Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell: A Year in Review
Photo by Frank Ishman
March 24, 2022 | Back to blog
“Under Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell as Artistic Director, the company is clearly flourishing.” – WTTW, Fall 2021
With a triumphant first year as Hubbard Street’s Artistic Director under her belt, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell takes a quick break from rehearsal to talk about trusting her instincts, getting past imposter syndrome, and leading with empathy.
Congratulations on an incredible first year as Hubbard Street’s Artistic Director! As we take some time to reflect on the past 12 months, let’s start at the beginning: you were announced for the position in February 2021, and your first day was March 1, 2021. What was going through your mind the day before your first official day on the job?
How many thousands of things were going through my mind! Before my first day, I had already been meeting with Dave [McDermott, Executive Director] off and on right after my announcement was made. Hubbard Street had been without an Artistic Director for a few months, so I felt that there was some urgency. So, I’d meet with Dave, or Jess [Tong, Associate Artistic Director] and Jojo [Jonathan E. Alsberry, Rehearsal Director] and Dave, to get me on board with some of the projects that were in the works to get my approval.
But one of the first duties on the job – and it may even have been the day before my first day – was to have contract talks with all of the dancers. I was like, “What in the world?” But what it turned out to be for me, because I was coming into a place where I only knew some of the dancers, what I made it was an opportunity to get to know each other. And some of them were really afraid and apprehensive, because a lot of new artistic directors take over and they “clean house,” you know, they let a lot of people go. And they were like, “Well, can I come back?” And I’d say, “What kind of COVID witch do you all think I am, of course you can, I would love to have you back if you all would have me, because I’m about to make some changes,” you know? So, what we turned it into was an opportunity to “get to know:” What do you like to be called? What are some of your favorite things you’ve been dancing? Who are some of the choreographers you’re interested in? So, we kind of flipped it from something that seemed really weird and inappropriate at my early stage in the process into a “getting to know,” and it was actually really nice!
Have you had to draw from any of your experiences as an educator or a company dancer to inform your work as an artistic leader for Hubbard Street?
Yes – all of them! All of the moments that I’ve had throughout my career, whether it’s performing with Hubbard Street or Ailey or being a professor or being a mom, and all of those things – I’m finding that in this role, they’re all needed and they’re all needed at different points of the day, at different points of the year. But it seems like what I have learned to do – and it’s a practice – is sit in it. Like, “You know what you’re doing, it’s OK, don’t live in doubt. You’ve seen an iteration of this come around at some point before, and so trust your instincts and think about things.” If there’s a question or some kind of uncertainty when it comes to a dancer, or the works that we do, or even when doing an interview or whatever – just sit back and be yourself because the experience is in there somewhere.
In education [at Towson University], I was the senior seminar advisor, so I helped students craft their resumes and their reels, and helped them deal with rejection, and helped them navigate the workplace – and I oftentimes would go back to stories of when I was their age, or how I negotiated different things. So, I keep those things really close, because those are the lessons, you know. I’m always reflecting on those moments, all of my life experiences, because I think that’s the key to me being here, is having those kinds of experiences and being able to share them.
How do you think COVID’s impact on the performing arts industry has changed your leadership style, if at all?
Especially because we have all been through this slog of an event called COVID, and some of us, regardless of age or maturity, are not doing so well and some of us are doing fine, I think it is a moment where we have to lean on each other and learn from each other to find a pathway forward – and that’s how I roll anyway.
I want to be available, I’m listening to [the dancers], I think they’re the most incredible artists on the planet right now, I respect that – and so whatever is going on in their minds, whether it’s something I can learn from, or if they need information from me, then I’m here for it.
What has been the most surprising thing about your day-to-day work as Artistic Director?
I think the most surprising things come from [HSDC General Manager] Abby! Because she’ll have so many meetings in my calendar: “OK, you’re meeting with the Italian presenter, you’re meeting with the German presenter, you’re meeting these presenters from Colorado,” you know, “Here’s what’s in the works.” And I’m going, “Whoa – OK – let me get that together, let me figure that out!” I think that is the part that I haven’t done, the talking to presenters and arranging tours that are 2 or 3 years away. I think that’s probably been one of the most surprising things – but I like it! I get on Zoom with the presenters and we laugh, we carry on, and they ask me questions and I answer them and they’re like, “OK, they’re coming! Book ‘em!”
A lot of them are interested in just hearing about who I am, and what my vision is for the company, and I think – surprisingly – that has been enough! I think that surprises me, too.
They also want to know about how I see the company evolving, and what kind of works I want to bring in. And I say it often – it’s getting people off of the margins. You know, I question who the gatekeepers of programming are, and are we keeping other people out of the mix when there are so many other stories to tell? A lot of presenters like that, and like an American perspective. A lot of times, there is a fascination with the European perspective – which is great – but who are the voices that we have right here that are so compelling, that we can bring to the stage?
What aspect of the role has been the most challenging? What has been the most rewarding?
It’s not surprising, but managing people. Whoa. I’m not foreign to it because I’ve had students of all ages, and I’ve seen it all – I really have – but really managing this group of artists because their day-to-day lives are really in my hands. How comfortable are they when they come to work? Keeping them artistically fed, keeping them artistically satisfied so when choreographers are coming in and they’re not interacting in a way that they feel comfortable with, it’s my job to step up, you know, “Let me holler at you for a second, so maybe consider the following phrase” – it’s having to navigate so many artists – really fully formed artists – and listening to perspectives. Listening, digesting, and then within a timely manner, addressing a lot of the issues. I think that has been the most challenging, and rewarding at the same time. To be able to hear dancers, when there’s a conflict or something to work out, to have dancers come to me and say, “Thank you for doing that,” or “Thank you for listening to me. Nobody ever listens to me.” – that’s the rewarding part of it. And that makes me feel good. Or when people come into the space, and they’re comfortable, and they’re able to do their work and they feel supported – I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me.
