Blogs The Green Room Michèle Steinwald

Michèle Steinwald has an impressive assortment of curatorial, institutional, artistic and educational bona fides. (If you’d like, you can skip to the end of all this and find them listed handily below.) But the fact is, she’d much rather talk to you about Deborah Hay, about Rosas' Bartok or maybe Jan Fabre. Maybe you’d like to hear about the punk and dance convergences that shaped her young career, or her thoughts on dance as practice rather than product? She could also tell you a story about this one time, when she was 19, a controversial shot of her in Jana Sterbak's meat dress got front page play on all Arts' sections of Canadian newspapers, the same day that they were covering Martha Graham's death. Since retiring as a dancer and choreographer, Steinwald has managed performing arts projects and professional development programs for On the Boards (Seattle), New England Foundation for the Arts/National Dance Project (Boston), DanceUSA (DC), and the Deborah Hay Dance Company (Austin). She joined the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) in October of 2006 as Assistant Curator for the Performing Arts and remained in that role until summer of 2013. She is on the boards of the National Performance & Visual Artists Network (New Orleans) and Movement Research (NYC). She has served on panels for the NEA, MANCC, NPN, McKnight Foundation, USA Fellows, and been an artist mentor for Creative Capital's retreat and Arts Midwest's ArtsLab. She recently graduated from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University and is currently an independent curator and dance producer.

Defining a Vagenre: Categories of Nudity in Feminist Performance

“It is misleading to label Rebecca Patek the new Ann Liv Young when the only thing that is remotely similar in their work is that they use their vaginas.” After January’s marathon session of performance-watching during the APAP conference in New York, I was trying to put words to my frustration with one artist’s work being […]

Dress rehearsal for luciana achugar's OTRO TEATRO at Walker Art Center.  Photo: Alice Gebura

Dress rehearsal for luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Alice Gebura

“It is misleading to label Rebecca Patek the new Ann Liv Young when the only thing that is remotely similar in their work is that they use their vaginas.” After January’s marathon session of performance-watching during the APAP conference in New York, I was trying to put words to my frustration with one artist’s work being compared to that of another simply because each includes vaginal penetration in performance. “There are many different…”

I hesitated, so my colleague Josina Manu interjected, “Genres?”

“Yes, genres of performance involving vaginas.”

“Va-genres?” she offered.

“Exactly! Many different vagenres in contemporary performance and dance. It is not just one big category of vaginas on stage.”

Since the term “vagenre” was coined last month, I’ve seen luciana achugar’s latest creation, OTRO TEATRO, four times at the Walker. This immersion in a specific vagenre has given me time to reflect, and I now imagine that performances using the female reproductive system can be placed within a scale of sorts, depending on more or less vaginal influence in the artistic results. Below I begin to sketch out the range of subvagenres within this broader vagenre of performance. I invite you to contribute thoughts and criticisms in order to build more comprehensive categories and further distinguish varieties within these feminist choreographic approaches.

Level 1
Performance with “frontal” nudity, completely naked or just bottomless

This category has performers naked but not relating to their genitalia. The nudity is pedestrian in delivery. The audience may witness the unique anatomical folds and nubs between performers legs, but there is no sexual energy implied in this viewing. Of course there are questions of sexual behaviors being posed in the reading of the dance but the dancing itself doesn’t emphasize the implication of the body in an erotic context (see Melinda Ring, Michelle Boulé).


Level 2
Movement vocabulary is drawn from sexual organs

This provides an expanded inclusionary experience of the body as source material for creating gestural and textural extensions of what a more “civilized” interpretation of the body may generally be. This level could have subcategories of internal versus external motivations of creating new movement vocabulary combinations. I would suggest dividing the content by Level 2/External when genitals and pubic areas are extra body parts to manipulate without eroticization (see Juliana F. May) and Level 2/Internal when energetic vibrations encouraged by exaggerating the deep sensations within the pelvic floor muscles and organs are outwardly radiated as energies to demonstrate inner desire, feminine power, and primal passion without any tactile manipulation of such areas (see luciana achugar).


Level 3
Sexual intercourse in performance

Themes in this level of vagenre performances are explicitly dealing with human sexual behaviors and strive to be able to build reasoning around the use of penetration in action towards a literal reading of the movements. Nudity is not necessary for audience to see the use of the performer’s vagina in this category (see Rachel Patek).



Level 4
Vaginal canal as place, intercourse as movement repetition, orifices as opportunity for social commentary

This is when every aspect of the vagina, its position on the body, its ability to conceal and reveal, its habitual role in human relations, and its current ability to add taboo and risk in performance, is potential content to develop in performance. This level possibly explores abstract and non-linear as well as eroticized considerations of vaginal influences as dance (see Ann Liv Young).


Level 5
Orgasm as educational tool

This is the internal made visible in real time. Acts are based in realism and take great concentration on behalf of the performers to execute for a public. There is no added eroticization of the movements. Approach can be clinical or natural. The stripping of fantasy is necessary to provide a clear and accurate depiction of the physical build-up necessary to create climax (see Annie Sprinkle).


This is not an exhaustive or historical list of artists who work in this vagenre but rather a first attempt to create language around distinguishing the multitude of approaches in response to the use of this potent female body part in performance. I made no attempt to create the equivalent category and scale for the penis.

Choreographers’ Evening Auditions 2013: The Making of a Mixed Tape

The next Choreographers’ Evening, November 30, 2013, will be curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs. Update: The audition slots are now full. If you would like to be put on the wait list, please email and you will be informed as slots become available. Thank you for your interest! Yon and Griggs are […]


The next Choreographers’ Evening, November 30, 2013, will be curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs.

Update: The audition slots are now full. If you would like to be put on the wait list, please email and you will be informed as slots become available. Thank you for your interest!

Yon and Griggs are imagining the performance line up as a selection of songs for a mixed tape, carefully chosen for someone special. They are dedicating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening to Nicky Paraiso, performer and La MaMa Moves! curator in NYC, who in their words “ has an infectious admiration for performers.  He puts together programs that are wildly eclectic, thought provoking and moving.  We are inspired by his impresario showmanship and ability to tug at your heart strings.” As part of the audition process, the curators would love to know if you were to dedicate your piece to someone or something, who or what would it be?

The details:

Auditions will be held at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Avenue on Thursday, August 15 from 6-10pm; Friday, August 16 from 6-10pm; and Saturday, August 17 from noon – 4pm.

You must email to reserve an audition time; auditions are accepted by appointment only.

All forms of dance welcome.

– You will receive a call or email confirming your time slot

– Auditions are in 10 minute intervals

– Pieces are usually 3-6 minutes in length and may not exceed 7 minutes

– DVD submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred

– Works in progress are accepted for auditions but no pitches please!

For more information and to schedule an audition, please email or call the Walker at 612.375.7550.

Additional questions may be directed to Michèle Steinwald at

Other reminders and updates about dance offerings in the Twin Cities:

Momentum: New Dance Works hits 10 editions this month! Don’t miss the next two weekends of performances and the special celebration on August 3rd. Hear about the new works as part of Justin Jones’ Talk Dance podcast series and reminisce about past works as part of Momentum’s history with pictures and stories from the artists.

If you missed the Twin Cities community dance photo announcement last spring it was because it was postponed until the fall. We are hoping to host the group photo shoot before the Sage Awards for Dance ceremony at the Cowles Center on Oct 15th so save the date!

Enjoy the summer and see you around!

