Fifty Years Already?!
Fresh Tracks is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Like anything (or anyone) five decades old, it’s gone through its share of transitions and name changes. The program, created to support the work of emerging choreographers, dates from the very beginning of Dance Theater Workshop (DTW), which was formed in 1965 by a collective of young choreographers and dancers. That same year, they began holding a series of informal performances at co-founder Jeff Duncan’s loft on 215 West 20th Street.
In an article in the August 1965 issue of Dance Magazine, giddily titled “Excitement on 20th Street,” photojournalist Lida Moser reported on DTW’s Studio Series, as the precursor to Fresh Tracks was then called. She was taken aback by the bare-bones stage—“an open space surrounded by folding chairs”—but goes on to say that “the performances were so engrossing that I became an aficionado and attended regularly. I was never disappointed.”
In contrast to the current Fresh Tracks’ selection process, those early days were audition-free. Ze’eva Cohen, one of DTW’s original artists, recalls, “we were a fairly small group, we knew each other’s work, and there was a mutual trust that whatever we wished to experiment with was accepted.” Each program featured new work by five to eight choreographers, and the popularity of the series grew rapidly with both audiences and aspiring artists. Wendy Perron came through the doors in 1969 as a recent college graduate from Bennington: she had a casual audition, showing a short solo from her senior year to Jeff Duncan and Rudy Perez, who was just finishing his own rehearsal and stayed to pull up a chair.
In 1975, DTW moved to 219 West 19th Street and David White became the organization’s first full-time employee (he remained as Executive Director until 2003). In comparison to Duncan’s loft, which was definitely a live-work situation (Wendy remembers, “it was his shower, his refrigerator, and his studio space that we used”), the new location boasted a 100-seat theater, rehearsal studio, and even a lobby. Studio Series was renamed “The Choreographer’s Showcase” and presented a total of 12 artists annually (fall and spring programs of six artists each). An official panel of judges presided over the audition, and the program became a significant stepping stone into the Dance Theater Workshop “downtown dance” scene.
The Choreographer’s Showcase attracted young artists from disparate backgrounds and styles. In 1977, Bill T. Jones was part of a Showcase with Donald Byrd and Catherine Turocy, who was then producing her own modern choreography in addition to the Baroque dance she is now known for; at the time, Bill T. was struck by her “experiments with sound and gesture.”
David White memorably made the calls to the selected artists himself. Tiffany Mills (1996) recalls “a thrilling phone call announcing our acceptance,” which sent her and fellow performer Ursula Payne “jumping up and down in the snow.” Patricia Hoffbauer (1990) was simultaneously laughing and crying over the message David left on her machine, “saying the piece was a mess, chaotic and confusing and the props were awful…and that people really felt that way about my work (not just the panelists). Then he took a breath and said, ‘but we took your piece, but you HAVE to work with [set designer] Candy Jernigan who will help you fix your props…if you are unwilling to do that…I am not sure.’“
And as for his famously direct delivery, Maura Donohue (1995) remembers that David “told me I needed to ‘lose the guy.’ I had included my current boyfriend in the piece (though it had been created as a solo). I took David’s advice in more ways than one.”
Since 1965, this program has launched and supported the careers of over 500 artists, influencing each generation of dance makers and performers. The roster includes a slew of well-recognized names—Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, David Parsons, Meredith Monk, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, Doug Varone, David Parker, Doug Elkins—and many other, lesser-known artists who have gone on to become established choreographers, performers, teachers, historians, and writers.
What comes through an admittedly scattershot survey of participants is the long-term impact of being selected for Studio Series/Choreographer’s Showcase/Fresh Tracks. Below is a selection of observations by former participants ranging from 1970 – 2009.
For Wendy Perron (1970, 1972), “That period was the beginning of defining myself as a dancer and choreographer. “
Catherine Turocy (1977) affirms, “Appearing on the Choreographer’s Showcase was a big stamp of approval for some one like me, fresh out of college.”
Bill T. Jones (1977) appeared at the Clark Center’s Dance Festival at the Mall of the CUNY Graduate Center (W. 42nd Street) in 1976. “I realized that – as for my career origins – these two “solo premiere performances” seem to have no relationship to each other as Clark Center was Uptown and DTW/Fresh Tracks was decidedly Downtown. You might say that my entire career has been trying to resolve these two points of origin that happened within one year of each other.”
Maura Donohue (1995) declares, “In many ways, Fresh Tracks was THE start of things. It opened the door to a long relationship with DTW…it brought me ‘inside the circle’ of working artists in the community. It made me believe this whole life as an artist might be possible.”
Jen Rosenblit (2009) notes that, “participating in Fresh Tracks helped me sharpen the specific cultures around the ways I approach dance making.“
Continued post-merger by New York Live Arts, the Fresh Tracks Performance and Residency Program selects six early career artists annually to receive performance and residency support. The program begins with a showcase performance, followed by a 50-hour creative residency in the New York Live Arts studios along with introductory level professional development workshops.
What Moser said in her 1965 article still rings true about the Fresh Tracks performances, “yes, I liked certain works better than others. But it is always stimulating to see young talent make its way to exposure.”
We’d love to hear additional thoughts and memories about Fresh Tracks – please share them in the comments below.
With special thanks to Ze’eva Cohen, Maura Donohue, Patricia Hoffbauer, Bill T. Jones, Tiffany Mills, Wendy Perron, Jen Rosenblit, and Catherine Turocy for taking the time to generously share their memories.