From the East Coast back to Eastleigh

I’ve been trying to assimilate my thoughts on returning from not only Washington but New York too and I’ve been thinking about how I can incorporate some methods and practice into the work I do with artists at The Point, and more generally ideas around how we, as creative people, can be a little more imaginative in how we work.

 

I was struck by how Dance Exchange are good at blurring boundaries, and it might be at these boundaries where the interesting stuff happens. We are always so keen and impatient, to label, to know, to have the answers, to be sure – especially when we are in the subsidized sector and making the ask for money, that is demanded of us. Dance Exchange is run by thinking artists, and this is felt strongly. It’s great that there are 3 resident artists who have their own interests and practice, but contribute to the organisation and its aims, each having their body of work whether it be classes and education, marketing, grant writing etc. And it seems a lot of the discussion and thinking about the organisation is allowed to be explored through the body – great!

 

Winter Institute group - last day bulking improv
Winter Institute group – last day bulking improv

 

When we returned from the Senior’s workshop we were asked to create a solo response to our experience – as well as later discussing in a circle. Through responding to the questions

-Something that you found exciting or that struck you?

-What was a moment you felt uncomfortable?

-What was a happy surprise?

It’s a way of letting the thinking go deeper and become structured in a different way. My memory of my reflection is through movement. A week later I can remember the solo, and that means I can remember with greater clarity the answers to the questions. A magnifying moment. But it wasn’t for everyone, and one person just couldn’t make anything. But it’s an interesting proposition, and one where I am reminded that someone working in dance and with the body has a whole ‘other’ language with which to communicate. How can we bring this into our strategy meetings, our funding brainstorms, our responses to seeing performance. Why do we favour the spoken word so much??

A simple approach that I will ‘borrow’ (As Liz advocates) will be the ‘walk and talk’ meetings that Dance Exchange does. There’s something about trying to find the solution to a problem that can be unlocked with a walk in the fresh air, the sub conscious released, the body and mind in more of a flowing state (Its also interesting that my teenage daughter lets conversation flow much more freely when she’s outdoors and not looking straight at me. So it must work!). Writing furious notes takes place on getting back to the office. Another distillation mechanism to just remember the key points?

 

The other major approach of Dance Exchange is the importance of Storytelling. It’s the way we connect and literally everyone can do it. We are bodies with history and this is a rich area to explore. During Liz’s brief time with us on the Saturday, she briefly mentions current thinking and research in neuroscience around how we connect socially. Jane and I stumble upon a great bookshop in Dupont Circle and I see the book by Matthew Liebermann ‘Social: Why our brains are wired to connect’ where his groundbreaking research in social neuroscience has revealed that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter. It feels like this chimes with the vision and ethos of Dance Exchange facilitating connections through dance, through stories and through the body.

 

The language of the body was powerfully witnessed later on during our stay as on Martin Luther King day, we witnessed a silent protest of about 50 people lying in the middle of the highway next to the US department of Justice building. It’s a controlled protest with a time limit. People hold placards ‘Black Lives Matter’. It is a protest about all the of recent shootings of black people by policemen over the last 6 months. Set against the back drop of the Justice Building ‘Justice is founded by the rights bestowed by nature upon man. Liberty is maintained in the security of Justice’. The silence and prone body is powerful, where perhaps spoken language would seem too complex to find simple unification.

Black lives matter
Black lives matter

 

I’m reminded of the power of the language of the body and its ability to communicate.

 

I end my blog thinking about the last act of our collective group. A visioning exercise the ‘circle of possibilities’. We are asked to project ourselves into the future. What have we done since the Winter Institute? My response was focussed on being able to unlock the potential in others. I’ve returned from my trips feeling open to thinking in different ways, refreshed, inspired and hoping to spread some of this learning a little further afield, to the artists I work with, my colleagues, and the sector as a whole

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A final story from Jane Mason – www.jane-mason.co.uk

After the Washington experience, I tried to write a story. I couldn’t, this is what came out instead.