Noticing the Feedback: A Proposal to the Contemporary Dance Field, and/or This Revolution Will Be Crowdsourced

When I asked a room filled with my peers to imagine an ideal future for presenting contemporary dance performances, they agreed on a set of qualities: a flexible space, a blurring of art and life, a place of abundance, a performance of life, a ridding of greed, intolerance and self doubt. Here, everyone finds time […]

Michele Steinwald, photo by Rino Pizzi

Michele Steinwald, photo by Rino Pizzi

When I asked a room filled with my peers to imagine an ideal future for presenting contemporary dance performances, they agreed on a set of qualities: a flexible space, a blurring of art and life, a place of abundance, a performance of life, a ridding of greed, intolerance and self doubt. Here, everyone finds time to make art, has the freedom to explore, and opportunities to be challenged.* I then asked what could a possible first step look like to get to this utopian setting, and I received as many different answers as individuals involved. The answers pointed to early education, shorter workweeks, new economic systems, arts integration, meditation, increased modes of perception. When I am in the audience, I feel the change that certain choreographers affect within their work. What they make on stage creates the change we were imagining. It is our turn, as presenters, to initiate the conversation in order to shift our practice and support such efforts in social change off stage.

Ultimately, my aim is to create an environment for an in-person experience that provokes discussion and introspection. I imagine belonging to a community center, an atmosphere accumulated from multiple activities and needs being served at once, and this sets a framework in my mind to find a balance of offerings, opportunities, and coincidences within a choreographed, yet spontaneous environment for all participants—artists and audiences—to engage in.

It will take us time to identify the elements that shape a theatrical experience and evaluate each aspect for their inherent conditions on the live performance. I can think of many places to start: the admission process (e.g. ticket prices, seating tiers, front of house ushers, messaging, fluidity of the architecture, ability to meet ones needs within the ritual of watching a performance even before it has begun, order of events, curtain speeches, program notes and playbills), and marketing (e.g. invitations, preparatory language, the distribution of the invitation, translation of artistic inspiration, educational content, historical context, curatorial intentions, background, the inside story, the hook, the social network draw, the buzz, word of mouth, critical appeal, facts, logistics, the aftermath). As we begin to untangle the conditions in which to experience live art, how we ticket and tell the art’s story determines the unspoken contract we make with patrons, and influences everyone’s ability to embody confidence and commit to the invited exchange. I note the feedback whenever a pre-show curtain speech strikes a cord with the audience or a performance noticeably alters one’s preconceived notions of the live theatrical interaction. As for inhabiting a new and potentially utopian landscape, theorist and activist Stephen Duncombe explains, “the trick is to lead people out of what they know without simply replacing this old way of being, thinking, and seeing with a new one. You need to provide space for people’s own imagination.”

A healthy and thriving non-competitive environment needs activity in order to generate excitement. Tim Griffin, executive director and chief curator at The Kitchen in New York notes:

Now one of the predicaments I think (of arts generally) is that you see culture without community. It’s not true across the board, but there’s a lack of the kind of organic exchange where the audience produces the work that produces the audience—that sort of dialogue/dialectic—is largely missing. Often things are programmed from above, as opposed to rising from below. (Evans 5)

From the Mayan calendar noting the end of the world as we know it to the Occupy movement demanding new regulations and acknowledgment of the inequities on Wall Street, there is a collective global shift in consciousness and a cry out to reclaim our future. The destructive economic forces during these recent years of financial crisis have prepared us for a new narrative. Stripped of desires to follow a prescriptive path, our guiding principles are noticeably in question.  Artists who build ideological principles into the fabrication of their art, not just within the content of the finished production, are coming to the forefront of aesthetic contributions. Hierarchical institutional containers are unnecessary to prove accreditation; labels limit experiential value and are often unwanted by audiences who assume being integrated into the whole. There is an urgency and potential creative freedom to conceive of future parameters and outcomes collaboratively, with the artists and audiences together. Our globally connected community is saturated with artistic options and perpetually plugged into endless online discourse. The public sharing of our personal contributions is able to unclutter the noise of these offerings through relationships. As constant consumers, we stop only for discovery and are energized by the potential for inspiration and renewal. There is a new dawn that draws from everything and everyone we know or have heard of, anywhere and at any time. Virtual boundaries have not been blurred they have been obliterated.

We have inherited spaces and protocols for arts participation. Modern theaters have been traditionally designed to separate the audience from the art in an environment that controls light, sound, and temperature while framing the stage, disorienting the viewer in order to suspend disbelief. The ability to cut out the everydayness of one’s outside life has been a perceived benefit to producing a world distinct from the one left at the door upon entering. In contrast, architecture of engagement starts with the premise of a gathering place, with central meeting areas where everyone has the ability to participate, design experiences and openly share nature, wellbeing, inclusion, and compassion. “Architecture and urban design are social arts, that influence human actions and interactions… [and] can also be a catalyst for change, synthesizing emerging cultural values and weaving critical new strands into the urban fabric.” How do we flatten the hierarchical aspects of proscenium theaters into venues sufficient for the participation desires of today?

As we offer dance performances as part of the commercial market, the language used to sell tickets often relies on providing some authoritative perspective from the host venue or reputable newspaper critic. The understanding of worth can alienate when trying to create a name brand for contemporary artists who have no name recognition. The top-down stamp of approval is no longer the selling point it once was with season subscriptions as a privilege to participate in the pre-selected offerings. When everything is accessible online for free, how can we continue to promote exclusivity and intimacy as a price of admission? There is no more substantial touring funding for artists to be distributed to new communities, we need new reasons to host an event. Communication is circular and has room to include all sides of the conversation. Currently our combination of marketing and architectural systems prohibit our bodily intelligence and curiosity to be engaged. As a point of entry, choreographers have started to solve these deficiencies by keeping lights on in the audience during the show (Deborah Hay), having performers enter from audience before walking on stage (luciana achugar), and starting to interact on stage before the audience is completely seated (BodyCartography Project)—taking the art experience one step closer to a more inclusive environment.

The word spontaneity is defined as a voluntary or undetermined action or movement, and is synonymous with naturalness, ease, uninhibited and unrestraint. How could those words become principles that establish a live art experience that is equally empowering for an artist as well as an observer/participant? This should be an embodied position for everyone regardless of ability; giving access determined by interest not privilege.

By closely reading and learning from the creative processes and performance practices of dance makers, Deborah Hay, luciana achugar, and BodyCartography Project–artists of various generations and nationalities—I will propose new guiding principles for the presentation of contemporary and experimental choreography. Through discovery and comparison, the understanding of the underlying values produced by the dance works of these artists surface and provide us recommendations for evaluating the conditions embedded or presumed in the field of presenting dance. Through the resulting conclusions, I hope to make an urgent field-wide suggestion to collectively examine our practices as a timely endeavor to maintain synchronicity with these artists’ works and those of the future.

Deborah Hay – Community

From the earliest point in her career to now, Deborah Hay has always immersed herself in community. She started in the 60s within the art community, known as the Judson Dance Theater, in New York drawn together around the teachings of Robert Dunn, inspired by John Cage, and committed to weekly performance and dance experimentation at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Later when she left Manhattan in the 70s, it was to live off of nature in Vermont in a communal land-sharing cooperative with other like-minded choreographers and artists. It was at that time, when she began her lifelong research into the solo form. Only, in order to tour dance works and pay her portion of the bills, as solos were unpopular and dance company were expensive to maintain, she developed a system of performing her Ten Circle Dances, published group choreographies, by being in residence in a community with nothing but herself and the choreographic instructions. She would arrive in a new location and lead anyone who wanted regardless of training to perform on the spot. In the end there would be no audience, simply and purely participants.

