Sonja Kostich and Stella Abrera
p>Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed.
Sonja Kostich: My name is Sonja Kostich. I'm the Chief Executive and Artistic Officer here at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park. Kaatsbaan was incorporated in 1990 by four founders, Kevin McKenzie, Martine van Hamel, Gregory Cary and Bentley Rotan. It was created as a residency and performance space for dance.
Stella Abrera: My name is Stella Abrera. I am Artistic Director at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park. Kaatsbaan is a former horse farm. It's 153-acre property with rolling fields and beautiful, picturesque areas of wooded lands. It's just a most inspiring space for artists where artists find a quiet and nurturing environment to create work.
Jo Reed: As you heard Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, located in New York’s Hudson Valley, was originally founded for dance; in fact, but with the arrival of former dancer Sonja Kostich in December 2018, the scope of Kaatsbaan broadened to embrace all the arts: music, visual arts, culinary arts, film, theater and of course, dance. When former American Ballet Theater principle dancer. Stella Abrera came on board in January 2020, the scene was set. Kaatsbaan Cultural Park was now led by two Asian-American women who were passionate about inclusivity and they made the decision to focus more pointedly on diversity in art forms, performers, staff, and audience.
I spoke with Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich recently and began our conversation by singing the praises of the Hudson Valley.
Jo Reed: Sonja, Stella, I have to say I think the Hudson Valley is heaven on Earth. It is such a beautiful place. So I envy you both. Now, Kaatsbaan is both an incubator and a presenter. And these two missions certainly intersect in your work, but let's just take them one at a time. So Sonja, why don't you talk about Kaatsbaan as an incubator?
Sonja Kostich: Sure. We see ourselves as a unique resource for artists that hopefully provides a support that's unlike what they may find in, for example, a city environment. So like Stella mentioned, we sit on 153 acres along the Hudson River. And that, of course defines so much of an artist’s creative process. So when you are in nature your perceptions really change and that affects how you see your work, how you create, how you work with others. And so, finding ourselves with this beautiful spacious, natural resource it's really, you know, an honor for us to be able to provide a place for artists to come to create in a way that may otherwise not be their normal existence.
Jo Reed: And Kaatsbaan is also an arts presenter. So talk about that side of the pie, too, please.
Sonja Kostich: Absolutely. So, you know, we're a little bit unusual in that many places in New York City, for example, that are presenting theaters don't necessarily also provide the resource of space to create. And that, you know, is just in the nature of New York City space is so scarce and expensive. So, because we have both the space and the time to offer artists, it's actually an incredible combination. They can come here, they can work, they can create, and then, they can also preview or premiere their work. So we set up these festivals bookending our annual year, so one in the summer, one in the fall. And much of what is presented in those festivals were actually created in residency at Kaatsbaan. And we have now just, you know, recently in the past year or two started commissioning new works as well. So, you know, both Stella and I feel it's really important to look at, you know, the upcoming generation of new creators and trying to provide a support and a place for them to develop that work and then to show it.
Jo Reed: I want to get-- before we go deeper into Kaatsbaan I'd like a little personal history from you both. You were both dancers. Stella, you more recently left performing. And you both performed with the American Ballet Theater, ABT. Stella, could you tell me a little bit about you and your background, your time at ABT et cetera?
Stella Abrera: Sure. I grew up in Los Angeles and trained in my local ballet school. And was lucky enough at the age of 17 to audition for ABT, and get a contract. Long story short, 24 years later I retired during the pandemic and was extremely grateful and lucky to have taken on the position here at Kaatsbaan as artistic director. So, very short way of saying I had a wonderful long career at ABT where I learned a lot. And these last two years at Kaatsbaan I have continued that artistic learning journey. And here we are today.
Jo Reed: I just want to bring up two things about your time at ABT: First you were named principal dance the same day as Misty Copeland. And your elevation was history-making as well, the first Filipina American to be named a principal by the company.
Stella Abrera: Yes. That's right. I didn't actually realize that that was the case. It was quite a momentous joyous day for both of us. Both Misty and I had spent many, many years at ABT yearning for that promotion. And it was just an incredible moment for the two of us.
Jo Reed: And you also began a nonprofit while you were with ABT called Steps Forward. And tell me about that organization. And just a little bit about the work you did there.
