Jodee Nimerichter started as an intern for the Durham-based American Dance Festival in 1991 and has worked there since, save for a hiatus from 1999 to 2002 when she left to work for public television. ADF curates a wide-ranging schedule of performances every summer, which take place at various venues around the city. The rest of the year, it hosts dance companies from around the world, who perfect new work while receiving instruction and support from experts here. Jodee came up under the tutelage of ADF’s Director Emeritus Charles Reinhart, who led the festival for 43 years before retiring last year. She’s married to accomplished dancer and Pilobolus alumnus Gaspard Louis. They have two children – Dahlia, 4, and Preston, 9 months – and have lived full-time in Durham for three years. She sat down with Durham Magazine Editor Matt Dees in The Ark dance studio at Duke to discuss the big shoes she has to fill, the exploding Durham arts scene and why modern dance is like Baskin-Robbins.
DM It wasn’t exactly a surprise when you were named the new director, given your long track record with ADF. Did you have to apply like anyone else for the job?
JN In some ways you could say, it’s been a 20-year job interview. When I was invited to come back in 2003 as the associate director, there was a sense from many people that that was a statement about a commitment that hopefully would move forward. But I knew there was a lot to be demonstrated before any final decision. I think I won the heart of Charles Reinhart and his late wife, Stephanie, years ago, as well as those of people in the community. I knew a lot of board members, but there were a number who needed to get to know me. It’s been great to really demonstrate my strengths.
DM What do you think is Mr. Reinhart’s legacy, maybe outside his longevity?
JN People still come up to me and say, “When he founded the festival…” He’s done so much in the 43 years he was director that it kind of feels like he was the founder, though ADF began in 1934. That shows the impact he’s had. He has taken the festival and modern dance onto the international map. He’s really committed to the artists and helping to support and nurture them and allowing them to create work. He’s also helped audiences to grow with [the artists], to develop an appreciation for the art form. His legacy is that his name and the festival’s will be synonymous with modern dance.
DM How did you first come to ADF?
JN I was a college intern in 1991. But I found out about ADF serendipitously when I was 16. A book called The American Dance Festival by New York Times critic Jack Anderson landed on my parents’ doorstep. I was a real ballet bunhead at the time and honestly didn’t know much about modern dance. I got this book and said, “I have no idea what this is,” and I put it on my shelf. When I went to college and had stopped dancing and was trying to figure out what to do, somebody had mentioned to me, “You should really think about arts administration.” So I called ADF and asked for an interview. Afterward I thought, “That sounds so familiar,” but I didn’t have any idea why. I called my mom and asked, “Can you look on my bookshelf?” and there was the book. So I was like, “Send it to me quick so I can read it cover to cover before the interview.”
DM Did you think about becoming a professional dancer?
JN I almost went to a conservatory. When I went to the audition I had this a-ha moment that I loved dance but I didn’t have to do it to be involved in the field. But I didn’t know what that meant yet. So I pretty much stopped dancing completely. If you want to dance, you have to want it more than anything. It’s a really difficult life.
DM Why did the festival move from Connecticut
JN There came a point [in the late 1970s] when it was clear the festival had grown so much it would not be able to stay at Connecticut College. So there was a national [request for proposals] put out and cities were bidding for the festival. [Then-Duke President] Terry Sanford was told to bid on the festival. Through a huge selection process, Durham won ADF. The funny story is: Terry Sanford said he was glad ADF was coming. But there were two things he forgot to mention. One is that nobody in North Carolina knows anything about modern dance. Two is that everybody goes to the beach in the summer. The testament is that in the 34 years Charles directed the festival here, the audiences have grown with the festival. A great example is Eiko and Koma, a Japanese couple who do butoh-like movement. It’s not for everyone. You have to grow an appreciation for it. The first time they were here, about three-quarters of the audience got up and left. The next time they came, a few less left. The next time, a few less. Now, everyone stays. There is an audience here for modern dance.
DM That seems to be a huge part of your job, to educate and thereby attract audiences. In fact, I’m one of those people who appreciates and respects modern dance, but doesn’t quite “get it.” So, sell me.
JN First, you should come to multiple performances. There are companies that are good entry points into modern dance for someone who doesn’t have much experience with it. But I hate to do that too specifically, because, ultimately, I don’t know what your tastes are. Some companies are more “for the masses,” but that doesn’t mean you won’t like something completely on the other side. As I like to say, modern dance is like Baskin-Robbins. There aren’t many people who don’t like ice cream. There are some. So there are going to be some people who don’t like modern dance. But if you like ice cream, there’s probably a flavor or two, or 10, or 15, or 20 you’re going to like if you give it a chance. The same is true of modern dance. The companies here range from pure athletic movement to lyrical movement to dance theater to completely avant-garde. The range is so huge, I can’t really show it to you unless you let me take you on the journey by coming to the theater a couple of times.
DM What, if anything, do you want to do differently as director?
JN The festival isn’t going to change drastically. I just want to do more of what ADF has done and provide opportunities for people to develop and create work. I also want to provide more entry points for people in the community who are mystified by modern dance. I want to bring them into the various steps of creation, so they can see how something starts, how it evolves and how it ends up on the stage.
DM It seems Durham’s exploding arts scene is a double-edged sword. You’ve got more appreciation, but more competition as well, right?
JN Our challenge is we’re not offering a performance this month, and another performance next month and one the month after that. It’s a very concentrated time, so it’s about people’s willingness to commit to us for six-and-a-half weeks. There are amazingly smart, educated people here who care deeply about culture. They are coming out, supporting us. We’re building new, deeper relationships. I see those only getting stronger.
DM I imagine there are some cool things about raising kids in New York, but it’s a better situation here, yes?
JN Moving here has been phenomenal professionally and personally. It’s a lot easier to raise kids here. One day, Dahlia’s shoe fell off in the car on the way to school. I took her in and didn’t realize it until I got to work. I thought, “I can take it back to her now, no problem.” If I had been on the train in New York and got to work, she wouldn’t have seen that shoe until the afternoon.
DM Is she interested in dance?
JN She loves to dance. She dances all over the house, constantly. But we don’t have her in any formal classes right now, though we might consider that soon. She’s an amazing little audience person. She has, both in my belly and now out of my belly, sat through lots of performances. She has a great attention span for her age. Most recently, when I took her to something, she says to me, “We have to be very quiet. We can’t talk.” And I’m like, “That’s correct.” She gets dragged to rehearsals sometimes with her daddy. So she’s learning through osmosis, in a way. I hope she grows up and loves it and appreciates it. Whether she does anything with it, that’s her choice. It’s her own life. DM