Over the years, Hay evolved her research practice from teaching large group choreography with untrained dancers over long periods of time and distilling those laboratory workshops into her solo choreography to providing a communal commissioning platform for multiple dancer/choreographers. Participants receive a solo choreographed by Hay during an intensive retreat with subsidies crowd-funded from each of their unique communities. The latter, called the Solo Performance Commissioning Project, ran for fourteen years annually ending in 2012. The participants pool their resources and collectively invest to purchase the rights to perform one of Hay’s solos. They leave the ten-day retreat to return to their home support systems, enriched by Hay’s coaching and group facilitation, and encouraged by a new network of peers and potential partnerships for future shared performance opportunities around the world.

Hay has developed several strategies to disseminate her dances to generations of dance makers through community-building support systems which expand the visibility of her works throughout the world. She employs deliberate language with rich word-based choreographic directions and has generously “dis-attached” herself from vetting the final product of a commissioned solo by passing along the tools necessary to facilitate the authorship of the solo to its new owner. Hay eloquently establishes the methods for fulfilling her choreographic scores for each individual dancer who commits to her working conditions. In the words of Britain’s Independent Dance co-director Fiona Millward, Deborah Hay’s choreography is riddled with “antidotes for habits that no longer serve you” (Edmunds). Hay wishes to give each performer the tools necessary to prepare them from inside the performance of the work and from the outside within their community in order to share the choreography in performance.

Her constant grassroots efforts to provide platforms for her performances have created peer networks of artists interested in her radical practices, establishing a safe environment for experimentation and research. Hay is a generous teacher and strategic organizer who has received several awards throughout her career. In 2007 when honored with a BAXten Award, choreographer Juliette Mapp presented Hay by recognizing her contributions,

Your experimental work has remained alive and contemporary over four decades, inspiring your colleagues and peers and now – new generations of choreographers and performers. Your sustained commitment and your willingness to change course provides an example for others. Your articulate writing on the body and dance has had a profound impact on the field.

Her lifelong process of creating art works in community has strong repercussions: individual empowerment, synergistic resourcefulness, liberation from/subversive of main systems of dance dissemination and distribution—all embedded into every cellular inch of her artistic contributions.

BodyCartography Project – Empathy

Building off of community (the macro) to reveal the individual (the micro), sourcing the choreographic material for performances through improvisations and somatic research conducted in the studio with their dancers, Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad of BodyCartography Project have made the idiosyncratic results of their explorations the aesthetic of their dances. Somatic training techniques (specifically Body-Mind Centering) nurture the whole person, from their place in society to the internal bodily systems that keep them alive. Often used by dancers to strengthen their alignment and prolong their capacity and career, somatically-sourced movements reveal relationships between the physical, the cognitive and the emotional landscapes in all of us. This inside-out generative method facilitates empathetic responses in the viewers whose mirror neurons record the visual experience as their own. Unlike viewing great feats of athleticism such as acrobatics or ballet, somatic vocabulary is amplified to a potentially unrealistic state in performance but ultimately stems from a common ground. For BodyCartography Project, tapping into presence is placed above external form; the performers must show up in an authentic manner each moment of the live performance, being vulnerable to their surroundings and receptively spontaneous with fellow performers and audience members within the framework of the piece.

The embodiment of movement vocabulary in dance research, development and performance has a profound communicative quality. By using shared choreographic prompts in rehearsal, performers develop bonds with one other as well as a deeply felt personal experience. Within somatic training philosophy, the body is never objectified but instead is appreciated for its emotive capacities which “illustrate… that human experience is multifaceted and reveals itself in complicated twists and turns that constantly spiral back to pick up new information” (Miller 266). It is through actions that the dancers excavate their experiential consciousness and offer this awareness as the conduit to movement inhabitation. The felt reality of the somatic body in motion summons many senses in the viewer’s own body and that experience and energetic response can recall magic. Artists like Bieringa and Ramstad who privilege the body’s intelligence over structural and choreographic hierarchy are more able to break compositional rules by following the natural narrative derived from the performers’ organic presence with knowledge and acceptance of all their multiple meanings and significances.

Somatic training also creates a heightened state of perception. The bodily awareness extends to the surrounding environment and performers establish a gaze that invites being observed. This behavior encourages the audience to actively participate in directing their focus on aspects of the performance, from the angles in body shapes to the pressure of weight being transferred in locomotion. Along with this attention to viewing, the observer removes judgment from their experience while being acutely aware of the information being shared in the moment. Viewers are able to bring their whole selves to the experience during performances as they become engaged with the dance material live.

Somatic influences also propose that audiences remove the assumptions they carry into spectatorial experiences. This ability to refresh ones expectations prior to a performance brings everyone inside the shared moment. This preparedness translates to creating a whole of the entire performance: audience members, performers, architecture, reactions and sense of time. By raising the awareness of movement patterns and opening up possibilities, new choices are offered as potentially more effective communicators. The elasticity of the entire creation as it encompasses everything unifies us and validates our individuality. This is how the spiritual, a powerful connection that remind us of our humanity, can reenter our busy lives. Inclusive behaviors are exercised by establishing a creative practice based in somatic techniques. Transitions in life are more apparent. Life is more fluid and theater more real. When somatic awareness is woven into the fibers of a performance, the creative process strengthens the community within the cast of performers, their awareness of the audience expands this community and feeds energy back to the cast in performance. Their movements and actions reinforce the empathetic feedback loop and the logic within the performance is shared and ultimately, understood.

luciana achugar – Dialogue

Originally from Uruguay, luciana achugar came of age during the downtown boom in New York City’s contemporary dance scene when emotions and exhibiting pleasure were disregarded in favor of complicated dispassionate choreography. Today her choreographic research and performances are rooted in the body’s ability to feel pleasure and create sensations. Expanding these notions in order to build a palpable connection with the audience is one of luciana achugar’s primary concerns. When coaching her dancers, she immediately reminds them of the potential the audience brings to the art form. The dancers rehearse in a true state of feeling and sensing so that viewers are able to pick up on the felt sensations brought to life on stage.

The beginning of each choreographic work starts with a conversation between achugar and her dancers. In response to her Marxist upbringing, achugar, a self-proclaimed labor equity supporter, feels it is necessary to be completely transparent about the financial opportunities and limitations for the current production. She treats each of her dancers equally, taking into consideration their needs and contributions in the creation of the work. She deliberately has chosen to work with all-female casts in reaction to the dance field being flooded with women and disproportionately males are favored in dance productions. By choosing women as collaborators and the female form as the vehicle of investigation, she provides more opportunities to women and reclaims the feminine as a site of productivity, pleasure, and creativity.

By establishing a fair working environment, the labor and equality of her dancers’ rights are at the forefront of the choreographic material in achugar’s performances. The privileging of each of their contributions to the dance, the spirit of collective consciousness achugar promotes includes the audience as they become part of the live experience of her dances. Unifying gestures, whether it is unison movements, identical factory uniform smocks, repetitive actions, and ritualistic energies, explore the individual within a community. As she explores what is universal, each of the dancers becomes more distinct and valued as a unique contributor to the whole.

Her working relationship elevates the female and flattens the single-choreographer company model. Strategies from within her group choreographic works to date have involved the audience in the final productions by sharing verbal cues that the dancers are inhabiting, inviting the viewer to imagine those same motivations, by moving through the audience not just in front of but between and behind the audience, using ritualistic repetitious movement sequences that establish patterns and that are useful in engaging the viewers by revealing the logic of the composition.

The boldness she demonstrates with her determination around expression of emotion, exposing female distinctiveness on stage, does not diminish the innovations of the artistic rigor or her directorial contributions. It is selfless and courageous to present such fragile states of being in performance in the earnest and optimistic fashion that is her calling. She has created choreographic structures for her performers in which their vulnerability is never a liability but a true strength and vehicle for dialogue. This felt generosity is palpable to viewers and can lead to new appreciation for meaning as Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice dance critic notes, “If I were to cede my ability to construct a sentence and moan my way down the page in syllables, I might better convey the visceral response [achugar’s] work induces.” Without removing the performance from the venues where they exist, achugar has heightened the connection of those involved by developing vibrational movement language, compositional phrasing with transparent motivations, and inclusive and equitable practices inside the rehearsal process to prepare for the stage experience.

