A powerhouse merger of Philly dance companies

By Jim Rutter


Imagine that José Garces and Stephen Starr joined forces. Now imagine that instead of building a new facility lined with exotic decor and a model-pretty staff, these celebrity chefs used the partnership to develop their own culinary aesthetic, and put the pursuit of cuisine ahead of a restaurant's sustainability.

A merger of similar stature and quality took place in the Philadelphia dance community recently, when dancer-choreographer Kate Watson-Wallace and choreographer-poet-impresario Jaamil Kosoko rechristened anonymous bodies, Watson-Wallace's company, as a joint collaborative for the pair's work.

Watson-Wallace, 33, began dancing and producing her own pieces in Philadelphia in 1998 while studying dance at Temple University. Kosoko, now 30, arrived in Philadelphia in 2005 after graduating from Vermont's Bennington College. Each initially established independent companies: Watson-Wallace started anonymous bodies in 2007 and Kosoko founded the now-disbanded Kosoko Performance Group and his still active Philadiction Movement.

However, each spent too much time tending to the demands of running an organization. Watson-Wallace cited the stress of "running the company for years" and realized that "there were no companies where one person was doing everything." Kosoko indicates he's been in a similar situation, and says, "Now we can organize. Joining forces makes us stronger; I already feel a huge difference."

The pair had collaborated on projects dating back to Watson-Wallace's 2006 Live Arts Festival show, House, and brought complementary strengths to the new partnership. Kosoko finished executive-director training for arts management at the Kennedy Center and sees the merger as an integral point in his career, an opportunity to use his experience onstage and behind the scenes to "curate and build relationships."

But the pair will not open a studio, build a new dance space, or hire anything more than a skeleton staff. That kind of institution-driven ambition is precisely what they want to get away from. As Watson-Wallace puts it, "That model is dead" - at least for the type of company these two intend to establish.

Instead, they want, as Watson-Wallace explains, "to find a new model that is sustainable, low to the ground, responsive" and enables them to "keep making art and being part of the national and international conversation."

Part of that responsiveness includes tailoring the budget and staff to the artwork they want to produce, rather than vice versa.

"We're artists first," Watson-Wallace says (the company has one permanent employee, who handles bookkeeping and administration). Once a week, she and Kosoko meet in a coffee shop or at her Fishtown home to discuss strategy, marketing and artistic planning.

That freedom enables the pair to focus on a growing number of commissions and performance opportunities from other organizations in Philadelphia and across the country. After spending the early part of this year on work commissioned by Pittsburgh's Kelly Strayhorn Theatre, Watson-Wallace will choreograph for Philadelphia's BalletX in the fall. Kosoko recently presented The Invisibility Complex at New York's Dance New Amsterdam and has performances scheduled at Harlem Stage and in Washington, D.C., later this spring.

Each hopes that anonymous bodies will let them capitalize on their growing reputations while living and producing work mainly in Philadelphia. Their new company's first collaborative venture will take place Memorial Day weekend in Old City's Christ Church. Entitled US, this exploration of Americana will feature a pop-up gallery and DJs and lecturers invited to share the space with Kosoko and Watson-Wallace as each presents new solo pieces.

If it doesn't necessarily sound like dance, it shouldn't. Both questioned calling anonymous bodies a "dance company," asking instead to be seen as an arts collective that will support their independent and collaborative works while also serving as an umbrella organization for other artists.

As Kosoko points out, "We're at an interesting point creatively - to be called dance artists feels limiting," especially for a pair of artists whose combined output includes theater, poetry, performance art, curation, installation work, dance, and choreography.

Kosoko sees their goal as forming "a larger framework for this variety of activity." And to that end, they're trying to keep the model as small as possible, to just create their art.