Stella Abrera: Oh, absolutely. Thanks for bringing that up. I was invited to be a guest artist with Ballet Philippines and perform at the cultural center in Manila. And right after I had been invited to perform there the super typhoon, Yolanda, absolutely devastated central Philippines and destroyed so much of the infrastructure there and all the little villages. And I felt quite strongly that my visit the following year should have a positive impact on at least one small part of the community there. So I started a crowdfunding initiative to partner with a crisis organization called Operation USA. And together we helped rebuild an elementary school in one of the small provinces that had been completely devastated. So I was so moved the following year when I went and performed. I was able to take a little day trip to that tiny little province, visit the construction site, see the school. And I got to meet all the little sweet, cute, wonderfully just gracious children who benefited from the reconstruction of the school. And it was one of the most moving experiences of my life, I have to say.
Jo Reed: And Sonja you come from dance as well, also, at ABT. Your trajectory was a bit different. Tell us about it.
Sonja Kostich: Yes, I got into ABT also when I was 17. This was back when Mikhail Baryshnikov was the director. And the first 10 years of my professional career I danced with classical ballet companies and they were ABT, San Francisco Ballet and the Zurich Ballet. And then the 10 subsequent years, I actually became freelance, It was a little bit unusual, but I was just very curious as a dancer, and I was looking for new experiences. And I had the really good fortune of working significantly with Peter Sellers, and Mark Morris and just quite a few interesting projects that I think fed my curiosity. And during that time, I also danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project. And then towards the end of those 20 years I actually started my own dance company based in New York City called Other Shore and had that for almost six years.
Jo Reed: And then somehow you went to Goldman Sachs.
Sonja Kostich: Oh, yeah. Yes. Well, that was completely unexpected. But as every dancer knows, too well, you get to a certain age and, you know, you have to seriously think about what your next steps are. Because I got into ABT when I was still in high school, I never went to college at the quote normal time. So when I was coming to the end of my dance career this was actually when I had Other Shore, I went to college. I went to undergrad business school at 38, and got an accounting degree, accounting and minored in business communications. Graduated when I was 42 and went to work at Goldman Sachs. While I was there, I got my masters in Arts Administration. And now I am just so, so grateful to be able to merge all those experiences and worlds doing what I'm doing now, which is really to be able to understand both sides.
Jo Reed: I was thinking about that with you both, you know, you have to start so young as a dancer. And your career is so short-lived. You have so much of your life to live once you stop dancing. When you were dancing was there any point where you’re thinking, okay, yeah, I could be an arts administrator. I could run an organization. Were either of you really thinking about that as your next step career? Or was dancing, just so all-encompassing it was hard to think that far ahead.
Sonja Kostich: I think one of the reasons why I left working in a classical ballet company was because I had such extreme worries about what I was going to do when I was done dancing. Actually, it was really sort of always with me. And I knew there was this big world out there, and I knew nothing about it because you start dance when you're so young. You get into a company when you're so young. And then it really is, as you said, all-encompassing. It requires everything of yourself, your time, your focus, your dedication. And so that first step outside of a dance company was sort of me starting to search what else is there? But, interestingly, enough I never really thought about arts administration. And it may not be like this now. I'm talking about my experience which is decades ago, when you’re a dancer you had no connection to the admin side. So I never really even knew what was going on the other side, so I wasn't aware of it. And it was never presented to me as a viable option post, you know, dance career. And then in many ways, you don't often hear about people who work on the admin side in the arts; maybe now a bit more so. But no, I thought, oh, you know, it's either you're a dancer or then you have to go be a doctor, lawyer, you know, finance person, sort of that old-fashioned way of thinking. So I think that now, you know, definitely with the internet you're just so much more connected to what's going on, and the opportunities that might be available.
Jo Reed: And what about for you, Stella? When were you able to begin thinking about okay this is what I can do after I'm performing myself.
Stella Abrera: Yes. Well, I had a lot of time to think about that, actually. I had a long tenure as a soloist at ABT. There were a few different reasons I felt that I spent 14 years as a soloist. And one of those reasons was because I had a two-year back injury. So, of course, that was a lot of time that I could reflect on what I might have to do if I needed to reassess. And luckily, I was able to return to dancing for another 10 years. But I definitely had it on the brain for a good decade, kind of leading up to my departure. I was very fortunate in that one of the founders is Kevin McKenzie. He's the Artistic Director of ABT. And I've had the opportunity to know about Kaatsbaan for many, many years. And so, I always knew what a gorgeous place it was. I always knew that it was this beautiful artist sanctuary, just two hours north of the city. And about maybe two years prior to when I retired from dancing at ABT I had started to think what I might want to do. And luckily, you know, Kevin has always been a wonderful mentor to me. And he mentioned there might be a possible future for me here. And so very, fortuitously it worked out. In the beginning of 2020, January 2020 was when I started here officially. And I've been very lucky to work alongside Sonja who had been here for a year, and to join her in helping the organization grow and encompass as many different art forms as possible, even with the dance focus.