Through dance we learn to become sensitive to movements, nuance, and subliminal body language. Performance- and dance-artists who acknowledge observers as willing intellectual, emotional and spiritual participants, and who invite audiences to be an extension of the performance itself start their creative process with the audience’s potential in mind. By defining a value system above their form, their creative foundation finds aesthetic solutions to move their political priorities forward. Their hope is to communicate intentions and perform an interdependent world. Dance’s gift to us is the deconstruction of any Cartesian notions, the reassimilation of our mind and body connection and its inherent intelligence, and an embodied wholeness. Dance is a body-centric art form which fundamentally aspires to join physical and energetic exchanges between humans. Bodies in movement create tones and textures. The space around the dance provides tension and landscape. Audience members are somatically inclined to receive meaning in proximity to actions. Within the role of curator, the field of presenting contemporary and experimental dance is open to a new heightened awareness and reevaluation of the best practices we have inherited and are currently employing to bring dance to a public. We have started to embrace a new sense of discipline and questioning of the terms that were constructed long ago. We have identified opportunities to support the live experience with external methods to engage dance audiences. Now it is time to evolve our practice to be inspired by the works of the artists we hold true and create supportive structures from the inside out, starting with the art.

From inside the performing arts presenters’ circle, what we are asking of ourselves and for others is to join in, to collectively imagine and discuss new approaches ensuring the livelihood of the art forms we serve. The practices at play are open to lovingly dismantle the traditional setting and restructure the residual effects to be present and ready for the future. As Nicolas Bourriaud writes:

In order to invent more effective tools and more valid viewpoints, it behoves us to understand the changes nowadays occurring in the social arena, and grasp what has already changed and what is still changing. How are we to understand the types of artistic behavior shown in exhibitions held in the 1990s, and the lines of thinking behind them, if we do not start out from the same situation as the artists?

New leadership in the arts speaks differently about innovation and risks. Recently Tim Griffin was interviewed and he mentioned, “that a lot of folks across the board are increasingly aware of the conventionality of their endeavor, of fitting the models that exist. And you can’t just conceive of the inconceivable. You have to take a gamble, to allow that possibility to exist” (Evans 5). Imagination is an active pursuit and needs to be exercised. There is no discovery without the acknowledgement and willingness to fail. Health and wellness language is being cultivated and appropriated in the business world. Researcher and Ted Talk sensation Brené Brown, who has made breakthroughs digging around personal psychology to find the root of shame, explains that the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change, is vulnerability. The only thing that cures shame is empathy. It is time we let go of the past and move forward together into the future of performing arts integration and collective personal growth.

I believe a boundary-ridden escape from daily grind, using a variety of tension creating devices such as existing architecture and invented instructions, could set the stage for events to layer within an environment. Now how can a space become tactile? How can a room be anthropomorphized? Works should not necessarily neatly fit into the settings they are performed in. Opportunities and limitations can become clearer in awkward placements and participation more obvious, while edges become softer potentially. Vantage points must be various: can greater distances expose patterns and increase insights into the craft, while proximal immersion lead to reflexive transformations?

Intellectual perspectives must be considered too, from the deliberately informed to the happily empty-minded. New York’s MOMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey defines his process of working with artists as a consideration of:

What kind of curator they need me to be. I try very hard not to have a particular style. It’s a process of paying very close attention to someone and intuiting things about that person–from the time you spent with them, from the work that you know, from what you know of them over time–and trying to figure out how to be a conduit for the best public presentation of their work.

Eleey’s articulation of starting from nothing and being open to being informed from the individual artistic processes is a clue. Acknowledging the use of intuition as a tool in the curator’s arsenal also brings us closer to strengthening the empathetic potential in public dance performances. In a recent New York Times article about socially engaged art, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts’ director Kristina Van Dyke remarked, “To me art is elastic. It can respond to many different demands made on it.”

Where is our flexibility and collegial trust to reinvent the conditions in which we do our work? Building off of Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 concept of relational aesthetics could an existing environment be accommodating so that it is “the actual event that curates the work, not the other way around.” According to Mathias Augustyniak of the design duo M/M (Paris), “there is no such place called art or culture but it’s all interwoven.” Could flattening the hierarchy between performances, art works, and creative interventions of different production scales enable interchangeability between audience and performers and solidify a cultural integrity?

Invitational language needs to consider and be designed to encourage social encounters, with innuendos that heighten senses and activate one’s curiosities. Time that stretches around syllables and sharpens to find moments to wander and wonder will interrogate from the inside out and discover from the outside in. “When we are talking about complex communication between two people–inter-human situations–everyone knows that the more indirect communication is, the more effective the message.” Artists who value and prioritize generous layering of meaning inside their works and invite us in cellularly and spiritually, affect change physically. The musician and poet, Michael Stipe shares:

It is my belief that memory is our only real contribution to the universe after our death. Our memories, however banal or meaningful, gathered throughout our lifetime, go on to become the fuel, the powers the energy that allows the universe to be as vast and as fantastic as we imagine it is.

Muscles in our bodies contain our memories. Dancers tap into the potency of movements. Everyone’s body is the antenna to understanding movement in conversation, in film, on stage. Our mirror neurons bring a dancer’s embodiment of space, time, actions, and shapes directly to the audience and our past is released from watching their execution in the present. Our civilized society has placed barriers and doubt in our cellular comprehension of bodies in motion. Bringing back an embodied permission of full consciousness as an observer will bring acceptance in this world as understanding the complexity of our very human nature is innate in tuning into the frequency of dance. Outspoken and ever-evolving choreographer Tere O’Connor confirms that “choreography eschews singularity of meaning by its very nature” (O’Connor 12). And at the end of the day, what are we left with are our experiences. Eleey continues to explain what concerns him about curating is that, like a dinner party, “there is nothing left.” And:

Like a dinner party where you hope that it is a great dinner party and you have seated everyone well and the conversation is lively, but at the end of it, apart for some dirty dishes, there is just what people remember from that evening… [that] goes back out into the world.

When we turn to ourselves to be present, we also commit to finding the solutions together. Science is mapping empathy, artists are tapping into this understanding, and we are responsible to adjust and evolve.

I imagine future performances that are as small as a thought and as big as the sky, and with no hesitations. That there would be time to reflect with drifting layers and artistic options bumping into one another, just as there should be no real obstacles in life. Brown writes:

Vulnerability is courage. It is about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives and in those moments when we show up, those are the most powerful meaning making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well, they define who we are.

As audiences show up and participate, make meaning, and lasting memories, we too need to be present to experience the work we do in order to feel the meaning and execute the needs of the art works in public presentation. It will be messy and crystal clear all at once. We need to do this work together. “Making manifestos engages the thinker-practitioner; and in this sphere, the thinker-performer is by no means a contradiction in terms. Art and thought are not incompatible after all” (Danchev xxvi). So I hope this revolution will be thoughtfully embodied, vulnerable, communal, and crowdsourced for our “contemporary condition of overabundance” needs curation and we can’t do it on our own.

