Sometimes the outsider is the ultimate insider — that guy everyone on the scene looks for, wants to talk to, listens to.
This week and next in New York City, as the dark streets of downtown pulse with spiky performance festivals, artists, curators and agents will seek out Philip Bither, the boyishly handsome, clean-cut Midwesterner who has led Walker Art Center's performing arts program for 17 years.
Bither is "one of a handful of curators in the United States that everyone else looks to," said Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a poet, playwright and director of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.
Bither will land in New York Friday morning and by evening hit the clubs and performance spaces, shuttling between venues until after 2 a.m. His energy is fierce and it contributes to the Bither legend, recounted by Ben Cameron, arts program director for the Doris Duke Foundation: "At major conferences when other presenters gather at the bar to swap stories, they wait for Philip, who is usually still out. When he finally does stop by, everyone asks him what was worthwhile and then book their seasons based on Philip's recommendations."
Before heading to New York, though, Bither on Thursday opened the Walker's 27th season of Out There, the monthlong series of performance that reflects his aesthetic: artists with a contemporary mandate.
It is part of a 25-show season that Bither and his staff put together every year from the worlds of performance art, theater, dance, spoken word and music.
His travels — about one-third of his time, to locations around the globe — and his unstinting dedication to artists have made him a revered figure.
"Every time the Walker calendar arrives in my mailbox, I say, 'Wow, how did Philip find these people?' " said Jason Moran, a jazz pianist and composer who wrote the score for the new film "Selma" and is curator of the Kennedy Center Jazz Program.
Some skeptics here in Bither's Midwestern home sniff about "all that weird stuff" that Bither puts on the Walker stage. He readily acknowledges the occasional opacity and difficulty of "profound attempts to interpret and reflect our world." He is keenly aware, he says, that audiences must wonder, "Why should I spend two hours with this artist?"
Kathy Halbreich, who was Bither's boss at the Walker until 2007, recalled mornings after Out There when she popped her head into his office, curious about the previous night's performance.
"It was never in a shaming way, but I'm sure he dreaded seeing me," said Halbreich, now deputy director of New York's Museum of Modern Art. "But that was the pleasure of the Walker. Sometimes we failed, but you have to fail to do great things."
The best and worst of it
At its worst, Out There can be obtuse, bordering on incoherence; sometimes it is a bit too twee. At its best, however, the festival will leave an audience changed and inspired by an emotional and intellectual experience that remains fresh and memorable for years.
Two years ago the German ensemble She She Pop offered a devastating look at age and geriatric care. Cynthia Hopkins' trilogy of personal history repaid Bither's faith in her ability to use music, film, storytelling and dance. Roger Guenvere Smith, Richard Maxwell (who opens Out There this weekend), Bill T. Jones and Elevator Repair Service are among the avant darlings in whom Bither saw something important to share.
Beyond Out There, Bither brought ERS's "Gatz" to the Walker in 2006 before it went out to be a New York sensation. Mabou Mines' "DollHouse" was a devastating adaptation by Lee Breuer that left an absolute psychic imprint.
"He's not a lover of cool things," said Halbreich. "He is really kind of addicted to the pulsing of creative blood through bodies. It's about a heat and urgency."
He rarely programs work that is snarky, mean or bitchy. You may find something such as Nature Theater of Oklahoma's "Life and Times" to be exhausting at 3 ½ hours, but the work was earnest in its exploration of early-childhood memory — the pieces of each of us that remain with us for life.
"The hardest nights are when I completely love it and few others obviously feel the same way," Bither said of the nervous stomach and sleepless nights he experiences before and after Out There openings. "Or, there are times when people love it and I'm standing there thinking that the show had missed, or it wasn't very good."
Cast against type
If you were to create a snarky TV series about the performing arts world, Philip Bither would be the punkish icicle in skinny black jeans and Hugo Boss glasses, sneering when hopelessly bourgeois reporters ask about "that oddball performance stuff."
In real life he is a hipster dad who lives in sturdy stucco, middle-class south Minneapolis. His wife, Kathleen Gavin, is executive director of the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance.
