BWW Dance Interview: Mark DeGarmo

By: Dec. 07, 2016
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Entering its 30th anniversary year, Mark DeGarmo Dance is a not-for-profit that integrates three focal concerns: educate underserved New York City communities, especially children, through dance arts; create, perform and disseminate original dances, artistic and scholarly work; and build intercultural community. The organization's vision is to enliven bodies, shift perspectives and change lives. With programming that has been called "a national model" by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mark DeGarmo Dance has maintained New York City Department of Education contracts for arts education services since 1987. MDD's artistic pillar in particular presents original artist-scholar works that reflect and celebrate the multicultural experience of our communities. Mark DeGarmo has created and produced over 100 dances and 28 international tours involving cultural diplomacy and exchange in 12 countries across Latin America and Europe. In 2015, DeGarmo received the Martha Hill Dance Fund's 15th Anniversary Mid-Career Award and the Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth Foundation's Recognition.

Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to talk with Mr. DeGarmo.

Q.Where did you grow up?

A. I grew up in a spectacular rural environment in the mid-Hudson Valley, northern Dutchess County, where children had full access to moving freely. There are advantages to growing up nourished by the natural environment, without street lights, ambient sound other than the stars unhampered by light pollution, and the smells and rhythms of an unpolluted environment.

Q. When did you first become interested in dance?

A. As a kid I saw some ballet in Poughkeepsie, but it seemed irrelevant to me. The fairytale prince and princess thing seemed ultimately hokey; I never imagined myself playing those roles. I was more intrigued by the traditional Philippine music and dance troupe that toured to our K-12 central rural school. However, it was not until I was working to become a playwright and directed my own theater troupe, "Thespians Unlimited," with about 25 local kids during my summers home from boarding school, that I "discovered" dance in what was really an epiphany. I saw Lar Lubovitch at Jacob's Pillow, and I announced the next morning to my bemused family that I wanted to pursue dance.

Q. You were 15 when you started dance classes.

A. Yes, and everyone I knew told me I was too old to dance. How's that for encouraging our youths' dreams, no matter how outlandish? I even broke off my relationship with my hometown best friend's mother, a prominent lawyer, because she told me as an 18 year old not to dance. Her rationale was that opera was the total art form and that dance was somehow debased. I suppose that was just the old argument that the body is the beast and that the skull contains the brain that drives the machine or tames the brute. Maybe it was unrecognized, tacit or implicit homophobia. I never saw her again, but her comments fortified my resolve to do what I knew I needed to do.

Q. Ballet or modern-which did you prefer?

A. Modern Dance always jumped out at me as direct experience. I initially had little context for understanding classical ballet, despite a French background linking me personally to the Court of Louis XIV. I prepared for my Juilliard audition for 18 months by training at Alfredo Corvino's Dance Circle school in Times Square. And I studied ballet for another 20 years after Juilliard. I finally achieved a decent ballet technique. And I loved the physical challenges and training ballet affords. It changed my body and broadened my perspective on dance arts. However, ballet's worldview often passes my by.

Before I attended Juilliard I enjoyed the physical challenges of Viola Farber's classes, the most difficult technique classes in New York at the time. I also studied with May O'Donnell, and Carol Conway, a former ERick Hawkins Dancer. Molissa Fenley was also part of Carol's company with me. I could always improvise and perform well, studying Kinetic Awareness for a year and performing nationally with Marilyn Wood and the Celebrations Group. However, it took years before I even understood the concept of dance "technique." And I only pursued Juilliard training when my choreographic and performative desires and imagination were no longer served by my level of professional dance training and education.

Q. You attended Juilliard. Describe what you learned there, teachers, other students?

A. Most importantly, I was part of a field with a history and players, many of whom I met. I learned that things do not always go according to plan, and that sometimes amazing things happen that you never even imagined might occur. I worked with historically significant mentors like Hanya Holm and Anna Sokolow, who invited me (I declined) to join her Players Project when I was graduated, Alfredo Corvino and Martha Hill, among many other faculty members and guest teachers. I connected with Anna in part because of our shared Mexico connections and love of theatrical rigor and passion. Juilliard taught me, in retrospect, that a life in dance is just that: a lifelong pursuit that has seized us for some reason.

