An Interview with Scott Putman
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Scott Putman is a professor of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and the artistic director of Amaranth Contemporary Dance in Richmond, VA. He is currently working on a project that focuses on the issues faced by women in a male-dominated world by fostering physical dialogue to “hear” how his female dancers might best represent themselves in his work. As the only male I have interviewed in this series, Scott brings a unique perspective on the topic of women leadership in choreography.
When you were training, did you have aspirations to direct and choreograph beyond dancing?
I didn’t start training until I was about 20 years old. I entered the field much later than most, so I was always in catch-up mode. I never for the life of me thought I would a director, teacher and choreographer. I was just so happy to be dancing; I took whatever came my way.
Because there are so many more females than males in dance, do you believe males are encouraged more than females?
Generally, there’s a disservice that happens in the industry because men are treated very differently than women. They get free passes on so much because there are fewer of them. When teachers perpetuate this behavior, it also perpetuates the expectation that they’ll get a job because they are male. In my opinion, women have to work at a higher level to be seen than men do. Why should we be celebrating less accomplished men when we should be celebrating all these powerful women who can dance circles around them?
For me, I had a female teacher I revered. Ironically, I didn’t look to male teachers to find my masculinity; instead, I watched a powerful mover who happened to be female. I never saw myself in a gender-specific role. I just wanted to be as fierce as my teacher.
Do you believe the reasons why men routinely hold leadership positions in dance are coincidental or endemic?
It’s not coincidental at all. Our culture—our patriarchal society—is holding our community hostage. People believe if there isn’t a male director, donors will give less money. People believe things have to stay the way they are for dance to function and be produced. There are so many falsehoods we keep buying into for all kinds of justification.
Many of the choices that companies make default back to funding. It’s not about the art form. Many decisions have nothing to do with the creative process or the excellence of the choreography. It’s about people continuing to play prescribed roles without wanting to go through the process of reeducating audiences or dancers. We need to reeducate the entire field. That’s what’s necessary.
What might help more female dancers become interested in taking on leadership roles?
We need to create an environment that allows them to think they can take on leadership roles. For example, at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) right now, I’m doing a work on the female students that engages in a dialogue about this topic. As a male choreographer, I can’t just shove my perceptions down their throats. Then I’m not meeting them halfway. I want to understand my dancers as humans within the context of the work.
Some of the questions I’ve asked them are: What does it mean to you to be a woman? A female dancer? A female of color? It was fascinating, because their response was that they’d never asked themselves those questions. If women aren’t asking themselves these questions, then they probably won’t give themselves permission to step forward and become leaders. On the other hand, men just assume empowerment. We have to create the environment where women are empowered enough to say, “Yes, I have the skills and abilities to do this. I have the talents and skillsets that will allow for the evolution of our art form.”
As a man, I want this. I want more people to be choreographing. This idea of limited abundance will cause the art form to fold in on itself. I love dance, so my feeling is I want ladies to get out there, express themselves, and challenge me in the process. Why aren’t we working together to challenge each other, regardless of gender? There’s nothing to fear.
What was the impetus for your current project with your students?
The work, called “Echoes of the Round,” is a piece on nine women. The piece is about being able to reframe how we hear, see and experience our current reality. It came about because I think there’s so much going on in our society that we’re not hearing because we’re not listening. And if we’re not listening, there’s no way we’re going to be able to do the work it takes to break through these issues.
The last time I set a piece on VCU students, I purposefully worked with all men in order to discover what shaping an all-male cast would be like. I found the process very frustrating. Because of the way men are built up, they don’t perceive themselves honestly. They are constantly projecting roles of themselves. It was fascinating to direct and contend with that when trying to find a courageous vulnerability that I believe is necessary for my work. It was difficult.
This time, I purposefully started working with all women, and I decided that I, as a male, need to honor their perspective so I can make a work where they are comfortable, strong, powerful and vulnerable. A lot of dialogue and listening is happening on both ends.
I ask them for observations. Is the movement language resonating? Are they noticing imagery that’s coming from what we’ve discussed? What connections are they feeling? Do movements feel congruent or forced? We’ve made quick progress building the piece. The atmosphere of the rehearsal process is a joy. It’s so fun. It’s a place where we come in, do our work, laugh and have fun. And it’s pretty serious work.
Have you done this process of deep listening in previous works, or is it a new approach?
I usually do a lot of writing and use it as a listening process for myself. I haven’t dialogued as much with my dancers. This kind of integrated exchange is new for me. Oftentimes, I’ve been in positions where I have to go and pump out a work in a short amount of time. But I’m tired of working that way. I want to make the work I want in the ways I want. And in order to grow as a choreographer, I need to listen more. I need to listen to my dancers. They don’t generate movement; I generate it all, which is why it’s even more important I listen to them. The more common way of working in contemporary choreography these days involves having the dancers improvise, but I don’t work like that. There’s a feedback loop from my dancers about how the movement I made speaks to them. What I’m seeing happen is they are more present and empowered within the work.
When will the piece be presented and how?
This particular work will be presented at VCU in February, but is part of a larger project called The Listening Project, where I follow the same listening process in choreography on all kinds of different issues that are of concern. It’s part of a larger arc that will take a full year. We’re looking at issues relating to women, gender, gender identity, gender equality, race and sexuality.
How will this process influence your future works?
I can’t help that I’m a man; that’s never going to change. But I have to change as a man inside the process so that I might welcome people into the kind of environment I want to live and create in. I have to make a considerate effort now and in my future about the people standing in front of me and around me.
I’m a dance-maker, it’s what I do, but I can be better. How can I express my thoughts and allow them to resonate? Through exchange, not through dictating. I don’t need to practice the normative and prescribed behavior that isn’t really even who I am.
Any other thoughts?
I’m changing as a human in this process. If we’re going to find new ways of working, men are going to have to change. It’s our responsibility to the art form. Doing so doesn’t diminish who I am, my power or my skills. In fact, it enhances them. I’m changing, and for the better. I’m going to make better work. We’re all going to make better work.
Scott Putman is an associate professor of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also the founder and artistic director of Amaranth Contemporary Dance (www.amarantharts.com) as well as the creator of the Elemental Body Alignment System©(www.doebas.com) and faculty member in the Summer Arts Program at the Accademia dell’ Arte in Arezzo, Italy. Scott’s work continues to be presented internationally in Italy, Mexico and Scotland as well as nationally in showcases and festivals with commissions by both ballet and modern dance companies. He has danced for Mordine and Company Dance Theatre, Dimitrius Klein Dance Company, Minnesota Ballet, Ballet Theatre of Chicago, Donald McKayle, David Alan, Douglas Becker, and Geri Houlihan. Scott received his BA from Columbia College and MFA from the University of California at Irvine, where he was a Chancellors Fellow and William Gillespie Scholar.