Saturday, May 3, 2014

See. Site. Dance: A talk with Tom Pearson

Tom Pearson
(photo by Darla Winn)

See. Site. Dance. 
A talk with Tom Pearson of Third Rail Projects

by Melanie Greene

See. Site. Dance.

Site-specific work is never that simple, yet those words--See. Site. Dance.-- instantly come to mind whenever I recall my conversation with Tom Pearson, Co-Director of the award-winning Third Rail Projects.

Site-specific work takes dance or movement exploration out of traditional proscenium spaces and into the world. This practice expands the possibilities for dance presentations to reach a larger audience and spurs us to question who dance is for and where can it live and breathe. These days, in an ironic turnaround, artists are even coming back to conventional theaters as site-specific spaces.

How will the artist(s) interact with the space? What information does the space offer the performer and the work? How will the audience witness the work in the space? What legal permits (if any) need to be acquired, and how long will it take to get them?

These and many more questions run through the minds of Tom Pearson and his Third Rail Project partners and co-directors, Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, as they make art for the public sphere in a multitude of genres--dance-theater, performance, video and multimedia, and installation.

Left to right: Zach Morris, Jennine Willett and Tom Pearson
at the Bessie Awards 2013
(photo courtesy of Third Rail Projects)

Their masterfully crafted, immersive theater work, Then She Fell, won a 2013 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production Performed in a Small Capacity Venue.

“Lots of things were going on [at the time], and things were happening quickly in our company,” Pearson remembers. “The company went from 13 to 30…but now I can really reflect. If I had time to think about it as it was happening, I’m not sure I would have been able to do it.”

This was Pearson's second Bessie; he and Zach Morris first received a Bessie for choreography in 2008 for a production that ran only three days. He felt gratified to know that Then She Fell, at the time of its honor, was celebrating a run of one year.

"It feels right [to receive recognition] for something in the present,” he told me.

Receiving the Bessie proved to be excellent publicity, and now more people will get a chance to catch the work. Then She Fell's run has been extended through August 31, 2014--two years from its launch.

“The work was first embraced by the theater community, but it’s great to get recognition from the dance community where we attribute our history and roots,” Pearson notes.

Then She Fell is a cleverly curated work that takes each audience member on a unique journey. Audience members are shepherded from one room to the next, slowly piecing together fragments of a broken narrative. As you go around, you split off from familiar groups and join up with new ones, but sometimes, you're left alone to figure out and experience what comes next. You leave with a unique perspective all your own. (Here's mine:

In February 2014, Then She Fell was running 12 shows a week. The show can only support about 15 audience members per performance, which encourages intimacy. "It may not be a big money-making model," Pearson notes. "But it’s successful and keeps itself going and us all working.”

Photo courtesy of Third Rail Projects

How Site-Specific Works

There is no set formula for site-specific work. It's hands-on, a process full of trial, error, and discovery.

“It can get tricky," Pearson adds. "Depending on where you stand, it can be the difference between needing one permit [for use of a site] or five.”

When producing site-specific work, flexibility invites possibilities. It encourages an artist to see the potential in the chosen space.

In 2007, Pearson told an interviewer for China's TVB8 that site-specific work involves “investigating the architecture, the history, the cultural ideals that are inherent in a particular place and bringing that into the work." [See]

My conversation with Pearson sparked my curiosity about how such hands-on, learning-by-doing can be taught to students of dance and emerging artists. I mentioned reading Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces, edited by Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik. Pearson was familiar with the book, and our conversation of it spiraled around the promise of generational history and future enterprise.

Kloetzel and Pavlik's book, a good resource, documents site-specific dance events through images, interviews, and accounts from practitioners. For Pearson though, the book's discussions seemed tilted towards a West Coast and historical approach to site-specific dance. We agreed that this geographical exclusivity didn’t feel intentional—just likely the product of publication deadlines and accessible material.

