The consensus amongst Jacksonville's creative community is that it's challenging to sustain life as a full-time artist in Northeast Florida. The general public want the benefits of regular and direct access to the arts, but typically the arts as a whole are undervalued. Because of that, the artist's role in society is sadly also often undervalued. The arts, when woven into the fabric of every day life, have the ability to promote civic engagement, encourage creative problem solving, and build bridges across cultures. Make no mistake, the artist's role in society is one that is incredibly important.
It isn't uncommon to see artists leave Jacksonville for major metropolitan areas with the hopes that their body of work will be better received and that they as artists will be better compensated upon relocating. Relocation is not an option for everyone though and not everyone desires to leave. Because of that, the artists that remain must look to build a network of likeminded individuals that can influence how the arts are perceived and valued in our community.
For far too long Jacksonville has celebrated its potential. Conversations surrounding potential are dangerous because when we discuss potential our brains reward passive behavior by releasing endorphins that provide us with the same warm feelings we receive as a result of actual accomplishments. The narrative is changing, however, and conversations are now revolving around the work that remains to be done. This is a result of no longer accepting potential as the norm and instead harnessing ideals, leveraging strategic partnerships, and implementing result-oriented action to enrich the quality of life in Jacksonville.
Hilary Libman is a dancer who left Jacksonville for New York City but returned home in 2008. Since returning, Libman has focused her attention on how she as a performing artist can play a role in crafting Jacksonville to become not the city that it can be, but the city that is must be. Libman is passionate about seeing an infrastructure exist in Jacksonville that better supports dance and other forms of performance art.
Libman graduated cum laude from Jacksonville University with a Bachelor’s degree in dance. She has performed as a dancer with such companies as the Central Illinois Ballet, The Sarasota Ballet, and Florida West Ballet. Libman is now one of 18 dancers who performs with Jacksonville Dance Theatre (JDT). The repertory company will hold their fifth annual showcase on June 24 at The Florida Theatre. JDT will present newly commissioned work from choreographer James Boyd (Jacksonville) and will perform current repertory from choreographers Rebecca R. Levy (Jacksonville), James Morrow (Chicago/Massachusetts) and Tiffany Santiero, among others.
Libman and JDT are just one example of an artist and arts organization who are working diligently to mold Jacksonville into something more than what the city has historically been. Now is not the time to stand back and wishfully think about what Jacksonville can be. Get involved and pledge either your time, your experience, or your finances to the causes that you care about. These initiatives need your support, and support from the community at large.
10 Questions with Hilary Libman
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I think it’s safe to say that most dancers are creatures of habit. We spend most of our lives repeatedly practicing and studying the same steps and movements.
As an ensemble dancer, my preparation for a new project revolves around getting into the dance studio. I can never be sure what a choreographer will ask of me. It's crucial that I take a variety of movement classes and that my body is feeling strong.
As a member of Jacksonville Dance Theatre, we take weekly company classes, which include anything from a technical ballet class to a guided improvisation session. This allows us to build our dynamic as a group so we are ready to deliver when a choreographer needs us to find an emotional connection or try a movement that requires complete trust.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
My artistic endeavors have taught me a great deal about myself. Being a dancer and choreographer might be one of the most significant aspects of my identity. I am happiest when I am creating and moving.
My acquired artistry plays an important role with challenges in life, but also contributes to celebrating my greatest joys. It’s allowed me to travel and meet some of the most talented, inspiring, and diverse people. It has pushed me to take on endeavors that I would have otherwise not consider. It’s taught me that I’ll never stop learning about myself, and each time I walk into a studio the possibilities are endless.
How do you define success in what you do?
Success for me is being able to say I’ve made a career out of what I love doing the most!
What first attracted you to better understanding how the body moves and how it can be utilized to express an artistic narrative?
I started dance at the age of 2½ and loved it from the beginning. I continue to be in awe of how much I am still learning. My body can do the same movements repeatedly and based on the angle, the intention, or a dozen other factors, it can feel and look different every time.
I can stand on a stage and lift my arm hundreds of times and every time I can tell you a different story. The meaning and expression of even the tiniest movement can portray so much and it can be interpreted in endless ways. As humans, we are pretty much hard wired to read people’s emotions and intentions based on their body language, so it is very natural to use movement to tell a story.
