Editorial based on interviews written and conducted by Eline Marx
Patricia Nicholson is an artist and the founder and director of the free jazz organization Arts for Art (AFA). In 2016, I was interning at Arts for Art and taking one-on-one dance classes with Patricia when William Parker suggested I interview her in the perspective of putting a book together. Here are some excerpts of our conversations, important biographical elements, and anecdotes.
At three years old, Patricia knew she wanted to be a dancer. Her mother played the piano at home and she would sometimes sing with her, but mostly she put on records and danced in the house. Above all, she loved Billie Holiday because of the tension withheld between the notes. “It’s about timing, hesitation. The space between the notes is as large as your imagination is. It’s the tension before something is released. It opens everything up and gives you possibility. And it’s trying to find what is undefinable”.
Her mother, Kathleen Wilkins, was an economist and she did research for the director of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Senator William Burnett Benton. Her father, Arthur Wilkins, was an adman. By the early 1960’s, her mother was active in the Civil Rights Movement and then the peace movement. She became disillusioned with traditional politics in 1968 when the Democratic Convention in Chicago sold out the peace movement and the civil rights movement in backroom meetings. Although she didn’t talk about her political involvement, she transmitted her values in the way she raised her family.
At nine years old, Patricia started studying ballet with Jean Hamilton, a former member of Ana Pavlova company. Her teaching style was modern: based on the idea of training a healthy body, and learning ballet so it could be adapted to any kind of contemporary dance. “I refer to her as my dance mother” says Patricia. “The way I teach today derives from her”.
At eighteen, she realized she did not want to be a ballet dancer. “It was improvisation that I wanted to do. Improvisation based in a shamanic concept. It was dance as a way of breaking through to a higher state. That was also the time of the beginning of post modern dance. I looked at everything and I thought it was all very interesting. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I kept on going back to jazz even though I hadn’t heard what I wanted either. I was interested in dance as the expression of a spiritual path.”
Because she admired her mother’s intellect so much, she chose to counterbalance by cultivating her intuitive mind. “I’m an associative thinker. That’s actually what improvisation is, being able to move freely from one thing to another, but with the sense of the whole, always. Improvisation is for me about more than my work. It’s my approach to life (laugh).”
She develops her own language in movement and dance: “My dance expresses the feeling of things – similarly to impressionism. The energy makes my work not abstract nor narrative but very personal, and hopefully universal. Everyone’s work is personal, but I mean it in the sense of feeling the human energy flow. You have to tell the truth and be truly in yourself in the present moment. You are communicating a firsthand, undiluted experience.”
In 1972-73, she begins imagining the jazz she would want to work with. She describes her vision to the people around her. A friend introduces her to a musician who has an idea where to find what she’s looking for. Together they go to Studio Ribea where William Parker and Jemeel Moondoc are playing. It’s NUNTU first concert in New York. Patricia tells William she is looking for “music who would give people hope”, and they decide to work together.
By the early 1980s, there was a closure of the loft scene. The scene was scattered and there was no place to perform. In 1994, the German bassist Peter Kowald got a personal grant from the East German artist Penck to present a festival in New York. William and Patricia worked with him to organize the first Sound Unity Festival in 1984. In 1994, Patricia founded and organized the Improvisers Collective. She brought the community back together for a weekly series with music, dance and visual arts. In 1996, it morphed into the Vision Festival and Arts for Art.
“The Community that I try to serve and respond to are artists who have given their lives to creating and refining work that is free and powerful, and encouraging the growth of this kind of work. Work that, as musicians like to say, changes lives. Everyone of us changes lives through the casualness of our encounters. My intention both as an organizer and as an artist is surely not to be self-satisfied. That is dangerous for your art. That means that you are no longer growing, a part of creation. It is about laying yourself open to fully commit.”
As a person, an artist, a community organizer, she is concerned with energy: “I love that we usually think our body is solid but we’re actually just vibrating. What looks like the edge of our body is really not that solid. That makes sense with how it feels to move. Even in traditional dance training, they’ll tell you to keep reaching beyond your fingers. In ballet, dancers point their toes to reach beyond the edges of their body. Energy is transformative. Now I believe that by placing energy, great energy with great ideas, great truth, it starts to really change the world. By the way, that was the idea of the Vision Festival: to bring all these stellar people in one place and let it reap.”
In 1997, Arts for Art is incorporated as a non-profit so that the Vision Festival can continue. The objective is “to support the racial identity of free jazz, which is under attack, not as a conscious aggressive act but because people haven’t taken care of it.” So, what Patricia really does is she takes care of it. She pays attention.
Her work as a choreographer is also based on an understanding of energy: “I like to choreograph, but I am now more interested in bringing people into the improvisational approach. I remember that when I was choreographing, I always felt that a lot of it was random. What exactly is the movement is random to me. What matters is not the movement per se but the flow of energy. So I found that useful concepts in choreography are mainly related to space: where and how do you position yourself in the space — basics that are written in early books on choreography; those are relevant. But the familiarity in movement is relevant. What part of the audience’s memories are you tapping into?”
Her inspiration as a performer sometimes manifests during her dreams. In the morning, she mentally collages pieces of visions, feelings and rhythms. At seventy years old, she is still improvising. She has “two selves”, she says, the one in daily life and the one when she dances. To maintain her inner balance, she needs to be high on the art, reach “a certain kind of transcendence”. “I like to find the order that is in chaos. In fact, what people call chaos is an order that they don’t understand — the free flowing between all that is the world within which one creates whether it be instant composition or pre-composition.” She laughs at the fact that her path turned out to match the unique timeline of her main role models, Margot Fonteyn and Kazuo Ohno.
I ask her if she does not think that improvisation requires the deconstruction of what one has learned, which requires a lot of work. She responds that whereas improvisation came naturally to her, she did not always fully grasp the landscape of the creative space. She had to learn and grow to communicate better through it. “There is improvisation and there is communication. Motivation is another important element in creating and sharing your creation. Technique is the last element, whether it is a technique that you create for yourself or one that you learn and refine. It creates a clarity in what you do that is an important part of communication. What are you trying to do when you improvise? The combination of these four elements determines the impact your work will have in this world.
Improvisation is the way we move through life — and the better we improvise the less we are stuck in a rut. It’s this ability to create in real time. In performance, the rules of improvisation are the same as the rules of composition. The better you’ll absorb those inside of yourself, the better you’ll do, but all rules are to be broken. A good rule is something that opens you up, not something that limits you.
When I was in my early twenties and on two different occasions someone came up to me while I was dancing and said: “please stop, you’re too free.” I looked at them. It was interesting because they were sincere ; they couldn’t handle it. As for me, I just didn’t know how to do it any other way. I only knew how to be myself, it’s the only thing I had and this self was doing, marching to my own drum, as they say. It was really what I was caring about, what my motivation was. And what was important to me was a spiritual transformation. When I move I am energy. Not form, just energy. The energy passes through you, through the prism of yourself, it is transformed by you at the same time as it transforms you. And so you bring that, you offer that”.
Tonight Patricia Nicholson celebrates her 70th birthday at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in Manhattan beginning at 6 pm. Musicians, visual artists and poets are gathering in her honor in a benefit for Arts for Art and the Vision Festival. Come share the love with us.
Photo Credit: Eline Marx, taken at a protest in Foley Square, NYC, picturing Nicholson and other activist artists protesting concentration camps for refugees at the US southern border.
 Ebba Jahn has made a comprehensive documentary that captures these moments, Rising Tones Cross (1985).