An Exit Interview with John Borstel

I first met John when I interviewed for a job at Dance Exchange in the fall of 2009. He hired me for the role of Communications Manager, and with his guidance I learned how to create effective newsletters, press releases, and web content, and honed my previously non-existent graphic design skills. When I began taking on development department tasks, John showed me the ropes and taught me much of what I know in terms of grant writing. He was not just a supervisor who made sure I was completing my work—he quickly became a mentor, generous with his feedback on my work, complimentary of my enthusiasm, and always willing to use each editorial review opportunity as an educational one. His confidence in my work made me want to take risks, and I know I’m not the only one—I think every one of my colleagues at Dance Exchange has experienced that feeling from John as well.

In 2011, a funny thing happened: we switched roles. I became John’s supervisor when I became Communications and Development Director and he stepped into a part-time Senior Advisor role. This could’ve made for some awkward times, but it never was. While still heavily involved in Dance Exchange’s marketing and development efforts, he gave me the space to be a leader—a true testament to his belief in the power of an intergenerational work environment. And just as generously as he continued to give feedback on my work, he graciously received it on his.

I have always been impressed with John’s creative mind and his meticulous attention to detail. A living, breathing, Dance Exchange Archive, he has always been able to share insight into how things had been done in the past while encouraging new, bold directions and experiments for the future. He has helped to keep the Dance Exchange toolbox alive not only in the studio, but in the DX administrative offices and out in the world. We will all miss his presence in the office, his contributions to meetings, his prominent creative role in every project, and his warm, witty, and at times goofy energy. I’ve been fortunate enough to see glimpses into John’s creative endeavors beyond the Dance Exchange walls, and know big, great, meaningful and memorable things are in store for his next chapter.

As we head into our 40th anniversary season, we will miss this inimitable force that has been part of this organization for more than half of its existence. I asked John to reflect on his time at Dance Exchange in an exit interview. Don’t let his humbleness fool you; Dance Exchange could not have gotten to where it is today without his dedication to the craft of creative inquiry as a method for dancemaking.

What are the various job titles/duties you’ve held over the years?
I started at Dance Exchange in 1993 with the title Development Director. The company had just emerged from a restructuring at that point, and we had a very small staff, so my job included fundraising, marketing, public relations, event coordination, box office, administering our institutes, and more. For about a year around 1995-96 my job description ballooned even more as I served in the capacity of Interim Managing Director – a valuable experience, but one I was happy to put behind me. In 2000, I transitioned to the title of Humanities Director, a role that grew out of the program-planning role I increasingly played as we developed project proposals. This had me coordinating a series of projects focused on documentation, dialogue, evaluation, and making translations between the artistic and educational dimensions of our work. I made my last title transition with the multiple shifts that occurred when Liz Lerman left the Dance Exchange in 2011. At that point I moved to a part-time role called Senior Advisor, which entailed writing, fundraising, and some project administration. “Stay anywhere long enough and they’ll give you the title Senior Advisor,” became my way of introducing myself at professional gatherings, and the line would always get a laugh.

What is your most memorable production that you worked on for Dance Exchange? What has resonated most with you?
I love the artistic work of the Dance Exchange; I would not have stayed here so long if I didn’t. So it’s impossible to name just one, but here are a few highlights.

“Flip Sides,” a repertory program of three dances that Liz choreographed in the mid 1990s; one was abstract, one was built around a spoken monologue by Liz, one was danced to Willie Nelson, and each dance took a different approach to demonstrating what an intergenerational ensemble could do and mean on stage. It was fun, heart-wrenching, utterly beautiful, and revolutionary in its perspective on old people, young people, and how they might relate to each other.

“In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found” was dance we created with partners from Ann Arbor and Detroit as part of “Hallelujah,” a project that ultimately engaged 15 cities across the country from 1999 to 2002. We arrived in Michigan for a four-week residency on September 9, 2001. Everyone knows what happened two days later. I’m still in awe of how the artists of the Dance Exchange were able to meet those dark times by co-creating a sort of mini-gospel opera that encompassed the loss and horror of current events while still channeling a spirit of hope and celebration.

photo by Jaclyn Borowski

When Liz started to create work on scientific subjects in the early 2000s, I was a little resistant. But by the time we did “The Matter of Origins” in 2010, I was a complete convert. Dance Exchange never stops innovating, and for this dance Liz created a two-act structure in which Act 1 was a multimedia dance spectacle on a proscenium stage, Act 2 was an audience conversation set inside a site-specific dance installation – with tea and cake. Through a partnership with researchers from Michigan State University we built in an aesthetically-informed audience survey process which constituted serious research on whether a dance can serve as a vehicle for adult science learning. It can!

Around the same time Cassie Meador created “Drift,” her brilliant piece about the human relationship to the land, charting the history of a single location as it evolves from farm to strip mall to the site of a church. I think Cassie’s talents came to full flower in this piece, which uses spoken word, striking visual images, an inventive soundscape, and multiple dance forms to create a work that seems to move back and forth through time and combine rapt enchantment with a look at some very serious issues.