The three artists/artist collaborations share the following overlapping values: They flatten hierarchies, honor individual contributions, build empathy between participants, and generously offer new opportunities and choices for engagement. In order to mirror those philosophies on the presenting side, for example, what if empathy, building and supporting live dance performance, was our goal? How would we promote and display performances differently? If we were to act intentionally with similar priorities, would we make different choices? By focusing on and researching artists who consciously and intuitively create systems and strategies to engage their audiences, what are our responsibilities and opportunities to do the same? Artists lead rigorous creative research established through choreographic choices. With that knowledge accessible, how can the conditions to present dance to publics mirror the artistic intentionality that goes into the development of a choreographic work? Could they be customized to match? Language’s expressivity can extend not only the invitation to watch but also the effect of experiencing the artwork. It is time to take advantage of the choices and opportunities a presentational platform gives all of us with these artists as our guides.

I challenge us to ask these questions and start from the art works, using the tools we have available in new ways. What if empathy was our goal? How could the meanings of the word spontaneity become principles in which we establish a live art experience that is equally empowering for an artist as well as an observer/participant?

I personally promise to embody my curatorial practice with these priorities and engage in conversation with my peers from this day forward. As I perceive abundance and opportunity, my approach changes. I engage my field as a whole being. I pledge to perform this shift in consciousness until it reveals new methods.


*Thanks to my classmates at ICPP (class of 2013).

˚Americans for the Arts’ Arts Index, a searchable website database which tracks arts participation by districts and calculates corresponding findings in order to anticipate the needs of the arts in every community across the nation released the 2012 report in which the data confirmed the trend that more people want to be personally engaged while experiencing the arts and increasingly consume arts via technology and value diversity. Audiences are still very much committed to the arts and cultural experiences however are avoiding traditional models of delivery. On the Arts Index blog, Stephanie Riven calls our field to collective action:

After reviewing the long list of downward trends provided by the Index, we as arts leaders need to create a new list that expands the core strategies [setting and communicating a vision, developing Collective Impact as a core strategy, and establishing a commitment to community],

to include:

the following:

–       Putting aside our own agendas and our individual needs to be the authority in the room.

–       Taking more steps toward visionary and innovative thinking at the national, state, and local level.

–       Acknowledging that “survival” is not enough.

–       Taking risks to avoid the status quo.

–       Making a commitment to continuous dialogue.

–       Seeking collaborative learning experiences geared towards new options and potential for our sector.

I wrote this proposal as part of my studies at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and invite any feedback you may have. Special thanks to my advisor Thomas Lax for his encouragement. I hope you enjoy reading!

Walker Art Center is a NPN Partner of the National Performance Network (NPN). Michèle Steinwald was supported by the NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative to attend ICPP. Major contributors of NPN include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  For more information:

Additional sources not linked directly to text above:

Bourriaud, Nicolas, Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland. “Relational Form.” Relational Aesthetics. France: Presses Du Réel, 2010. 11. Print.

Danchev, Alex, comp. 100 Artists’ Manifestos From the Futurists to the Stuckists.    London: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.

Edmunds, Becky. “Turn Your Fucking Head.” 2013: 1:01 minutes. Documentary film.

Evans, Moriah. “Tim Griffin at The Kitchen.” Movement Research Performance Journal   #41 Fall 2012: 5-7. Print.

Miller, Gill Wright. “Postmodernism, Body-mind Centering, and the Academy.”   Exploring Body-mind Centering: An Anthology of Experience and Method. Ed. Gill Wright Miller, Pat Ethridge, and Kate Tarlow Morgan. Berkeley, CA: North   Atlantic, 2011. 247-268. Print.

O’Connor, Tere. “The Hudson Movement.” Movement Research Performance Journal       #41. Fall 2012: 12-13. Print.

luciana achugar: Reclaiming Pleasure and Revealing Labor (Equality)

Uruguayan choreographer luciana achugar believes that dance has the power to do many things. She deliberately chooses to write her name without capital letters in a way to minimize hierarchy. Through her creations and the process of making each one, she deliberately instills philosophies in the dance’s structure and performance qualities to transmit her beliefs. […]

luciana achugar, "Franny and Zooey" Photo by Alex Escalante

luciana achugar, Franny and Zooey
Photo: Alex Escalante

Uruguayan choreographer luciana achugar believes that dance has the power to do many things. She deliberately chooses to write her name without capital letters in a way to minimize hierarchy. Through her creations and the process of making each one, she deliberately instills philosophies in the dance’s structure and performance qualities to transmit her beliefs. When witnessing her work live, one is drawn into a unique experience of sensing the motivations of the dancers within its contemporary theatrical framework. Her values, based in labor equity and post-colonial thinking, infuse the environment with a sense of togetherness and being in the moment that is conscious and inclusive of the audience and every one of the performers. Her works progress with ritualistic repetition and easily engage the audience, while, as the director, achugar possesses the determination to reclaim the uncivilized female body and derive her movement vocabulary from the pelvis, as the root of pleasure. (more…)

Disarming Nudity Warnings: Nudes in Review

When preparing to announce each new performing arts season, part of my job is to write about the upcoming shows and add warnings about adult content or any atmospheric irritations potential audience members might need to know about: violence, nudity, loudness, strobe lights, and fog. But it was the nudity warnings that required the most […]

Eiko & Koma, Naked, 2010 Photo: Cameron Wittig

Eiko & Koma, Naked, 2010 Photo: Cameron Wittig

When preparing to announce each new performing arts season, part of my job is to write about the upcoming shows and add warnings about adult content or any atmospheric irritations potential audience members might need to know about: violence, nudity, loudness, strobe lights, and fog. But it was the nudity warnings that required the most careful wording last season. It may have seemed simple but I have been trying to be transparent, writing cautionary notes as creatively suggestive, with their tone and intentions matching the ultimate exposure in the performances.

My insistence in avoiding the use of generic nudity labels started with the John Jasperse Company’s Walker-commissioned piece Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies in May of 2010, when I wanted the audience to see beyond the nakedness to the themes enumerated in the show’s title. The warning–

(Note: Performance contains nudity and sleight of hand tricks)

–also hints at a section of the performance when the choreographer does a magic act poorly, further emphasizing what the real actions are as opposed to the intended ones.

Later in 2010, Minneapolis-based interdisciplinary choreographic collective SuperGroup performed an innocent although cheeky (in more ways than one) dance work in that year’s Choreographers’ Evening curated by Susana di Palma. Since Choreographers’ Evening is a group show of short pieces, I didn’t want to reveal who was going to be naked and ruin the surprise, and yet I didn’t want audiences anticipating something in-your-face-naked and taint the other works which were so different. SuperGroup’s piece Spring Dance Unrated was inspired by pseudo-classical Isadora Duncan style movements, so the lightness of the choreography needed to be reflected in the spirit of the warning. The language used

(Note: Performance contains joyous nudity)

–was playful and unassuming–and “joyous” became the baseline office reference for all nudity for years after. I was encouraged by this level of attention to detail and the effect it can have on positioning expectations and dissolving any loaded references.


Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012

The ability to boldly underscore the obvious was fun in Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Untitled Feminist Show. The publicity photos never hid the fact that the performers would be naked the entire time so the warning was intentionally redundant–

(Note: performance contains [a lot of] nudity)

–in order to get to the point of what makes gender and where is humanity in the flesh.

The 2012-13 season opened in September with another Walker commission, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People’s And lose the name of action, named after the Shakespearean line in Hamlet. Last summer as we were putting out publicity materials in advance of the performances, the show was still in development and nudity was being explored but was far from confirmed. The research and themes of the piece evoked paranormal phenomena and neuroscience, so having a non-committal note–

(Warning: Some potential nudity)

–worked with the possibility that the nude parts could be cut out of the final production while also playing into the mind games of the superstitious and hallucinatory aspects of the choreography. I covered my bases by having the warning listed and still was able to stay true to the piece.


The BodyCartography Project, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman

October’s premiere of BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature had plenty of nudity but without any sexual references. The piece explored the theme of the uncivilized versus the socialized, so to add to the atmosphere I noted this–

(Warning: Some bodies appear in their natural state)

–as part of the National Geographic-ness of the work.

