In 1995, Savitri Durkee, Katharine Birdsall, and Ray Eliot Schwartz created the Zen Monkey Project.
Initially drawn together by our common age, geographical location, and interest in modern dance and contemporary performance, we were inspired by a hunger for camaraderie and a deep curiosity about each other’s aesthetic sensibilities. All of us had degrees in dance, something we found funny and charming when, in rehearsal, we had moments of understanding that, although we were doing what we went to college for, it was in a location neither we nor our teachers had ever thought a full time experimental dance group was possible. From that beginning, many remarkable artists and individuals have found their way into the Project, though the operative philosophy of the organization has remained consistent.
The basic format of the Zen Monkey Project centers on collaboration within the frame of artistic leadership and guidance. We embarked on this way of working as a response to the "you rehearse for me I am in your dance for a couple of hours a week here and there" model which was common for so many of us during and after college. We wanted more time to explore our ideas, and we wanted the chance to participate in an artist’s vision by immersing ourselves in that person’s methods and aesthetic.
Our projects often have one choreographer/director who serves as the primary creative force behind an evening-length work of movement art. The director works with the company from two to nine months, often four to five days a week for four to eight hours, culminating in a several week long run of performances.
After a completed project the company breaks apart, rests, re-organizes and then re-convenes for someone else’s project. Although reciprocity is neither required nor expected, many of the members of ZMP have stayed on through several projects and found themselves in the delicious position of being both a guide and a student of each of their colleagues.
Rather than serve as a vehicle for the work of individual artists, ZMP has focused on the individual primarily as part of larger, group experiments. In that way, we have created a bridge between perceptions of the artist as "loner" and ideals of collective responsibility and ensemble creation.
ZMP’s work has ranged from formal, choreographed dances set to 20th century classical composers, to improvisational dance/theater, to site-specific installations partnering space, motion, and story with architecture, sculpture, sound-scape, and fabric design.
Our commitment to both rigorous artistic inquiry and to the expressive capacity of the human being/body has remained constant. We train; we practice; we turn an idea around and look at it from many angles; we ask questions and we try to answer them in action. In this way, each project becomes a launching pad for current concerns and a fertile ground for future interests.
Our work evolved from the curious and fascinating community that is Charlottesville, Virginia , and in particular from the intersection of a small town surrounded by beautiful natural surroundings with a vital artistic and intellectual population. The New Dance Space on Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall was our original home, serving as the rehearsal studio, living space, school, and theater for over seven years. Since the closing of that space, ZMP has partnered with the McGuffey Arts center and other community organizations dedicated to keeping the arts alive and effective.
Essential to the ZMP experience has been the belief that the arts can happen wherever there is rigorous commitment and a willing investment of creative capital and effort. We found a place we felt we could live, and we made work. All of us had been told time and again that in order to succeed as an artist you must go to a big city and "make it". We found that by locating ourselves in a liveable environment with the luxury of time and lower costs of living, we could indeed "make it," "it" being the work. We made work in ways that only elite groups can find the time and resources for in larger metropolitan areas. We worked during the day, we worked full time, and our work was our art.
We made certain sacrifices by choosing this lifestyle. We tended to work in isolation; we didn’t tour much; we never got famous; our research played to sold-out houses for weeks at a time, but you have probably never heard of us. Sometimes one of us needed to strike out in a new direction, and this often meant leaving town.
Remarkably, everyone who has been a part of ZMP has found their way back at some time or another to participate in whatever way they can. As we depart and return, we bring the ZMP experience into our relations with others, and we bring our new ways of learning and being back into conversation with the ZMP container. More than anything, the Zen Monkey Project has been and continues to be a forum for investigating the body/mind, for honing perceptions, and for expressing the heart of our common purpose: movement art and its intersection with presence, soma, and performance.
ZEN MONKEY PROJECT
TOURS AND COMMISSIONS