Interview with Co-Founder Sidney Pink
By Cara Ober

akimbo /əˈkɪmbəʊ/ adjective, adverb
1. arms akimbo, with arms akimbo, with hands on hips and elbows projecting outwards
Word Origin in kenebowe, literally: in keen bow, that is, in a sharp curve

If you were wondering about the meaning behind the word Akimbo, there it is. It’s a clever title for a dance and movement festival that relates to unusual body motion and ‘a sharp curve,’ which serves as a metaphor for all sorts of conceptual challenges. Presented by Deep Vision Dance Company, the 4th annual AKIMBO Festival offers another layer of unusual expectations: all performances are site specific, created for non-theater settings in Baltimore’s Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The festival, which offers a rigorous proposal and professional development process, encourages “interdisciplinary projects, proposals that take artistic risks, and ideas that focus on a strong artistic vision/voice from the company or artist.”

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Co-Founder Sidney Pink was available to talk more about the festival with me this week.

Cara Ober: How did the Akimbo Dance and Movement Festival get started?

Sidney Pink: It all started four years ago, when Nicole Martinell and I were both working for the Department of Dance at Towson University. She had just founded Deep Vision Dance Company and Akimbo is a project of Deep Vision. We talked about the newly available Think Big Grants in Station North. There were few theater venues for dance at that time in SN, so we wondered, what if we did site specific dance? What if we did it at three sites and worked with three dance companies?

Within a few months, that idea worked out and, about eight month later we reached out to local dance companies and movement artists to create pieces for a specific location, like a restaurant, a street corner, a park.

CO: How does it work?

SP: Akimbo presents the companies and artists and they are all creating original work. Each one is completely different, based on the artist’s vision and aesthetics. Some are avant garde or weird and others take traditional forms–like belly dance or flamenco–and take it to a new place, questioning that traditional format. All are taking dance and movement and making it site specific.

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CO: In what ways are the performances site specific?

SP: They are all designed to respond to a space aesthetically, bringing awareness to architecture or sounds, or sometimes it means audience interaction. A few years ago one piece involved the audience calling a cell phone and this would dictate the movement. It was participatory, never the same because it was specific to people there that moment.

Some performances deal with political, social, and historical issues, changes in Station North and Baltimore in general… There’s a really wide range of works. Collaboration and interdisciplinary works continue to be an important part of Akimbo. We have visual artists creating environments, musicians coming into a space, collaborating with dancers, improvisational or choreographed in space together, responding to each other.

The thing that ties it all together is that it’s all dance and movement based. The reason we say ‘movement art’ is to be inclusive – we do not have a strict definition of dance. We have had visual artists doing projection that would change in real time based on what the performers or audience are doing, so artists could come in and manipulate the space. We have a really broad definition of dance and movement art.

Akimbo images from 2014

CO: Who are the performers in Akimbo?

SP: This year’s performers are listed on the Akimbo website. Most dance companies are from Baltimore, and it’s definitely a Baltimore-centric event. We have had companies from Philly, DC, and one from Pittsburgh this year, though. We believe that having these connections to other cities in the region strengthens our local scene, and we want to encourage a dialogue with regional groups as well.

Plus, the Baltimore dance scene is already so interconnected – the links are already there, so our goal is strengthening them. There is a very rich dance scene in Baltimore. It is very grass-roots. There are lots of small companies, but few bigger companies doing staged performances in theatres. This reflects the current art scene: full of experimentation and artistic risk taking. We’re not trying to be like Chicago or Philly in our dance scene, but we do want to promote an awareness of the diversity that is out there.

CO: How does Akimbo promote diversity in Baltimore?

SP: Our goal is to promote diversity in all ways, including age, race, and socio-economic diversity. In the past we have had Liz Lerman do professional development workshops leading up to a proposal – she is very interested in multi-generational dance, keeping age diversity in dance. So that’s just one example where diversity of age has been a priority. Diversity of race has been in many of the conversations in the planning process since the beginning– and I think the fact that the event is in SN, where there are so many different conversations going on, is a great resource for that. Unifying and strengthening the dance community in Baltimore is a big goal – to all be on a shared bill, with equal weight, and to show that diversity and variety – aesthetically and in other ways, as part of the Baltimore dance scene.

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CO: I don’t know that much about Baltimore’s dance and movement communities. Has it grown a lot in recent years?

SP: When we started, four years ago, people said, ‘What Baltimore dance scene?’ And now when I mention Akimbo, people have heard of it, there is recognition. We are just a piece of a larger puzzle. I think Effervescent Collective and Dance Baltimore both have done so much, and there are other companies too … when you start to go through the roster of companies and artists doing dance-based works, multiple concerts, and events throughout the year — there is a very rich landscape here.

CO: What is the economic philosophy behind Akimbo? How does that fit in with the goals of the festival?

SP: All of the performances are free to the public, but paying performing artists has been a goal from the beginning. We have been fortunate that funders have stepped up quickly. Even though we are a small event, we have had an impact. We always pay an honorarium, although this is just a fraction of what we want to pay them. When you do an event, we believe you have to pay the performers. We also learned an interesting lesson from our first year – the venues should be paid, too. So many groups assume venues will be free and it’s been an uphill battle for them. So, we’ve made it a priority to pay the artists, the venues, and our own staff. I think it’s something we’ve done well. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation has stepped up in a big way and the William G. Memorial Fund… And other foundations and businesses have stepped up in different ways.

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CO: Can you talk about the Professional Development that goes along with the proposal process of Akimbo? How and why do you do this?