Many of the lessons of Juilliard I learned later as I continued working to fully grasp my technical work and achieve the level of expertise I expected of myself as a dance artist. Juilliard taught me clearly that dance is physical first and foremost, but also theatrical, expressive, emotional, social, and many layered. The best dancers synthesize a vast array of skills and continue to explore these elements throughout their lives.

I am very grateful for the opportunity that full scholarships and additional governmental grants allowed me to attend Juilliard. For two years out of financial necessity I continued to work two to three weekend shifts at an upscale Soho restaurant. I was used to a demanding schedule, having lived in New York starting at age 18 before attending Juilliard. I was told by the director that no one attending Juilliard works outside in a job. Couldn't my family send me some money? The answer was no: my mother, was raising five children alone because of the deaths of two husbands at age 31. I learned that no one but ourselves knows what path we must follow to achieve our goals. Listen to teaching and advice of the experts, then forge your own path based on your own synthesis and analysis. That was a powerful lesson learned the hard way, with lots of support from the Juilliard community.

The Dance Division Director, Martha Hill, gave me an unusual boost by producing a concert of my choreography and performance at the end of my senior year on the stage of The Juilliard Theater. I presented a full evening-length event. One work included a Juilliard composer's work with a 50-piece percussion ensemble in the pit. This opportunity was one that kept me going for years afterwards.

Q. After graduating Juilliard did you join other companies? If so, which companies, any particular roles you enjoyed performing?

A. After Juilliard I did some soul searching. The fall after I graduated, I studied on scholarship at Cunningham for a semester with the hopes of a company position becoming available. However, I realized that this approach was not my path.

I danced with Constance Miller Dance Company in New Jersey, another Juilliard graduate. She created work including solos for me that stretched my technical range, and she encouraged my choreographic ambitions via her company's performances.

Bill Cratty, a Limon soloist, helped me break through to new levels of performance expertise and power through his ferocious drive and discipline and that of our quartet including Rise Steinberg, Jane Carrington, and Bill.

I particularly loved and dreaded dancing with Bill; he was so demanding, and we worked in hyper fast time, putting up major roles in two to three high paced rehearsals. We lost Bill and his partner, a Paul Taylor dancer, to the AIDS tragedy that ravaged the New York dance and culture worlds.

I went to Mexico to teach and live for eight weeks that summer and three weeks before the earthquake that devastated Mexico City. I came back and created and produced "Quadratic Ballet," a 12-woman 4-part homage to the Bauhaus artist, Oscar Schlemmer, and visual artist, dancer, and Bauhaus clown, Andor Weininger.

Q. How would you describe your choreographic process?

A. I adored my choreographic processes that led to the three works in my breakthrough New York season as a choreographer. The solo I created and performed on the program absorbed me fully, yet allowed me time and space to create, polish, and produce the full concert program's three works with 16 performers, including me. I was probably very demanding, but one dancer, a strip tease dancer/showgirl and stand-up comic told me at the cast party that she had missed the boat. She said she thought what I was doing was hooey because she had never experienced a similar creative process-until she saw the video at the cast party and remembered the audience's unbelievable positive cheering at all the performances. She slowly realized she had lacked an overview that might have allowed her to more fully enjoy performing in the work, and to be less self-critical. She later committed suicide, which made me feel terrible and also blessed that she had been able to share her deeply personal experiences as a performer in my work. She realized that I had believed in her as a performer, because I selected her from a highly competitive audition. I hoped that knowledge might somehow have alleviated some of the existential pain she felt.

Q. How would you describe your choreography, what influences?

A. At this point, I am my own influences. I might have mimicked my teachers and training at different points of my artistic development, but I have landed in my own time, space, and energy. Music and sound, environments and nature, current events and social injustices have been influences since I began my artistic quest. I am also a writer and poet across genres so those rhythms, sounds, and silences are part of my creative process. I am self-referential at this point, even when I created "Las Fridas," about Frida Kahlo's life and work over six years. My own narrative is present because it is my interpretation of Frida's life that has changed and deepened over more than 30 years of traveling to and living in Mexico and feeling Mexico's heartbeat as my own.