Jo Reed: And Sonja, you were named Kaatsbaan’s first dedicated executive director, which is no small thing. And how did you and Kaatsbaan come together?
Sonja Kostich: I actually-- I joke a little bit, but it's kind of true. My partner and I have a dog and we needed a place to be able to take him because he can't go on an airplane or anything. So we had just looked for-- you know, we had sort of discovered the Hudson Valley, and this was before COVID and the whole boom. And we got a house up here. And I just fell in love with being up here so much so that I thought if I could find a job up here, you know, I could see myself living here full-time. And I just started doing some research about what was going on in the Hudson Valley in arts and culture. And I stumbled across Kaatsbaan which I may have faintly heard about before, but I didn't-- you know, it wasn't fully like formed in my head what it was or what it did. But again, you know, Kevin McKenzie being one of the founders, he was actually in ABT when I joined. I think he was just retiring. So it's kind of sort of a funny full circle connection there. But yeah, I was really fortunate to find out about Kaatsbaan. And so I reached out actually to find out what was going on here, and they were looking for an executive director.
Jo Reed: And never underestimate where dogs lead you. That’s my motto in life.
Sonja Kostich: Right. Exactly. Yes. We now have wonderful Kaatsbaan dogs.
Jo Reed: Sonja, you’re Korean American and Stella you’re Filipina American and you're leading an important arts organization. And, you know, I have to assume, you know, from your own experiences the importance of representation. And I really would like to hear your thoughts about that and how it factors into your roles at Kaatsbaan and where you see Kaatsbaan going.
Stella Abrera: Yes. I would say that diversity in any form, whether it's diversity of artistic programming, or diversity of ethnic backgrounds, or cultural backgrounds, diversity of ideas, all of those things coming together to the table will undoubtedly lead to galvanizing a group or galvanizing an organization. And so I feel incredibly lucky that Sonja and I are of the same thinking. We're of course, constantly striving for excellence, you know, artistic excellence, excellence from every staff member. And also knowing that diversity in all of its shapes and forms is encouraged and welcomed in every aspect, in every decision that's made, and every idea that is spoken about.
Jo Reed: Sonja, do you want to add anything to that?
Sonja Kostich: Again, I think I'm very grateful to be working at a time when, you know, people are thinking and making-- everyone is working together to, you know, as Stella said bring excellence, support, talent, and to make sure that everyone has an opportunity. I think, you know, so much of what comes out of the arts needs to be about what we are living through, you know, our time. And this is the time to be talking and supporting and encouraging and, you know, mentoring and being here for the next generation. And I do feel very grateful to be able to be working at this time because it hasn't always been like this, I know. I was born in Korea, but I was adopted when I was two, and nobody in my family was Korean actually. So my sister was Vietnamese. I was Korean. My brother was Yugoslavian. We were all adopted. And I grew up in Minnesota. So I've never lived in a world that where like a Korean culture was being reflected back to me. And as we all know in the ballet world that's something that we're working to be mindful of and to make sure that everyone has a voice and an opportunity. And so it's an exciting time to be working. And to have a place like, Kaatsbaan, and open that up to these talented artists is very rewarding.
Jo Reed: Well, 2020 was the beginning, March 2020, of this devastating time all around and for the performing arts most particularly. But Kaatsbaan found itself in a unique position and you took it as an opportunity to really rethink what a cultural park meant. How did Kaatsbaan deal through the pandemic? And I'll throw that to you Sonja.
Sonja Kostich: So actually, you know, people say timing is everything, and I really would say that that, you know, fits in the equation here because change is always hard. And what the pandemic did not just for Kaatsbaan, but for everyone, is said, let's re-look at things. Do we have to do things just because that's the way they've always been done? It really opened up an opportunity to ask questions, and try new things. And, the whole entire world was already in such a challenging situation and mode that trying things and failing, you know, it's not necessarily a bad thing. You step onto the property of Kaatsbaan you have 153 Acres of just spaciousness. Why wouldn't we try to do something outdoors? And it seems like common sense, but actually, that hadn't been done yet. And so it really gave us the opportunity to look at our programming. And to say let's try something new. And at the same time fitting in with like everything that was necessary and needed for the pandemic.
Jo Reed: yes, I was really surprised that was the first time Kaatsbaan had presented programming that was outside. And it was also the first festival that Kaatsbaan did, the first Summer Festival. And I read, Stella, that it came together very quickly.
