Art Making, Artistic Process

Today I am 67 years old

This post was written on my birthday, December 25th, 2014 while I was visiting my daughter in Cambodia.

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Today I am 67 years old.  Here is an account of some of what I have accumulated.

Two parents and I have lost them both.

Five grandparents, all gone, two never met, two of consequence, one a Bubbe — my father hated and therefore so did we. Who knows what might have been?

Two brothers.   I lost one, a tragedy I will not get over.

Many sister-in-laws and a brother-in-law I never ever knew and nine nephews and nieces as well as grand nieces and nephews who are part Indian, Dutch and German.  I cannot keep track of them all, but every now and then I try to count them, which is part of how I know I have accumulated them and it brings me great joy.

Eight houses and three apartments and left all of them but one.  Some of those homes still have meaning. Once I visited the second house, the one that my family left when I was five.  A life is a serious business, even as a youngster, maybe especially as a child so I remember with some fierceness what happened in that house and neighborhood including being on the Betty White Show (who was a neighbor and because this was Los Angeles of course she had a TV show) and I declared that I would be a dancer and I twirled and they laughed and gave me a big doll I called Jimmy. I have lost that doll but accumulated others.

I have accumulated thousands of hours of dance training and dance making and dance sharing and dance musings and then many many hours of saying it is not dance, but something else that is driving me. Something about the body, about motion, about culture, about being with others while moving, about ambiguity that lives between the body and the mind and my own incessant belief that you can have it all…body and mind; story and no story; freedom and submission; solo and collective genius and that it is OK to talk about dancing, while dancing, and after dancing.   I have accumulated a lot of articles by others that support these ideas including a recent batch that say being stubborn and willing to have people dislike you and your ideas represents creativity.  So it seems that having accumulated a long series of bad reviews in the New York Times, is a good thing for an artistic being.

I have accumulated a shelf of pitchers I like to look at that occasionally hold fresh flowers. And a shelf of tiny objects given to me by others including the kitschy sleeping baby my mother gave me when my brother was born, the brother I lost and can’t get over.  So of course I love the porcelain infant that lies amidst the other tchotchkes all of which have some worth or I would have gotten rid of them long ago.  Instead I have accumulated them.  I do curate these shelves ever so often. I move the objects around and think about the design, the adjacent quality of one to another and question whether it is time to be rid of the origin story.  Alas, I think the sleeping baby will be left to my one daughter.

And yes, I have happily accumulated a daughter.  With this child has come a host of items and experiences that accompany such a wonder.  PTA meetings, school essays from pre-K to grad school admissions, basketball games and triathlons, lots of her friends, new music and old music and lots of music, late night and early morning conversations with my husband, with other mothers, with younger artists contemplating and questioning whether to take this journey of parenthood.  I always say yes.  But like so many accumulations, one cannot really speak for another.

This year mother and daughter (and my husband and her boyfriend) are together for my birthday.  We are in Cambodia where she lives.  It is another surprise, the fact that I now accumulate international visitations, not by choice, or because of work, but because the family needs to be together and she will always live elsewhere.  It is no mystery that there is a turning point in these parent-child relationships. Many others have written about this before me and yet it is an awesome moment to see that the taught one becomes the teacher.  That the loved one now loves.  The daughter is making her decisions, and her bravery and her openness are guiding me to a new world.

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Art Making, Conversations, Healing Wars

Risk. Purpose. Love.

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Photo by Teresa Wood, courtesy of Arena Stage

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. I think we need these reminder days that give us all a chance to think together about something or someone that matters to us. Before I started working on Healing Wars, a dance/theater piece set in a time warp between the American Civil War and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I used this reminder day to think about my father. He was in the 10th Mountain Division and fought in Italy during World War II. Like so many, he came home and tried to find work (his brief flirtation with communism made that even more difficult than usual for returning vets). We moved to Washington DC and then Milwaukee where he went into the family tire business and then turned to politics.

I have been reconsidering my father and his stories and myths as I set about researching the life of returning vets from these other conflicts that fill the stage of Healing Wars. In addition to reading many accounts from diaries, books and online resources, the performers and I have sat in many circles with returning soldiers and have heard their stories. It made me see that my father’s reticence in talking about his war years was a failure on all our parts. He was gregarious about so much in his life; why the quiet about those years?

What I did glean from him, was the special place in his heart he held his war companions and the way in which he missed them. I always thought of it as a kind of love that was particular to these men. Now listening, as we have over the past few years, I have come to see this yearning with a bit more clarity. It is not just love that they miss. They also miss the purposefulness of their every waking minute, even when they were waiting. And they miss the risk.

I began to ponder this more deeply as I looked at my own life. I too am addicted to these three things: risk, purpose, and love. And I see that those ingredients fill my life as an artist whether I throwing myself into a project without knowing its ending, or  building the environment for the ensemble to do its best work, or listening to countless stories from individuals who have so much to tell. I hold an absolute belief that art can make a difference especially as it emerges from inquiry, compassion, truth telling in all its ambiguity, and a certain willingness to collaborate with anyone who enters the space including the audience.

My father sought these three things too. He found his purpose in fighting for others as the secretary of Labor for the state of Wisconsin, as he fought for civil rights until the day he died. I think he found his risk by refusing to become bitter and by attempting to sustain his belief in democracy despite all its flaws. Risk. Purpose. Love. The ingredients for remembering Veterans Day.

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Artistic Process, Documentation, Healing Wars, Teaching

Toolbox as Documentation

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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, Conversations, Healing Wars

A conversation with Paula Vogel

One of the perks of working on a Civil War Christmas at CenterStage in Baltimore was getting to share a brief cup of tea with the playwright Paula Vogel. We talked about many things including the collaborative systems in theater, how to manage dialogue on stage, and our shared interest in projects involving veterans from our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In one sentence she said (and I paraphrase) that her sense is that the veteran’s PTSD gets worse as they tell the story over and over.  Somewhere in that process she believed they needed something else and so she brought in actors and had the vets “direct” them in the action.

I found this idea so compelling that on our recent residency at Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC), I decided to try it.  We had an afternoon workshop with the performers in the piece along with a nurse from the Vietnam War, a young woman home from her recent  deployment , and a mother who had lost her son in Iraq.  It was an amazing two hours filled with stories, premonitions and tears.   And we also had our visitors give us direction on how to perform some of the ideas of the project we are working on called Healing Wars.

I don’t know if any of what happened will “make it into” the performance piece.  But I do know that the way we were affected will, and that the movement and storytelling that came after our encounter that afternoon will carry forward in our bodies for a very long time.

-Liz

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