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Daily Inspiration: Meet Sidra Bell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sidra Bell. Them and their team share their story with us below:

Sidra Bell was born and raised in New York City to an artistic family of makers and teachers. She was exposed to rigorous dance training, choral singing, and the visual arts. She was fostered in environments for learning that emphasized the currency of ideas and collaboration. Formative to her upbringing were the in-studio and performance experiences she had with her father who is a jazz musician/producer and her mother who is a classical pianist/vocal arranger. The impulse to continue a career in the arts after years of training came in the form of a vision to create community programming in Harlem where she had trained as a young girl. She wanted to pair educational platforms with innovative performances. At age 22, Bell embarked on self-producing her first concerts offering community classes in Harlem in exchange for rehearsal and performance space. Her work continues to be rooted in the impulse to share ideas through education and performance. Her practice is based on core principles of collaboration, community, mentorship, exploration, transformation, and empathy. Over the course of 18 years, she created an artistic platform that spans institutions for scholarship, performance, and cultural exchange. Bell holds adjunct positions and has been a guest at institutions for higher learning. In this capacity, she offers burgeoning artists the opportunity engages with professional practice, creation, and dialogue (with Bell’s company of artists in tow). She is the creative director of the module a lab emphasizing research, collective practice, play, and community building in the field. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Over the past twenty years as an artist in New York City and visiting artist I have relied on a self-produced model to create a sustainable and fulfilling artistic life. As a practitioner of movement and its pedagogies, it has been important for me to be rigorous, strategic, and consistent in my process. As ideas for new work or programs emerge, I feel an immediacy in making them fully realized entities. Through the practice of self-producing and advocating for the teams of artists and collaborators, I lead; I have found empowerment and grounding in the art form. I feel now, more than ever, that I am positioned for leadership in the field and that I can help pave a path for the next generation of artists through an example of autonomy, sacrifice, and belief. Being autonomous has been a challenging but fruitful road. I have had to forge my own relationships, partnerships, and mentorships to produce my work on a national and international scale. It has given me the agency to forge and make inroads where there are potential barriers or limits. In this, I have learned to build audiences and cultivate a base of support from underneath. This has started to culminate, in recent years, into more broad-based support from foundations and organizations internationally. I am now able to pair my ability to produce, build community, and strategize with larger opportunities that include touring and partnerships. At this point in my career, I can take advantage of what the field of dance has to offer as well as use the challenges I have faced as resources of experience. I strive for more personal freedom and allow for greater risk-taking in my process. As an artist, I am always searching for more truth and vulnerability in my work. I like to explore and navigate my body in relationship to the world around me. My goal is to always be on a learning curve in the practice of making and moving. I have a commitment to risk and a desire to walk into uncharted territory in dance. I am committed to continuing to serve the field as an educator and maker for years to come. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
My work is based on intersectional research and uses modular interplay to create material and generate ideas with teams of artists. It is a collaborative process that emphasizes the integration of multiple design elements and perspectives in the room. My recent creations have navigated and embraced a nonlinear approach to making with artists in different disciplines. The work is devised with sound, light, costumes, and set design in a process that encourages simultaneity, play, duration, and curiosity. Education runs parallel to my creative work and I use my international travel and commissioning to feed and instigate my creative practice. I introduce the ideas that I am generating for the stage into spaces for learning. I work with intergenerational movers of all backgrounds to cultivate and foster an intersection of movement and identities. This play in identity has run through my work in both fantastical and deeply empathetic ways. My work plays in a middle ground where definitions and codifications areas are more fluid. I believe this to be the reason I have been able to travel and make work across cultural, aesthetic, and social borders. I work as an ambassador for movement practices internationally and have created modules of education that are accessible to all communities. I have also developed circles of mentorship with young artists. These mentorships have spawned sustained relationships with up-and-coming artists that are interested in interrogation and scholarly work in the field of dance. More than being a choreographer I am also a team builder that works with collaboration as a means to activate young artists and communities that are less exposed to the arts. This commitment to serving and developing community through the language and ritual of dance has brought my work to spaces outside of urban centers, particularly in the South, Midwest, and parts of Europe. These roles have allowed me to develop language and pedagogy that help to build, nurture, and mentor burgeoning artist-makers and communicate the possibilities of the practice to non-dancers. My drive and sense of purpose come through in my deep need to create opportunities for others through the lens of my teaching and production. In my own making process, I use dance as a poetic language and as a vehicle to explore my inner richness and my evolution as a woman. My work is temporal and mines human conditionality, relationships, and time. It comes from deeply personal physical and interior spaces that become expansive subject matter for audiences and those that I direct. I facilitate work through other bodies to communicate and commune with the complicated subject matter. In looking back at the canon of works I have created over the last 20 years, each is singular in its navigation of worlds that operate with distinctly different bodily languages, iconography, and operating systems. They feel like chapters of a long-term inquiry into the human condition, individualism, and collectivity. 

Is there something surprising that you feel even people who know you might not know about?
Sidra’s career has spanned close to 20 years, and she is currently a Master’s Lecturer at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and a recent artist-in-residence at Harvard University. She has also held Adjunct Professor and Lecturer positions at Ball State University in Indiana, Marymount Manhattan College, Georgian Court University in New Jersey, and Barnard College in New York City. She has a BA in History from Yale University and an MFA in Choreography from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance. She was a University of Minnesota Theater Arts & Dance Cowles Visiting Artist and an artist in residence at Cornish College of the Arts (Seattle). Her body of work was featured at Harvard University. 

Theater, Dance & Media course Contemporary Repertory: Dance Authorship in the 21st Century [A dance technique and choreographic repertory class that focused on contemporary traditions and the repertory of three choreographers, engaging in the current discourse of contemporary dance.] Bell was the 2019 Honoree at CPR-Center Performance Research’s Gala in New York City. Feature speaking engagements and presentations have included CalArts, The Juilliard School, Yale University Master’s Tea (Silliman College), Yale Club of New York, Harvard University, MIT (Hacking Arts New Media Panel), University of Oklahoma, Kenetech Arts San Francisco, The Spence School (A.M. Perspectives), Gibney Dance Center, Ball State University, Cornish College, Yale The Mellon Forum of Life, the University of Texas at Austin, Yale Alumni in Dance, Marymount Manhattan College, Studio @ 550 Boston with JCC Newton and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Awards: Bell has won several awards, notably a 1st Prize for Choreography at the Solo-Tanz Theater Festival in Stuttgart, Germany in 2011 for Grief Point. And a 2015 National Dance Project Production Award from the New England Foundation for the Arts. Additionally, NEFA awarded the company a Production Residency for Dance. The collaborating soloists on works she created also won performance awards for two different solos at the Stuttgart Solo-Tanz Theater Festival (1st and 2nd Prizes respectively). The company was one of 25 recipients of the Dance Advancement Fund from Dance/NYC in 2017. Her work has been seen throughout the United States and in Denmark, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Slovenia, Sweden, Germany, China, Canada, Aruba, Korea, Brazil, and Greece. The company was lauded as #1 in Contemporary Dance by the Pittsburgh Examiner in 2014 for garment, in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s 2010 Best in Dance for ReVUE, and in the 2012 Year in Review in ArtsATL’s notable performances for Nudity. February 3 was named Sidra Bell Day by Mayor Thomas Roach in the City of White Plains, NY. 

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Umi Akiyoshi

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