Q. Tell me about "Las Fridas."

A. My movement installation and offering ,"Las Fridas," is a new form. It combines, theater, movement and dance, performance art, visual art, and music, including the performers own vocalizations. We are still at the threshold of transgenerative awareness and fluid identity shifting and self-identification, which opens new realms of possibility for the individual and the collective across cultures around the world. So it does not surprise me that some people cannot or refuse to perceive and understand my role as "Light Frida" as that of a female, albeit in a shape-shifting or dreamscape guise. I'm not interested in literal story telling, or I might have aspired to be a ballet or commercial choreographer. I am more influenced by my Latin American experiences across ten countries and many more cultures to date, including indigenous communities in Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and the USA.

Q. How would you describe the technical demands of your choreography?

A. I do not default to listing the technical dance influences on my work, because I believe that technique is a means, just as theory is a means, and not an end in itself. I certainly studied broadly, deeply and rigorously the various schools of classical modern. However, I had to push back against a number of teachers and dance writers who did not like my work and used their own connoisseurship as their interpretive, pedagogical, evaluative methodology, a valid qualitative-artistic research methodology as described by qualitative research expert Michael Patton. And I know, there are schools of thought in dance training, composition and criticism that ascribe to this core belief in how to advance creativity and creative process studies and ultimately the field of concert dance itself. However, as a transdisciplinarian, I bring together expertise in three or more knowledge fields and domains as an interpretive lens.

Q. Have you ever choreographed for other companies?

A. I have choreographed an industrial show for Glaxo with a 24-member company I auditioned and assembled. I created a quartet,"Excavations," for members of Contémpora in Lima, Peru during my Fulbright, and when I included them in a 19-member dance and music ensemble I auditioned and assembled for performances of "Huellas en el Camino." My USA Department of State American Cultural Specialist Award included my creating "Relative Tranquility" for the National Dance Company of Ecuador in Quito. I've also set "Attachments" on the dance group at Mexico's National School of Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance at the National Center for the Arts in Mexico City. During our tour to El Salvador, during the last year of the civil war, I included Salvadoran dancers in "Ballplays" to perform with our company at the National Theater in San Salvador. One goal for the tour, set-up and promoted by Fulbright dance scholar Jan Hanvik, was to encourage Salvadorans to venture back downtown after dark, which had not been the case since Archbishop Romero's infamous murder during mass in the National Cathedral. Our performance was so successful that additional seats were set up in the aisles of the opera house to accommodate upwards of the 1,000 people attending. Jan Hanvik, the previously mentioned former dancer and teaching artist with my company, also taught "Perpetual Motion and Circle Dance" to Salvadoran dancers to perform in one of San Salvador's major plazas.

Q. What prompted you to found your own company?

A. I wanted to develop a sustainable structure to support my creative vision and work. I recognized the fragility with which one works in the arts without a trust fund or a well-heeled spouse. In 1987 the not-for-profit model seemed the most logical way to proceed, with its public service requirements and my lifelong interests in serving and educating the public. The dance boom might not have been quite over, so the Dance Company models stemming from Diaghilev and the big modern dance companies still seemed viable. However, I soon discovered that I needed to develop alternative markets, because, despite my successes and commitment, few people would buy, fund, or pay for modern dance experiences, performative or educational. I developed a tri-part mission, integrating my expertise in dance creation, performance and dissemination, including early interests in archival development, education; and intercultural community. I began teaching with local, regional, national, and international opportunities I located and convinced to work with me and for larger known cultural institutions, such as Lincoln Center and The Joyce Theater. I later decided I needed to further develop my own educational program, because my intellectual and professional learning needs and those of my students were no longer served by my employment for other organizations.

