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Q & A

ALYCE DISSETTE: The Art of Being Off Center

July 07, 1991|SUSAN KING

"Alive from Off Center," PBS' unconventional, offbeat showcase for the performing arts, returns Friday for its seventh season of 10 half-hour programs that sample the newest in animation, dance, film, music, poetry, theater and video.

The series kicks off with "Words in Your Face," an anthology of the New Poetry movement featuring contemporary expression, rappers, spoken word performers and writers such as Bob Holman, John Leguizamo, Jessica Jagedorn and Matthew Courtney.

Also on tap for the season are dance-theater works by Urban Bush Women and Montreal's Carbone 14; choreographers Susan Marshall and Ruby Shang, and short films by animator Jan Svankmajer and filmmakers Hal Hartley and Julie Dash.

Alyce Dissette, the series' new executive producer, discussed the making of "Alive From Off Center" with Susan King.

How do you plan a season of "Alive From Off Center"?

It is sort of a process. We have a full-time, fabulous person who keeps track of things that are going on in the world. His name is Neil Sieling. He functions like a curator except that he doesn't make the program decisions. He develops things to a place where we can talk about them. We look at about 1,000 tapes and proposals a year which are unsolicitedly submitted to us. It's a lot.

We are in a different position in that we really are about translating an art, performance art primarily, to television. Unlike "Great Performances," which is more of a literal translation of things, we are struggling to make it (performance art on television) its own art form. That is primarily our mission.

I am actually one of the few people in the performing arts who likes television, or at least admits to it (laughs). I have always watched a lot of television. I grew up in front of the television. We are now bringing into the world a generation of artists who grew up in front of the television. I think it affects their work more than one would think.

I think (choreographer) Mark Morris is influenced by his television background. Billy Forsythe, who is one of the great choreographers of our time, he says that he started dancing by watching "American Bandstand." What I want to do is draw out these people and take their formal training and translate it to the little box.

How do you collaborate with the artists?

Our first show, "Words in Your Face," was a proposal that came to us. We had been tracking the director (Mark Pellington) and we worked with him as a partner.

For instance, they sent us a rough cut and I looked through it and I made a couple of suggestions. The truth is, he could have done it the way he wanted it.

Unlike commercial producers, I am trying to be a collaborator more than a boss. I think Mark has very good instincts and I trust them. And if there is going to be a mistake, I would rather it be with somebody who is talented. He will gain something from it and it won't be the beginning or the end of the world for any of us.

How tough is it to get funding?

It's a very tough time. I have a lot of friends in the performing arts world and it's a tough time economically, but I'm sure that's no surprise for anybody. We have had exceedingly loyal and generous funding since the time the series began. And fortunately, in most cases, I have previous relationships with the places that we are funded by, so that we can continue to work together.

I am trying to expand the amount of money we're using because I want to be able to commission more work to guide the series even more in terms of direction.

The National Endowment of the Arts with PBS began this series seven years ago. I think the community of performing artists, because of what has happened the last couple of years in Washington regarding the NEA, are realizing that we as a community have become removed from the general population. It is crucial we do everything we can to become part of the culture. We are the culture. We are not separatist or elitist.

Have you begun to plan next season?

Yes. In future years, I want to take broad themes through a season and apply the programs to that theme, i.e., next year it will be artists' response to the discovery of American culture juxtaposed against the 1992/1492 discovery of America celebration.

I am not questioning or supporting it (the celebration), but I am giving artists the opportunity to respond to what is American culture. Did we discover it? Was it already here? I have a feeling it's all of those things.

The following year, we are talking about works surrounding issues of the family, which is pretty broad. There is a lot of work out there about families. Everybody had one, or if they didn't have one, they are upset about that (laughs).

"Alive From Off Center" airs Fridays on KCET at 11 p.m. and begins July 18 at 11 p.m. on KPBS.

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