I joked with Pearson about the release date of his hypothetical site-specific book as future generations would benefit from his experience and knowledge.

“Who knows?” he replied. I'm convinced that this idea is merely waiting for the right time, when there is time.

Tom Pearson
(photo by Rick Ochoa)

Having Sights on International Sites

The way Pearson's career is going, time to write about his process might not be that easy to come by. Site-specific projects have taken Pearson to many parts of the world, like last year's visit to Almaty, Kazakhstan .

“I take on a lot. We all do. It can appear overwhelming, but we take on these projects and choose to do them. Maybe I should have not have gone abroad... with other Third Rail Projects works happening at the same time, but how could I not? And fortunately, there are three directors, so we do sometimes have the ability, not only to collaborate, but to fan out.”

In April 2013, Pearson and Morris worked with young artists of the Capacity Building Foundation during a workshop and performance in Kyrgyzstan in an abandoned Soviet mall. Participants helped clean the space. Nearly 300 people showed up for the performance. Due to this success, Pearson had little reservation about heading to Almaty in September for the ARTBAT Festival, along with Third Rail’s Associate Artistic Director, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus.

Pearson recalls the ARTBAT Festival as an “amazing experience…one of my favorites so far.”

“We find a site, find a partner or the partners will find us. We like to work with local people and look beyond the traditional scope of parameters to unlock the potential for engagement and success. This goes back to being able to look at a space with a sense of flexibility that expands the possibilities of how to exist in the space. ”

Even with several projects on his plate, Pearson values taking time off to rejuvenate. He enjoys camping and scuba diving but also likes to participate in conversations and other explorations that can inform his work. Inspiration can manifest from the most unlikely places and spark ideas for the next project.

“Immersive theater is having a huge moment in conjunction with site-specific work,” Pearson reflects. Artists are experimenting with new ways to curate experience for their audiences, and Pearson continue to wonders, “What is the next part of that conversation?”

For Pearson, the conversation, most recently, involved eggs--two rather big ones--with dancers inside.

A scene from Yolk
at Grace Plaza
(c)2014, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

In April, Third Rail Project curated lunchtime for office workers and tourists with a new site-specific project commissioned by Arts Brookfield. Yolk, an outdoor dance installation, premiered at midtown Manhattan's Grace Plaza with Roxanne Kidd and Jessy Smith slipping around inside human-sized eggs. Critic Eva Yaa Asantewaa called Third Rail Project's fantasy duet "meditative and beguiling" (

You never know. Third Rail Projects could turn up next at a site near you. Find out here.


Tom Pearson is a Bessie Award-winning artist and the Co-Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects and co-creator (with Jennine Willett and Zach Morris) of the hit production, Then She Fell. He works in a variety of media that includes contemporary dance, site-specific and immersive performance, film, visual art, and large-scale installations. Each work introduces its own movement and/or visual vocabulary, defined by the parameters of the subject and performance environment. Through the lens of a contemporary movement vocabulary, he creates dense, evocative worlds that illuminate the transient and the transformational, using movement abstracted from and coupled with everyday action. Paired with this is a fierce percussive abandon, often complimented by meditative nuance. Likewise, Pearson uses art installation to achieve rich, multi-dimensional environments, and site-specific explorations seek to mine public spaces for hidden meaning and to capture and engage unwary and unsuspecting passersby.

Tom has been commissioned to create original works for Danspace Project; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation; Arts Brookfield; The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), among others. He has served as an adjunct faculty member of the Florida State University School of Dance (FSUinNYC), The Florida School of the Arts, and through master classes at a number of colleges universities, and arts-in-education programs including the High School of the Performing Arts and New York City Opera. He is also a writer whose work on performance has been published in Dance Magazine, Time Out New York Kids, Dance Spirit and as the Editor of the Public Theater’s Native Theater Journal online and in filmed interviews for NYU’s Hemispheric Institute. Tom holds an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.

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