Since relocating to Atlanta from Portland, Oregon, in 2008, Malina Rodriguez and Danny Davis have shaken up the Atlanta arts scene with their introduction of Dance Truck. As a mobile dance center, Dance Truck has pulled up to events at Le Flash, Eyedrum, and more to bring dance to the people whether they’re ready or not. As technical directors and installation specialists, Rodriguez and Davis are MacGyvers of the industry, mastering collaborations and impressive displays on shoestring budgets. Art Crush cut a rug with the pair to chat about the power and simplicity of collaboration and the rewards it yields.
BURNAWAY: So both of you share a background in lighting and installation work. Tell us how you started Dance Truck.
Malina Rodriguez: I do a lot of production work for theater and dance. [Davis] does a lot of installation work. He’s my ambassador to the visual arts world. We met in Portland about eight years ago at the Time Based Art Festival run by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). We worked together for a few years, and he ended up moving here. I was like, “Why are you moving to Atlanta?” Kind of snobby. Then I found myself moving here because my partner was coming for a medical residency, and I found myself really grateful that Danny was already here making things happen.
Danny Davis: I felt like, “Finally! Someone that understands is coming this way!”
MR: There’s a lot of great opportunity here, and we were lucky enough to get some great experience in Portland together and learn each other’s work style. We formed Dance Truck together because the festival formerly known as Le Flash put out a call for proposals. I asked him and Vii Kelly, “What do you want to do? I’ll come out and support you.” But they, in turn, asked me what I wanted to do, and I wanted to do dance, of course. We wanted to make it mobile and accessible to a lot of people. We’ve now done eighteen shows and seventeen of them have been free to the public. It’s been great, and the coolest thing is that our next stop is [a return to] Portland for the Time Based Arts Festival. I’m lucky because I can come up with any random idea and ask, or tell, Danny, “This is what we’re going to do.” I don’t think he gets enough credit. He’s the voice of reasons at times and has the knowledge to help me accomplish these goals. All we want to do is support artists and get people engaged and activated.
BA: How did you become interested in dance, specifically?
MR: Through PICA. I was working at a venue in Portland, and PICA was using the venue to present performance art. I had never seen anything like it, and it was the first time I really felt engaged. I’ve had a passion for theater and production [but] then I saw Muna Tseng, a dance artist whose brother is a photographer. She incorporated her brother’s imagery into this dance-film-movement production, and it was incredible. I followed up with PICA, and they took me under their wing and trained me as a technical director: how to do site specific performances, how to make friends with the fire marshal, how to get permits, and how to make venues accessible to our friends in wheelchairs. When I moved to Atlanta, I was like, “OK!” I had my little [Time Based Arts Festival] catalogue, and I was like “Who’s doing something like this here?” Dance Truck is a character in the community; it serves a certain purpose. I feel like it’s this little creature born from Atlanta, and it’s simply a method of presenting different kinds of artists in different venues.
DD: There’s not really a true presenter for dance that is not its own dance troupe.
BA: One thing we think is admirable about Dance Truck is that you’re really adamant about wanting to pay performers. A lot of people in Atlanta are willing to do things for free, because they want to be active and because they believe there isn’t a lot of money for these activities.
MR: It’s a whole culture, especially within the dance community. They rehearse for months at a time, and they’re not getting paid; there just aren’t the resources. A little exercise I’m trying to do on most of the Dance Truck shows is trying to pay everyone the same flat rate. So Danny would make the same as me, as would a choreographer and the photographer. Of course, certain people are putting in more hours than others, but it’s a representation that what we’re doing has value. I’m contemplating whether Dance Truck performances should remain free. I love that people can just stumble upon it, so I wouldn’t want to exclude anyone but I’m finding that funding for Dance Truck just isn’t coming through from Atlanta. We just did an online fundraiser for PLOT, and 60 percent of the funding came from outside [Georgia]! We did one show in Alabama, and some college students who saw it sent us money. Students I had in LA before I moved here sent money. People in Portland sent money. It’s kind of interesting. And what we’re trying to pay people is not that much. It’s pretty minimal, but it’s some representation of value.