During Out There, Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun was a theatrical adventure and so having a charged message–

(Warning: Full frontal nudity)

–explaining the naked parts was encouraging, emphasizing the exhilarating ride the play was.

The final exposure of the season was more haphazard in Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, and Trajal Harrell’s two-hour hot mess of a show, (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (M). Also part of Out There, this performance was more of a series of overlapping solos and costume changes, part song-and-dance marathon within a character-based play. The waiting between numbers was as important as the numbers themselves. As such the language–

(Warning: Costume malfunctions. Expect nudity)

–highlighted the anticipation as much as the events.

I am considering adding this newly developed skill to my resume. The innuendos and reveals in each felt like mini works of art. If you have an idea of what to name this talent, let me know. Curator of expectations in adult content?

Rude Mechs and the Beginning

I received the primer below for this weekend’s Out There opener from Rude Mechs’ co-producing artistic director and The Method Gun writer Kirk Lynn: I heard this story once: A man asks a woman to marry him. The woman agrees. But there’s a condition. First the man must serenade the woman for a 1,000 nights. […]


I received the primer below for this weekend’s Out There opener from Rude Mechs’ co-producing artistic director and The Method Gun writer Kirk Lynn:

I heard this story once: A man asks a woman to marry him. The woman agrees. But there’s a condition. First the man must serenade the woman for a 1,000 nights. As the sun goes down every evening the man arrives and sings to the woman for 999 nights. But on the 1,000th night, the man does not show up and is never seen again.

As I understand it, a koan is a joke to which the punch line is enlightenment.

I’m not enlightened. I don’t know what the meaning of the story is. So I think about it all the time.

I wonder if it’s about dedication, a warning to artists not to give up singing. 999 nights of hard work is still failure if we don’t show up on the 1,000th night.

But maybe it’s a story about self-love and self-worth. The man proved he could complete the task if he wanted. Maybe the man expected the woman to recognize his dedication? Maybe the man took his singing to someone who would appreciate it and come running after just a song or two? How often am I singing to the wrong window?

Or maybe I’m wrong to focus on the man? Maybe I’m like the woman? Maybe enlightenment has been singing to me every night in all sorts of ways, begging me to come and be loved? How much longer am I going to refuse enlightenment, god, friendship, art, and all the other good things that surround me?

It’s also possible that something terrible happened. Maybe there is a simple explanation? The woman died. The man died. This great romantic task was not completed because of some commonplace event. The enemies of love can take any form they choose. We’re under attack constantly by sickness and bills and weariness and parking fees.

All of these thoughts about a story and no enlightenment to show for it.  Maybe it’s not a very good koan in the first place. How would I know?

The Method Gun begins at the moment this story ends. The actors in the company have been abandoned by their guru. They stand at the window and listen. They try to remember the things they heard. They try to perform the role of the guru for one another. They carry on without any enlightenment whatsoever. It’s the only story the Rude Mechs know. We learned it after hundreds of nights spent in one another’s company. To date, we keep showing up.

Feminist Movement: Deborah Hay, Artistic Survival, Aesthetic Freedom, and Feminist Organizational Principles

Deborah Hay has liberated contemporary dance on many levels, from her early days in New York to her international influence today. Not in the least from within the design of how she chooses to disseminate her choreography. In my opinion, her multiple inventions and innovations for transmitting her aesthetic through community building are in line […]

Deborah Hay has liberated contemporary dance on many levels, from her early days in New York to her international influence today. Not in the least from within the design of how she chooses to disseminate her choreography. In my opinion, her multiple inventions and innovations for transmitting her aesthetic through community building are in line with the women’s rights movement and the principles that guide a feminist organization. While “questioning authority” by dismantling the presenter-performer (or choreographer-dancer or teacher-student) relationship or restricting access only to women were never goals of her Solo Performance Commissioning Project, Hay designed a unique structure that worked for the most part independently of a mainstream system (depending on some of the participants’ funding sources) in keeping with feminist organizing. Hay provided an alternative not only in the content of her solo choreography but also in the transmission of it. As a result, she has influenced generations of dancers and infiltrated several dance communities globally through coalition building at a grassroots level.

I first met Deborah Hay in 1994 as a student of the European Dance Development Center in Arnhem, Netherlands. Her teaching deeply inspired me at that time (you never forget the first time you dance her instruction “invite being seen”) and her influence has since transformed my career path as a dance activist. In preparation for this writing, I interviewed Hay during the Tanz im August festival in Berlin, Germany where she performed her 2010 solo No Time to Fly. While I have never participated in a Solo Performing Commissioning Project personally, I have supported many of Hay’s productions and followed her achievements closely since 2002. My involvement with Hay led me to draw on my observations over the years to compile this research paper.

Hay redefined the hierarchical structure of a typical dance workshop, a master class, and the remounting of repertory choreography in order to empower a new generation of solo dancer/choreographers and further her own research. Hay did this by creating the Solo Performance Commissioning Project (SPCP). Established in 1998 and running for fourteen years, the yearly SPCP was an eleven-day intensive choreographic residency where Hay taught and coached the participating performers of any gender in the practice and execution of her most recent solo work. A unique quality of the SPCP, is that the participants are self selected and must raise the substantial commissioning fee and residency expenses entirely through donations and grants from within their community. Participants may not use their own funds in order to be accepted.

In the performing arts field, the commissioning process can mean differing levels of investment and artistic ownership depending on a production’s financial arrangement with the producer, creative leader or artistic team. In the design of the SPCP, commissioning entails an artist purchasing the rights to perform a solo work according to Hay’s contract, more on that later, in perpetuity. The fee to commission Hay’s last solo within the SPCP program was roughly $1,750 (1,100 GBP) which included housing and one meal per day. Additional meals and transportation were separate.

From a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s in New York City’s modern dance scene, to touring as a dancer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Deborah Hay has always pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance. In a move unparalleled in the New York centric world of modern dance, she moved to Vermont to establish a commune called Mad Brook with fellow dance makers in 1970. She had symbolically burned her belongings, literally ridding herself of everything she owned, in order to simplify her life and get back to basics. All she had left was her body and her community.

In order to contribute to the cost of living at Mad Brook, Hay raised $187/year, her share, for the land trust. This was when and where her solo dance practice and current choreographic research began. She gave herself the task of dancing every day in her studio. Hay recalls, “My practice for those years was to listen for the dance, perform it, and surrender it simultaneously for one hour everyday. I wanted to include some form of movement practice in my life although I was quite certain that I had, at the same time, made a decision to live off the land in community with others at Mad Brook despite the fact that this was never agreed upon as a goal. After six and a half years, without it being my intention, I could identify a sensation of faith based on the fact that a dance was there, for me, everyday, without my having to look for it”. Hay continued to pursue a professional touring career and sent over 7,000 letters to presenters with very few resulting in invitations.

In order to raise her portion of the lodging and supplies, she began to work in different communities offering workshops in the form of performances with no audience only participants. Hay’s Circle Dances applied the findings she was experiencing in the studio in solitude to a group process. Hay describes the instigation of the Circle Dances as “how do I get twenty people I never met before to dance together for one hour without teaching anything? This research was when I started noticing the whole body as the teacher, noticing the people around you, which are the initial seeds of my work today.” In 1976, Hay moved to Austin, Texas. She left the communal life due to disenchantment. “I was looking for a collaborative community,” she says “Mad Brook was and still is anarchistic.”

