Art Making, Artistic Process, Conversations, Teaching

What I Didn’t Say at Dance/USA

dance:usa photo

Me with Jawole & Ananya

It was such a surprising moment to be honored at Dance/USA a few weeks ago. Jawole Zollar’s introduction was in itself an honor, and it was a great pleasure to see so many colleagues all in one place. After giving my “speech” I sat down and then immediately realized what I had forgotten to say.

So I am saying it now.

I wanted to talk about developing laboratories that allow us to make mistakes, grow, over reach, try again. I had mine at the Dance Exchange. I was so lucky to come of age when starting a non-profit was relatively easy – there weren’t so many rules. I was lucky enough to have a steady stream of wonderful curious performers, teachers, administrators and partners who came to the organization and might have stayed a few months or many years. Each person helped me carve out who I was and what I believed in. And then, almost three years ago, I left it in the hands of a remarkable group of artists and managers led by the amazing Cassie Meador. They are busy remaking everything, as they should. And I am busy discovering myself as an individual again. Which is a fine thing to do at my age.

I wish I had said all of this in Minneapolis, but I didn’t, so I’m saying it now. I was thinking it all along … and now others can hear it too.

Thanks,

Liz

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Artistic Process, Documentation, Healing Wars, Teaching

Toolbox as Documentation

bobcat

The topic for this salon is big. I am going to write about one small part of it. I am interested in how we observe our processes, discern them as repeatable actions, develop them to become tools for others to borrow and make their own. I believe that we can harvest our histories, make sense of what we did and describe it in terms that help us understand the context, the decisions, and perhaps the wisdom and meaning surrounding the work.  At the same time we can delineate the data, information, formats, processes that may aid others in their work.

In my case, the idea for such a toolbox made from thousands of hours of teaching and choreographing and dancing came in an instant.  It was a visitation born out of utter confusion and despair.  As I was preparing to lead a workshop for K-12 teachers I was pondering why the organizing arts and educational institution with whom I was working wanted an outline from me that would describe what was to transpire.  They wanted to hand it out at the beginning even though we all knew that the activities would change once I was in the room with the very particular people and needs that would coalesce that afternoon.  It was true I had a plan, but it was equally true that the plan would shift as soon as we began our work.

While I sat there literally begging them not to make me do it, I saw in my mind, a large wall made of small cubicle shelves, each holding a description of one small piece of information that would be of use to the group assembled. By the end of the workshop we would have accumulated a sequence of these and thus the outline would emerge at the end, well documented and well understood by the teachers I was to be with that afternoon.

I began the idea for the toolbox, but also a way of thinking about methods derived from experience. Break the information down into small pieces, give people the pieces and let them use them and redesign them for their own purposes.  This simple framework gave me a way of re-experiencing each new approach that we tried in community settings and each new choreographic idea that grew out of rehearsals.  Once I realized we had the bit, the gem, the process, I could test it and retest it with different audiences and in different circumstances.

Now some three decades later, I have many of these, of which only a few have been put to paper and appear in various forms such as the Dance Exchange’s tool box, or the Wesleyan University Science Choreography Website.  It has been a long held dream that I make a more complete compilation giving context and multiple uses for the tools, as well as making a place for those using them to repost their discoveries or talk through their dilemmas. And I believe such a website, once built, could become the home to many people’s processes, methods, tools, and systems.

As I have thought about this over the years, the idea has also grown beyond the toolbox itself. I have come to see that there is a strong relationship between the existing tools, including the history that produced them, and the current projects including the necessity of documenting new approaches and new audiences.  What I once thought of as an archival project, I now see needs to include and perhaps even begin with the current projects in order to capture the most up to date and salient features of the creative processes that others and I use in our practice(s).

When I talk about the toolbox to others I am often met with resistance.  I think it is because people equate the tools to a recipe with the implication that repetition is bad, following another’s ideas is unoriginal, and that the whole set of ingredients might not fit the table we are setting.  Maybe I just use recipes differently. I find the repetition that comes from testing an idea and a process over and over to be a powerful way to evolve my thinking and my understanding.  I find when I trust the process I am in, I can pay more attention to the particular needs and demands of the situation in front of me.  Because I am an inherent fixer, I rarely practice the method in its exactitude.  And then of course, the very definition of being present in the moment means that there is always the possibility of change, and with those changes come a deeper understanding of the use of the tool itself.  And most importantly, these tools are not meant to be proscriptive, but rather small pieces left for each user to sequence, adapt, and put to their own purpose.

