Interview with Starrene Foster

Credit: Grace Herndon

Credit: Grace Herndon

If a life in motion has taught Richmond-based performer, educator, and Artistic Director of SFDP, Starrene Foster, anything, it is that “the body is limitless.” The sentiment holds equally true for her imagination. For Starr, dance serves as the possibility-filled medium through which she mines the many, messy crevices of the human heart and mind.

As my former modern dance teacher at The School of Richmond Ballet, I can attest to the way Starr inspires countless young dancers (many of them classically trained) to leap further outside of their comfort zones than they ever thought they would–while also teaching them how to fall with grace.

A recipient of the Theresa Pollak Award for Artistic Excellence, Starr has been called a “master of immediacy.” As Jennie Knapp wrote in the Richmond Times Dispatch, “[…] Foster lets you know how it feels to be bumped out of orbit, scrambling to avoid disasters […].” Starr and her dancers are currently in the midst of rehearsing their latest cross-discipline project, Page to Stage Dance Series, which premieres in October at VCU’s Grace Street Theater. Starr recently took the time to talk to me about the dance studio as a safe space, the intersection of movement and language, and the value of learning from other dancers and dance makers–even if it occasionally means being an audience member.

OLIVIA AYLMER: Hello, Starr! Let’s start from the very beginning. What were you like as a child?

STARR FOSTER: As a child I was definitely a tomboy, which is why my mother enrolled me in dance class. I was also very creative, and other children thought I was quite odd. Being in the dance studio became my safe space and also a great outlet to express myself. 

OA: Speaking of the studio, I remember you placing quite a bit of emphasis on the Doris Humphrey technique "fall and recovery" in your class. We were so often scared to fall, out of fear that we'd hurt ourselves or look silly or whatever, but you really encouraged us to learn how to fall (and recover) gracefully, while still being honest about it. Five years and many falls later, that concept has stuck with me. Have you retained any lasting lessons from former dance teachers of yours?

SF: There are so many lessons that have stuck with me. One of the most influential trainers I had was Chris Burnside. Even to this day I have never worked with somebody quite like him. He had a very intimate approach to creating work. His process was full of metaphors and imagery, much of which was hard to understand initially, but when you stepped away and allowed time for it to sink in, the results were quite profound. He was interested in his dancers experiencing movement with every pore of their body. I was convinced that he knew every time I blinked throughout the works. His commitment to delve into every detail taught me so much about awareness and the practice of movement. I often think about Chris when I'm teaching and when I am creating work.

Credit: Doug Hayes (Copyright Starr Foster Dance Project)

Credit: Doug Hayes (Copyright Starr Foster Dance Project)

OA: Do you recall the moment(s) when you knew you wanted to spend your life performing, teaching, and making dance?

SF: In 1985, my grandmother took me to a Twyla Tharp performance. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat next to my grandmother, who had fallen asleep, thinking, “This is exactly what I want to do.” I was astounded by the musicality, the incredible skills and versatility of the dancers, as well as the ability to create such intricately woven material. There was one work that was performed completely in silence by all men, but the rhythmic breathing and the sounds of their bodies hitting the floor created an incredible soundscape. That was really my first exposure to live modern dance. 

The teaching part of my life definitely snuck up on me. I never would've considered being an educator as a young dancer because, like most young dancers, I was so focused on being a performer or a choreographer. When I was about 13, one of my trainers in New York told me that I had a "good eye" and that one day I would be teaching. I really thought that she was out of her mind and quickly dismissed the idea. I guess her comment stuck with me, because I often think about what she said and I'm grateful that she recognized this. When I was 18, I was given the opportunity to teach, as well as choreograph, for a large production and felt as if I had discovered true love. 

OA: Oh, that is beautiful. What have your students and younger dancers you’ve worked throughout your time as a teacher taught you? 

SF: Every day when I am in the studio with young dancers I learn more and more about this art form through their questioning and even their struggles. It is a reminder that we are all growing to discover something new with this passion, and I feel it to be a gift to be surrounded by the continuous energy of learning. 

OA: Dance critics often note your dark sense of humor and the emotional weight your works contain and explore. Do you feel like dance has the power to convey challenging emotions in a way that words sometimes cannot?

SF: Absolutely. Through movement it is possible to channel emotions and feelings that are difficult to verbalize. Movement is so much more intimate than words. I have always felt that as humans we are closer to sadness and despair than we are to happiness. I do not necessarily feel like I create work that is dark. Instead, I feel that the work provokes thought as well as imagination. The work has a tendency to be "heavy"–but it is absolute and honest, which is relatable.

OA: Yes, exactly. I don’t think “heaviness” in a work has to be synonymous with inaccessibility, although it certainly has the power to provoke viewers to make connections between what they’re seeing on stage and some of the darker, messier parts of their own life. Especially when you’re an audience member, dance can be cathartic in that way. What has a life in dance taught you about being human?

SF: Wow, that is a big question. Kinetically, dance has taught me that the body is limitless. Emotionally, dance has taught me to be expressive as well as grounded. Through dance I am constantly reminded to be sensitive and aware and to always embrace the differences in each of us.