Throughout Hay’s career, she sought an environment that would value group process and artistic freedom. Hay left Vermont during the period of second-wave feminism in the United States. In Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin’s book Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women’s Movement, they write, “The women’s liberation groups that grew out of the student left and new women’s rights organizations such as the National Organization for Women gradually defined themselves as part of a single larger movement that they came to call feminism. The term feminism thus was expanded and rejuvenated, to cover a multitude of movements… Some of the activists involved claimed to have invented a unique type of organization, a feminist organization, which they defined as embracing collectivist decision-making, member empowerment, and political agenda of ending women’s oppression.” When talking with Deborah Hay about the strategies and structure that went into the design of the SPCP, she mentions survival often. Ferree and Yancey identify that “Feminist organizations question authority, produce new elites, call into question dominant societal values, claim resources on behalf of women, and provide space and resources for feminists to live out altered visions of their lives.” By changing the words ‘women’ and ‘feminists’ to ‘artists’ or ‘dancers’, the parallels in oppression between popular culture and the arts, especially dance, in which the power presides within the male-dominant capitalist society of art market and production commodification, in contrast with the alternative that Hay and the SPCP have offered the field of experimental dance. Although, Hay’s work has never limited the access to male dancer/choreographers, her sensibility is truly liberating and raises the awareness of possibilities and choices through a feminist consciousness within the context of her dance explorations.

When asked ‘what is dance?’ Hay answers, “Dance is how you choose to see movement. In every conceivable way, it keeps me interested in being on this planet. It is how I feel politically active, not on the street waving signs, but in the studio. This is a way to survive. If I thought about it financially, I wouldn’t have done it. I had to mastermind my survival. There wasn’t an alternative. People say: You are such an example, not compromising, only on your own terms. I think it is really deep, what makes an artist an artist. It is not like I had a choice. It is like having a rope around my neck. I envy people with a lot of interests.”

After settling in Austin and building some infrastructure as the Deborah Hay Dance Company, a board of directors and advisors, non-profit status, and small but loyal gathering of interested dancers and non-dancers who would gather for three months to workshop and perform her group choreography, Hay was ready for a new challenge and to start a new chapter in her research. She asked herself “what do I make that will attract dancers” and she thought of the next generation of choreographers and anticipated their potential angst when making a dance.  “What if I gave them a dance and the excitement of practicing in the studio?” SPCP was born. At first however, she bounced the idea off some dancers from within the demographic she hoped to serve and got a weak response, but she felt that it would have been an opportunity that she would have jumped on if offered at the beginning of her career. “This was not for dance students but for practicing artists to commission the piece not take a workshop,” Hay justifies. In stipulating that each participating artist must fundraise for their access to the intensive from their community, whatever community means to them, each artist really has to articulate where they are in order to raise the money. Typically the American artists accumulate between 50 to 400 patrons, each contributing $5 or more sometimes through bake sales and yard sales in order to raise the necessary amount above any foundation grants, where as the European artists rarely need more than one or two government cultural council grants to cover their expenses. Upon starting the commissioning process, either on the second night or occasionally the first if energy permits, the participants share their stories of how they got to SPCP. Hay remembers, “the Americans are envious of the Europeans, however the Europeans are jealous of the Americans’ excitement of their ability to raise the money.” When Hay bounced the early notion of SPCP off some young dancers, it seemed inconceivable to those individuals their capacity to raise any money but she has noticed that the sentiment has changed and dancers find confidence in achieving this financial goal through voicing their needs and reaching out to their community. In Susan Stall  and Randy Stoecker’s article COMMUNITY ORGANIZING OR ORGANIZING COMMUNITY?: Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment, we learn that “the women-centered model begins with organizing community–building expanded private sphere relationships and empowering individuals through those relationships.” To bring the funding process full circle, Hay insists that the donor “community, whether family, friends, local, state, or national granting agencies, corporations, become the patrons for each dance. All patrons receive program acknowledgment every time the solo is performed by any of the participating dancers.” The funding credits in any of the future program notes can fill several pages, listing the donors in order of country, with the section for the USA always being the longest. This “empowers artists to ask for what they want, what will benefit them, their community, it can be a big shift, asking for what they feel they deserve. That was the type of person I wanted to work with, someone who would step up, step up to their choice” remarks Hay.

The starting point to all Hay’s choreography is a question. An example coming from her solo No Time to Fly (2010) is: “What if the question ‘what if where I am is what I need?’ is not about what I need but an opportunity to remember the question ‘what if where I am is what I need?’” During the SPCP intensive, Hay would introduce the choreography with the new group of dancers on the first day in the studio by reading the written score out loud. The dancers wouldn’t understand the question or the directions they had just been handed. However, that first day Hay would teach the entire dance and they would start immediately practicing the performance of the choreography. Each day began at 9 am and ended at 6 pm with a two-hour lunch break in the middle. The dance studio would always remain open in the evenings and impromptu gatherings, discussions, and/or presentations of previous works would often occur. The communal living aspect of the intensive would lend itself to artist directed collective decision-making about the nights and what interests and needs arose from the group. Starting around the fourth day in the studio, each dancer would eventually receive individualized coaching by Hay, at least two times as a solo throughout the process, witnessed by the others. Hay intentionally would mix up the arrangements of groups, solos, more groups, in effect that no one performer would sit for too long. On day six, the score would be reread out loud and the dancers would start to find access on how to take hold of the generous choreographic directions. On the last day, Hay notes when reading the score for the third time as a group, “they can see how the language informs the work.” During the intensive, there is time built into the schedule to discuss the dancers’ questions and develop language to express their experiences of discovering the possibilities in the score. The observing dancers do not however provide personal feedback to one another as everyone is learning from Hay’s coaching and the specificity of her language and feedback in association with the written score.  Hay makes the distinction that “the feedback is about how they are performing and not what they are doing.”  By creating a learning environment with open and inclusive access to knowledge and experiences, Hay’s principles are aligned with “co-mentoring [which] is rooted in a feminist tradition that fosters an equal balance of power between participants” as described in the article Feminist co-mentoring: a model for academic professional development by Gail M. McGuire and Jo Reger. Hay’s artistic practice is about perception and the observer is as important in creating the context for the dance as the performer in this state of awareness. Hay elaborates, “when you are alone on stage with this intangible material or in the studio, you have to work fully to be supported by the space, you cannot rest, nothing can be taken for granted. As a group, you can see the tangible material, served by how you are seeing, so it feeds the process. There is an unspoken sense of gratitude for the collective work ethic. It is not about being nice, it is about getting what you can get, it is about survival.” Finally on that day, artists have the opportunity to perform their solos simultaneously in smaller groups. To complete the legality of the commissioning process, each dancer receives a contract that includes the rules for their eventual adaptation of the solo choreography and their responsibility to the choreography and the community for future public performances which can only occur after a minimum of three months of daily practice of the piece. Choreographer and feminist scholar, Ann Cooper Albright acknowledges in her book, Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance, “daily practice also structures a physical identity of its own making. Simultaneously registering, creating, and subverting cultural conventions, embodied experience is necessarily complex and messy.”