SP: We offer two workshops in the winter that lead up to the proposal process. I have to admit these have been some of the richest experiences in all of it. When you get all these artists in a room together and discuss what you want to do, the ideas that pop up, the collaborations and relationships that are born, it’s amazing. The artists who meet through this process build relationships and go on to do other collaborations and projects. We have seen artists start out as part of a company or group that have spurred off and have done their own pieces and started their own companies. It provides so many opportunities for growth.

CO: Can you tell me about the selection process for participating dance companies?

SP: We bring in judges from the dance world and the larger arts community. We believe that a healthy selection process will push the art forward. The panel gives written feedback to all applicants, whether they are chosen or not, so that their proposal next year is stronger. The event is all about being inclusive, but we feel there is a benefit to artists learning to write a good proposal and to be able to articulate what they’re doing.

CO: What are your site-specific locations where performers will be doing their thing this year? How do you select those?

SP: This year we will be at Gallery CA, Terrault, Chicken Box, and a new site – the Baltimore Design School Steps – and we’re very excited about that. We perform in places you wouldn’t expect. There will be two groups behind the Montessouri School, but then we’re also going to be in places like Liams, the Windup Space, the Station North Arts Café, the MICA Studio Center, and the Tool Library. Those sites all reflect the uniqueness of an arts district, where you can build partnerships between artists and businesses. Because of the climate in SN, people step up and say, ‘Of course we’re going to have dance in the Tool Library!’

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CO: How does the audience navigate the festival? What kind of supplementary materials are available?

SP: The event is broken into three parts. The first happens around North Avenue in the North-West section of SN from 1-3. Then we are hosting a drum and dance jam at the YNot Lot from 3-4. After that,  there is another performance section from 4-6 in the SE section of SN, in Greenmount West. There will be a map on the website and hardcopy maps available at the performance sites. We are hosting an information site at the YNot lot and there will be volunteers throughout the neighborhood wearing yellow shirts, lanyards and badges. You can just walk into the neighborhood that day, just show up without a plan. You can grab a map and walk around.

Within those two sections, events are happening simultaneously. You can set your own pace, spend as much time as you want at each site. Sometimes audience members find one spot and stay there the whole time, while others see it like a scavenger hunt and want to get to all of them. There are a number of different locations, but the Station North Arts & Entertainment District is the overall site; you can experience the whole neighborhood in the course of a day.

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CO: What are the goals of Akimbo?

SP: Because it is site specific work, we hope it creates a deeper awareness of the neighborhood. To create participation online, we are hosting an Instagram contest with specific things to do, see, and find – you can tag your photos #akimbobaltimore. There is a lot of activity happening around Oliver Street in the SW corner lately, and Akimbo will hopefully make more people realize what is going on over there – there are so many galleries, spaces, and murals to discover.

CO: Would you ever consider taking Akimbo to other arts districts?

SP: Maybe in the future we would consider other arts districts, but we have developed so many great relationships in SN that it would be tough to leave. We host a community workshop in Greenmount West before the Bike Party. At this point, SN has become our home for this event. The interesting thing about doing site specific work is we want to keep pushing the work forward. It’s hard to imagine that artists would run out of ideas.

CO: What is most surprising about this project for you?

SP: It’s amazing that we’re at year four. It’s gone so fast. When we look at all the artists and all the pieces presented, it’s really exciting but also – for Nicole and I – the thing that keeps us going is the potential. We never want the event to feel the same as the year before. We want to feel that we are changing and pushing ourselves as artists to where the quality of the work is getting better. Also, the types of relationships being built as new artists come onto the scene continues to enrich the process. If we are doing this right, we are inspiring the artists to do work that they hadn’t imagined, to develop new work for next year.

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CO: I have known you for a long time as a visual artist. Are you a dancer as well?

SP: Not professionally. I perform with Fluid Movement and have been dancing more, being a part of this project. Deep Vision Dance Company also does a monthly jam that I particpate in, where we are dancing, with artists, actors, musicians, and others.

CO: What else do you want readers to know about Akimbo?

SP: Everyone is welcome to attend! No one else does an event like this and it involves so many artists. It’s very unique and it supports and funds artists. We love having Akimbo in Station North for the same reason now as when we started: we targeted the neighborhood because of the energy around it, and it continues to grow.

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More information: AKIMBO Artwalk
Saturday, September 12, 2015
1:00-6:00pm
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Schedule:
1:00-3:00 ~ Zone A
3:00-3:45 ~ Drum Circle & Dance Jam at Ynot Lot (corner of Charles and North)
3:45-4:00 ~ Guided walk to Zone B starting at Ynot Lot
4:00-6:00 ~ Zone B

150+ Individual Performers and Artists
15+ Locations in Station North Arts & Entertainment District, Baltimore, MD

AKIMBO 2015 is the 4th annual festival of site-specific dance and movement art in Baltimore’s arts district. AKIMBO this year features 17 regional professional dance companies and movement artists from traditional to experimental, plus musicians and visual artists. That’s OVER 150 individual artists and performers presenting original work all in one day!

Artists present original work at venues, bridges, parks, homes, murals, and businesses. At their own pace, audience members explore the neighborhoods rich architecture while viewing and participating in live art, unique site-specific performances, and installations. Over fifty volunteers in bright yellow shirts fill the neighborhood, assisting people in moving from place to place.

Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.

All Photos courtesy of the Akimbo Flickr Site, from the 2014 Akimbo Festival.