OA: I love the concept behind your company's latest work, Page to Stage. Where do you think movement/dance and language/writing connect and intersect? How does one practice inform the other for you? Form, narrative, mood, tone, and pacing all come into play in both mediums, albeit in different ways...

Credit: Starrene Foster

Credit: Starrene Foster

SF: I've always felt that dances carry a narrative. Sometimes the idea is crystal clear and sometimes the idea is muted, but it is always there. The idea for Page to Stage blossomed from my love for fiction. As we know, it is very common for ballet to adapt stories into dance, but there has never been a concept where writers have been invited to submit (and only a few cases where they actually created) short fiction stories, especially for modern dance.

It has been through this project that I have realized how much movement and language intersect. For example, one of the tools I have been using to create the movement is by reading the stories out loud. I've been able to notate the urgency as well as the pacing of the story and incorporate those ideas into the choreography. Sometimes one sentence of the story can be achieved by a simple gesture, and sometimes it is a longer phrase. At the start of the selection process for the stories, every company member read each story and we discussed each one of them in length (some of the dancers’ concepts and impressions have been incorporated into the choreography as well).

There is one particular story that none of us seem to agree on the ending. There were three different ideas of the ending circulating around, which I feel is the intention of the written work. I have carefully crafted the end of the dance to reflect the undetermined ending, in hopes that the audience reacts the same way we did. 

OA: Along with a multiplicity of reactions, what other aspects of the stories selected for Page to Stage inspired you to choreograph around them?

SF: We received over 60 stories to be considered for this project. In the end, we selected 7 that I felt confident to be able to alter into movement. All of them are a challenge, but in particular there are two that were selected because I felt them to be extremely demanding. The main elements we were looking for (which became more and more clear as we were reading the stories) were written works that aroused emotion, had a clear journey, and had a setting we could alter for a  proscenium space. There is one story that retrogrades, which certainly lends itself to movement. We are working with a composer for that story and are incorporating a retrograde in the music composition as well. There is another that takes place in a bathroom and revolves around the character’s thoughts and feelings at that very moment. One of the stories takes place on a dock, which we will be building and placing on the stage; the entire dance takes place only on a 24' x 4' space. 

OA: That sounds so cool. Have you noticed your dancers working in a different way as they respond to these texts? How has choreographing via text informed your and their practice?

SF: We definitely are constantly referring back to the stories during the creation process, and between the dancers and myself, there is an ongoing dialogue about the mood and tone of the story we are working on. Because it is written word, I feel that it has been great fun for the dancers because they have something tangible to latch onto as far as concept and ideas go. Of course, the work is still my interpretation of the written word, but we are being as careful as possible to honor the authors’ work. 

OA: Is that where the creative process usually begins for you? In something tangible or in something less solid?

SF: The start of the process varies for me. Usually it is simply an image or an idea, then I build from there. I can often completely visualize the dance before I start creating the actual choreography. 

OA: Apart from individualized challenges that arise while making a new work, what other kinds of challenges have you come up against while building a career in dance? 

SF: There are so many challenges to being an artist. The first and foremost is funding. There simply isn't enough. The second is maintaining momentum. It is important to constantly keep moving forward without distraction. This is difficult because sometimes you feel like you just need a break. As an artist, you have to embrace all of your successes and disappointments and surround yourself by people who care and are honest. 

OA: Totally. I feel the same way living in New York, where you want to make the best work possible (or at least be working toward better and better work); you definitely need to find Your People. You have built a pretty incredible network of fellow artists and makers within the Richmond community. As a Richmond, VA native, could you describe the dance scene there? How do you think it has changed–in big or small ways–since you delved into it?

SF: The Richmond, Virginia dance community is ever-changing. There is currently so much dance here, which is pretty amazing for such a small town. This growth has much to do with the incredible dance department at VCU as well as the Richmond Ballet. There are small companies and performance groups constantly cropping up and then going away throughout the years as students move on.  But with that, there are a few consistent companies that have been around for a number of years. 

OA: SFDP is certainly one of them. What moves you as a dance maker versus as an audience member? Do you ever find that the two overlap–that you see a performance, and it inspires you to make a new work or respond to it in some way?

SF: The one thing that moves me the most when watching dance is witnessing beautifully crafted work. I absolutely enjoy watching somebody else's investment in creating a solid dance work. From the dancer’s focus to their relationship with the space and other dancers around them, I feel that we can learn so much from each other. I absolutely find being an audience member and being a dance maker overlap. It's difficult to separate the two, so I gave up trying long ago. One thing I have learned is that it is best not to sit too close to the stage so I'm able to completely immerse myself into the final product. 

OA: Good point. What advice would you offer to younger or less experienced dance makers looking to break out of student mode and start doing their own thing–creating their own ways of moving? 

SF: Perseverance. Commitment. Embrace. Discover. 

OA: I love that. Thank you, Starr. Now I really don’t want to finish this interview, but finish it we must. How do you determine when a work is "finished?” Or is a work never truly finished, in your opinion?

SF: I feel mostly that works are completed by the time they are performed. There have been occasions when I have gone back into a work years later and restructured and fine-tuned. As a choreographer, I believe we are constantly learning and growing. It is often when I look at old works that I recognize things I would change now, even though I would not have made those changes then. The difference is time and maturity.