Moon

He was a girl

Running, twirling, folding, diving, leaping, creeping, flailing, crashing, rolling

Holding

He was a girl

And

She was a boy

———————————————-

The road wasn’t flat

Crying from the top of the stairs – ‘I forgot to go!’

But it was long

The same width all the way, not seeming the same, feeling different all the time, because of the hidden houses, because of the car parks and the outside industrial looking square shapes, because of the traffic lights with arm-like roads veering off left and right

Gripping her trousers – ‘My private parts!’

Holding

Into her toes

———————————————-

Up ahead, the shape of someone… crossing, in the middle of the road, no… not crossing, waving… sort of waving…the afterglow of a wave, very softly

Alone

He was wearing, She was wearing a long coat, brown coloured, short hair, dark glasses, carrying something… a bag? Still. As though looking. Nowhere…

Cars stopped, hazards flashing, slowed right down, red lights beating in and out of focus, in the distance

Legs bare. Hands protecting

‘Don’t look!’

From the top of the stairs

———————————————-

Sometimes

When
A
Person
In
An
Unexpected
Place
Still
Not moving
Is
Sort of
There
And
Not
And
People
Watching
In
Public
Maybe
Are
Staring
Hard
But not
Saying
Anything
Or
Saying
Lots
It makes
Me
Feel

Uncomfortable

———————————————-

She moves to the edge, one hand on the lamppost.

Cars move

Steadying. Surefooted.

Leaning into

Rocks

Pavement

Darkness

Leaning into

Moon

———————————————-

Holding

Under the road, deep ground is squashed. Concrete smothered soil crushed. Poured over brown earth and moisture particles. Gripping

Smoothed and rough

No name

———————————————–

‘I had an accident!’

———————————————–

In a circle
In a room
In a street named after a tree
In a place where people talk to each other
In a far away country
Nobody spoke

———————————————-

Warpretting
Screlching
Bawlking

Tulprerning
Tannowerring
Graiengling

Chuurpookling
Plaeentsing
Yavoyazing

———————————————–

He was a girl
And
She was a boy

Rise and fall
Uneven

Giddy

Not balancing

Awkward And Alive

———————————————-

Say something

Reflections from the final day of the Winter Institute – Jane Mason

It was interesting to observe how the team steered the last two days. I could feel them trying to address as many needs as possible, adapting their structure accordingly. The slightly tight structure of the first two days I felt softened and in the bleeding of edges the space seemed to charge with the inaudible sound of people’s minds whirring. On Saturday we broke into smaller groups to discuss these main areas that had come up:

The Role of Storytelling.

Using the tools.

Partners/strategies for building a project in the community.

The Role of the Facilitator.

Role of storytelling notes from small group discussion
Role of storytelling notes from small group discussion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, in the afternoon we had a wonderful session with Liz Lerman; nimbleness, having multiple names for things, multiple categories to organise and catalyse thought, reframing thinking and on and on…. It’s not easy (for me) to describe how Liz works in the moment, much of what we did she’d done with us at The Point last year but it feels as fresh as ever and her focus, speed, generosity is simply astounding and responsive to anything that comes up.

Liz Lerman
Liz Lerman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After goodbyes to all the participants, Sacha and I had a quick lunch with Iana, a lovely person working as a mediator, wanting to try and build community classes where she lives on Deer Isle in Maine a 14 hour drive north. Her use of language was very interesting for me to listen to. She described the importance of reflective listening for children, how through story telling with the listening child reflecting back what they had heard from the story told, children can learn early that it’s ok for our stories to be misunderstood and then corrected and in doing so they learn that each other can be corrected, that it’s alright, we’re not wrong.

On the final day Iana had given me some feedback following a trio exercise the ‘moving interview’; two people interrupt the storyteller/mover with rapid fire questions as well as providing physical contact/interruption simultaneously, to give the moving person lots to negotiate towards releasing/surfacing unexpected thought and feeling. She said kindly, ‘I shouldn’t work so hard to be accurate in what I wanted to say…..’

