Arts + Culture

New chair of world arts and cultures/dance likes how ‘peculiarity provokes questions’

Q&A with Dan Froot on interdisciplinary scholarship and the importance of art as a tool for justice

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Dan Froot
John Pemble

Dan Froot’s priorities as department chair: supporting graduate students; supporting faculty research; ensuring the most innovative curriculum; and engaging communities.

Dan Froot is a producer, composer, choreographer, writer, saxophonist, dancer, actor and director. He has performed his dance, music and theater work throughout the United States and overseas since 1983.

Froot has also been a professor in the department of world arts and cultures/dance for 12 years.

He received a New York Dance & Performance Award, known as a Bessie Award, for his theater piece, “Seventeen Kilos of Garlic,” and a City of Los Angeles Artist Fellowship and a playwriting commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for his gangster-vaudeville, “Shlammer.” He recently completed a national tour of “Who’s Hungry,” a collaboration with celebrated New York puppet artist Dan Hurlin and Seattle-based composer Amy Denio. “Who’s Hungry” tells life stories of individuals living with hunger and/or homelessness in Los Angeles. Froot’s current project, “Pang!” is a triptych of live radio plays based on the life stories of three families living below the poverty line in Miami, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and South Central Los Angeles.

The new chair of the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance recently talked about his career and his goals for the department.

Did you always want to work in performance? What led you to where you are today?

I’ve always been fascinated by what happens between performers and audiences. My work has been and continues to be a process of figuring out how to craft that relationship. My formal training is mostly as a jazz saxophonist and composer, but it became clear to me early on that I was not going to distinguish myself in that area — same with my work in dance and theater. It wasn’t until I immersed myself into New York City’s East Village in the heady days of the late 70s and early 80s that I discovered performance art, and that I could, in novel and provocative ways, approach dance as a musician, theater as a dancer and music as a storyteller.

What’s your most memorable experience as a performance artist?

Ha! Impossible question! One moment I really enjoy comes at the end our current show, “Pang!” “Pang!” is an evening of three short plays based on the life stories of families around the country living below the poverty line. The plays are very moving and it’s hard not to fall in love with the families whose stories we portray. Well, at the end of each performance we introduce one of the real families, who are sitting among the audience. There is always an audible collective gasp when the audience’s aesthetic experience suddenly becomes grounded in reality. That moment is the beginning of some beautiful dialogues right there in the theater.

The performances on your website seem to focus on poverty, addiction, food insecurity and other problems that the downtrodden of our society face. What inspires you to tell these stories?

When our twins were born in 2000, I took stock of our family’s privilege. I was awestruck that we were able to provide for our kids’ every need: food, shelter, and on and on. I wanted to use that privilege as a platform for good, beyond my family. All I know how to do is to tell stories, so I looked around for folks who wanted to tell their own stories but who didn’t have the know-how or the platform. I’ve always felt a synergy between food and performance: putting disparate ingredients through an alchemical process to come up with something new, something nourishing and delicious. So I began to work closely with people who were not able to adequately nourish themselves or their families; people who were hungry, homeless or food insecure. I love and hate how uncomfortable this work is for me. The questions keep coming: who gets to tell whose story, and how, and to whom, and for what purpose?

Dan Froot
Rose Eichenbaum
Dan Froot’s formal training is as a jazz saxophonist.
 

While many of us at UCLA are familiar with the department being named world arts and cultures/dance, to an outsider it may seem a peculiar pairing. How do these two fields complement one another?

Peculiarity provokes questions … like yours … and that’s a good thing! The way I see it, the many fields of study and practice within WAC/D rub against rather than complement each other. There’s a productive friction between them. That friction creates heat and unforeseen opportunities, such as when choreographers are brought in to interpret museum installations, or when artists and scholars come together to consider the cultural impact of memory.

As a performance artist, I use oral history methodology in my creative practice. I doubt I would be doing that, and I doubt I would be as engaged in critical thinking about the work, if I wasn’t in daily dialogue with my WAC/D colleagues who are cultural anthropologists, historians, activists, curators and ethnographers.

You can look at WAC/D’s four degree programs as points along a continuum. The B.A. in world arts and cultures and the B.A. in dance focus on how one develops a forward-looking practice as a scholar of the arts, as a choreographer, a cultural ethnographer, an arts activist, a documentarian or a curator. This leads to the multidisciplinary and collaborative explorations of our Ph.D. candidates in culture and performance and our M.F.A. choreographers. All of this culminates in the interdisciplinary projects of our faculty, whose groundbreaking scholarly research and artistic work seed the teaching and mentorship that goes on here. In all cases, WAC/D braids critical inquiry and artistic practice in equal measure, and that is perhaps what sets us apart from most other academic units. Our pluralism is our strength.

What are your goals as the new chair of the department?

This position affords me a new perspective on the university and our department, so at the moment I have more questions than answers. Our top priorities remain: supporting our graduate students; supporting faculty research; ensuring that WAC/D’s curricular offerings continue to be at the leading edge of our fields of study; and engaging communities — with intention — on campus, in Los Angeles, around the country and the world.

The university is structured in such a way as to encourage individual disciplines to define and defend their own territory. I think WAC/D is poised to lead the way toward collaboration, joint efforts and interdisciplinary studies in the arts and beyond.

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