of other people who are going for their MA or their MFA, and they have disabilities, and I’m just super super happy to hear about those sorts of things. So I would love to witness more of that. Overall I think I would like to see, you know, witness more equitable, safe, and transformative spaces for people to be able to create and more access, you know. And ‘access’ is sort of a broad term, but hopefully that people realize that that is important, and yeah. I think also I’ve been excited to see that, you know, there’s been more black artists and creators getting supported and witnessed in different spaces and funded and, like, I want to see more of that certainly. And even in ballet, like, I think ballet probably has the longest to catch up on everything, but, you know, there are people that are questioning the gender roles of ballet and different things like that, so that’s something that I would just want to keep witnessing in the future like…
Raina: Yeah, you mentioned the increase in people who have disabilities going for their MFA and studying dance and I’m actually really curious about your experience as a student, because if you’re part of a minority it can be hard to, you know, play catch up at times or find those accommodations that you need to learn and practice your work best. So can you talk a little bit about what that experience, going for your MFA, was like?
Dawn: Yeah, the first couple of years were really really hard because it was me getting acclimated and then people getting acclimated to myself and learning how to self-advocate and speak up and who to reach out to and who was supportive, you know. And I think at times it was a struggle for myself too because I tried to sometimes distance myself from my disability, and if I could do that over again I would not do that again. But, you know, I was just trying to figure all that out and navigate it. And at the end I was really able to find folks that were interested in dancing, who were part of my community, and also finding support. The Institute on Disabilities was actually hugely supportive of my work and what I was doing, so that was really great to be able to connect with them by the end. It sort of started to come together a little more, you know, but the first couple of years it was definitely difficult.
Raina: Yeah. And I will say, you know, we are great friends with Lisa Sunborn at the Institute of Disabilities and, you know, very much in admiration of the work that they’re doing. Was that a factor at all for you? Because I don’t know that many universities have the same type of program that the Institute of Disabilities is running, and so was that part of your decision in deciding to go to Temple?
Dawn: Yeah, it was actually. I was thinking about that, and then I was also thinking about… there were a couple of professors there that I was really interested in what they were doing and their work, so that kind of all influenced it, plus the fact that it was in Pennsylvania and I live here so, you know, kind of trying to think about that as well.
Raina: Yeah, no, I think that’s so essential and I’m glad to hear that you were able, you know, to find advocates and to find people who really supported your work, because it can definitely be a challenge when you are the only one having to advocate for yourself, especially if other people have different needs or wants or there’s just a norm of how things have always been done. And I think, you know, that’s one of the things about 2020 that has been so—I think— mind-blowing for a lot of people or, like, about time for a lot of others, where it’s like, yeah, there are these things that are being highlighted and exposed and brought to light to the general public that are just huge inequalities and, you know, huge problems in our society that no one was addressing because we all had 9 to 5 jobs and, you know, we’re working or we’re in school or whatever, and everything was in person and you’re on the go all the time. And I think there was a lot of slowing down and reevaluation that happened this year that I hope continues on and helps us progress forward as a country in a lot of different ways.
Dawn: Yeah, I hope so too. I really hope that people can…you know, it’s hard to sustain that energy but we have to, you know? We have to keep that energy as we move forward and keep thinking about that and thinking about ways that we can create equitable spaces, not just in the arts but beyond that. And I think, you know, in speaking about all this different stuff, it’s actually inter-connected, so I really think that it’s important to remember that as we’re trying to hopefully build or create something different that answers to that.
Raina: Yeah. So, kind of coming back to this idea of what 2020 and beyond looks like, what are the things on your mind when you think about, you know, how has this digital world changed dance, especially having presented a digital dance work yourself? Did you feel like that was enough, or is it just kind of like, you know, biding your time until things can get back to what is ‘the norm’?
Dawn: Well, that’s interesting, because dance is a very physical thing and it’s also ephemeral. So to think about having such a focus on things being recorded, like, then there’s this whole body of work now that’s been recorded in a professional way, so on and so forth. And I think that recording and being on Zoom certainly does a lot for access in some ways because now, you know, you can live stream a performance, or you can add in audio descriptions and captions and all those different things. At the same time, I do miss sometimes being in physical space and how that can have a different kind of impact and moment and have people witnessing that in real time and thinking about how that might impact or transform their perceptions. So I guess, for me, I’m hopeful that we carry forward the access and the way that we can provide this access, but I also will be excited to be dancing in a physical space with people again.