I had been gradually noticing how once again, I was not speaking much or easily in the group circle situations. This is a recurring issue for me, but in this particular context a reminder of how I get overwhelmed sometimes with simplifying what is in my mind to be able to express it. This began to unsettle me, and when asked to re-find our ‘buddies’ from day one, lovely Emily, I faced away from the other pairs talking in the room as I welled up with the fear of having to talk and share in the circle at closing time, which I knew was coming.

I was asking myself the question about contribution. Did it mean that if I don’t speak even when I am thinking – I assess/judge whether it’s clear/important enough to speak aloud, is there something potentially more important about ‘supporting the group effort’ that makes someone a good contributor in a group? Something to do with the responsibility of supporting the navigating of the groups learning by contributing verbally to be more fully present for others than deciding whether what I’m saying is vital and necessary enough. I wondered again whether this was a cultural difference. The people in the room were largely American and articulate in their communication. I could feel the ground of their education requiring this to be the case, whereas even at 43 I don’t feel particularly articulate in describing difficult processes. Of course the wonderful session with Liz Lerman on Saturday afternoon brought into sharp focus again how we can learn these skills and demonstrates in quite extraordinary ways how complex ideas can multiply/co-exist/be reframed, particularly by naming what is being thought/felt/struggled with.

I’m not sure of the answer to my concerns about ‘speaking out’. It’s not new by any means. I do speak but not much, mostly when each person is invited to or when I have something clear to say.

During the last circle, Cassie put forward a new idea they have been working with ‘the circle of possibility’ a visioning tool. We were asked to imagine a challenge we faced, that we’d distilled in our ‘buddy’ pairs, then express it within a structure of, having already done/overcome this challenge in the future… ‘When I left the Winter Institute I did ….. ‘

So, I began to speak, slowly, in the moment, not knowing where it would lead and feeling very uncomfortable. I described a conversation in a café near where I live in Topsham, with a new producer friend I’ve been working with called Rae. I asked her to help me by having a conversation, because I wanted to work out how to identify a new group I might begin to work with (Dance Exchange does a lot of work in Care Homes for example) – a group I’d not worked with before.

Imagining this fictional conversation slowly stirred some quiet resolve. And I do feel now, that some thinking has subtly shifted.

I already work on various projects, in the community and professionally not making any large distinction between them, more I attempt to bring the same rigour to everything I do without assuming I know how to do the things before I start.

I do want to broaden the kinds of projects I’m involved in and to take my approaches/and ME into new contexts where I might be able to create some meaningful exchange between people. I think that despite my difficulties of talking about what I do/can do, I do trust that I do/can create from small things and that I do/can hold a space for things to happen and that, I’m good at this.

I realise as I’m writing here that maybe this is my own personal answer to the question of; ‘The Role of Artists working to build Community’. In a way I’m not sure we directly tackled it, but my responsibility maybe is to honour new curiosities when they arise, to see where they lead and to keep going. And to keep trying to imagine new ways to do things to share and build understanding, in a range of ways, with different people, where I can possibly make a difference in their lives and by doing so in mine too.

 

 

Working with Seniors – Recreation Center New Hampshire Avenue

Jane Mason has kindly prepared the ground for this post.

We’re in a rec center a little north of Dance Exchange, a long (actually VERY long) highway that is about 4 lanes wide each direction. Takoma City and Dance Exchange are concerned that this area is a transitory one and perhaps struggles to have a centre/identity/purpose BUT people do live on each side.

We’re in a sort of sports hall waiting for 2 groups of seniors to be bussed in from their accommodation (this is private housing, apartments and condos). There’s a feeling of anticipation. We are a big group of new people waiting to take part with them. Are we ready? What are they expecting? DE team are ‘leading the charge’ and everything is under control. They start to arrive. I’m struck by their willingness to get in, get seated, and get started. They are expectant, but not demanding. I’m struck by the multinational diversity of this group. People have found themselves living in Takoma Park from Vietnam, South Korea, India, Bolivia, Japan, Middle East – the list probably goes on… I suddenly think of the potential for the world to live in harmony. These people do…and seem to cherish and rely on one another.

