PEER Practices in Context

By Katharine Hawthorne

November 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

GENERATION Y lives in a world saturated with information. Those of us who were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s grew up with the Internet and as a result hold different attitudes than our predecessors regarding information and authority. When faced with a question, our generation searches Google, instead of seeking out an authority figure such as a teacher, parent, librarian or encyclopedia. The immediacy of information has changed how we learn and how we position ourselves with respect to traditional hierarchical structures. This in turn has shaped the contemporary workplace, in no place more visibly than Silicon Valley, where companies commonly boast about “flat” organizational structure and “agile” collaborative practices. How do these forces translate to the arts?

Three dancers in a class
Pictured: PEER Practice
Photo by Yvonne M. Portra

In spring 2013, a group of eight dance artists embarked on a project to rethink how we train together. This conversation led to the development of PEER Practices, a non-hierarchical dance-training model supported through the Alternative Conservatory in San Francisco. In this article, I trace the threads of collaboration and individualism present in PEER Practices and recount two case studies of contemporary collaborative practices in communities across the U.S. and Europe. In the bones of these practices we see the imprint of Generation Y, including a radically democratic attitude towards information and learning, a preference for non-hierarchical environments and a desire for ongoing dialog and feedback.

Many young dance artists share the impulse behind PEER Practices: how do I get what I need from my practice, and perhaps more fundamentally, what is my practice? Motivated by these questions, Minneapolis based artist Emily Gastineau interviewed dance practitioners in her community to uncover their various practices inside and outside the dance studio. These practices varied from public dance class to meditation, reading, improvisational scores, personal routines and intellectual exercises. Emily used her research to develop a collaborative workshop experience called Profitraining. She created a “directory” of practices in the form of short prompts (movement, text based, conceptual, etc.) written on notecards. The workshop sessions begin with participants contributing a few practices to Emily’s master collection of index cards, and then collectively selecting a handful of cards and determining an order through a consensus-like process. This order forms the basis for an improvisational score navigated individually by participants. Because each person contributed some of the practices, there may be some prompts in which he/ she is well experienced and others with which he/she may never have experimented. In what could be manifesto for Generation Y, Emily writes, “Profitraining assumes that the information we need is at our fingertips, and that we have the capacity to switch between different techniques, bodies, goals and tactics.”1

In San Francisco, PEER Practices began as a way to rethink dance class, resourcing collective energy to reach individual goals. With the support and mentorship of the Alternative Conservatory, we developed a new collaborative practice during the summer months while the ongoing classes would normally be on hiatus. The class included an open structure for feedback and minimal barrier to entry, with fees for participation set nominally at $10 a class, but no one turned away for lack of funds.

The Alternative Conservatory’s director, Kathleen Hermesdorf, enthusiastically gave us permission to draw content and structure from her popular GUT Motives classes. This material formed the core of our shared experience and served as a launching point for individual interests. Roche Janken and Sam Stone team taught the Monday/Wednesday sessions and invited guests to take the reins on Fridays. Each instructor contributed insight on the shared bank of material and introduced aspects of her personal practice and interests. Some dancers focused on aspects of dance technique such as inversions or spinal articulation, while some chased a deep somatic experience and others concentrated on performance presence. The structure of the class allowed for all of these different approaches to coexist simultaneously, encouraging individuals to follow their interests and switch between different modes over the course of a single class session. We drew out nuances, slowed down, became disoriented and then re-engaged.

In addition to celebrating individual inquiry, PEER Practices intentionally disrupted traditional teacher-student hierarchies. While the designated instructor(s) maintained energy and flow, we invited each participant to engage in a teaching role, whether providing insight into the execution of a movement or commenting on a peer’s performance presence. We asked dancers to witness each other, offer feedback and dialog throughout class. By removing traditional motivating factors such as the respect and approval of an elder or teacher, we sought to create an environment in which dancers interact and train at their most fully committed and engaged.

The Mobile Collective Lab, a group composed of Milka Djordjevich (NY/LA), Tomislav Feller (Croatia) and Aleksandar Georgiev (Macedonia/Bulgaria), held a brief residency at THEOFFCENTER this past June. As a collective, they developed a set of shared teaching practices designed to translate their creative research and intersect with artistic communities in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Re-inform-ulation,” the open class session they led at KUNST-STOFF arts in June, consisted of a series of guided improvisational scores focused on initiating action, either with physical input or through imaginative prompts. Playful and irreverent, their teaching aimed to subvert the structure of dance class and accompanying expectations. Class became a collective experience, an opportunity to collaborate on their existing research questions and a laboratory to practice strategies geared towards performance. In our post-class dialog, the Mobile Collective Lab offered the following synthesis of their interests: “We are interested in how people commit to the tasks proposed and how to find one’s own interest and persist in exploring it. This is a practice of giving people agency within a new environment, which serves to subvert hierarchical structures.”2

PEER Practices, Profitraining and the Mobile Collective Lab’s “Re-inform-ulation” practice open up a rich space for exploration. How do you leverage the resources of your peers to deepen your practice? In the absence of the traditional teacher-student hierarchy, what motivates you to move? How do we value the knowledge we already have in our bodies and how do we acknowledge the skill of those who practice with us?

PEER Practices is an archetypal Generation Y endeavor. We have created a “flat,” non-hierarchical working environment in which we have immediate access to the information we want. The equivalent of Googling the answer to a movement problem is having seven other dancers offer you their solution in real-time. While office environments have traditionally limited social exchanges to the water cooler and happy hour, today Facebook and instant messaging have enabled more continuous social contact. These modern models for friendship and dialog drive a desire for immediate connection, in response to which PEER Practices offers an open structure for feedback. Generation Y pursues work that feeds our passion and ignites our creativity. PEER Practices creates an environment where individuals follow their interests and intuitions.

Despite the individuality associated with Generation Y, ongoing conversation with mentors remains one of our priorities and desires. As described above, the Alternative Conservatory has been an invaluable support in the development of PEER Practices, including encouraging us to continue classes in Oakland and San Francisco this fall. We are formalizing our mentor relationship with Kathleen Hermesdorf by commissioning her to create new work on the eight core members. vîv is the name we have chosen for our performance collective. We are eager to learn from Kathleen’s deep well of embodied knowledge and to be in conversation with a rich lineage of collective art practice stemming from Sara Shelton Mann’s Contraband to the present day.

vîv is a new dance collective composed of Virginia Broyles, Alex Crow, Hallie Dalsimer, Katie Griffin, Katharine Hawthorne, Roche Janken, Sam Stone and Alison Williams.

1. More information on Emily Gastineau’s Profitraining: An in depth description of Profitraining and my exchange with Emily can be found here:
2. For a more extensive discussion of the Mobile Collective lab’s residency at THEOFFCENTER see:

Katharine Hawthorne is a San Francisco based choreographer and dancer who likes to watch thinking bodies in motion.