Raina: Yes, I definitely second that notion. I think it’s been really nice to find ways to connect. and it’s really been great, you know, to see how many shows were able to provide different accessibility services that they wouldn’t have normally presented with their work or might have been very hard with a live performance but, you know, that are incorporated almost seamlessly once you move into a digital platform. But yeah, I mean, you do feel like you lose that feeling of what it means to be in person, experiencing something together? And, you know, this year we’re hoping that there’ll be more open and in person for the Fringe Festival this year, but it also just keeps depending on how things go; and so there’s a little bit of, like, planning and pushing ahead on things, and there’s also a little bit of wait-and-see and evaluating how things continue to change, but trying to still give that, like, really great audience experience. Because, you know, everyone like…we still want to be able to experience art together, and that hasn’t gone away with everything that’s changed.
Dawn: Exactly. And I think that, for me, there is an element that’s sometimes missing in the digital realm of the audience interaction and how you can kind of gauge how your piece landed with someone. So that’s something that I definitely would also like to, you know, think about as we move forward, but I understand the kind of ‘waiting game’ that’s currently what I’m doing. And with these rehearsals that I mentioned earlier, that’s also the thing. Because I don’t know if I’m going to actually be able to travel or not, you know, so we’re just kind of waiting and seeing what happens.
Raina: Yeah. So, just to kind of think about, as you are creating or collaborating on new works, we always love to ask our guests what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations? So, you know, it can be TV; it can be books; it can be, you know, people who’ve you’ve found inspiring in whatever way. Like, what are those things that you look to for inspiration?
Dawn: I love this question! So, for me, some of the ‘highbrow’, as you would say. is I love rhizomatic theory you know the whole ‘thousand plateaus’ and everything like that, thinking about that, because it really talks about multiplicities and the interconnectedness of growth, which I think is important to address as we continue to try to create and transform and do those types of things. And Foucault, you know, like Foucault and critical disability theory, like, all those things are things that I try to think about and implement in my own work. For, well, lowbrow is so funny, trying to think about that. I love this question though. It’s interesting. I don’t think this really comes through in my work at all, but I really love Stephen King and heavy metal and stuff like that so…
Dawn: I don’t really put that in there, but that’s some of the things that I like to indulge in when I’m, like, just hanging around the house or whatever, so…
Raina: Yeah, I will say I was not getting heavy metal from Healing Connections, but I’m here for it.
Dawn: Right? Oh, it’s kind of funny. But yeah, I think those things and I mean I also just…I don’t know. There’s just so much out there, like, but yeah…Wow, that probably…that end probably needs to cut. I don’t know what I was saying.
Raina: There’s a lot out there and, you know, we want to experience it all. I’ve actually been re-watching—not re-watching; I never watched it—I was, revealing my age, I was like in middle school when Desperate Housewives was on, and so it was always a show that, like, my parents watched and I would be kicked out. But I am now watching Desperate Housewives on Hulu, and that honestly really inspires me, so I think there’s a lot out there to find inspiration with.
Dawn: Exactly! Oh, I actually know what I was gonna say. This makes a little bit more sense. I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately so…
Raina: Oh, okay!
Dawn: Yeah, running around in there and, like, doing stuff, taking on these strange missions, reading a lot of tomes—I don’t know—collecting things. And then I get kind of inspired by that, because I think about, like, different sort of realities or worlds or things that you can create, and, like, the music in there is all very like, “Dododododo.”Yeah, that’s my actual, really thing that I’ve been doing for probably too many hours.
Raina: Amazing. I think we’ve all been doing things for too many hours during this year. Awesome! So our final question, Dawn, is just, “How can people support your work, find you, you know, give you a like or follow? Where can people find you?”
Dawn: Yeah, so I’m on Instagram. ‘sunshineandsteel’ is my Instagram handle. And my website is the same, so it’s ‘s-u-n-s-h-i-n-e-a-n-d-s-t-e-e-l’, and either place is a great place to find me, and I think…yeah.
Raina: Great! Well, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. It was great to have you.
Dawn: Thank you so much for having me! I really enjoyed being here. I was a little bit nervous, but…
Raina: Well, for our listeners again, you can experience Healing Connections 2020 by Dawn States Company on FringeArts.com, or find Dawn States on Vimeo. And make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and download the FringeArts app. Thank you, everyone.
Dawn: Thank you so much!