BA: Do you think that it’s reflective of the fact that dance has been less familiar to people in Atlanta, so they don’t necessarily know or are still discovering what dance is?
DD: I think it’s indicative of performing arts outside of music in Atlanta: theater and dance. Dance is kind of the step child.
MR: I call dance the underdog of the performing arts world.
DD: It’s kind of like visual arts is at the top, and then it rolls [down to] music, theater, and then dance.
MR: And you can see that in presenters. The Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center exists, and I wish they would branch out into performing arts. That’s kind of why Dance Truck exists: there’s no one to present these artists, so we’ll do it! We have the production knowledge. We don’t really have knowledge of fundraising, and that’s where people like Blake Beckham come in. We do get incredible support as far as advice and people, and that’s what made it a success. We really saw that with PLOT, where we had an army of volunteers.
DD: Did the count end up at one hundred [volunteers]?
MR: Yeah, we had about one hundred volunteers. Some of those volunteers who came through for PLOT had stumbled across a Dance Truck performance before. We’re able to capture an audience for our artists when we spring up. I think we’ve proven ourselves. With the show at the Contemporary and now PLOT, people are beginning to take us more seriously.
BA: We hear Dance Truck is about to enter its Terrible Twos.
MR: We’re having a birthday party at Sous Whiskey Marin [in Castleberry Hill] on September 30. Dance Truck is turning two years old. We hope to do a Dirty South tour this year. We have dates in Jackson [Mississippi], Hattiesburg [Mississippi], New Orleans [Louisiana], Athens [Georgia], and Asheville [North Carolina]. With our backgrounds, we’re very fortunate, and it’s quite easy to get backing as far as equipment and supplies.
BA: At your latest event, PLOT, having that stage-like atmosphere made the performance so much more theatrical. Dance is still a new thing to many people and having a more formal set up made it seem more accessible.
MR: It was part of the collaboration between Blake [Beckham] and I from the beginning, when we started talking about it in September, 2010. She’s developing rehearsals for her dancers based on texts and stories, stories that her dancers share with her. They’re very much part of contributing to the choreography. Then I respond with a visual image. For American Muscle, I sent her a video every day. For PLOT, it was a still image that helped us think of the root system and the buried light. Then we brought those ideas to our other collaborators, Danny and Julia [Hill], and they made it happen. Music and video, the production side of dance performances in Portland, is so rich. We want to show artists here that that can happen.
DD: We want to show artists [that they should not] let their creativity be stifled, in any way. If you have an idea, okay, what is the full realization of this creative moment? What do you want someone walking down Peachtree Street to actually see and experience?
MR: We’re so used to the details in production that Dance Truck kind of simplifies it [for artists]. You pull up in a truck and set up quickly, and there’s a show. PLOT was a very different story. Blake said many times that she was very humbled as an independent choreographer for people to show up and volunteer to help—to have help from major players like the [Atlanta Contemporary Art Center] and 7 Stages and Possible Futures. That’s what we want to be able to offer. I wouldn’t say there is a surge in dance production right now. I think it’s been here the whole time, and people are just beginning to notice it. I’m happy we can be a part of that discussion.
BA: At Gather Atlanta it’s always interesting to see more dance groups participating every year. In the visual arts community, there’s been a surge in awareness. Dance Truck has been on the forefront of being involved in the visual arts.
MR: It’s fun to play with our visual arts friends. We want to show that this is possible. Now, perhaps [other dancers and choreographers] can see what happens when you have a successful collaboration with a visual arts team.
DD: All it really takes is a conversation. Just saying, “Hey, we’re doing this. Do you want to come and play?”
MR: I’m trying to form these relationships, so dance artists and visual artists can see they can come make shit together. We’ve had some success with that, and people are beginning to open their minds. My dream is that dancers will start to ask for pay and search for excellence in their collaborations.
BA: Speaking of collaborations, you recently worked with Garden*Hood to plant shoes for PLOT. How did the collaboration with Garden*Hood and Dance Truck come about?
