So I Got a Grant! (Or Three.) Here's How, and Why It Means Everything and Nothing
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
I believe in my work—as I imagine all choreographers do. I work hard, have sleepless nights, have emptied bank accounts and participated in other questionable ethics in support of my work and the people that realize it.
At the time of my grant rant, I had even received nominations, awards and fellowships for my work. Notably, the Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography, a NYFA fellowship, a fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, a nomination for Most Innovative Choreography by the fans of Dance Magazine and a Princess Grace Award.
Now, I don't believe that these are ingredients for deserving a grant. However, something was telling me that I was doing okay. That my work didn't suck. And that I had promise (in the eyes of my community) as a choreographer.
The awards and fellowships came mostly as a result of past work. They were validation awards, like, "Congratulations you did that" awards. Again, this is not a complaint. I am ever-grateful to be recognized for work that I have done and happy to receive a cash prize to clean up the debt I accrued when I made it.
But I wanted to be trusted to create a work in what we all know to be a true state of creating work: The Unknown.
Perhaps I was naive to think that there must be enough money to go around for everyone to have an idea.
Or maybe I was just rushing my turn in line. Maybe an opportunity does come for each of us and when it's your turn, you have something to prove.
Again, I am not complaining, I am learning. I can see my former 'not-granted' self saying to my 'artist having received a grant' self: "At least you got something," "Shut up," and "Yes, you do have something to prove!" It feels like everyone is watching me choreograph for my life. Hashtag good luck and don't f%#! it up.
So, what do I attribute getting a grant to, you ask? Here are three notable things:
- I stayed angry
- I got focused
- I made more work
Kelly in UGLY
Maria Baranova, Courtesy the feather3r theory
Anger is a kind of energy. I have always believed in that. That said, I never thought about using my anger to write a grant.
A friend, Young Jean Lee, offered to take a look at my Creative Capital application. She felt it was generic, if I remember correctly, and that it had no fire. I felt that I had written out the grant exactly the way they wanted it. I'd taken a number of webinars, retreats and free courses for grant writing and had received positive feedback.
Young Jean Lee asked me to re-write my project proposal and to use as many expletives as I could.
What? Yes! Like, curse my proposal out. She then took out all the expletives and sent the proposal back to me. The results proved to be worth it. My proposal had a fire, a directness, and was saturated with the excitement I had for wanting to do it in the first place. Not the dreary, blithe and overeager proposal that I came to recognize I was writing.
Here's an example:
WEDNESDAY is a project that uses Sidney Lumet's 1975 film "Dog Day Afternoon" as the impetus for a live genre-bending dance-theater production, bringing life to the untold stories of those marginalized and scrutinized because of their race and life expression. The movie is based on a real-life story in the seventies about a gay bank-robber who is short of money for his boyfriend Leon's sex change. The story we're telling belongs to Leon, the boyfriend—a cabaret performer whose gender identity is compromised by societal norms and concerns over public health.
And the revise, using the advice I received (with many expletives removed):
This project is a ripping to shreds of "Dog Day Afternoon" and a revolution of what the story is really about which is how f&^K*d up it is that Leon was forced to go to mental institution because of living truthfully as a woman. Wednesday is the name of a cabaret club where people come in and never leave. Instead they get eaten alive by their worst nightmares. It's a place where film noir meets psychological thriller meets the most extreme overwhelming pop soap opera. It's a utopia queer story telling. I question what it means that people can not live truthfully And I cherish the opportunities to live my fantasies, utopias, and tell these stories through the performance of art.
This really invigorated me. It turned on a different kind of focus. I deactivated my Facebook. I quit dancing. I stopped teaching. And I took administration and design jobs where I could work from home.
None of this was easy. I love dancing and performing; I always wanted to be a choreographer who also had a career performing simultaneously. I had to give that up. At least for the time being. Or maybe I will make some solos.
My interest in my artistry is not fulfilled by just making work. Because truly that can be done without a grant. I can get up from this computer and make a dance, create a performance. Easy. But it's not truly what I want to do as an artist.
I feel my calling is to contribute to culture, to be a part of the conversations—via art and performance—that might move our culture forward and subsequently change the world. I believe in building communities by creating work, and offering a creative space for like-minded individuals or even the merely interested.
To ask people to take part in your dream, to realize your vision, you have to give back to them three-fold. It feels like I work for them. And I am okay with that. While I am the lead artist for a shared vision, I am also the lead businessman, the lead worker-bee. It's my job to find opportunities for my artist community of dancers, actors, performers, filmmakers and photographers to do their work.
I believe that artists have the capacity to change the world and that is a part of what can be upsetting when you aren't granted the opportunity to do so. It feels like you're being told your intentions are not worthy, that no one cares. That can't be true.
So, I expanded.
I looked for more opportunities to create, and articulate my work. This also helped with grant writing. Meeting and working with people who have no idea how you conceive work, think about space or choreograph bodies forces you to rethink how you explain yourself. Every conversation was an opportunity to re-draft a grant proposal.
I also took a position as the artistic director of New Brooklyn Theatre. I wanted to protect and advance my work. I wanted use my skills as a maker and thought-leader to do more for others. I wanted to provide a home for the people I work for.
Kelly accepting the Harkness Promise Award along with Ephrat Asherie, from Joan Finkelstein at the Dance Magazine Awards
Now, while I don't think any of this is a magic trick, I can't ignore that the results changed.
My company and I received our first grant, and then another, and then another. The end of my 2018 and the beginning on my 2019 was a true blessing that I am eternally grateful for. I received the inaugural Harkness Promise Award, the inaugural Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, a 2019 Creative Capital Grant and I was named the 2019-20 Randjelovic/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist at New York Live Arts, which is one of the biggest awards a mid-career choreographer can receive. This is unbelievable!!!!
So, now I am in the strange position: I have just spent a great deal of time condemning the grant cycle and the institutions that award them and now I am a part of the group of people I was once very jealous of and angry with.
I feel lucky, and I also feel that I have been working very hard for a long time. I do feel deserving, but I also feel that there are so many others that are, too. I still think that granting organizations can be biased, and I also hope that they saw something special in me.
While I believe that in order for artists to write better applications, we deserve better feedback, I also learned that Creative Capital had over 5000 applications and only awarded 54. I don't know how to make 4,946 individualized feedback letters happen.
I also know that while my company has received a great deal of cash and resources, we still need more and we always will. Just as New York City Ballet and the Brooklyn Academy of Music still have galas and fundraisers every year, we will too. (Shameless plug for our 3rd annual 24-hour $15,000 fundraising Tele-Gala-Dance-A-Thon here.) There is no end to this journey. Just stages.
Keep your journeys going, folx. There are no rules, shortcuts, or perfect top-10 must dos. If I have learned anything, it's that it's really complex. But I think I already knew that.
Integrity is the most important thing in the world. Every choreographer's journey is different. Ask for help. And what works for me: Stay angry, get focused and make as much work as you can as often as you can. No experience can be taken for granted.
I am happy to share my full applications with anyone who is interested in reading them. I think seeing the differences between what a rejected application and an awarded application looks like could be extremely helpful. I am also willing and wanting to read applications of other artists (time-permitting) and offer any assistance that would be helpful. We are a community beyond Kickstarter, Facebook, Instagram and opening night.
Getting a grant has meant everything to me. But the work we make is nothing without a supportive community to share it with. And while I am hardly done complaining, I am hoping to share what I have earned and learned continually and generously.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.