An Interview with Rebecca Salzer
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
This interview is part of Where Dance Is, a series of interviews with high level dance artists working in places not well known for dance.
Rebecca Salzer, Photo by Anna Ryndova
What city do you live and work in?
I live and work in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I also occasionally work in other locations when I have collaborative projects. For example, I did a performance in Chicago last summer and I’m shooting a film in San Diego in April.
How did you come to live and work in Tuscaloosa?
In July, I moved here to join the faculty at the University of Alabama.
My path to academic dance — and here — has been meandering. I was training very seriously in ballet in my late teens, and I thought going to college meant quitting dance. So, when I was lucky enough to be accepted at Yale, I imagined I was going there to find a new career path. Other than student groups, there was no dance at Yale.
Yale was a great experience and, paradoxically, while I was there I began to realize that dance was actually what I wanted to pursue. I did a little bit of dancing in London after college and moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter. I was in San Francisco for about 14 years. I danced a bit for independent choreographers and also began choreographing my own work. After a few years I started Rebecca Salzer Dance Theatre.
My husband and I began to consider leaving the Bay Area after having our second child. The economics of the place were becoming impossible for us. We weren’t sure where to go. We had thought we’d never leave the Bay Area; we really identified with the place artistically and personally. We ended up moving to Portland, Oregon for a couple years. While we were there, I did a residency at Emory University in Atlanta and realized I wanted to go to graduate school so I could teach in a university setting.
I went to grad school at UC San Diego, where I was one of two graduate students in the first year of their Dance Theatre program. It’s a program based largely on the European model of dance theatre, and it suited my interests perfectly. I got the benefit of working closely with the excellent dance faculty as well as UCSD’s nationally-respected theatre program. While it’s not a metropolis in the same way San Francisco is, there was plenty to see and do and wonderful people to work with. San Diego’s still a creative home of sorts for me.
Out of graduate school I got a job at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. That was the first time I really felt off the beaten artistic path. Last spring I was offered a tenure track position at the University of Alabama, so we moved to Tuscaloosa last July.
“Stereoblind” (2011), Pictured: Alicia Peterson Baskel, Liam Clancy and Anya Cloud, Photo by Colin McGurk
Can you describe your current dance practice?
I teach at least one technique class a term, and I also teach choreography and history. This is a vibrant and exciting dance program. There are over 150 dance majors, and the level of student dancers is very high. It’s excellent for my own dance practice to be in the studio with them, both as a teacher and choreographer.
I’m still trying to figure out how to be an artist in this part of the country. When we’re a bit more settled, I hope to connect more with the dance community in Birmingham, and to find some more outlets for myself as a performer.
About 20 years ago, I started making screen dances. I didn’t realize I was going to move around the country the way that I’ve had to for academic jobs, but screen dance-making has allowed me to continue important collaborative relationships from a distance. In April, for example, I’ll shoot a film in San Diego with collaborators from San Diego, Chicago and Oregon.
I’ve also found that the community I was part of in San Francisco has remained important as many of us have dispersed for various reasons.
How would you describe the dance scene in Tuscaloosa?
I don’t know that it’s fair for me to answer yet. I interact most with the other six full-time dance faculty at the University of Alabama, and I’m very grateful for them. At Lawrence, I was the only dance faculty member, and I found that lonely. And, as I mentioned, I’ve barely gotten to know the dance community in Birmingham.
What do you perceive are some benefits to working within dance in a smaller community?
When you do find and connect with peers, you really value those connections. Time in the studio with other professional artists feels precious and delicious. I had to work harder and travel farther to find a community when I was teaching in Appleton, but the people I met and performed with in those years are dear to me.
What do you perceive are some drawbacks to working within dance in a smaller community?
It’s hard to stay fed and nourished. In smaller places, you end up generating a lot more of your own experiences, and at a certain point, you need some outside inspiration.
What do you perceive you can give to your dance community you wouldn’t necessarily be able to give in a larger dance scene?
Being in a smaller pond, I do feel that I can have a larger impact.
Any other thoughts?
Living outside of the metropolis would be completely different without all that the digital world allows us to do. I can meet with colleagues and also, to some extent, rehearse, over Skype. The ease of exchanging recorded material makes a lot possible, and then there’s just the fact that I have instant access to so much dance media from around the world. I think these digital tools, plus the continued financial challenges of being a performing artist, are shifting a lot of dance-makers away from the metropolis.
“Bird Lady” (2014), Pictured: Kristina Fluty and Liz Burritt, Photo by Anna Ryndova
Rebecca Salzer is interested in collaborative and multi-disciplinary art-making. Her recent work for the stage has been seen at Links Hall Chicago, Highways Performance Space in Los Angeles and The La Jolla Playhouse. Her films and videos continue to be programmed in national and international film festivals and on PBS-affiliate stations. Rebecca is a Jacob K. Javits Fellow. She holds a B.A. in Humanities from Yale University and an M.F.A. in Dance Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. After several years as a visiting professor at Lawrence University, this past fall she joined the University of Alabama faculty as Assistant Professor of Dance. For more info visit rebeccasalzer.com.