We partner up. On our chairs we face each other. I am facing Tao – she’s 82, she’s Vietnamese, she walks with a stick, she keeps her coat on, she stays seated throughout this workshop, she wears purple gloves, she’s partially deaf, she doesn’t speak english but spells out her name to me, she has VERY twinkly eyes. We can’t communicate through talking. We are talked through an exercise to do together. To mirror each other. We look into each others eyes. We begin. I feel her sensing me immediately, she’s good at this…. its tentative, focussed, sensitive…sometimes we momentarily touch. We end the dance we are doing together with our heads leaning on one another. We stay like this for a while.

Back at DE, the next day we are privileged to be working with Liz Lerman in the afternoon. She asks to the group ‘what struck you or what did you notice about working with the seniors yesterday’ – I answer ‘Through actively listening through the body I made deep connection with someone who I couldn’t converse with, who was from the other side of the world and who was from a different generation’. My arms open wide to show the distance between us.

Big picture – what causes connectivity? How can we help people to make meaningful connections? How can we bring 2 unlikely things together and find common ground?

We talk of humanity and belonging

 

New ways of saying things

Glossary

Container = something that holds something (space/body/method)

Intersection = relationship between things – generative meeting point

Gather = come together, usually in a circle

Huddle = quick meeting to make a plan

Your whole dancing self = making a physical commitment

Modelling = show the rest of the group how to do a task through example

Synthesize = working something through for yourself and coming to some sort of resolve

Unpack = sort through and analyse

The beginning of the journey – Winter Institute begins

Later on that first day, I get to spend an hour talking to John Borstel, the Senior advisor, Humanities. He has been here since 1993 working alongside Liz in the early days and has many stories to tell about the evolution and development of the body of practice. He has worked closely with Liz to formulate the language for the Critical Response Process and was co-author. He speaks of the beginning of DE being a place to come to dance whatever age or ability. A melting pot of people from the local area – open and inclusive access. He talks of the negative impact of the rise of aerobics and fitness gyms having an effect on the amount of people who came. The ‘school’ moved gradually to a performing company, one  that remained inclusive and became intergenerational. Liz was interested in the idea of a ‘body with a history’.

The Winter Institute kicks off with everyone arriving at 5pm for an hours ‘gathering’ before a dinner break, followed by a regular slot in DEs programme, their HOME event. A chance for people to come and see what DE is doing, what’s been happening and what projects are taking place.

 

There are around 18 people taking part in the Institute and they’ve come from far and wide. California, Vermont, Carolina, Arizona and more. Its a good chance to swat up on my US geography and here about different cultures and landscapes. We form a circle(as we go on to do many times as we gather and reconvene). We are asked 3 questions of the next few days…

-What is your question?

-What can you contribute?

What is your hope/desire?

We stick these collectively on the wall – to remind ourselves why we have come..and as a reminder as we work

photo 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the right questions are a the bedrock of this work, and having worked with Liz earlier on in the summer I understand the unlocking potential of turning a comment or judgement into a question – it opens a door, and a dialogue. (Notice my ‘hope/desire’ is for an epiphany – no pressure there then!)

It becomes clear that as we are asked what has bought us here and how we have first intersected with DE or Liz, that most people have had a transformative experience that has made them become life long followers of the organisation and are hungry to engage on a deeper level. There’s a lot of warmth and generosity in the room and people are returning for the 2nd or 3rd time. One participant, Thomas Dwyer is 82 and been a part of the company as a dancer in the 1980s and is still dancing and facilitating now. Here he is with Jane Mason

photo 5
Thomas and Jane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He also has lots of stories to tell – and this is another bedrock of the work – storytelling….

This is the main way in – and I’m becoming a believer in it. Tell me a story about when you…….

I’m slipping away from being an observer and into being a participant. Experiencing the next few days from the inside out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts from Jane Mason – UK dance artist

As part of the IADF, I was able to invite another UK artist, Jane Mason, who is based in Devon  to come and experience Dance Exchange. Its been great to carry on the conversation outside of the studio each day…. Here are some of her thoughts…

So here I am in Washington DC, in a B&B In Woodley Park.

