Cardboard Stage” is a new multimedia performance by a modern dance company called 277 Dance Project. Led by Artistic Director Nicole Philippidis—who conceived and choreographed the work— the piece was granted an original musical score by Johnny Philippidis (aka Philipps) of the indie rock band Burlap to Cashmere. The show will be presented at Brooklyn’s Triskelion Arts for three nights in October (18, 19, 20). Tickets will be between $18 and $22 and can be found online.

“Cardboard Stage” features dance, live music, spoken-word and video and originated as an experiment in immersion that comments on the social gaps that exist between the haves and the have-nots.

The powerful and the powerless. The cardboard in the title is a reference to cardboard protest signs frequently seen on NYC streets.

Nicole and Johnny recently discussed “Cardboard Stage” and more via an exclusive interview.

Arts, company, dances and collaborating

Meagan Meehan (MM): You are siblings, so did you grow up being involved with the performing arts?

Johnny Philippidis (JP): Yes, Nicole started dancing at a young age and playing piano, which piqued my interest in playing music – I began playing guitar very young. Nicole was the boss – when she was excited about creating a show, you became excited as well. I used to tap dance with tacks on my shoes: “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was a favorite.

It’s amazing how far this has taken me. I play in a band that has been in and out of record deals and has sold over 500,000 albums. That group started in a small theater in the Upper East Side, many of the members were theater majors. The band signed with A&M record in 1997 and with Interscope under Jimmy Lovine and Sony as of late.

Nicole Philippidis (NP): Our parents were musicians and very into the arts, but the real story lies on our grandparent’s farm in Colts Neck, NJ, where we spent most weekends and summers. There were five of us on the farm, Johnny and I, and our three cousins, all who were into the arts or more importantly into creating. Throughout our childhood and way into our college years we would create everything from plays, bands (multiple attempts), dances, and then – when home cameras became available to us – many, many short skits.

Our families were tormented by our never-ending invitation to “come see the show”. In the early years, they thought it was cute, but as we aged I got a feeling they secretly thought something was wrong with us all. One of our cousins mentioned above, Steven Delopoulos, will be performing in "Cardboard Stage."

MM: What’s it like to collaborate as brother and sister?

JP: It's great, Nicole really inspires me to make interesting choices.

NP: It’s really fun and easy because Johnny knows what I am looking for most of the time. We have an interesting way of communicating ideas: there are a lot of comparisons to books and movies we grew up with and when people hear us speak they never imagine we are working on a dance piece.

MM: How did you decide to create a company and why did you call it 277 Dance Project?

NP: Marymount Manhattan College. I was a dance major, my cousin Steven a theater major, and my brother still in high school but already a virtuoso on the guitar. Steven (also a musician) decided he wanted to combine dance, music, and theater and put on some shows at the school. The idea drew an eclectic group of students and it was a lot of fun. After college, Johnny and Steven had a very successful career as the band Burlap to Cashmere and were touring the world. I pursued mostly modern dance and created works I performed anywhere I could. I liked what I was doing, but there was something missing.

I believe I was searching for that excitement I used to feel working with my cousins.

Dance was great, but working alone with pre-recorded music wasn’t cutting it. I missed the collaboration, the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen chaos. So, I thought it was time to create a company – in 2008, I began working toward this goal. Before this, in 2005, Johnny was nearly beaten to death and, while he was hospitalized, the doctors asked me to go to his apartment and get some of his photos. I got to his apartment and, for the very first time, I saw the numbers 277 nailed to the entrance door. I stood there, frozen, not knowing: first, how I never realized we were both living at a 277 address – his in Brooklyn, mine in Manhattan – and second, why at that moment I was overcome with a hair-on-end feeling?

A strong sense of knowing washed over me and I understood that he was going to get through this and live. 277 came up a few more times after this and when it was time to name the company I knew what it had to be.

