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Creative Loafing

Q&A with Amanda Szeglowski of NYC's cakeface dance company, performing at the Florida Dance Festival June 17

June 10, 2010
The annual Florida Dance Festival returns to USF June 16–26 with workshops and master classes by some of the world’s leading dance professionals. In addition to classes, the Festival will host evening dance performances in the USF School of Theater and Dance auditoriums by the Arch Dance Company, Fuzión Dance Artists, David Dorfmann Dance, and a spattering of Florida Dance Association members including a New York City company with a most unusual name: cakeface.

Founded by a graduate of Blake High School’s first performing arts class and USF alumna Amanda Szeglowski, cakeface sports more than an unusual name. Mixing an eclectic staff with more eclectic ideas, the company boasts a repertoire of performance art/dance/sound and video design/visual art pieces, and isn’t afraid to try something new for fear of it being misunderstood. 
Szeglowski talked to CL about her Florida roots, her New York aspirations, and the importance of her early arts education.

CL: You were in Blake’s first graduating dance class. What did it mean to you to be able to help shape that program, and how did that influence your later decision to be an entrepreneur?

AS: Blake reopened as a fine arts magnet high school in 1997 – which for me and my fellow founding class graduates, was our junior year. We auditioned at the end of our sophomore year and decided to leave our high schools, where we had put in time and carved out a position of leadership among our peers, to start all over again. That was a very tough choice for a 16-year-old: Do I really want this bad enough to leave all of my friends, activities and “status” behind? It was actually great training, because it wasn’t the last time I would have to make that decision. 

I auditioned for dance and (visual) art, got in for both but had to select one track (obviously went for dance), and that summer went kicking and screaming to the orientation with my mom. I knew within 10 minutes that Blake was the place for me. Enamored with my new friends, after my first day of school I came home and told my parents, “When I say Cats, they know I mean the show!” 

 It was such a treat to be surrounded by peers that were equally passionate about the arts. Not only could we study, create and perform our art in a new multi-million dollar facility, but it was a real high school, too, with sports teams and pep rallies and clubs like we had before – only this time we had a say. We could introduce things that we loved about our previous school and make them new traditions at Blake. I so enjoyed being a part of the Anchor Service Club at my old high school and was torn about leaving, having just been elected an officer. But at Blake, I was able to found a new chapter of the club and serve as president for two years. Plus, I got to incorporate the artistic talents of the club members when planning our community service activities. There were endless opportunities for the taking at Blake, and the students that chose to go there were hungry for them. Today, with my own company, I operate under the same mentality: you just have to see the potential in front of you and capitalize on it. 

 It was an amazing experience being a part of the first graduating dance class. There were only eight of us seniors in the dance department, so we got invaluable one-on-one time with our teachers and really benefited from the intimate environment. One thing that profoundly affected me as an artist was the “coffee house” series that was held in the dance studios. Magnet students could sign up with their major teachers and then once a month, during the school day, they could show work in an informal setting – coffee house style. Students had the opportunity not just to perform their own ideas, but to collaborate with the other disciplines. Friends from jazz band would pair up with a tap dancing buddy, or a creative writing student provided a poem to serve as the soundscore for two ballet dancers’ pas de deux – that window into the real world of artistic collaboration was exciting and incredibly enlightening. Not only did it open my eyes to the possibilities of interdisciplinary art works, but also it made me actively seek and appreciate new relationships with other artists outside my safe zone. I learned early on about the importance of networking and seeing performances outside my field, and how to utilize those connections for my own artistic vision. 

How do you think your life would be different today had you not had the opportunity to study the arts early in life? 