This wonderful opportunity to accompany Sacha Lee (Creative Producer at The Point) to attend Dance Exchange’s Winter Institute, looking at the overarching question ‘What is the Role of Artists in Building Community?’ was one I was very much looking forward to. Dance in Devon have also kindly supported this trip and I wish to thank both The Point and DID for this invaluable support.

One of my impressions from Thursday (my arrival day) and Friday was to do with the reminder of how familiar the language of dance is, how universal it is. Even within a different cultural context and there certainly seems to be different emphasis on the kind of language used to describe processes, ways of thinking and the giving of instructions etc, yet there is so much commonality drawing this diverse group of people together, in this space of dance that we all share.

circle

On Saturday we took part in a community workshop for seniors from a nearby residential centre, in the Rec Centre on New Hampshire Avenue. This long stretch of road has been undergoing a lot of change in recent years, Cassie the artistic director explained how for about 10 years the company had been largely on tour and so the impulse for this particular project was rooted in a need and desire to work more closely to home. ‘This is a Place To…’ will work at various sites and with various residents along the New Hampshire Avenue. It’s a project about ‘home’ and about where people come from asking how they feel connected to home and place. There will be varying degrees of involvement from participants and a remounting of Liz’s 1986 site-specific work ‘Still Crossing’ will form part of the culmination of the performance project.
At the workshop I sat next to a Sun Li, a woman in her late 70’s from South Korea. There was very minimal language between us, so it was through the exercises of mirroring seated on chairs, building to moving in turns around the chair, that we found a way to build a connection between us. The power of touch comes into rapid focus in a moment like this. The first real touch of hands, I had been anticipating it! Led to touches of reassurance, of thanks, of reciprocal acknowledgement of what we were doing together and this was very special. At the end of the workshop we hugged when saying goodbye and I was reminded again of the intimate connection between strangers where the language is formed through a physically moving together and how powerful this can be.

Storytelling features heavily in the work that Dance Exchange does to find ways to reveal and generate movement, for example noticing the physical behaviour a person involuntarily makes when telling a story is called ‘spontaneous gesture’. Ways of working are not so different from processes I have been involved in or might try to create myself. Yet here there is clearly a system of named and articulated tools that underpin the ways of working. I have been extremely fortunate to attend a week long workshop at The Point with Liz Lerman (founder of Dance Exchange) that Sacha initiated in Summer 2014, so have witnessed through her teaching, the years of work refined into these tools now past onto the team here who are taking this work and legacy forward. They are clearly doing this with real care, commitment, dedication and passion. On reflection, I think I use multiple tools frequently in an artistic process but so useful to be able to articulate what I’m doing, and see ways to unlock, catalyse or ‘course correct’ a process in order to be responsive and adapt to the specifics of a new situation or group, to gain deeper awareness of preferences or habits that could be limiting.

This far in though, I have found myself missing a kind of space which perhaps could be a little less managed and organised. The team are very well prepared and this is to their credit. There is a clearly thought out plan and rigorous shared delivery between the whole team which is lovely to watch; each member of the team integrated into the sharing of the ideas proposed in a very respectful way. However, I do sense that I’m personally drawn to the idea of a space where ‘the unexpected in the group thinking’ is perhaps slightly more able to surface. I’m not sure how this would happen but it’s something to do with giving a little more time for conversations to allow them to go deeper without being too directed for a little while. I’m really interested in this central question of ‘The role of artists in Community’, and am also grappling with how I might attempt answering it for myself in ways that feel relevant. So far we’ve not dug deep into this but there’s time still! I’ve been thinking more widely about purpose, value, responsibility and what happens when things don’t quite work and I’d like us to touch on these themes too, within a broader awareness of responsibility as artists when we are seeking a close connection with others.

This question of the role of artists drew me in, and has sensitised me to consider more closely and re-examine what it is that I do as an artist and how might I do things differently.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here and maybe it’s a chance for me to try and speak these reflections more openly in the room rather than just thinking them to myself through this writing.