Stella Abrera: That's right. Sonja and I were taking a stroll around the grounds, and we were struck by the beauty of the day, the gorgeous rolling clouds, and the sun. And like Sonja said all the space around us, these beautiful meadows and fields that were just begging for people to come and enjoy. So we are incredibly lucky to have Ash Umhey as Kaatsbaan’s technical director. He's an incredibly talented carpenter among many, many, many other talents. And he was game to pick up his hammer and power tools and build a beautiful stage in one of our main horse fields. And between Sonja and me, and, and our networks and the enthusiasm that artists had for being creative, and for getting back on stage in whatever capacity they could we mobilized to create a festival within three weeks. Right, Sonja.
Sonja Kostich: Yes. And just to add, you know, I think one of our advantages is that because of the way our organization is structured and we have a small staff we were able to move very quickly because it is, of course, understandable that really, really big organizations with huge histories of doing things a certain way it's much harder to move quickly. But because of the way we are structured, we basically said, one day, let's have a festival. And then we started working on it, and three weeks later we opened.
Jo Reed: Yeah. It's harder to turn the Titanic around than a sailboat.
Sonja Kostich: Exactly.
Jo Reed: And I was really interested to read you responded to the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement through this festival as well.
Sonja Kostich: Yes. Again, you know, I think that you can't ignore what you're living through. And it felt like the small thing that we could do, you know, to show that we were awake and that we wanted to be part of this conversation. And so, you know, as Stella said, we’re very fortunate to have wonderful, combined networks. And were able to create an advisory board that helped us form programming that took into consideration the sort of social environment that everybody was really caught up in.
Jo Reed: And you also donated some of the proceeds.
Sonja Kostich: Yes. So, you know, part of that first summer festival, which was really in the height of the pandemic; we followed, you know, every stringent rule. So the performances themselves were just solos. And the audience was limited to just 50 people which on 153 Acres looked like, you know, a very, very small, small group of people. So we actually did not charge ticket prices because, you know, there's a social responsibility. Everybody's living through the pandemic. Many people did not have jobs. We were really presenting this festival as a means to sort of alleviate whatever we could in our small way the challenge and pain people were going through. So we waived all ticket sales, but in lieu of that we did ask for donations from those who could do so. And we used those donations to forward donate to these organizations that our advisory board recommended.
Jo Reed: And you also created bubble residencies, which provided much-needed safe space for performers to create. Stella, tell me, how that worked.
Stella Abrera: Yes. Well, Kaatsbaan was conducive to holding bubble residencies. Groups of artists would quarantine in their homes. They would test with a participating medical professional. And then they would come up the Taconic on a sterilized vehicle all together. They would enter the Kaatsbaan property and promise not to leave the property for the duration of their stay. And we have 16 spacious rooms in our residence and so all the artists could each have their own separate space to live in while they were creating here. And then on top of that, just the safe environment for everyone to enjoy nature during such a dark time.
Jo Reed: And you now present two festivals annually, summer and fall. So let's begin with you Sonja, and let's talk about what goes into planning a festival. And how you and Stella collaborate together, and how you make decisions about who to bring and what art forms to include. What's the thinking behind that, now that you have more than three weeks to plan?
Sonja Kostich: Yeah. Well, it's still funny because this is really only our second year of two annual festivals. So, you know, in many ways, it's still a work in progress, where we see what works, what doesn't work. But I think, ultimately, our goal for programming is that we are able to present dance, and music concerts, and culinary activities, and visual arts. And again, this is taking into consideration what the Hudson Valley is interested in. You have such a huge food scene up here. You have multiple visual artists and other artists. You have film going on. Music, I mean, Woodstock, of course, is, you know, historically known for all of that. So there's a really wide range of people that we’re trying to reach. And again, we have the capacity to have all of them join us for these festivals. So we do want to be as inclusive as possible for all that.
Jo Reed: And you also have a Juneteenth celebration as part of that summer festival.
Sonja Kostich: Sure. So our summer festival actually falls sort of during Pride month here in the Hudson Valley, as well as Juneteenth. We're really excited for our Juneteenth event. I worked with with Patricia Smith who is an award-winning poet, and she curated the poetry programming for Juneteenth. And we are combining that with music, Tyrone Birkett, and his band emancipation. As well as two dancers, one Robert Rubama who will also be choreographing. He will be returning to Kaatsbaan. He was actually here in a residency last year with Alejandro Cerrudo. So we're really looking forward to having them and it will sort of be a open community event that will span over a few hours. There will be food and drinks. But, yes, it's the first time we do something like this. And again, you know, I think it's important that the programming we do builds up not only diverse artists, but also diverse audience. And so, you know, that is important that we have that in our programming.
Jo Reed: Now, let me ask you, and I'll throw this to you Stella. As you've been expanding the programming, dance is still central, but you've been expanding the programming to other art forms, have you seen the audience expanding as well? And I know it's only been a couple of year, but just in that limited time.