Q. Tell me about your dance education program?

A. I have always had a dual path, including dance creation and performance and dance education. I have maintained NYC DOE vendor contracts to deliver arts education services to students and families and professional development for teachers and administrators since 1988. Ours is a rigorous research-based interdisciplinary dance-arts partnership-based program design. Some of our schools have worked with us for the past 15 years. We are currently in the process of developing a mini-residency program for services that are not designed as semester-long programs of study, but rather five or six-session exposure projects for NYC DOE schools, without the capacity to engage in our multi-year partnership approach. Ours is a seven-year scope and sequence of dance arts learning, emphasizing the elements of dance and connected with the school curricula and the learning standards and arts blueprints, which I helped develop as a volunteer consultant for the City of New York for its 1.1 million students and 1,500 schools.

Q. What prompted you to go for your Doctorate of Philosophy in Experiential Education and the Arts?

A. I was at a crossroads, feeling bored with the discourses of dance and arts education in New York. I felt that I was forced to continue working at a bachelor's level with the arts education institutions employing me. I needed new mentors, experiences, and peers working at different levels of inquiry and research. I felt I had something unique to contribute that I was not able to access or produce while continuing in the activities I was pursuing. I had met Fulbright peers who were doctoral candidates and full professors in Peru from various fields during my Fulbright fellowship, and wanted to gain deeper theoretical understanding based on my deeply rooted practice in dance improvisation, choreography, and performance.

Q. The National Endowment for the Arts peer panel called your grades pre K-5 seven year sequential program "a national model." Can you tell me more about that?

A. Since 2002, we have received five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for our educational programs with elementary students in New York City. The competition for their limited funds is generally rather fierce. There have been times when the panel's comments indicated that our scores were all excellent and outstanding, yet our overall score was not high enough to receive funding. However, for the past two years the peer panel noted that ours is a national model. This finding is supported by research from the National Dance Education Organization that only 1-4% of USA elementary schools have a program similar to ours--an in-depth, multi-year learning standards and curriculum-based program largely funded by an outside organization, with an intentional scope and sequence of curriculum design, in our case a seven-year program of Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 5 study and a Curriculum Framework we developed. What also distinguishes our program from our peers is interdisciplinary integration into the elementary school curriculum; a rigorous assessment and evaluation component; professional learning that is two-way from the school to us and vice versa; a 125-hour Professional Learning Program for our highly qualified teaching artists (we took 5% of applicants in our audition process two years ago); family programs similar to what the students experience; viewing live professional performances at cultural institutions citywide; and a rigorous reflection and reflective practice component for students via journal writing, including visual arts entries. I am proud of these comments from NEA peer panelists, having served on two panels for the NEA, and expect to further investigate the implications of such support as we develop our next five-year business plan.

Q. What can we expect from you in the future?

A. This year we will be developing our next five-year business plan 2018-23, so I appreciate this question. On the educational side of our work I am working to sustain and expand our schools' programs. I want to participate in ongoing research projects about the impact of the work on children's social/emotional development, cognition, and academic achievement. I would like to make a contribution to the literature of the fields of education, dance, dance education, arts education, and urban education; and possibly work nationally and internationally on these questions, issues, and concerns.

In terms of intercultural community building, I want to broaden my experiences to include travel and work in Asia and Africa. I want to continue promoting crossing boundaries of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and divides in New York City.

I have been invited by multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy Award winning composer Carlos Franzetti to choreograph his "Dante Porteño," set in the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and dealing with issues surrounding the Dirty Wars based on Dante's "Inferno." We want to first create a version with two grand pianos played by concert pianists Allison Brewster Franzetti and Polly Ferman, the founder of Pan American Musical Art Research; and then perform with live orchestra. We aim to perform in New York and Argentina for starters.

I am working to premiere "Las Fridas" in three museums with three casts in Mexico City in 2017. I am also planning to co-create and perform a duet for world premiere in 2017 with Mexico's National Institute of Fine Arts' 2016 Medallion Awardee, dancer and choreographer Isabel Beteta de Cou. We have been friends for a long time, and I admire Isabel's commitment to dance in Mexico and worldwide. I have also been invited by 92nd Street Y Dance Curator Catherine Tharin to perform in their Mexico Festival next May. I have also joined New York-based Jodi Kaplan & Associates/Booking Dance's roster of dance artists for national and international touring of my projects starting this year.

That's a lot, and I look forward to each and every challenge.

Photograph: Leon Anthony James