Our annual concert coming up on June 24th at the Florida Theatre is a perfect example of the diverse artistic narratives I get to explore as a dancer. I will be performing the work of four very diverse choreographers. It’s a big responsibility to take the concepts and ideas that each choreographer has given me and accurately portray them to an audience. I love the process of being in the studio with a choreographer and rehearsing, studying, and tweaking until we’ve managed to make the choreographers’ visions a reality.
What are some of the challenges that dancers face in Jacksonville and how do you see the sector developing in the next five years?
Jacksonville is interesting because we have some incredible dance educators and institutions for students to perfect their artistry, but the professional opportunities are practically non-existent. We see so many talented dancers and choreographers who hit a certain level of skill and end up having to leave for other cities if they want any chance of a career opportunity. Jacksonville Dance Theatre was founded five years ago because of that void.
I would love to see the professional dance opportunities continue to grow. I’ve been performing with JDT since their inception and I definitely see the Jacksonville community rallying behind what we do. I am excited to see these opportunities expand so that we can hopefully hold onto the talented dancers we have as well as attract talent from outside of Jacksonville.
How do lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, etc.) impact the longevity of a dancer's career?
There is a saying among dancers that “the body is your instrument”. If your body isn’t healthy and in top shape it affects everything in dance. Dance careers are notoriously short and are typically riddled with injuries. I turned 35 a couple months ago, which in the professional dance world is often right about the age of retirement, but I’m feeling healthy, strong, and optimistic to continue.
As dancers we demand so much of from our bodies that there is a price to pay for eating unhealthy or skipping a workout. Personally, I am a big fan of mixing up my training with other restorative movement, such as Pilates and high intensity workouts with a trainer to help build stamina. I also make sure I’m fueling my body with the right quantity and types of nutrients to make sure that I have the energy to make it through the long strenuous rehearsals leading up to our annual concert.
Performance art, such as dance, is not as easily commodified as visual art. What challenges does that present in regards to keeping audiences and community engaged between performances?
I love that you asked this question, and I wish I had a great answer. This has been the source of a lot of discussion for me and my colleagues lately. Every year, JDT produces a solo concert based on a specific prompt given to us by our artistic director, Rebecca Levy. The members of the company each self-choreograph a solo based on the prompt and present it in an evening of performances. This past year the inspiration for our prompt came out of a discussion about how dance really cannot be commodified in a way that visual art can.
Part of the magic and beauty of dance is that it is a live art form. It has breathe and a pulse. A dance is never performed exactly the same twice. Our solo prompt was to create an artifact that remains behind after the performance. This was not an easy task, and although the works created out of the prompt were thought provoking and intriguing, I feel it only reinforced that dance can’t be commodified in any traditional sense.
I’d like to think the value comes in the power of the experience. We want our audience to stay engaged based on the anticipation of the fleeting opportunity to see what has been created.
What do you feel makes a performance impactful and memorable?
My goal for every performance is to elicit a reaction of some kind from the audience, whether that reaction is visceral or simply sparks some thought or conversation. If the audience has a reaction of any kind then you’ve impacted them, even if the reaction is not the one you intended.
I love the buzz of the audience when the curtain comes down at the end of a show. I love hearing their reactions and interpretations and how those thoughts evolve once they start discussing it with other people in the audience.
How can dance and performances be elevated when they are choreographed and produced as site specific pieces?
When I moved back to Jacksonville in 2008 after living in New York City, I was part of a collaborative group of dancers who produced site-specific work. We mainly did it out of necessity since we really couldn’t afford theater space. It’s a fun but challenging process to create something specific to a space.
Although JDT is traditionally a theater company, just a couple of weeks ago we performed on the stairs at Unity Plaza. It was exciting because we basically danced amongst the audience members. I think you could argue that having the performance happen right there next to you is an elevated experience.
Site-specific work can be as elaborate or as casual as you want it to be.
What would you like to see in Jacksonville as an effort to grow the city's creative economy?
Hands down we need affordable proscenium theatre houses so that emerging artists and companies like Jacksonville Dance Theatre can afford to produce the choreographic works as they are intended to be seen.