Breaking Boundaries for Dance—and Female Choreographers

Melissa Riker, Kinesis Project
Photo by Stephen de las Heras, Kinesis Project

Kinesis Project founder Melissa Riker’s goal is to get dance off the formal stages of concert halls and out onto the streets—as well as parks, beaches, college campuses, and rooftops. Viewing dance as a “public art,” Riker started Kinesis Project in 2005 to bring dance into the public eye in unexpected places.

She’s since grown into an entrepreneur as well as an artist, seeking to uplift the dance community as much as make its work accessible to all. As a freelance performer, teacher, and choreographer in the New York City dance world since the mid-90s, Riker was well-acquainted with the instability that can come with the life of an artist. “I became a dancer and choreographer because I had to,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine myself not dancing, as I relate to the world through image, movement and words. Not entering the field would have been denying who I really am.”

In addition to running her own company, Riker works with several organizations that support women, both as artists and people. She supports One Billion Rising/VDay and 4th U Artivists in their mission to aid women who are escaping violence or healing from violent histories, and she’s the Executive Producer of EstroGenius and a founder of Women in Motion. “EstroGenius celebrates the complex and dynamic voices of female characters and creators on stage and works toward parity behind the scenes,” explains Riker. “Women in Motion’s mission is to support female choreographers through development, performance, and community.”

Kinesis Project’s latest piece is “TimePiece, or: Another imperfect measurement of us,” which will be performed on the rooftop plaza of John Jay college, a floating park in the center of the city. To be accompanied by live music, dancers will take to the grass, escalators, and staircases to explore “breaks in communications, time and distance” within the contrasting environments of urban buildings and green space. Riker is now soliciting donations to fund the project’s $5k goal, in part through a fundraising party on August 28, which will take place—you guessed it—on a rooftop.

“Art is valuable, shifting spaces and environment is valuable, a dancer’s time and health is valuable,” says Riker of her artistic and entrepreneurial mission. “And—at some point I’ll learn to say it regularly with strength and power—my work as an artist is valuable.”

One thing’s for sure: Riker keeps it moving.

Melissa Riker
Photo courtesy of Melissa Riker
 
“Women in dance have an awkward and horrible glass ceiling.”
 

How has Kinesis Project grown since you started it more than a decade ago, and how have you grown with it?

I began making dances because I needed to, wanted to, and then found dancers who came back for more after a project ended. That was the beginning of Kinesis Project taking form as a company, not just a pickup company, or abstract idea with a name.

As it became more real I had to learn to build budgets, websites, postcards, community, and, of course get better at my chosen craft of choreography. These elements were the beginning of my realization that I wasn’t just making dances—I was building a business based on making dances. Over time, I managed to get better at both, until it was quite clear I could no longer handle it by myself.

An advisor stepped in and helped me build a Board of Directors. This is where the huge shifts appeared. I now had a team of amazing, caring, smart individuals who wanted Kinesis Project to continue to “become.” We had to envision a future together. That shared vision includes placing high values on paying our dancers, creating high-quality art, and placing this high-quality art in interesting and unusual places. Those core values are the foundations of every choice we make.

Personally, I am still working on growing as a leader of a team that can support this work day-to-day and help it expand.

You work with a lot of women in your space. Why do you think that is?

Women in dance have an awkward and horrible glass ceiling. From the outside, it seems as though there are plenty of women in the industry, as most of the dance community is female. However, as you look further up, the people who regularly get top-tier funding and exceptional gigs in exceptional venues are men.

This is finally beginning to shift in a bigger way thanks to many years of discussion, studies, and research. Dance NYC and DCLA have just completed the first steps of research connected to diversity in the dance world of NYC. But there is still much to do.

What piece of advice do you wish you could have given yourself as a young dancer?

When I was graduated college, two different choreographers I adored told me, “Call me when you land in NYC.” I got to NYC full time and talked myself out of contacting them. Now that I am someone who teaches college students and know the sort of dancer I’d like to work with as they grow, I recognize that I hid from two amazing possibilities of getting jobs dancing!

What’s your next big move?

Kinesis Project is growing and being seen for what we do in NYC. I want that visibility to unfold broadly. I want us to partner with parks, cities and institutions anywhere who are invested in public art engaging communities and their spaces being re-enlivened in the process.

Lonnie, Kinesis Project
Lonnie
Photo by Stephen de las Heras
Kinesis Project, Dance
Photo by Ian Douglas

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