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.


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.

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, Philanthrophy, Teaching

The Amazing Rebecca Blunk

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

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!


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.

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.