Interview: 2016 Visionary Award Recipient Stacy West
On April 25, The St. Louis Visionary Awards will celebrate the passion, determination, and imagination of six local women who daily dive into the trenches to improve our city’s arts culture by stimulating artistic ability via education, philanthropy activism and public engagement.
The honorees selected were chosen by a committee of prominent professionals who include co-chairs Sara Burke and Kim Eberlein, as well as Adrienne Davis, Alison Ferring, Renee Franklin, Melissa Howe, Cynthia Prost, Marilyn Sheperd and Donna Wilkinson.
For Stacy West, the Outstanding Teaching Artist for 2016, the path to success in the arts was not all pirouettes and performances. Before being honored with a Visionary Award, the Executive and Artistic Director of MADCO Dance Company began her career inauspiciously as a competition baton twirler before settling into a career in dance in college.
Her expected career as a fashion buyer went awry after helping a friend with a sorority fashion show. While visiting the theater department to pick up costumes, West saw her first dance class. Instantly hooked, she signed up for her first dance class.
Despite not initially knowing the vocabulary of dance, the movement training from her baton career made the adjustment more natural. Eventually, as a senior in college, with no prior formal training, she auditioned for MADCO. Though she didn’t get in on the first try, West persevered on with her training and joined after a second audition. She has not looked back ever since. From 1988 until 2004, she was dancer with the company and took over leadership of the organization in 1994.
As MADCO celebrates its 40th anniversary, West and her company of 12 dancers have supplemented their onstage presence by amping up their touring, outreach and educational programming.
West talked to ALIVE about MADCO, collaboration and her career path and the importance of the arts.
As we approach the Visionary Awards can you tell us how the arts have impacted your life?
I can’t imagine my life without the arts. I always tell people that for me, this is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. I really think of it that way. It’s a passion and it’s woven into everything I do. There’s not really a part of my day that I’m not inspired by what I do.
Describe your creative process?
It’s changed over the years. The older I have gotten, collaboration is everything to me and I see it everywhere I look. I would not enter into a project now that does not involve collaboration. I feel that everything is richer and more valuable with collaborators.
The minute I start to get an idea or I look at something around me that sparks an idea, the first thing I do is I start thinking of who is the greatest expert in this field or who is someone really exciting I could bring in on this project with me. I usually spend three to five years letting something incubate, working with collaborators before an audience ever sees it.
To me, the most exciting and invigorating part of the creative process is those three to five years of working on it. I wish that every audience member could spend those years with me going through the process.
When you have really great people as collaborators, the cool part of the process is watching it be refined. The other part I love is that you have to write grants, and I love to go back and read those. With each grant I write, the project starts to refine itself because I have to start talking about what I am going to do. There’s a whole line of thinking in these applications and you can see things changing as we started changing our ideas, or had less money, or so and so came onboard.
So to answer your question, my creative process is long and thoughtful and I don’t do it alone, as opposed to when I first started and I didn’t know how to do it with anyone else.
How can St. Louisans better champion the arts?
Go and see anything. That’s all you have to do. Just go. You don’t have to have money. You don’t have to write big checks. Just go. There’s a lot going on. You’ll go to a restaurant you’ve never heard of before or you’ll go to a bar, you’ll go to a movie, so why not go to an arts event?
What made you want to become more deeply involved in our arts community?
To be honest, the people. I’ve found out that because I started out in retail in the business world. My degrees are in marketing and I have an MBA, so I was heading in that direction. I was also in the arts simultaneously and I found the people in the arts—and their way of thinking—to be so stimulating to me and so open that I knew I wanted to be around those kinds of thinkers and that’s what drove me to the arts.
What can other artists and creative professionals in the region do to foster stimulation in the arts?
My answer is also collaboration. The more people you get involved in doing rather than watching, the more engaged they become and I think it’s finding creative ways to get them to connect to the arts.
For me, I’m in modern dance so there’s nothing that people, except for maybe modern art, find more weird than modern dance. You have to find creative ways to make them not be afraid of what you are doing. The best way to do that is to get them actively involved in a way that’s not intimidating. I think the artist’s job is to know the communities that they are serving and to be open to finding ways to connect to those people in a way that they are ready for.
I think that you have to be aware of what your audience is ready for. Artists have to be smart about that and they have to know their communities and be okay with where their community is and be active participants in bringing them along.
How does this award reflect the work you did in 2015?
Education is woven into all the work I choose to do for MADCO. Whether it’s a main stage performance, community outreach, or interacting with students, my passion is to use dance as a tool to educate. One of the programs I’m most proud of is “Books in Motion,” which uses dance to promote reading to 4th through 6th grade students. We reach thousands of St. Louis area kids with this program.
I’ve been very involved with students in UMSL’s SUCCEED program, a two-year residential certificate program for young adults with disabilities. I teach classes for people with disabilities and in 2016 will offer our first sensory-friendly production only for people with disabilities and their families. Even the main stage work I choose to do has an element of education for both the audience and the artists. In 2015, I presented “Wallstories” by German choreographer Nejla Yatkin that was in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Through this production we partnered with the UMSL German Culture Center and performed student matinees for 900 area high school students. Pubic performances educated local audiences through the eyes of the choreographer who lived through the experience of the wall coming down.
Our dancers had the opportunity to work with a world-renowned choreographer to learn how to create meaningful work that educates and entertains. Broadway World named “Wallstories” the Best Dance Production of 2015. Our production “Liquid Roads” created and choreographed by Gina Patterson with live music directed by Brian Casserly is inspired by the music that traveled up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis on steamboats. This production has had many revisions throughout its 6-year creative process educating audiences and K-college students about life along the Mississippi river and the collaborative process.
For more information about Stacy West and MADCO Dance Company, visit madcodance.com