Staging shows, signs, and performances

MM: What led you to create “Cardboard Stage” and what were the toughest aspects of creating it and then staging it?

NP: “Cardboard Stage” is a combination of experiences. It began with a film I was choreographing in a perfume factory in the South Bronx and the filmmaker Jennifer Klein wanted us to stroll around the neighborhood to get a feel for it before creating the movement and concept. What we experienced during this period was a community, honest and open to speaking to us, complete strangers, about their lives.

We met people who had been through a lot of horrible things in their lives – crime, drugs, terror – and still, each person was truly hopeful for a brighter future for themselves. This stuck with me, I couldn’t understand how some people with whom I spoke seemed to have so few options left, yet were so optimistic.

The stories haunted me in a way – in the studio, I would create something with the intention of it being one thing and then look at it and realize it was something else – and I kept coming back to the idea of being powerless in many ways, but struggling to find a path to empowerment. After not seeing or understanding why this was important to me – I’m white, comfortable, fortunate to work in a field I love, etc.

– I began thinking of my father, who passed in 2007, and my mom when they were my age, and about the time when I was a kid living in Bensonhurst. My father was a highly optimistic, energetic soul and he was hell-bent on being rich. Not easy for a musician from Greece living in NYC, so he began selling cases of food to diners. He never became rich, but he tried with great passion.

There were many lows on this path to the pot of gold – as kids, there would be times where ConEd would turn off our lights until we paid the bill which sometimes took days, times when my brother and I would split a 50-cent slice of pizza and a 25-cent Coke because my mom didn’t have enough to buy two slices. I will never forget this one time my mother screamed at my father over the lights being turned off (again) – however, this time she was angry because he had taken the ConEd money and gone to the casino, trying desperately to double it.

With a glow on his face, he danced a little jig and exclaimed “Don’t worry we are (rolling the R with a Greek accent) going to be rich.” As we got older and I was in high school, life evened out for us financially. My father – though still not rich – had established a working business, my mom found a job, and we became more stable.

I see now that what upset me so much about these stories I heard while working on the film was that I saw my dad in many of them and it brought back all of the lows and highs he expressed, how it all affected our lives and the heartache of it all as a kid feeling powerless to help. I started to bring in our experiences as society, broadening the lens of the work. What was going on around us politically and socially and how were we being affected – what power do we have as people in the system?

What can we do to change our situation? What are others doing? It began as a personal work and expanded to include our collective experience as New Yorkers in today's world. It was challenging to bring this to the stage because it is loaded and it is hard to sometimes express these ideas in a dance, but the feeling is there, the inspiration is there and I hope the audience will catch a storyline or two.

MM: You have stated that you got the title concept from cardboard that people use to make protest signs. Have you partaken in protests and social causes?

NP: Yes. Protest signs, square stages thrown on the floor and used as a platform to be heard – whether through dance or other forms, cardboard creates that space for us.

When I was younger and working as a teacher, I took part in protests regarding wages for teachers and curriculum issues. My experience with social issues always had to do with children: to this day, this is where my heart lies. 277 Dance Project works with Gleason’s Give a Kid a Dream, the organization serving at-risk NYC teens. They come to our performances and we talk about the work. It's great, the kids like the physicality of the dancers and appreciate the work that goes into creating a show. We talk about community and how, as artists, we support one another and how that gives us a sense of belonging and allows us to be free to express who we truly are and how they are doing the same.

MM: How did you find the venue and what memories do you hope audiences retain from this performance?

NP: Our first full-evening performance was at Triskelion Arts at their old location – I had seen a postcard with their information on it and decided to visit and get a general feel for the venue. It was housed in an industrial building in Williamsburg (before it was built up) and I loved it. Last winter, I got a call from the folks at the theater informing me that they were interested in presenting the work. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this would mark our 10th year as a company, and performing in the space where it all began is sweet. I hope the audience will walk away with a sense that they were part of something larger than the individual, a shared experience that speaks to us all.