What will you miss most about working at DX?
There’s so much that I will miss, but that I also hope to carry with me: An organizational ethos that is radically humane and questions the status quo at every turn. The constant opportunity to work with and learn from a group of excellent artists, educators and facilitators who are never content merely to repeat their last success. An institution that cultivates the administrative acumen in its artists and the artistic vision in its administrators.

Do you have a favorite CRP gig that you’ve lead/been involved in?
For depth: A five day intensive with Liz Lerman hosted by Contredanse in Brussels, Belgium in 2010. For novelty: Our ongoing work with GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, where Cassie and I are bringing the values of CRP to bear on scientific work and corporate structure. For a chance to hog the spotlight: My 2011 solo work with TYA Ireland, which included my first conference keynote.

You’ve been crucial to the creation and the dissemination of the Critical Response Process. How do you plan to carry on with your role relating to CRP?
To be precise, Liz should get all the credit for the creation of CRP, though she very graciously refers to me as the shepherd who moved the process into its iteration as a book and the sustained focus of workshops and residencies. I’m hoping to continue to expand my role with CRP through continued associations with both Dance Exchange and Liz.

Liz Lerman describes the steps of the Critical Response Process

CRP is truly in a phase of growth and expansion into sectors beyond the arts, which is really exciting to me. Currently planned CRP engagements include work with emerging social science researchers, city planners, visual artists looking to establish a rigorous critique salon, and the ongoing work with staff at GlaxoSmithKline. Conceptually, I find that more and more I’m thinking beyond the four steps and feedback functions of CRP to regard it as a kind of whole body of knowledge with values and ethics that can be brought to bear on diverse human and creative functions.

Were there any pieces during your time with DX where you played a performer role rather than a behind the scenes role? Or when your artistic endeavors have had the opportunity to be a part of a project?
Thanks to Dance Exchange, I can tell people that I performed at Jacob’s Pillow. In 2000, for one of the early “Hallelujahs”, we performed “In Praise of Animals and Their People,” at the Doris Duke Theatre, and I was cast as one of the dads in the touching cat funeral scene – one of the rare occasions when I actually wore a suit and tie as part of my Dance Exchange job.

Drift. Photo by John Borstel.

As to other artistic endeavors, I’ve occasionally been drafted as a photographer, as when I worked with Cassie and the company to create some novel publicity images for “Drift.”

In your opinion, what role does DX play in the performing arts world? Or maybe, Why does DX matter?
After 40 years we’re still radical and still fairly contrarian in the concert dance world by holding to the philosophy that everyone is a dancer – and maintaining that this conviction is compatible with the highest technical and aesthetic standards for professional dancers. In fact, I believe Dance Exchange’s standards for its core company and adjunct artists are much higher than typical in the field because our work demands so much more of artists, that they be not only strong technical dancers but teachers, community facilitators, researchers, entrepreneurs, administrators, choreographers, public speakers… the list goes on. So even at gatherings of arts groups we bring unique abilities, capacities to lead conversation, weave together conceptual threads, and make communal meaning visible. We are a model and a beacon for what artists can contribute to society.

You’ve been integral to the various iterations of mission statements, marketing approaches, fundraising campaigns, and visual outcomes through the years. How has the image of DX changed over time, or how has it stayed consistent?
Dance Exchange is built around a core philosophy that has remained pretty steady over the years, ideas such as dance being a birth right, the power of dance to address real world concerns, art as a path to personal and collective discovery. But periodically the company needs to renew the language used to express these ideas, so there are shifts in emphasis every few years. As the post-founder team recrafted the message, I think there’s been more emphasis on the moving body as the source of knowledge and on directly naming the social good that we seek to promote with work focused on such issues as the environment and racial equity.

As you joint the ranks of DX alum, what do you hope for the future of DX?

John's self portrait, created during the Teen Leadership Institute.

In the four years since Liz Lerman’s departure, I think the company has clearly demonstrated what was always true: that the Dance Exchange is driven by mission and philosophy, not by personality. This gives me great hope for a long future; our central ideas are incredibly strong. The Dance Exchange’s shape can shift over the years, as the balance of performance, education, and community work adjusts to the needs of the times, the financial climate and so on. I’m hoping for more lives to be touched by our boundary-breaking ideas, more art in more places through the accessibility we emphasize, and deeper recognition from the wider fields of dance, arts, and interdisciplinary practice.

What’s next for you? What are you most excited about/looking forward to?
I’m launching a freelance practice that includes aspects of my own artmaking, arts-focused writing, and facilitation of Critical Response Process and other forms of learning and dialogue. All those dimensions have been deeply shaped by my experience at the Dance Exchange and hundreds of artists, staffers, interns, students, and partners I’ve had the honor to work with over the years. I’m grateful to them all.

As I respond to these questions, I’m aware that I haven’t broken the habit of speaking of Dance Exchange with words like “our” and “we.” I don’t have any plans to break that habit. After 21 years, Dance Exchange is pretty deep in my bones and always will be.

About Emily Macel Theys

Emily (Communications and Development Director) joined the administrative team at the Dance Exchange in January 2010. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Emily received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Allegheny College, and her Master of Fine Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. Formerly the associate editor at Dance Magazine, Emily’s dance writing has been published in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, and the Washington Post among others. She is also an avid baker.