THE DANCE ENTHUSIAST ASKS: Nai-Ni Chen and Janet Rodriguez of SoHarlem on Why Their Costume Collaboration is a Win-Win
This Fall 2021, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, which fuses the dynamic freedom of American modern dance with the grace and splendor of Asian art, will begin a unique partnership with SoHarlem, a social enterprise connecting Harlem residents to cultural industry opportunities while helping them achieve economic self-sufficiency. The Dance Enthusiast asks Nai-Ni Chen, Artistic Director of the dance company, and Janet Rodriguez, CEO and Founder of So Harlem, about what the partnership entails.
Sammi Sowerby for The Dance Enthusiast: Previously, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s go-to seamsters or seamstresses included the likes of Karen Young, Anna-Alisa Belous, Olu-Orondava, Jon Can Coskunses, and Angel Tsai. How have these professional costume designers been impacted by Covid-19?
Nai-Ni Chen, Artistic Director of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company: Because of shutdowns and the cancellation of performances, the demand for dance costumes during the pandemic was greatly diminished, which definitely impacted the designers.
The process of costume-making for dancers requires a lot of close-up interaction and contact. Getting together for costume fittings became much harder, as only a certain number of people were allowed in a room. Besides, fabric stores were closed for many months and some have not reopened. It was challenging to get costume designers to come in to watch our rehearsals, let alone design our costumes, or to hire seamstresses, shop for fabric, and carry out fittings.
We are still in touch with our designers, which is how we know about all the issues they face; for instance, fabric and other materials are limited due to supply chain issues. Designers have been busier since things reopened, but there are fewer seamstresses available, which may impact the quality of new projects.
The Dance Enthusiast: What incentivized you to change the way your company has always sourced costumes?
Nai-Ni Chen: During the lockdown, I made some costumes myself, which was possible, but is becoming impossible as we recover. Post-Covid is a new reality and I've been looking for ways to adapt. I've had to do more online shopping for costumes as well as make alterations — but this is a very chancy approach. The whole process has allowed me to examine the haphazard ways we are sourcing costumes and incentivized me to try to find partners in every step of the process. We know the designers, but do not necessarily have a good source of seamstresses and costume makers. Although there are costume shops for Broadway plays and musicals, they are not specifically equipped for dance. Some of my dances have been performed more than 100 times! A well-made costume needs to be able to take on the rigor of touring and the constant stretch and pull by dancers' moving bodies. I found myself spending more and more time on mending and repairing costumes instead of working on my dances.
The Dance Enthusiast: How did SoHarlem pierce your radar?
Nai-Ni Chen: As I look back at our costuming process, I am reminded of how lucky we are to work with skilled designers. But great design still requires great execution.
SoHarlem's work doesn't just attract designers but also makers — this is what caught my attention. Of course, we have also known Janet for more than 20 years.
As the performing arts world opened up and we began touring and making new productions again, my company and I have felt the need to provide support for and collaborate with other groups. We are totally in sync with SoHarlem's mission; not only does this collaboration fulfill a need for us, but it also opens up another source of work for them. Right now, I am working on a new production with Full Circle, a hip hop group led by husband-and-wife team Kwikstep and Rockafella, and we all thought that SoHarlem was the ideal partner to make our costumes.
The Dance Enthusiast: Hi, Janet. For the benefit of anyone who has never been to the Manhattanville Factory District, could you take us on a descriptive ‘walking tour’ of the West Harlem neighbourhood? From what I see in the news, things are changing fast — for the better, you think? Where does SoHarlem fit in?
Janet Rodriguez, CEO and Founder of SoHarlem: The Manhattanville Factory District was an industrial area that sat desolate and decaying for decades. Over the past 20 years, the developer Janus Properties and the local community have dedicated energy, time, and resources to rezone the area (50 percent of which contains empty warehouses) into a mixed-use development that was approved by the Community Board in 2005; this area will total a million square feet by 2021.
SoHarlem is an integral part of the Factory District, an emerging arts and academic corridor linking Columbia University and City College, and has ongoing input into what has become a local economic driver and model for supporting, rather than displacing, local residents. We share the community's desire to address the high unemployment in Manhattanville and to ensure that home-grown businesses are owned and staffed locally.
Our base of operations is our Designers’ Studio, a fully accessible 5,000 square-foot working plant in a landmark 1920s building. With high ceilings, abundant natural light, three 8-foot cutting tables,14 sewing machines, and other industry equipment, it has proven to be an unparalleled resource for artists, trainees, and the community. Harlem’s underemployed designers, in particular, need this space to build their enterprises and foster equity in the fashion industry where only 2.7 percent of designers are people of color.
The Dance Enthusiast: ‘Cultural Industries Incubator’ is a beautiful descriptor for SoHarlem, which has empowered many artists to eke out a living. Do you seek them out or do they come to you?
Janet Rodriguez: To date, 57 creatives have participated in programs at the Studio, and 20 of them have gone on to establish their own enterprises. During the past two years, and despite the Covid pandemic, our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence trained 40 neighbors in garment construction. From that pool, eight became Apprentices at the Studio.
The majority of the artists find us, but we do promote our programs through eblasts, social media, street-level windows and word of mouth.
The Dance Enthusiast: What informed SoHarlem’s choice to pair Javier Valencia with Nai-Ni Chen? Is it the fact that his past clients include athletes?
Janet Rodriguez: Javier is an expert at understanding our clients' needs and he has worked closely with the costume designer for Gallim.
The Dance Enthusiast: How did your first meeting with Valencia go, Nai-Ni? What was his most pressing task following the meeting?
Nai-Ni Chen: It was extremely pleasant to meet with Javier Valencia. He is very detail-oriented and made sure to support my ideas and to pay attention to the problems with my existing costumes. My first task for him was to improve upon an old design with a lot of details and to create two sets of costumes for my current dancers. The challenge is finding the same kind of fabric of the same color. He has had to shop around with the limited resources that are out there now, make a pattern based on the old costume, and adjust the design for the better. Since SoHarlem is conveniently located in the city and has a team with designers and seamstresses working together on a daily basis, this will really make this process easier.
The Dance Enthusiast: Logistics aside, why does working with SoHarlem make more sense?
Nai-Ni Chen: Not unlike our dance company, which bridges the gap between different communities, the non-profit organization supports those around them with an interest in making or designing fabric. It is meaningful to collaborate with SoHarlem on many levels. Overall, this collaboration will give us a chance to support each other's mission.
It is always wonderful build long-term relationships so we will always know where to get support. We will always provide our own business, but we can also open up new doors for SoHarlem to make and maintain costumes for the performing arts industry in New York City; they were more focused on fashion and daily wear before. We envision introducing designers who previously collaborated with us to SoHarlem thus attracting more dance or theatre designers to use SoHarlem as a resource. We are very excited and looking forward to more projects together in the near future.