Five questions with: Marta Renzi

Iowa International ScreenDance Festival
Conversation with Marta Renzi

FilmScene — Saturday, April 28 at 11:30 a.m.

Marta Renzi’s ‘Her Magnum Opus.’ — video still

The Iowa International ScreenDance Festival celebrates its third year this weekend, with a program selected from 125 entries from 25 different countries screening at FilmScene on Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29. Part of the 12th annual Iowa Dance Festival (which runs May 11-12), ScreenDance films will also be shown in Mexico City this year, in August. Admission to Saturday’s and Sunday’s screenings will be $7.50 each day.

Moderating the event, and speaking about the films on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. to kick off the festival, is filmmaker and choreographer Marta Renzi. Renzi was commissioned by PBS for the festival. Her choreography first aired on public television in 1981. She has created dances across the U.S., including for her own Project Company. As a dancer, she appeared in the 1979 film Hair.

Renzi served on the board of advisors for the New York Foundation for the Arts and was a consultant for the New England Foundation for the Arts’ program “Building Community Through Culture.” She has made numerous short films as well as the 2017 feature Her Magnum Opus. Little Village touched base with Renzi via email for five questions about dance and film.

You began dancing at 7 — was there ever a version of your life that didn’t center on dance?

Yes, always. When I went to college I took some pre-law courses — and found my way back to dance.

When my children were in elementary school, my husband and I helped found a community group focused on progressive public education called PIE, Partners in Education. We were living in Nyack and I continued making work but family was more central than dance. Then after my second child I started taking aerobics classes — and found my way back to dance.

When I was abut 45 I stopped dancing for a while, studied the cello, took some paralegal courses and worked in a law office — and found my way back to dance.

In 2009, I began as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Parent Child Home Program, a pre-literacy program in which I visit a child with their parent twice a week for 30 minutes over the course of two years. A decade later, I’m still doing that and find that it helps to balance healthy the ups-and-downs inherent in working in the arts, with service — the so-called real world — an hourly wage; issues for immigrant families, which are most of the families I see.

By now I understand that I’ll always question the value of my own work and/or a life in dance.

But I’ll always distract myself from those doubts by engaging in regular and healthy activity outside of dancing.

How does your film work and your dance work inform each other? What is the keenest wisdom you’ve been able to apply from each to the other?

The first part of this answer is logistical.

My dance company is called Marta Renzi & The Project Co. That means that, except for about five years long ago when I had a fixed company, I invited dancers to join me based on the needs of a particular project — like selecting cast members for a movie.

Also, in my dance work I was always interested in working in specific sites — like locations on a movie project.

So both in terms of who is dancing and where, I was never wedded to a particular collection of dancers, or to the proscenium stage.

Whether the particular film or dance I’m working on is more abstract or more narrative, the dancers are always people first. In more narrative work that may obviously be reflected in terms of acting and character development, but even in abstract work I look for each dancer’s humanity, their sense of self, grounded in an actual life.

Editing is a tool as well as a metaphor that can be applied to either dance or film, or even more broadly — as in this response! Editing as re-creation is a great gift. I used to say that the form of my dances was sometimes patchwork, by which I think I meant something like what we now understand as non-linear editing.

Of course everything is always too long, whether live or on film — a lesson to keep learning again and again.

How did your approach differ when you moved from shorts to your feature, Her Magnum Opus? Which format do you prefer?

To be honest, in designing and shooting Opus, it probably wasn’t as different as it perhaps should have been! Once it came time to edit, I realized that a lot of what I had created could be seen as a series of shorts, especially in how they began and ended and in their relationship to the music. Luckily, I took plenty of time to edit, so soften the transition between sections, and to bring out some imagery — the house, the seasons, the solos of the central character — that created an arc across the entire movie.

Nowadays I prefer films — or anyway it suits my schedule better. Nothing is as wonderful, or time-consuming, or costly — or gas-guzzling! — as commuting from home to rehearse with others in a studio for the many hours it takes to make a good dance.

What’s your own relationship to mentors and mentoring? Who has served that role for you, and are you drawn to becoming a mentor yourself?

My first mentor — Joy Anne Dewey — was my most important one.

My mother was also a huge influence on me — I learned from her to be intensely curious about others, to introduce and connect individuals who would benefit from knowing each other, to be unafraid of leading. When I was a young dancer/choreographer I worked with Kei Takei, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Twyla Tharp. But though I learned from each, I never stayed with one long enough to experience extended mentorship.

Almost 10 years ago, when I was over 50, I found myself telling a younger dancer who was surprised to hear it, “Now is not the time for me to be center stage. It’s time for me to share what I know and to help other younger folks on their way.” Still I’m always a bit surprised to hear from dancers I’ve worked with that they think of me as a mentor. I thought we were colleagues!

I’ve been on the Board of Directors of Dance Films Association for almost a decade, and my work there has been as much as possible to create community, to enable filmmakers to have their work seen and supported. I’m proud that this summer DFA will present a film series called OUT ON FILM, of LGBTQ-themed dance films, in partnership with one of my favorite organizations in New York, The Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance.

“With a combined cast of performers from the US and Slovakia,” wrote Marta Renzi. “From a free outdoor performance at Bryant Park, NYC in 1997-ish, just before one of my many crises of faith!” — photo by Robert Flynt

You have a long history with the NEA and have frequently been grant-funded in your work. What’s your opinion on our current cultural and political moment? What responsibilities and opportunities do we have in terms of public arts funding, as artists and as citizens?

My “long history” with the NEA is long ago! Few grants anymore are as unencumbered as those individual fellowships once were. When I was young in NYC, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, funding was less constrained. There was even something a lot like FDR’s Works Projects Administration called a CETA grant, for artist workers. But nowadays there are so many restrictions, and so many requirements about matching funding. No wonder folks are turning to Kickstarter to fund their projects — it represents direct support from people who believe in their work, rather than begging from a government that doesn’t really support the arts. I haven’t applied for funding in something like 15 years because, as I always say, it’s just enough rope to hang yourself with.

I’m afraid my activism is not around arts funding however, but to more concrete issues like health, choice, literacy, gun control, climate change. However, I’d like to think that the work I make testifies to the value of play in our lives — Her Magnum Opus raises the art of play to an ideal level!

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