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story by Mari Meade for DanceUs.org

8 Questions with choreographer Nicole Philippidis of 277 Dance Project

8 Questions with choreographer Nicole Philippidis of 277 Dance Project
Photo credit: Jennifer Klein

Nicole Philippidis speaks about her premiere at Triskelion Arts, Cardboard Stage, a cross-media work featuring dance, video, live music, and spoken word. This piece is a culmination of a two-year collaborative experiment in urban immersion.

Q: How long have you been in NYC, and how long have you had 277 Dance Project?

A: I have been in NYC my entire life, grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and began 277 Dance Project in 2008.

Q: You say “unexpectedly thrust into a diverse urban landscape”. Can you talk about that experience, the real-life inspirations you drew from, and where you were in your process at that point?

A: We were working on a short dance film in the South Bronx and the filmmaker, Jennifer Klein, asked me to spend some time with her in the neighborhood, talk to people and get a feel for the area. What I learned was that the neighborhood was on the brink of change and there were many people who expressed their concerns about being displaced, and others who saw the potential changes as a hope for a better community. What I never expected from this experience was that so many people were eager to share their personal stories. A simple question - such as “how long have you lived in this area?” -- developed into conversations about poverty, crime, drugs, and rejection, society and race. These brief connections had a powerful effect on me and brought back many memories of my childhood and my family’s economic struggle and how, at times, there were similar feelings of desperation, uncertainty and angst. I remember feeling as if the future held the true story of our lives and the past was like a dream experienced while sleepwalking. At the beginning of the creative process, I was questioning how self-perception plays a role in our lives and what it means to perceive oneself as powerless or powerful. Over time, I brought in our experiences as a society, broadening the lens of the work. What was going on around us politically and socially and how were we being affected – what power do we have as people in the system? What can we do to change our situation? What are others doing? It began as a personal work and expanded to include our collective experience as New Yorkers in today's world.

Q: What does the movement creation process look like?

A: For this work, I began with movement that I had created for the dancers to test some ideas and get the ball rolling. As time went on and we began discussing the theme of the work, a more collaborative process emerged. The entire piece was created over a two-year period, and the creative process took on many forms - from set choreography, to contact improv, individual exploration, monologues - and more.

Q: How did you delineate, and decide upon, the six stages you would be presenting?

A: We created a lot of material over the course of this project and it was challenging to determine what would become part of the work and how to shape it. I tried to look at the moments in time that highlighted the experience of the “group” and the “individual” to determine what combination of events would best tell a story, invoke emotion, and arouse curiosity.

Q: How do you think people of privilege can hold themselves accountable for perpetuating the status quo?

A: Privilege is something that people don’t always realize they have, and those who are aware may not know what they are supposed to do -- so they don’t act at all. This in itself is a challenge. I believe many people focus on what they do not have and if someone else has even less (money, rights, respect etc…) there may be an empathetic view toward that person or group of people, but nothing really changes. To hold oneself accountable for perpetuating the status quo would mean that everyone is aware of what privilege means and how it affects our society. Tell a white struggling mother or father who doesn’t have enough money to feed their kids that they are considered privileged because of their race, though true -- I don’t believe it will mean much to them. If we question how, as a society, we can begin to change the mindset of people who are privileged, and raise awareness as to how our society perceives privilege - I would say we should start with our schools. We should address white privilege (including any other privilege) and its role throughout history to our children, through classroom discussions. If effective, we can hope for a gradual social shift in consciousness and the development of a more accepting, empathetic society.

Q: Have you collaborated with these artists before? How did the collaboration change and shape your vision?

A: I have collaborated with my brother, musician Johnny Philippidis since 2013, and dancers: Mika Yanagihara for almost ten years, Elisa Schreiber and Emily Tellier for a little over two years. My vision is mostly a fragment of an idea, I rely on the collaborative process to expand upon, discard, or recreate what I bring to the table - it's what makes our time together interesting and messy.

Q: What is your goal for the audience’s experience?

A: I want the audience to see themselves somewhere in the work. Whether triggered by an emotion or action viewed on stage, I would love for them to feel like they took part in a shared experience, something larger than the individual. To be able to walk away from the experience knowing that the observer had an equally important role in the piece; that their thoughts, emotions and reactions become part of the work.

Q: How is this piece different than the past work of 277 Dance Project?

A: This work has had time to grow and develop, time was something we didn’t always have the luxury of in the past. There are also more collaborators involved in this work and it went through many more phases of development than past works.

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