Choreographing Change; An Interview with USF

By Marielle Amrhein

October 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Amie Dowling is currently a faculty member in the Performing Arts Department at the University of San Francisco. I first met her the senior year of my undergraduate education at Mount Holyoke College, where she was a guest artist. Her class “Community Crossover,” a pedagogy course designed for students interested in merging social activism, art and teaching, profoundly influenced my own approach to dance. In 1997, Amie formed Dance Generators, an intergenerational performance company in Western Massachusetts. She was also an artist-in-residence at the Hampshire County Jail, where she collaborated with people who were incarcerated on the creation of evening-length original theater/dance pieces. Before this, Amie toured extensively in the US with Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange. She also spent several years in Chiang Mai, Thailand assisting in the development of a dance program and working with NGO’s that assisted women leaving the sex-trade industry. Amie’s critical thinking, compassion and commitment to social justice through the arts have and continue to be inspiring models for me.

MA: How has your experience working with Liz Lerman/ Dance Exchange affected your own approach to community-based performance?

AD: I joined the Dance Exchange when I was 23. I developed pieces, performed and toured with the Company for 7 years. “Who gets to dance? Where does dance happen? What is the dance about? Why does it matter?” are questions the company asked and they are questions that continue to influence my work. I came to understand that the development of my aesthetic point of view included developing a political and social perspective. The intergenerational aspect of Liz’s choreography inspired in me an appreciation of a broader palate of movement. I had come from a university dance program comprised of 18-21 year olds honing their ‘traditional’ dance technique. When I joined the Dance Exchange, I was dancing with 70 and 80 year olds whose movement moved me. I learned many things from being onstage with older dancers, on a physical level I learned that that my technical dancing could include a wider and subtler range of movement qualities.

MA: Your current ensemble, Performance Project, has done community-based performance in prisons and jails. How did you get involved with this particular community?

AD: When my nephew was arrested and incarcerated, I was personally and politically propelled into the criminal justice system. In 2001 I co-founded the Performance Project. The Project collaborates with men and women on the development and production of evening-length pieces. Through an intensive creative process, participants reflect upon their lives and communities using their ideas to develop the work. Through discussions, improvisational structures in movement, theater and writing, the performers shape and determine the themes explored. Scripts are generated collaboratively drawing from the group’s various experiences, philosophies, and political and social beliefs. Currently, through Community Works, I am in San Francisco Jail #8 working with a wonderful artist, Natalie Greene, and eight incarcerated women. The participants are self-selected and have been very open and responsive to the process. Right now we’re working towards a showing of material we’ve been developing over the past four months. It will take the form of “personal recipes” that the women have written—“a pinch of self-consciousness, a dollop of violence, and four cups of my mother’s love.” We’ve been talking about translating experience from the literal to the metaphorical or abstract. The piece will be performed for other inmates at the jail, corrections officers, and staff. We’re waiting for approval from the jail to document the performance through video. This would allow us to share the performance with audiences in the wider community.

MA: Do you consider your work political?

AD: Yes. In a culture where politics, social structures and the media usually omit expressions of truth and depth about the lives of people who have been incarcerated, this work is a venue for the participants to self-represent. The performances provide opportunities for audiences to listen to the experiences and ideas of people whose stories are rarely told. The Dance Generators, the intergenerational performance company I directed in Massachusetts, was started in 1997. I was working with two performers in their 80s who had recently fallen in love. The dancing was highly physical, tactile and sensuous. The piece was performed for a mostly younger audience at Smith College. It challenged their assumptions about what 80-some year old bodies can do in performance, as well as the myths that surround sexual intimacy between older adults.

MA: How do you address oppression—racism, sexism, classism, ageism—in your community performance work?

AD: Oppression affects thinking, interactions, and choices. I believe that, as an artist who is committed to collaborating, I need to be conscious about the ways in which I, and those I work with, are privileged and the ways that we are oppressed and how those truths affect physicality, training and aesthetic.

MA: What is your choreographic process when working in prisons with people that are not traditionally trained dancers?

AD: We generate movement and dialogue through improvisations based on life experiences and beliefs. Often the improvisations are videotaped, transcribed, and shaped into a ‘script.’ Ultimately, the performers each communicate their story not as singular isolated experience, but woven together with the experiences of other members, and crafted into a whole. For example, in “59 Places” (because one of the members lived in 59 foster homes), the ensemble members brainstormed about home and the visual and physical representations of home. Josh, the member of the ensemble whose experiences formed the frame work for the piece, was flung, tossed, pushed from one performer to the next, from one place on stage to another, developing a physical metaphor for being on the move all the time. I’m excited about merging physicality, story and visual elements and collaborating with visual and theater artists.

MA: How does your current work as a full-time professor at the University of San Francisco affect your own choreography and involvement in the community?

AD: With this move to USF, I decided to make a transition from the professional arena to academia. I believe that the university represents a place to take risks. A place where I can combine my love of teaching with my passion for developing new work with students and that new work can thrive and grow. The mission for the program at USF that I am part of, Performing Arts and Social Justice, is to ‘educate young artists in the performing arts who are committed to creating a more humane and just society through their craft.’ This spring I’m teaching Performing Arts and Community Exchange and, through Community Works, will take USF students to the Youth Guidance Center to collaborate with youth who are incarcerated. An essential aspect of the class is the formation of the participants’ identity as an artistic ensemble. A need for most incarcerated youth is to build trust in both others and their community. By creating together these two groups, incarcerated youth and college students develop an environment of mutual support, where there is unity in a common creative goal. I am fortunate that USF is founded on the principals of service learning and as a faculty member I’m encouraged and supported in initiating community projects like this one.

MA: What are some of the challenges of working in an educational institution?

AD: When working with students I find myself asking a multitude of questions: What do we teach, how do we teach it, and when do we teach it? What are the stakes and responsibilities when working in a liberal arts institution? Do I teach my students how to do something ‘well’ before challenging the notion in order to show why ‘well-done’ might not be the only valid result? Do we teach the practice or the profession? Is it possible for these lines to converge in a positive way? Students can become very result-oriented, often finding the transition from imagination and exploration to choreographic work difficult. This desire to ‘get it right’ predominant in an academic setting can be respected, recognized —and refocused into a different process—the need not to know in order to make the discovery. This is a scarier journey because the results are open ended and of subjective value. As a teacher a central goal of mine is to create an environment safe enough for my students to take risks. There must always be room for the unknown.

This article appeared in the October 2007 issue of In Dance.

Marielle Amrhein is an arts administrator, performer, choreographer and teacher. She was formally the Program Manager at CounterPULSE. Currently, she lives NYC where she is attending graduate school at Columbia University, studying social justice and performing arts education.