MR: Oh, they’re our neighbors down the road. That’s been a long-standing relationship. We were part of Atlanta Streets Alive, and they wanted Dance Truck there. But it felt dirty having a truck driving down the road when [the event is meant to be] a day to celebrate physical activity. So we built a fake truck. We needed some wheels to cart it along, and at Garden*Hood they have those little nursery trucks. I was just there one day and said, “Hey, do you think I could borrow a couple of these for our performance?” And they said, “yeah.” They didn’t know who the heck I was. Then I asked, “Hey, do you think we could build the truck here?” So we used their patio and their power and built the stage there. After Atlanta Streets Alive, we decided to retire that stage at Garden*Hood during one of their Flower Hour programs. It was during that performance that they worked with Blake [Beckham]. These garden people found themselves at a dance performance, and then they went and paid to see American Muscle at Eyedrum. I love that. I went to Garden*Hood and said, “Look, this is our new project. It’s called PLOT.” And I just talked to them about it. They actually came to Gather Atlanta in 2010 to visit us [at our table], and they were taken by the story of Dance Truck and Blake’s story as a choreographer. They found a way to work with each other to make it possible.
DD: I want to put a bunch of the shoes around Underground.
MR: We planted two hundred total.
DD: It was amazing because there were all these people [who came to PLOT because they learned about it] from community newsletters and Garden*Hood’s newsletter …. All these flower and plant nerds came out and were like, “This sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon! We probably had about twenty people over the day planting shoes with us.
BA: It’s admirable that you reached outside the box to include the gardeners. You were able to draw a different crowd that you might not have had access to before.
MR: It’s the theater background. You have to be ultra resourceful. The same thing happened with the Neon Company. For American Muscle, as a lighting designer, I really wanted neon as part of the American story. I just see them all the time by Fallen Arrows, so I went and had a conversation. And [when we spoke to someone at the Neon Company], he said “My sister is a dancer. I’d love to help design something sometime.” There are people interested in art [who work at] local businesses. You just have to make that connection. It’s just a simple conversation.
DD: I think my biggest drive is finding ways to do something excellent that can be recognized by people outside of the arts community. There’s a ridiculous amount of money and people that are educated and cultured and interested, but they aren’t involved whatsoever in the arts community on a regular basis. Once they do show up, that’s when you find this new crowd of people that become your biggest supporters. These are the people who will actually buy t-shirts, a work of art, or a paid ticket. It’s frustrating to me when I hear conversations [that] always just stay within the arts community. How do we actually engage the city, and how do we make the change? That’s why I stick by Malina with Dance Truck.
BA: What are your spirit animals?
MR: I am going to claim the puma. This is a suggestion from Allie Bashuk. She said that I was like a puma just pouncing on performance art. The puma of performance art.
DD: Spirit animal? That’s tough. That’s the one question I always avoid.
BA: The time is now!
MR: A bull in a china shop?
DD: I get that a lot.
MR: But a bull in a china shop that doesn’t knock anything over. He polishes the china.
DD: I’ve always liked penguins.
MR: What are yours?
BA: No one has asked us that!
Laura Hennighausen: I’ve always liked hawks, but Cooper Sanchez said his was a hawk…drinking beer.
DD: No, wait, it is a Canada Goose. There’s a dock in Portland where all the geese sit at dawn. Everyday before a big push, I’d get some coffee and just sit with the geese before they fly off.
Susannah Darrow: I think I’m going to have to go with a chipmunk, because they’re little squirrels with cuter outfits. I like the chipmunk.
BA: Does Dance Truck itself have a spirit animal?
MR: Oh, wow. I think we’ll find out when we come back from Portland. Look for Dance Truck’s second birthday party at Sous Whiskey Marin on September 30, 2011. Also, be sure to keep your eye on Rodriguez’s new project called The Lucky Penny with choreographer Blake Beckham.
Atlanta Art Crush is an interview series brought to you by Susannah Darrow, Laura Hennighausen, and photographer Carla Aaron-Lopez. Look for profiles of our latest heartthrobs on the last Friday of each month.