And I have to tell you, the most rewarding thing was us going to the Harris [for Fall Series: RE/TURN] and actually opening! And that was my first curated program, which I can’t believe. There it was, on the Harris stage, and to hear the audience...like you dreamt it would be, right? You can only dream these things – and for it to happen? Crazy.
It’s been so exciting to see so many world premieres in this season! Talk a little bit about your process working with choreographers on brand new pieces.
What I try to do when a choreographer comes in is back away a little bit. Because I’ve seen the opposite, I’ve seen choreographers come in and the Artistic Director is leaning over their shoulder, and trying to judge everything. “Who did you pick for that? I wouldn’t pick her, I’d pick him,” you know, and where is the space for creativity in that? And how am I trusting their creativity, as well? So, maybe I back away for a little bit, and give them the space to create – because I think the beauty is time – and so choreographers can set something now, and I can go back and say, “Hey, have you ever considered this?” You know what I mean? And then I think that through this process, from beginning to end, I think they would probably trust me a little bit more, being given that freedom to create, to consider different avenues or different casting, or maybe gender flips, or things that maybe they haven’t seen. But I like to back away at first. And that weirds them out! I say, “I’m not supposed to look over your shoulder!” They say, “I’m not used to that!”
In the past year, were there ever moments that you felt underestimated as an artistic leader?
I don’t know! I don’t know what others are thinking – and maybe that’s a good thing, that I don’t know. I think I’m one of those…I’m an unknown, right? Like, “I don’t know what she’s going to do!” You talk about “imposter syndrome?” I sat in that for a second – a second – it took me sitting in that imposter syndrome for one second, and said, “Oh my god, why’d they pick me?” And then I looked back on my life, and I said, “Oh - I’ve done some stuff!” (laughs) I’ve been around! So, I’ve had to trust that, and like I said, I have to trust my instincts.
So, I don’t know who the people are who are apprehensive or doubtful – I’m sure they exist – I just don’t know who they are. I understand the apprehension, because this is my first time curating at this level. But I have some things that have just been baked in. You know, when I spoke to [Founding Artistic Director] Lou Conte on the phone – I think I had just been on the job for a month or something – and we talked about programming, and we talked about my philosophy about programming, and he was like, “ – Yes! That’s it!” And look at who I had to look at. Look at the concerts that were curated for me to dance. Lou did that, [Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Emerita] Judith Jamison did that. I know how audiences respond, and what kind of journey, and the temperature of the room, and what they need that’s different than the previous piece – and so no, I’ve never curated programs this level before, but I’ve danced them. I know what they feel like.
But the pressure’s on, though. Here’s what I feel: I feel secure in that I’m trying to include everyone. Like to me, that feels right. That feels like - the person who fell in love with the company 25 years ago, I’m thinking about them. You know what I mean? I really am thinking about coming back to the theater and being just as “wowed.” And maybe it’s a little different, but the wow factor is still there and there’s still a space for you. So, that feels instinctually right. But there’s the looming pressure of, “Girl, don’t screw this up.” “We’ve been doing this for 44 years, we don’t need you to come in here and screw it up.” I do feel that pressure. But instinctually, I just feel like this is the right way to go. This company has been accumulating and amassing all of these many different choreographic works over these 44 years that have been all over the place, in the realm of jazz and contemporary dance, and so let’s keep adding. Let’s keep adding. And sometimes as we add, let’s kind of veer back and grab something and maybe we do it the same way, but maybe we ask the choreographer’s permission to flip it, or, “What would you do differently in 2022,” you know? So yeah, the instinct feels comfortable because I can’t be anybody that I’m not, but I do feel that pressure that I can’t screw it up.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve gotten since being appointed Artistic Director of HSDC?
There are so many pearls of wisdom that it’s hard to even hone in on that one thing…but Lou [Conte] is a mentor, Judith Jamison is a mentor, and I’ve text messaged her on really hard days, like, “Oh my god, did you ever encounter this?” and she’s like, “Yes! Absolutely. Hang in there. Hang in there.” I think the most reassuring thing she told me is, “You are a great leader. And you’re going to be fine.” She says, “You’re not as volatile as I was!” (laughs). She says, “Your temperament is a little bit better. So just hang in here.” And she’ll say, “A lot of the troubles or challenges that you might be facing now are because of COVID, and people being ‘in’ and things can just become so insular – and they need to perform, they need to get on the stage and they need to share, and they need that feedback to come back from the audience, as well.” She said, “That exchange kind of irons things out.”
Where do you want Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to be when we check in with you one year from now?
I hope we’re reflecting on how many audiences we’ve had the opportunity to touch. I want to get on some sort of schedule where we are touring, and we’re going to different cities, and seeing different audiences, and sharing with so many different people. And seeing how that impacts our Summer Intensive program, and the students that we attract, and the way we train them, and how we reciprocate all of that. That sharing and giving back, and how that’s going to turn up on stage. That’s what I want to see. I want this company to kind of go (explosion sound)! Like, we need another storefront at the Water Tower! This one little storefront won’t do it, you know, so that we can expand and it just becomes this juggernaut of sharing and inspiring people. And uplifting people. That’s what I hope we’ll do in the next year. Because these artists? They deserve all the things, they really do.