As an emerging professional dancer, choreographer, performer, I seek out ways to develop my artistry, broaden my perspective on process/performance, and connect with communities in creative fields. My most memorable moments of 2010 involve two special trips—one to Arizona and one to western Massachusetts—which continue to affect how I apply key concepts in experiencing and making art.
Last spring, I visited Arizona to attend the Artistry with Clay and Lime workshop at the Canelo Project. Athena and Bill Steen taught workshop participants how to work with earth and lime plasters. Making mixes, testing different mud and lime samples, applying the coats and shaping the mud on surfaces—these exercises called for play and experimentation. I enjoyed combing my fingers through the clay each day. The tools and techniques were all new to me, but the hands-on creative process rang true to my dancing self. I became more aware of the specific physicality involved. I learned how to execute a range of plastering actions: isolated movements of the hand and wrist to create surface swoops, swipes, and smaller strokes; plus full bodied-upward arc and spiral motions to cover a broad surface area. As in dance technique, the plastering technique’s goal was efficiency in action. Often the participants, including myself, would tightly grip the plastering tool and apply too much pressure into the surface. This bad habit usually resulted in uneven distribution of the material. Bill Steen would encourage us to “hold it like a bird.” This lesson about tension reminded me of dance class exercises. In order to best execute an action, it is crucial to understand which muscles to engage and which ones to release.
Athena Steen taught us some concepts in design: finding balance in the texture and to use contrast and continuity in the composition. I understood how to navigate the bigger-picture composition of the form while maintaining flexibility towards the materials and the time allotted. It took creative skill to discover the right texture, the right level—working and re-working, making space to incorporate suggestions, bigger picture articulations, compositional frames, etc.
This process is true for my experiences in dance-making: you give yourself some parameters to work with, re: people, music, space, idea, and then work from there, while using your resources of time and energy to work it out.
In the summer, I participated in Pedro Alejandro’s Open Artist’s Project, Soft Body/Soft Terrain, as part of the SEEDS Festival at Earthdance in Plainfield, Massachusetts. Soft Body/Soft Terrain taught me new, clear ways to source movement material from the body and illuminated new ways of looking at forms in space. In a building part of the workshop, we used Earthdance’s natural resources—mud, hay, sticks, water. Pedro also introduced his recycled window screens to experiment with surfaces and framing. With these materials, we created mini-sculptures and formed a site for our performance showing. We also covered ourselves from head-to-toe in mud for the showing. The experience of making a set piece made me wonder: what visual elements can a choreographer include or edit when composing the environment for a dance piece? Viewing the movers in space as part of the landscape of three-dimensional sculptures allowed me to reexamine the dancers’ bodies as forms, somewhat removed from the usual inescapable body politic and narrative.
Learning from these two environments, I have developed fresh perspectives on the craftsmanship of construction and choreography: there’s no end-all be-all recipe in plastering or dance-making; there is always room for experimentation and practice. The kindness, curiosity, and collaboration of the people I engaged with motivates and inspires me in my creative processes and in life!
This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of In Dance.