 Like most dancers, I started training at a local studio before I knew how to tie my own shoes. The studio helped me learn how to be comfortable on-stage, how to take direction and replicate choreography. It pushed me out of my shell. Studios are an essential part of every dancer’s early education, but they only go so far. At Blake, I learned about intensive training, commitments and sacrifices artists have to make, how to contribute to someone’s rehearsal and how to run my own. I learned not just to replicate choreography that was taught to me, but what it means when a work is crafted “in collaboration with the dancers.” I learned how to self-produce a show – how to lay down a marley dance floor by hand, design lighting and select costumes, operate a light board, and stage-manage performances. Studios teach you how to be a dancer. Blake taught me how to be an artist. 

If I hadn’t had the opportunity to attend an arts school, I would probably still be a dancer, perhaps even professionally, but the kind of work I would be performing or creating would be a fixed bag of tricks because I would lack the tools to go further. With my sights on New York City since I was a child, I knew I needed a competitive advantage, and arts schools provided just that. 

My first year at USF, my classmates were learning things I was introduced to in high school. I was able to hone my craft and explore new ideas while they played catchup to the arts school students. It’s a snowballing effect; I was ahead of the game entering college, therefore also ahead upon graduation and entering the dance field. I only wish we had the magnet elementary and middle schools back then that exist today. I can’t imagine the size of the “advantage snowball” a student would have by attending arts schools at every level. I think there would be a new meaning to the words “triple threat.” 

On the flip side, arts schools are also essential because they weed people out. I have many friends that went through a public school arts program only to realize it wasn’t what they wanted to do with their lives. What an insightful realization to have at such an early age! When most people are trying to find their passion in college and end up paying for their If I hadn’t had the opportunity to attend an arts school, I would probably still be a dancer, perhaps even professionally, but the kind of work I would be performing or creating would be a fixed bag of tricks because I would lack the tools to go further. With my sights on New York City since I was a child, I knew I needed a competitive advantage, and arts schools provided just that. 

My first year at USF, my classmates were learning things I was introduced to in high school. I was able to hone my craft and explore new ideas while they played catchup to the arts school students. It’s a snowballing effect; I was ahead of the game entering college, therefore also ahead mistakes – literally – arts students leap ahead and can evaluate for themselves much earlier on what it is they really want to pursue and find out if they have the conviction to follow through with it. Arts schools are rigorous and intense and incredibly demanding time-wise for the students and their families. They are hard, just like real life. 

What kinds of relationships did you have with your arts teachers? 

 To say my teachers were influential would be a vast understatement. Each and every one of them has not only helped get me to where I am today, but also swayed the direction of my current and future work. I could dissect any piece in the cakeface repertory and point out how each teacher contributed somehow to making that work what it became.  

Christina Acosta was the department head at Blake when I attended and is now running the dance department at Hillsborough Community College, Ybor City Campus. Her class was my first introduction to modern dance, and to this day she is one of my company’s biggest supporters. At Blake, she showed us countless videos to expose us to what was out there – the new order of choreographers and their companies – and it was in her class that I resolved to someday have my own. While I was in college at USF, Christina used her connections in New York to secure an internship for me with one of the most prestigious international dance companies, Merce Cunningham Dance Company. That internship was the springboard for my seven-year career in New York City arts management. When cakeface started working on our first piece to premiere in New York, we did an informal showing in her Carrollwood garage for over 50 friends, family and local artists while we were in Tampa for the holidays. As I evolve as an artist, so does our relationship; she has been a teacher, a mentor, a reference, a presenter, a donor and a friend. 

From Christina Acosta, I fell right into more supportive hands at USF. My instructors there were always encouraging me to push farther, think outside of the box and question everything. Their reach has affected the company through more outlets than just myself – I met one of my dancers and key collaborators, Jeso O’Neill, at an audition in New York a few years ago, and discovered she was also a USF almuna, close behind me. One of our professors there, Lynne Wimmer, who was a great critical eye and editor for me, also took Jeso under her wing and taught her Final Cut Pro and sound editing techniques, even bringing her along to assist on an outside project. Lynne whet Jeso’s appetite for audiovisual experimentation and Jeso has since honed her skills and created several intricate video installations and soundscores for cakeface. Michael Foley, Assistant Professor at USF, has also been in our corner from day one and is always sending words of encouragement our way. It often feels like there is an underground railroad of support running from USF to NYC. 