The sports court in their back yard is open to the neighborhood for basketball, floor hockey and shuffleboard. He plays a weekly pickup hoops game (good defense, needs work on his jump shot), bikes like a maniac (something he picked up from his son, Nick) and relaxes late at night by walking his black lab, Roxy (a rescue dog), on the nearby Minnehaha Creek trails.
Bither, 56, grew up in suburban Chicago honing his progressive politics by arguing with his conservative father. He quietly lives his beliefs, using an electric mower, driving a Prius, eating a vegetarian diet.
He played guitar and drums in garage rock bands before going to the University of Illinois with the dream of being a music critic. (His brother David is senior vice president of A&R at Nonesuch Records in New York.) He got promotional work for a New York publishing firm and quickly decamped (after three months) to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he forged friendships with Merce Cunningham, Jones and Eiko and Koma, all important presences at the Walker.
When he and Gavin wanted to start a family, Bither moved out of town to become executive director of the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt. After eight years, he came to the Walker.
"I did something I never did before," said Halbreich, who was executive director then. "I offered him the job in the middle of the interview. He was vivacious, thoughtful, curious. He sees more and thinks more deeply and strives to give artists more opportunities."
Bither does not see his investment in American life as a contradiction with his life in the avant garde. Artists are exercising the freedom of expression this country stands for, he said, and he believes in the canon truth that arts can say something to every individual.
"Performance isn't something that should be viewed as this weird, outside edge of society — you know, cool that it happens but it's not meant for the vast majority of people," he said. "I believe in this mission of convincing people that this work we're presenting may not be what you expect it to be, but it has something to offer you in a way that you don't expect."
It's not about me
All this talk about himself had Bither a bit worried when he sat down to coffee one Friday morning.
He had tossed and turned, couldn't sleep, rueing a comment to a reporter the previous day. Talking about the hardware-convention aspect of performance festivals, he had commented that not only are artists and agents deciding to choose the Walker to go with, they are often choosing him.
"The ability to succeed is how connected you are and who wants to talk to you," Bither had said. "To be the guy in the room, that's essential. If nobody knows about you, you will be a lot less effective."
Imagine that. Bither had told the truth about how he succeeds, but felt terrible that he had not credited his staff — Doug Benidt, Julie Voigt and Molly Hanse — and the institution, quickly dropping executive director Olga Viso's name into the mix.
Bither's sense of humility (call it an unwillingness to make himself the focus) is genuine. British choreographer Sarah Michelson, now based in Brooklyn, recalled a defining moment in her relationship with Bither. She had placed 50 portraits of Bither throughout the Walker as part of her work.
"He hated this so much!" she wrote in an e-mail. "He felt embarrassed and revealed and even humiliated, I think."
Michelson could feel a palpable discomfort and disagreement grow between her and Bither during the project but she continued, undeterred. When it was done, he apologized over lunch. He had let his doubts get in the way of his support for Michelson's work, she said.
"Since that moment, Philip and I have had a very fertile relationship," wrote Michelson, who went on to say that Bither has matured into "a crucial (the most crucial?) performing arts presenter in America."
His greatest performances
Bither's daughter, Julia, works with Minneapolis choreographer Emily Johnson. "She's more of an artist than I am," Bither said, but she does administrative work, too, and this led her to ask her dad, "Where's your creative outlet?"
It is a fair question. Bither's art evidences itself in other ways.
During a Skype conference call in his office, we see the guy who once had a college radio show — speaking smoothly, generously in a conversation that he drenches with names, references, styles, ideas, context, history, compliments for his peers. His annual presentation of the Walker's season is an event that shows Bither at his public best, recalling the festival in Bogotá where he saw this, or the stop in Finland where he caught that.
He retains the gift of inquiry that has been with him since his days as a budding journalist and the zeal for performing arts that has brought him to the top of this world — from his Minneapolis office.
"When I was working in New York on the Next Wave Festival years ago, people would sometimes say, 'You seem like you're too nice to be here, you're clearly from the Midwest,' " Bither recalled. "I've taken those nine years in New York with me to my other jobs, and I'm there so much that I feel like a New Yorker. I know what drives that downtown audience; I feel comfortable in that world and that helps my effectiveness there and in multiple worlds."
So out there that he's in.