Stella Abrera: I would say so. It's wonderful when the artists who participate in the festivals, the visual artist and the culinary artists and the musicians they all introduce their networks, their audiences to Kaatsbaan as well. So historically, you know, Kaatsbaan is almost 30 years old. Kaatsbaan was historically, focused on dance. And in these last few years, especially with Sonja at the helm, and all of the curators who she's brought on board it's been incredible to see the artists and audience diversifying. So, yes, to answer your question.
Jo Reed: And you received a grant from the Arts Endowment recently. And I’m very curious about what that support is going to allow you to do, Sonja.
Sonja Kostich: It will be our first NEA grant. We're so, so excited, and grateful. It is going to go towards this wonderful project in the fall, in October, that will bring ShanDien LaRance back to Kaatsbaan. She was actually here last year and performed in a site-specific work we commissioned called American Lyric. She will be coming with her father. And they have a foundation, The Lightning Boys. And so they will bring some of their students. And we will have sort of a full day devoted to Native American arts, dance and music and food and art and all of that. And we would like that to culminate into a blessing of the land. So this will take place over a full week.
Jo Reed: And when will this be?
Sonja Kostich: This will be the beginning of October, so they will come-- they will receive a residency to work on all of everything that they will present. So they will be here for a week, working on that. And then on the last two days, we'll have the performances again open up to our community.
Jo Reed: And Stella first, you and then I'll go to you Sonja. Where do you want to see Kaatsbaan five years? What's the goal?
Stella Abrera: Well, I would hope that in five years, everyone will know exactly who we are, where we are. And when they are coming to see a show at some point during our Festival season. I can just only hope and see in my vision that the organization will continue to grow and be as inclusive as we can be to encourage as many different art forms as possible and building up the education programs so that again, more parts of the community have that connection.
Jo Reed: And Sonja.
Sonja Kostich: Wwe’re working really hard every single day to grow our operations. You know, we want to grow our budget, our board, our staff. Of course, ultimately continuing to develop Kaatsbaan, so that it becomes a true cultural destination, not just for the Hudson Valley, but, you know, worldwide. Going forward, I think, that we will start to look at and be bringing artists from all over the world. You know, we're starting a little bit this year. We are bringing a music artist RY X from Australia in the fall, which we are very excited about. I think there's absolutely no reason why Kaatsbaan cannot continue to develop, and become a place for both artists and audiences to come to see the very best in all artistic disciplines. So, you know, similar to Tanglewood, or, you know, Bline Bourne in England. I think that's what we're working towards for Kaatsbaan.
Stella Abrera: This is Stella talking. There's a lot of energy in the creative side of dance. And a beautiful generation of creative artists from Juilliard. One of whom we are extremely excited to have be commissioned this summer at Kaatsbaan, her name is Haley Winegarden. She is a student at Juilliard and her work will be presented. She's already quite prolific and excited to see her new work which will be happening on June 11th and 12th here on our Mountain Stage.
Jo Reed: And give us the dates of the summer festival which is fast approaching. and then the fall festival, so people can know.
Sonja Kostich: So the summer festival opens on June 3rd with our summer soirée, and that is a concert with Natalie Merchant. And then it runs for three consecutive weekends, June 4th, 5th, 11th, 12th 18th, and 19th. And there's so much incredible art out there that it's exciting to be able to, invite them, and bring them to Kaatsbaan
Jo Reed: And that’s a good place to leave it. Stella, Sonja—thank you. Thank you, both, for the work you do and for giving me your time.
Stella Abrera: Wonderful. Thank you.
Sonja Kostich: Well, thank you so much. This was really wonderful.
Jo Reed: That was Sonja Kostich and Stella Abrera—they co-lead Kaatsbaan Cultural Park. To get more information about their upcoming Summer festival or to learn more about their programming—visit their website at Kaatsbaan.org.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us on Apple Podcasts or Google Play and leave us a rating. It helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay Safe and thanks for listening.
Stella Abrera and Sonja Kostich share a background in dance, are Asian-American and now lead an important artistic center in the Hudson Valley Kaatsbaan Cultural Park. In this podcast, they talk about Kaatsbaan Cultural Park and its 30 year history, Kaatsbaan’s singular role as both an artistic incubator and an arts presenter, its unique position during Covid in having the space to create and present work safely for both performers and audience, Stella’s and Sonja’s careers as dancers and their transition to arts administration, their commitment to diversity in programming, performers, staff and audience, Kaatbaan’s upcoming festivals, and the organization’s first grant from the Arts Endowment.