Brooklyn Choreographer Talks 9th Annual Cool NY Festival
By Carrie Stern
In 2001 choreographer Young Soon Kim pulled off a coup. “I’d never created a festival,” she says now. But in 2000, opening her arms to her intimate John Ryan Theater, she “landed in DUMBO in this incredible space.”
The first DUMBO Dance Festival, part of the larger DUMBO Arts Festival, opened barely a month after 9/11. “Being a curator and producer was totally new to me, but even the first year, DUMBO Dance Festival was an instant success,” says Kim.
Today every show has a waiting line, often 150 to 250 people who wait up to an hour and a half to enter the theater. “People know they have to arrive early for a particular show, but they don’t seem to mind. They stand outside, greet friends. It’s like a party.”
There are now three festivals. Together they form a developmental hierarchy. Imagine DUMBO Dance Festival as the bottom rung of a ladder. It is a four-day September choreography marathon showcase. This year 120 choreographers each performed for 10 minutes.
And since 2010, the festival’s 10th anniversary, DUMBO Dance Festival has included a day of site-specific dance in and around the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Pier One, and a Grand Finale on Fulton Ferry Landing. “That was so beautiful!” Kim said. “The lights on the river made a jewel-like background.”
A fourth project, the International DUMBO Dance Festival, follows DUMBO Dance (as it has since 2005). It’s a New York debut platform for international performers.
Unlike today’s plethora of early-winter showcases, January 2004 was culturally slow when the Bloomberg Administration announced Cool New York, a citywide initiative to enliven the traditionally slow post-holiday season. Kim’s response to the mayor’s call was CoolNY Dance Festival.
CoolNY, a two-week, early-February showcase, forms the middle rung of the ladder. Invitations to perform are extended to companies that have performed in previous festivals; each group performs twice. This year there are 64 companies.
White Wave Rising is the top of the ladder. In this event, a mix of world-renowned artists, mid-career choreographers and “talented fresh-starts right out of college,” 19 to 24 companies with at least three years of professional experience are invited to perform over a three-week period. Each performs a 30- to 40-minute work, up to three times. A gala (to defray costs) and a sampler include shortened versions of the work and meet-the-choreographer receptions. The fall and winter festivals are free. Every festival has a family program.
Initially, most performing companies were from New York City. The call for festival applicants went out through the Brooklyn Arts Council and various social networks. Now, White Wave’s office receives year-round inquiries.
“Like having a baby,” said Kim, “the festival takes nine months to create.” In early spring the selection panel, consisting of “seven to eight important people in the New York scene,” as well as area artists, musicians or educators, watch hundreds of videos.
“The bottom line of my mission is helping rising young choreographers, providing opportunities. We always try to invite a few companies that are just getting established.”
The committee does not always agee with Kim. “I tell my panel to look for a fresh, unique voice, and the sense that that the choreographer has to express that voice, and a professional look. That’s what captures my interest.”
But from time to time, a very raw work captures her. “The panel may say, ‘It’s not professional.’ I say ‘I know, but there’s something there, I see the greater promise.’ Then I give them a chance. This is so important to me.”
Although Kim doesn’t give special preference to Brooklyn-based dancers, nearly a third are from the Borough. “Brooklyn is a dance haven,” she said, “so lots of young talented artist reside in Brooklyn.”
Kim is proud to have hosted many choreographers with growing reputations — Monica Bill Barnes, Andrea Miller/Gallim Dance, and Melinda Ring, to name a few. “It makes me feel good,” she says about the event’s success at attracting rising talent.
Established choreographers are invited “to inspire young choreographers.” Notable presences have included Jennifer Muller in whose company Kim performed, Susan Marshall, Yoshiko Chuma, and Molissa Fenely. Kim, who is a native Korean, also wants national and international representation in all her festivals. More and more companies from all over the U.S., Italy, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Ireland and, one year, Korea and Japan have all performed at the festival.
“Companies love to perform here,” Kim boasts, “and audiences love that it’s so intimate — they can see sweat, hear breath, see expressions on dancers faces, the things that make moving your body, watching bodies move, exciting.”
After 10 years Young Soon Kim has a new mission. Her work, often repertory or a single new work, has always appeared in the festivals, but the festivals consumed her. “Other companies rented and performed in the space I created, but because I was trying to survive I didn’t have time to develop a season of my own,” she says, referencing nights spent in tears.
In 2007 Kim attended an exhibition at the goverment institution Korean Cultural Service New York. In conversation with director Woo Sung Lee, Kim realized that 2007 was her 30th anniversary year. “‘Do a concert’ he said. But I was afraid. There wasn’t enough funding for me to plunge in.”
With help from Cultural Service she received a sizable sum from the Korean government to create a suite presented at Dance Theater Workshop. Asked to compromise some effects, Kim said, “No, it’s my season, I need to let it out.”
At heart, the suite considered the “burning of self to sustain others. I burn myself to create the festivals for others.” Despite mixed reviews the concert was transformative for Kim, her “restarting.”
“In the last couple of years I have re-discovered myself. I don’t know my full capability or my true path, but I’m always fascinated,” she says. In 2011 the company performed “So Long for Now” at Summer Stage and “Here NOW: Architectural Design of the Human Heart” at the Museum of Art and Design, all with live music.
“You’re crazy!” people tell Kim. “Just one festival will kill you and you do three.”
“I think I must be crazy,” she says, “but I’m a dancer, choreographer, I have a company. I know that even if the fruit of months of labor is just 10 minutes of performance, it gets choreographers closer to their dream. That’s what I support. I didn’t say these things in the beginning, but the more I think about it, and when I’ve had a chance to express it, it’s getting clearer. I’m saying, ‘Take a risk, get out of your comfort zone, experiment, get ready to fail and then plunge yourself in anew.’”
The story of White Wave’s founding appeared in a January 2006 Brooklyn Eagle column. For DUMBO Dance Festival scheduling go to whitewavedance.com.
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