How did your education at Blake influence your decision to study at a state university? 

Every year at Blake, we participated in USF Arts Day, where we would go to the campus along with other arts high school students from the state and take classes with USF professors at their dance facility. The high schools would also present works in a concert that evening at USF. So when it came time to think about college, I already had an insider’s point of view about USF and felt at home with their dance department.  

With that in mind, the financial component sealed the deal for me. I had always wanted to attend NYU and when admissions called my house to tell me I was accepted, I thought my parents would have to scrape me off the kitchen floor. But when we sat down and weighed my options, it was another tough but clear choice. With my Bright Futures Scholarship and Florida Prepaid College Plan, plus talent grants from the dance department each semester, I was able to cover books and housing and still come out ahead. With only a partial scholarship to NYU, I would have had to take out extensive loans and graduate college with a minimum debt of $100,000. I knew starting a career in the arts with that much hanging over my head was a death sentence.
By going to a state school, I could have the college experience I wanted. I lived in apartments of my choosing, kept my car and could go out when I pleased with a little spending money in my pocket. I had a seasonal part-time job when schoolwork allowed. At NYU, I would have constantly been worrying about money, and I wanted college to be about college, that’s it. I graduated from USF in May and was on a plane to New York three months later – debt free and ready to go. 

Why did you ultimately decide to leave Florida? 

I love Tampa. A lot of people in New York live in the city because they hated where they came from and wanted an escape, but I loved my hometown – the laid-back culture, the friendly people, the beautiful beaches. Tampa was hard to leave behind. 

Being a dancer doesn’t just mean going from the studio to the stage; you have to work at it from many angles, educate yourself on what your contemporaries are doing, and constantly be asking: Who’s who and what are they doing? I can see something original every day, year-round in New York City. Without the knowledge and experience of being entwined in the dance community here, my own work would come from a less informed place. How can you make work if you never see work? If nothing else, I like seeing work to know what I don’t want to do with my own. I learn about myself as an artist with every show I attend. 

Some of the avant-garde artists that are “dance celebrities” in New York are completely unknown in other states because the arts centers there are afraid to present works that may not have commercial appeal. I respect and appreciate what the old guard dance companies do, and see the importance of regional performing arts centers presenting their work in cities like Tampa, but my training at Blake and USF exposed me to working experimental artists that are redefining “dance,” and I wanted to see them. 

Considering your early immersion in the Tampa Bay arts community, what does it mean to you to be able to bring cakeface back to your hometown?
Returning to Tampa to perform with my company is an incredible honor. It feels like big a “thank you” to my arts educators, like, “look what I have done with the tools and skills you taught me.” Plus, I have always thought of cakeface as a company with two bases: New York City and Tampa. Our community of supporters is about 50/50 of NY and Florida residents, so it’s great when we get to do something in the sunshine state, and even better at my alma mater, USF! I’m beside myself with excitement about the Tampa community being able to see what’s happening now in the New York dance scene. And we are the ones delivering the message! 

Florida Dance Festival, June 15-26, University of South Florida, School of Theatre and Dance, 305-310-8080, floridadanceassociation.org. Florida Dances, Thurs., June 17, 8 p.m., USF Theatre II, $10 general, $6 students/seniors. Faculty Concert, Sat., June 19, 8 p.m., USF Theatre II, $12 general, $8 students/seniors. Fuzión Dance Artists, Wed., June 23, 8 p.m., Salvador Dalí Museum, 1000 Third St. S., St. Petersburg, $12 general, $8 students. David Dorfman Dance, Thurs., June 24, 8 p.m., USF Theatre I, $22 general, $15 students/seniors. Festival Finale, Sat., June 26, 7:30 p.m., USF Theatre II, $6. A Florida Dance All Access pass if available for $79 general, $49 students/seniors.