Harlem-based arts organization receives $2 million ‘transformational’ grant

The funding from the Mellon Foundation will help EMERGE125 expand longevity and capacity for future projects.

Tony Turner

EMERGE125 is an arts organization, with roots in Harlem and with a home in the Adirondacks, that creates, performs and educates by making modern dance accessible and relatable to people of all backgrounds.

The Black female-led nonprofit was started in 2017, with Tiffany Rea-Fisher as its artistic director. Before coming to EMERGE125, Rea-Fisher was a member of the Elisa Monte dance company. 

From teaching community classes to performing in front of crowds of thousands of people, EMERGE125 has shown through its programming what can be done and communicated through dance. Rea-Fisher sat down with New York Nonprofit media to talk about EMERGE125, her journey and growth with the organization and what the $2 million grant means for the future of the organization.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to EMERGE125? How long have you been with the company for?

I started off as a dancer with Elisa Monte dance and then I was appointed by the founder of Elise Monte dance as her successor when she left. As we were going through the process and understanding of what it meant to be under black female leadership, it became clear that we needed a rebranding, we needed a refresh, and so I spoke to the different shareholders, dancers, staff, board members and funders and it was agreed that we needed to do a name change. We pulled together a working group made up of similar groups that I was not a part of and they went through all of the core values of the organization, how the organization made them feel, what their experience with the organization was and they came back with three names for me to choose from, and one was EMERGE125 and I really love that for a couple of reasons. One of the strengths in the company is that we are very nimble and so we're always kind of emergent, even though we aren't new. And 125 is just to hold down the Harlem roots.I love, love, love that we are a Harlem based company. That became the name, so it's been a long, interesting journey, but I think we landed exactly where we needed to.

Can you talk to me about what it was like when you came to this company and how it’s grown since then?

When I was appointed artistic director in 2017, what was really important to me is that the culture of the organization be one of welcoming and belonging, having that sense. The dance culture that I grew up in was one of break you down to build you up and I just don't believe in that. I knew that there had to be a better way, I wasn't quite sure what that way was. I was kind of flying blind, but I have to say the cultural shifts and transformation that's happened since 2017 I've been really, really proud of. It is not only a place where artists can come and be their best selves, they're expected to be their best selves, and they're seen and they're heard and it's a learning and listening environment. But also with this new funding. They're also able to live in New York City and pay New York City rent and be here in a real way. So that means something to me. It's a feel good job, but I also want it to be practical for your life. As I'm working with young artists that's really important to me, so we've been able to hit both and that I'm very proud of that fact.

Emerge125 just recently won a $2 million Mellon Foundaton grant. Please discuss how big of an impact this will make on your organization.

The $2 million from Mellon is what is referred to as a ‘transformational’ grant because it is just that lots of times. It is so hard to get to that next level because you're just at capacity. And that can mean capacity regarding just resources across the board. The human power that it takes to just do the job, the finances that it takes to just do the job and the funding speaks to each other. To have a major funder like Mellon invest in you not only signals their trust in you as a leader in the field, but it also signals to their colleagues to pay attention to what's what's going on. And the conversations that I had with Mellon were so deep and were so very real. And they wanted to make sure that they were investing in a way that was helpful to the company that wasn't going to have us just out here with high salaries and then they disappear as they check something off on their portfolio. It was the most human and humane conversation that I've ever had about arts funding and the longevity of what that can do. So when you feel like you are just screaming into the wind for decades to have that type of recognition from such a major player, it gives validation outside as well which is really, really helpful.

How does the current state of affairs in the world impact and reflect your work as a choreographer, artist and company leader?

It varies. One of the jobs of an artist is to reflect the times so I have work that is deeply civil rights oriented and civic minded oriented. I do a lot of work with John Brown's farm which is the abolitionist from upstate. Within the work that I do I also consider community organizing part of the work. So during 2020, my company was out in the streets with me. I also have works that have nothing to do with that, where our movement comes from just a kinetic place for music that inspired me and allow for a different type of release. But I do like to switch it up. I really like to change it up so that I can keep my mind active and I can keep myself challenging what I think is possible through dance and communicating through dance. I'm currently just finishing up choreographing the Tempest for public works that's running through September 3rd at the Delacorte and it was a cast of 85 people and the youngest turned five and our oldest is 80. There are five equity actors that hold it down with a professional band and the rest are community members. We have domestic workers, we have nurses, we have veterans, we have teachers, it's really not anything I ever thought I would see myself doing but it's been so rewarding and really wonderful. So it runs the gamut from concert theater to activist work to theatre. I'm about to be back at National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. doing a full takeover of all three floors there. I really try to switch it up because what it takes to create something for dance on film is totally different than something that is site specific. I like to have a bit of each of that throughout my season to make sure that I am continually testing and challenging my choreographic chops.

What do you want people to see and experience through your work?

The aesthetic of my company from a cultural perspective looks like New York City so hopefully just in the dancers themselves outside of the work, you'll see someone that looks like you on stage and that is intentional, and that is necessary for you to have yourself reflected back at you during while you're experiencing the art. I like to keep interpretations open. I rarely make a piece where everyone walks away with the same understanding. My hope is that you have more empathy and understanding and more joy when you leave the theater. I'm not one for continued angst. Art has the potential to really heal. So I like for those communal experiences to be one of thought and joy and community. And so I'm hoping that those get hooked up as you're watching the work and that it takes you on a journey, ideally you should be altered in some way. When you leave you should come out slightly differently, if that's a little bit more open and a little bit more free, if it's a little bit happier, whatever that is, but I think lots of times people do because modern dance is an abstract art form. It can be intimidating, and that's what I don't want. I always say in my curtain speech ‘Don't let the architecture and the art form intimidate you, have the experience that you want because we've prepped for you to be here. This is our gift to you. So please enjoy it with us.’ I think seeing that always seems to ease the audience because they're like, ‘I don't know if I should clap. I don't want to interrupt performers.’ I'm like ‘No, let them know they're doing good and you feel it.’ Leting them know that is helpful because we have a symbiotic relationship with the audience and I don't want the audience to just come and have a passive experience and clap because that's the culture. I want you to clap and stomp and hoot and holler because that's what you're feeling, you're coming at it from a visceral heart space place.  

What do you envision for the future of the company?

I'm excited to get back on the road. I think one thing that the pandemic really did was that we have not been touring the way we used to tour which is helpful in one sense as we were able to really put down roots and really connect with our New York City community which I am forever grateful for. I don't know that we would have had the time to kind of focus geographically that way without the touring going away. But I really I think art needs to be shared. And so I am excited to share the themes that we've come up with in the work that I've done with my company. Back on the global stage, so I'm excited for that.