A Conversation with….Leah Wilks

This article is the third in our series of “Conversations With” members of the creative community in the Triangle who are thinking big, working hard and making a difference in our Region. 

Today, writer Tim Scales talks to Leah Wilks of LeahWilkesDance.  In this interview, Leah talks about her work, how she works and, perhaps more importantly, why she has chosen to do it in the Triangle.  For more on this, listen to Leah’s  Interview with David Dower on the Theater Blog “HowlAround”.

by Tim Scales

You were raised in the Triangle, then moved away for several years. What brought you back to Durham, and how has being back influenced you as an artist?

Leah: Well, there were a number of things that brought me back to NC and then to Durham in particular.  Primarily, I was living in the Bay Area right after graduating from college and I think over the course of the year or so that I lived there I had the slow epiphany that really I wanted to be making my own work. While the Bay was a great place to learn, I also realized that it would take a long time to establish myself enough to do the kinds of things I wanted to do artistically. I think I realized that in moving back to the Triangle I could bring those same sorts of artistic dreams to fruition in a much shorter period of time.  While I love performing other people’s work, the desire to create my own pieces has always been what has primarily driven me in dance.

How has being back here influenced me as an artist?  In a billion ways. What I love about this area is that it’s big enough that I’m always meeting new artists whose work I can’t believe I’ve never come across before, and when we make plans to meet up and further discuss what we’re working on they ALWAYS follow through.  That doesn’t happen in a lot of artistic hubs.  I think being in a place where I don’t have to work ALL the time to make ends meet means that I can afford to spend time creating my own work, meeting with other creative folks to find out more about what they’re doing, and discussing how, collectively, we might expand the scope of the artistic scene in the Triangle area.

There’s also something about being in an area that is, in some ways, at the beginning of really growing its arts scene (particularly dance) that makes me feel that we have the phenomenal opportunity here to develop the arts as we see fit; that we don’t have to create our work within somebody else’s tried and true model – that we can create our own paradigm and platform for exploration.  In some ways that makes it hard.  We don’t have some of the institutions in place (particularly in terms of space and funding) that larger cities have.  But that lack of traditional support also means that we have to be more creative in how we get things done, oftentimes leading to our being able to produce work in ways we might not otherwise have imagined.

Your work tends to cite many collaborators. Why is that?

Leah: I love collaborating with other artists – they get me out of my own head!  I suppose what it really comes down to is that I’m interested in creating worlds for participants/spectators/audience members to enter into – spaces in which they can confront themselves, hear other stories, and see other alternatives for how things might be.  I have some knowledge about how to do that through movement and relationship between people on stage and through music and audio documentary work.  However, I know that someone working in film, or costume design or visual installation may be able to help that world come to life in a way I could never conceptualize of on my own.  In addition to the artistic inspiration that comes out of those collaborations, the added beauty is also in getting to work with people who understand what I’m doing and who are there as a supportive sounding board when I think that my own ideas may have gone off the deep-end.  At least for me, working with a collaborative group means forming another sort of family, effectively counteracting the loneliness that is allegedly supposed to accompany the artistic process.

One of the stated goals of your dance company is to cultivate a professional performing arts scene in the Triangle. What does that mean to you?

Leah:  Oh man. That means a lot of different things to me. Primarily, it means showing the artists that you work with or that work for you that you value them as professionals – that their time and dedication is worth something.  In a very large sense, I think that means paying your collaborators if they’re working on a project of your design. I’ve discussed this with other artists and have been surprised how many of them agree with me on the idea that it’s not even so much about the amount that you’re paid, but more about the fact that someone thinks highly enough of you to take the effort to show you some token of their appreciation. The stipends we can afford aren’t even in the ballpark of what their time and dedication mean to the project, but we hope it’s at least some small way of saying, ‘look, you’re an amazing artist and this project could not have possibly happened without you’.

Besides paying people, I think the other primary way of helping cultivate the professional performing arts scene here is by providing platforms and situations for people to continue to develop professionally.  Basically, that means I spend a lot of time meeting with different people to discuss various ways of developing business workshops for artists, organizing professional-level technique classes for dancers, and figuring out ways in which we might better provide opportunities for choreographers to develop and present new work.

The hope with creating collaborative projects with other artists is also that their work will then be seen by artists within other disciplines who might not otherwise see it.  Additionally, if, for example, a film friend of mine comes up to me at some point and says that they need someone to score their film, I can then give them the name of one of the fabulous musicians with whom I worked on my last project.  It’s ultimately all about growing connections, accessibility and feasibility.

What is your current project, and what inspired the creation of it?

A scene from "Secrets I Never Told My Mother"

Leah: Our current project is an evening-length multi-media dance performance entitled Secrets I Never Told My Mother.  It’s a collaboration between myself and filmmaker Jon Haas of HaaStudios. The whole project began about two years ago when I was taking an Audio Documentary course at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. We had a short assignment to create a five-minute audio documentary piece on any subject we wanted. I had a few different ideas but when I mentioned to a few of my classmates that I was toying with the idea of asking people to tell me a secret they never told their mother they instantly responded with enthusiasm that they thought this was the idea I should go with for my project.

So I started interviewing people. The responses were phenomenal.  Some interviews lasted 20 minutes, some two hours.  The more I dove into the material the more I realized that I had effectively taken on a project much larger in scope than my 5 minute audio documentary piece.  People wanted to talk about this stuff! I decided to continue interviewing people after the class had ended and then decided that while audio documentary is a fabulous form of communication in its own right, the way that I communicate best (and the way in which I have the most training) is through choreography.

After working on another collaborative project with Jon, we started discussing future project dreams…I brought up Secrets I Never Told My Mother to him, not at all anticipating him wanting to get on board, but, lo and behold, he was intrigued and thus became my full-time collaborator on the project.  We then began rehearsing with dancers in March 2012…and bit by bit other pieces started to fall into place.

What are your future goals, after “Secrets I Never Told My Mother?”

Leah: That’s a big question. Take a nap. HA. Seriously though? Keep creating work, keep dancing, keep moving, keep collaborating.  Jon’s got some artistic dreams of his own that I’d love to help him realize.  There are a few dance film ideas being tossed around by other folks in the area that I’d be game to get involved in.  Probably start collecting for another big piece, hopefully dance in a few other people’s work, create some smaller pieces…mostly though I see myself needing to focus on growing myself and my community more before I pour myself into another big project.  Definitely focusing on my teaching more.  Oh, but there are other project ideas pouring out of my ears – it’s just working up the energy again to take another one on.  There are some old buildings I want to get into…but that’s getting ahead of myself.  Let’s just leave it a taking a nap.

Tim Scales runs Wagon Wheel Arts Promotion, providing marketing, public relations, producing, and online services to the arts and artists in North Carolina. Get in touch at www.wagonwheelarts.org

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