Then I go home wishing I had a place to store the new date, to share the implications with others, and to read and discover what colleagues have done when faced with similar situations. I yearn for this toolbox, and this kind of documentation.  I believe that descriptions, interpretations, shared knowledge and conversation could all flow from such a site.

– See more here

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Art Making, Artistic Process, Arts Leadership, Philanthrophy, Teaching

The Amazing Rebecca Blunk

Courtesy of berkshirefinearts.com

Courtesy of berkshirefinearts.com

Today we got news that the amazing Rebecca Blunk will be stepping down as head of the New England Foundation for the Arts due to health and personal reasons.  I entreat everyone to take a moment and just close your eyes and thank Rebecca in whatever form you express gratitude.  She is a remarkable leader who has made so much possible for so many of us, with a quiet yet forceful style that we can all emulate.

I first met Rebecca in 1983 at the Practicing Cultural Democracy Conference held in Omaha, Nebraska.  We were both young, both seeking, both full of passion about a vision that was beginning to take shape that each of us felt compelled to follow.  It was a view that held that the power of art and art-making could be harnessed in so many ways.  Yes to dance making! Yes to community dance making! Yes to unorthodox means of making and seeing art! Yes to old people dancing! Yes to changing the politics of the country and the politics of the art world… and so it went on… yes, yes, and yes.

That is the thing about Rebecca.  She knows that risk lives in trying and experimenting, in doing and evaluating and then doing again.  I know this on a personal level as she has been a truly valued friend and colleague who has expected the most from me   And I know it on a physical level too as we made dances together just a few months ago.  Yes to the body healing!

 

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Art Making, Artistic Process, Hiking the Horizontal, Teaching

Harvesting Intuition

I have been trying to harvest my own intuition.  I think of intuition as our knowledge…just really, really fast.  Before you can do this, you have to realize you are having an experience.   This might be something as conscious as moving improvisationally,  problem solving in rehearsal, or veering of the plan while teaching.  If I take the time to discover WHY I did what I did I can usually uncover some new tool, or concept or a particular variation that is worthy of note.

Recently, working with the wonderful dance program at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia we were engaged in just such a practice.  Students and faculty had gathered for a workshop.  I admire teachers who are willing to learn again in public, especially among their students, and on that day there were several present. I had just directed the whole group in a process  that included making some movement material that they could repeat. I asked them to pair up and then interview each other by asking,  “WHY did you do that” at certain key points in the phrase.  Usually this leads to naming a series of excellent choreographic practices that can become catalysts for future rehearsals.  They may begin the process with “I don’t know why I did that,” but if pursued by their interviewer with something like …”well lets say you did know what would you call it” and then all kinds of connections are made.  There was enthusiasm and great joy in the room as everyone realized how much knowledge was being excavated.

MANCC Photo by Chris Cameron

Performers from left to right: Ted Johnson, Alli Ross, Keith Thompson, Marjani Forte, Tamara Pullman & George Hirsch. Photo courtesy of Chris Cameron of MANCC

Later I was approached by one of the teachers, Rob Kitsos who said to me “I hate that word WHY.” He went on to explain, that for him, the word meant he had to justify himself and his work.  He was tired of having to explain it to funders, or critics or even well meaning friends.

I had a moment of real comprehension.  Of course he hated it. It made him defensive and I believe that once we are defensive we cannot learn, or rather we cannot discover.    I responded with a newly articulated thought, taking place in that moment between us: I use WHY to lead to deeper inquiry and find it akin to that of wonder and awe.  I don’t think of the word as generating a justification.  Why did I do that comes with a tone of voice and a world view that suggest I did something magical and maybe I could figure out what it is.  Not that I had done something that needed to be justified.

How does the same word do such different things to us, and have such different outcomes?  I am so grateful to Rob Kitsos for the question he put to me that day. Because now I understand that there is a big difference between justification and wonderment and I intend to live with the latter.

Oh, and I think I am going to try it the next time I am asked to justify the need, the desire, the essence of art.  I will turn the why into wondering and turn the questioner into a co-researcher, harvesting their intuition too.

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