Art Making, Conversations, Healing Wars

Risk. Purpose. Love.


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.

Art Making, Artistic Process

Dances for Martha: A remake of Appalachian Spring


University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra violin section

Over 10 years ago I was at a gathering at the University of Maryland that was part of the launch of the Center for Creative Research. We had dinner together and we were supposed to connect with various faculty and discover ways for choreographers and scholars to work together. I was placed at a table with the idea that I would work with the department of Jewish Studies. But sitting next to me was Jim Ross, who leads the symphonic and conducting programs at the school. We started talking and haven’t stopped.

Last month we premiered our latest project. The orchestra memorized “Appalachian Spring,” and then they danced it. Our team included Martha Wittman, Vincent Thomas, and the conductor Enrico Lopez-Yanez. It was magical. We worked very hard but somehow it didn’t seem that way. Imagine being in a work environment and hearing this beautiful music played live over and over and over – it’s almost transcendental. I had grown up with Copland, both of my parents loving his work. “Appalachian Spring” was something I heard before I saw it. And so when I finally did see Graham’s dance, sometime in my teens, I was, and this is hard to say, disappointed. She was one of my childhood heroes so I only assumed I would love whatever she did. But the austerity of that dance and the movement vocabulary just didn’t fulfill my own imaginings for the music.

So now, all these years later, I had a chance to make something as emotional as the music. And we did. The incredible Martha Wittman led us all with her brilliant dancing. Vincent Thomas’ incredible ability to move large groups of people around made our rehearsal process go so much better. Enrico Lopez-Yanez, a conducting student, is a natural mover. And Jim Ross’s vision of excellence and experimentation going hand-in-hand is always a thrill to be around.

Here is the video. Please take a look and let me know what you think.


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.



Art Making, Artistic Process, Arts Leadership, Hiking the Horizontal

Artists without Edges

I’m recalling from memory an incident that happened over the summer. I was at a gathering of artists, curators, and presenters and an artist was asked about a recent quote, which referred to her work as “white girl art.”

The artist answered that she didn’t want to be put in any box, and certainly not that one. Of course she didn’t, no one wants to be put in a box because once you are in one, it is hard to get out. Artists know that if categorized in one way, it will be hard to get observers, presenters, critics and curators to see them in any other light. And so the denial begins. It is sad to watch, and sad to be in that circumstance.

I know all of this from experience. I have been at various times in the Jewish box, the modern dance box, the post-modern box, the female box, the middle aged female box and soon to be the old-female-white-girl box. If people could hold all these ideas at the same time, it wouldn’t be so bad, because I am all those things. What is detrimental to us all is when a label is applied as a single definition, which makes truth too simplistic.

Personally I love structure and structured thinking and I don’t mind the box imagery although as you can tell I hate the “you can only be in one” mentality that seems to accompany it. I don’t mind it because I know when the Jewish box knocks up against the postmodern box knocks up against the urban rural boxes…well great things can happen at those porous borders.

However, since I am at a new stage in my life, I would like to leave you with this: How about a group called Artists without Edges? No countries, no disciplines, no organizations, no boundaries, no edges. And then we can begin to redefine ourselves and be seen with the multiplicity.

Art Making, Creative Aging, Hiking the Horizontal

An Older Body Getting Older Remembers

This essay is an excerpt from the upcoming paperback edition of my book of essays, Hiking the Horizontal

As I advance through my sixties, people are curious about my experience now that I am reaching the age of many of the older dancers with whom I’ve worked over the course of my career. I am curious too.

Sometimes I step off a curb and I think I am leaping again.

Sometimes when I picture my back curving it feels like I am dancing at summer camp.

Occasionally, if I put on the right shoes (for some reason mostly the plastic jellies), I can walk at a certain pace and put pressure on the ground in a certain way, and I really believe I can do all those steps and figures and phrases I used to do.

Or if I am in rehearsal and see an opportunity in front of me, a way for one dancer to touch another or a move that could happen between them, I am shocked—when I insert myself to demonstrate—that I can’t actually do it.

In fact I am astonished.

I think this must be what a phantom limb is like. The feeling is more real that reality. I am not sad or confused. I try to savor the experience. And who knows, maybe I did it after all.