Great Performances at Vanderbilt, Presenter

Great Performances at Vanderbilt is sponsored by the student-based Vanderbilt Programming Board (VPB) for the student body and greater Nashville community. The mission of Great Performances for almost 40 years was to spark and sustain a passion for the arts within the Vanderbilt Community and southeast United States as a lead provider of international artistic excellence through diverse arts disciplines, interaction with artists, and a core educational environment.

-Bridgette Kohnhorst, GPAV Advisor and Director, 2002-2014

Describe your organization’s mission and its work in 3 adjectives. Please explain the adjectives you selected.

Great Performances at Vanderbilt’s (GPV) inception came into being by a thoughtful individual for historical reasons, the understanding of promised inspiration offered only by the arts, and the opportunity for unique engagement experiences.

In 1974, a man by the name of Dean James Sandlin saw a need and held a greater vision for the student experience. There was a concern that the student could be engaged at a deeper capacity, with culture and the arts; an element he feared was missing from a great Research I University environment.   He understood fundamentally the human constant for hope and promise to be a part of a greater community. What better way to do this then through kinesthetic art entities something LIVE! With this idea in mind and with student input at its programming core, the cultural ecology of Nashville and the southeast started to dramatically shift as GPV presented works by the late José Limon and Merce Cunningham to Pilobolus. The series has grown to be branded as Nashville’s longest running international performing series with presenting legends alongside burgeoning artists ten years ago, like Brian Brooks Moving Company, DanceBrazil, Noché Flamenca to provocative repertoire by the late André Gingras and very current choreographer, Yaniro Castro.

What does it take to be a successful presenter in this day and age?

It is vital to remember in all presenting, whether it is main-stage works or salon scale dance theatre, the presenter is at our core as a facilitator. We are all acting as conduits with the gift of being the elixir, if you will, to increase engagement and fluidity between all artistic disciplines. Many times we are charged if we possess the desire, to accomplish greater agendas beyond the proscenium. We are at the helm of connecting the dots with LIVE art tools for many needs, all the while continuing to create critical mass for the arts, and building new audiences. These needs could be to mount a choreographic work on hungry dance students (a pure arts experience); where in this country we are forced to creatively source the needed parts for time, space, and resources. Or, we might be called to act as a guest facilitator for our local non-profit at the community’s peace and justice center who want to better inform the public, regarding how to confront immigration issues, or be it at a lunchtime or after work salon event. This is our gift: to approach, work with, and within our communities and share our artist’s vocabularies and new perspective.

Where do you see the future of dance and how did your organization fit within that vision?

It would be near impossible to project on the future of dance without glancing into the rearview mirror at the form’s past. Dance as many recognize, is an ephemeral art and one that uniquely exhibits and transpires human creativity in the moment; an infinite time continuum underscores, but remains invisible. The form wonderfully manifests, transmits, and for some can be the easiest art form for human beings to access. One can begin with a backyard social dance or be trained in sophisticated vocabularies. In the end, the formula equals: body moves in space. Playing with the theories of creativity in this raw live state, both embodying and tapping one’s creative self, for some is the human form exalted. 

In looking back while moving forward in the ring of the creative process, a favorite Emily Dickinson quote comes to mind, that a poem is never finished only abandoned. For the future of dance, I wonder where popular entry points and beginnings exist. What are we focusing our current energies on? How are genre and system exchanges interacting? What trend explorations are occurring? And when do we know to step off some of these new offerings, and why?  With regard to contemporary dance trends, there has been an avalanche of talk regarding the phenomena of dance and performance in the museum context. For larger U.S. cities home to mammoth contemporary art institutions this is not necessarily a new subject. Regardless, the conversation is compelling in that one can see how other pockets in our country are observing and interpreting this genre and systems exchange. All the while much of contemporary dance repertoire is curiously investigating, and peeling back the curtain on dance history with roots in the royal court, and connections to proscenium stage!  

The intention continues to be questioned for dance and performance to exist in the museum. Though as a U.S. southeastern presenter, it is our job to build audiences and find the right malleable fit between the art, artist, scale, and institute. It is our job in a less than supported arts environment or isolated area to find a mutual entry point for a potential new audience member. They may be only momentarily disguised as a visual art lover unaware of how all those time based media alluring devices at visual art exhibits can be staged with dance. 

For GPV, the opportunity and privilege to partner professionally with the FRIST Museum for the visual arts was in 2012; with the mid-career retrospective of visual artist and gracious photographer Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video. This was to be a national exhibit launched for a four city tour to close at the Guggenheim in 2014. This was a big deal for the FRIST, Nashville, and the national visual art field. It was personally grateful for GPV to partner for the weekend opening activities. Further, to have the opportunity to curate a gallery event, importantly for joint-curator reasons in the gallery as a Happening, and not the museum auditorium. The intention felt authentic from the museum and as a performance curator a good fit. Naysayers may wag their fingers that dance is sometimes present only to re-contextualize an exhibit, but Carrie Mae Weems’ rich and steeped history with the socially progressive collective of Anna Halprin, in her late teens in San Francisco, which, as a first dance encounter in life - greatly influenced her approach to her work.  

It seems for the future for dance, the more art encounters we can have, art in unusual spaces, and opportunities to witness movement moments invigorates unknown curiosities.  Eventually one could hope to further the conversation for performance to stand on its own for its own curated merits, in visual art environments permanent, is an opportunity to move towards; while creating new generations of dancers - individuals who are already making adaptable and resilient dance works for new habitats, regardless of our traditional spaces for art.