Having cultivated a deep solo performance practice from her early days in Vermont, Hay admits, “my challenge is to define what can the material I gather do to serve the curiosity and interest of the artists doing the dance? How do I trick these people to practice for at least three months minimum? How do I create a form that keeps opening with their interest?” Hay has written three books chronicling her dances and has published several articles about the questions she has developed to inform her performance and to ‘trick’ her into being curious and interested in choreography. She writes on her website that “What I mean by my choreography includes the transmission from me to the dancer, of the same set of questions I ask myself when I am performing a particular movement sequence that ministers shape to a dance. I will not talk about my movement choices here, except to say that as an aspect of my choreography they fall almost exclusively into three categories: 1) impossible to realize, 2) embarrassing to do, or, idiotic to contemplate, 3) maddeningly simple. These movement directions are not unlike my questions that are 1) unanswerable, 2) impossible to truly comprehend, and, at the same time, 3) poignantly immediate.” She has always remained open to possibilities and the individual performer’s choice in the moment as an endless resource for discovery. In the foreword to Rebecca Walker’s anthology To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, Gloria Steinem writes, “the greatest gift we can give one another is the power to make a choice. The power to choose is even more important than the choices we make.” Plus given the excitement of new frontiers, Laura Mulvey expresses in her foundational feminist theory critique of film about her goal of destroying beauty through its analysis, “the alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with… expectations in order to conceive a new language…”

Each SPCP participant commissions the solo by Deborah Hay but is empowered to create their own solo adaptation, and own the resulting piece. One such participant, dancer/choreographer Ros Warby of Australia, notes, “Through her courageous choreographic and performance practice, remarkable language and immediate presence, Deborah has touched and stimulated the most essential places in my artistic expression, encouraging the integration of every aspect of my performing self with my dance.” Another affirmation from SPCP participant Kathryn Johnson, “Deborah has taught me to notice the physical presence of my favorite things about being a human being, and that they themselves, not representations of them, can be the material for choreography because I am an agent for their physicality. To me, this really is an invention that I have never seen or felt before.” These adaptations will be part of Hay’s artistic legacy, which have reached communities internationally through the SPCP participants and have continued to be a lesson of how to let go of the outcome. What is adaptation? Hay writes, “I keep amending the meaning of adaptation over the years. After seeing four earnest adaptations in a program, I changed the language to make sure that their artistic and aesthetic choices needed to be present. There have been other experiences of seeing adaptations where I don’t see my choreography when ego and adrenaline are present in the work. Or when following instructions so closely the dancer is not situated in their experience of the dance, still obeying the teacher’s instructions.” The evolution of the SPCP, aims to relieve the performer of the burden of creating a unique solo choreography while providing each individual the tools to fully embody their performance and express their choices in the moment. A successful adaptation depends on what Hay describes as “the unforeseeable and imponderable factors that make up the performer’s virtues of fidelity, sympathy, and streaming perceptual challenges” of her choreographic instructions. As the article COMMUNITY ORGANIZING OR ORGANIZING COMMUNITY? confirms, “The goal of a women-centered organizing process is “empowerment”–a developmental process that includes building skills through repetitive cycles of action and reflection that evoke new skills and understandings.”

The structure of the SPCP, similarly to feminist principles in community building which emphasize “the importance of cooperative, egalitarian relationships for learning and development” has grown into a network of grassroots presenting through artist-centric platforms around the world. From COMMUNITY ORGANIZING OR ORGANIZING COMMUNITY?, “Small groups create an atmosphere that affirms each participant’s contribution, provides the time for individuals to share, and helps participants listen carefully to each other. Moreover, smaller group settings create and sustain the relationship building and sense of significance and solidarity so integral to community.” The participants have presented their solo adaptations in their local communities and invited others to travel and join their events. Economically, this has contributed to the sharing of choreographic principles by Deborah Hay without the draining process of her touring and funding the expensive endeavor. bell hooks contributes,“Whenever we chose performance as a site to build communities of resistance we must be able to shift paradigms and styles of performance…” Hay has engineered a vehicle of dissemination and execution that values process over product and encouraged performers to explore their role as dancer and choreographer through her work.  This is unusual for a choreographer to remount work and tour it in this way.  Generations have grown and Hay’s influence on the field has risen to garner the attention of leading internationally renowned choreographers such as William Forsythe and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, who now seek out her training for their dancers and her contributions to their artistic projects.

In evaluating the SPCP for its progressive philosophy, SPCP can be closely compared to feminist organizations which are describes as “centered around five main principles that we believed to be guiding forces in the implementation of feminist thinking to a community agenda. Inherent in… a community based on feminist ideology were the following: (1) greater availability and access of resources, (2) genuine value and respect for human diversity and self-determination, (3) caring and compassionate members, (4) increased value placed on personal connections and collaborations, and (5) political empowerment. These values are interconnected and interactive and therefore, it is important to focus on all of them as we pursue our ideal feminist community setting” in Dorcas Liriano’s article, Fostering feminist principles in our community: how do we get there?  The SPCP models values that parallel those in feminist organizing and community building, however with experimental dance makers. The hope is that they are to become fully engaged in a creative process that provides tools for generative and personal movement research based on Hay’s practice techniques and explicit language. The empowerment that is built into the funding support and the consciousness and responsibility that is taken to ensure that each participant has a community to return to and share the work and their achievements with, are thoughtfully calculated. Hay’s wisdom and skill for creating a network of supporters who have surrounded her many research platforms, informs the generous experience inherent in the SPCP environment. Hay is able to counter the mainstream systems of dance training and choreographic transmission and create deep access to her process while, in my opinion, honoring the second-wave feminist motto of “the personal is political.”  So Hay doesn’t need to wave signs in the street to affect change for the next generation of dance innovators around the world.

I wrote this research essay as part of my studies at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and invite any feedback you may have. Thanks!

Walker Art Center is a NPN Partner of the National Performance Network (NPN). Michèle Steinwald was supported by the NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative to attend ICPP. Major contributors of NPN include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  For more information:

Sourcing Dance Through the Body: BodyCartography Project’s Creative Process

Cutting-edge dance artists “tend to explore anything that transports them closer to the inside, closer to an understanding of how and why they work the way they do,” writes Gill Wright Miller, editor of Exploring Body-Mind Centering: An Anthology of Experience and Method. Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, BodyCartography Project’s co-directors/choreographers, are two such artists. […]

Cutting-edge dance artists “tend to explore anything that transports them closer to the inside, closer to an understanding of how and why they work the way they do,” writes Gill Wright Miller, editor of Exploring Body-Mind Centering: An Anthology of Experience and Method. Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, BodyCartography Project’s co-directors/choreographers, are two such artists. Their approach to creating dances is a layering of influences that is rooted in somatic techniques and philosophies. With attention to the micro (the body) and the macro (the community), the somatic values that BodyCartography Project employ in performance access a deep recognition of the power of the individual, on stage and in society, to make a difference and bond with an audience by invoking the viewers’ somatic response to their choreography. When dancers are grounded within thorough mind-body process, every aspect of the individual changes physically, aesthetically, socially, spiritually, and even physiologically, and these shifts are felt in performance.

Bieringa founded BodyCartography Project in 1997 in San Francisco and offered free weekly in-studio laboratories to explore improvisational practices for performance. Two years later, Ramstad joined the company as co-director. Together they have developed improvisational and set dance scores for outdoor happenings, dance films, site-specific performance installations, and stage presentations. I interviewed them together to discuss their creative approach at a highly productive time when BodyCartography Project was preparing for the world premiere of their group piece Super Nature, opening October 25, 2012, at the Walker Art Center.

While the BodyCartography duo and I are now part of the Twin Cities dance community, Bieringa and I once studied together as dancer/choreographers at the European Dance Development Center (EDDC) in Arnhem, Netherlands, in the early 1990s. Bieringa starts, “Post-modern dance training was a gateway to get into all these other source points or beginning points for me. The frame of dance is the creative field. How do we integrate it, play with it? How does it become our own? How do we use that? I am interested in an open field and getting into the idiosyncrasies of other peoples bodies and what is happening in their bodies in relationship.”

She continues, “Many techniques have come into our practice but it is hard to be really clear about what all the pieces are because they have become so integrated into my practice since Arnhem. Numerous somatic influences brought by the post-modern choreographers teaching at EDDC have become an interweaving of practices. Body-Mind Centering is now the main [investigation] in our process because it is so clear for accessing materials of the body, so straight forward, not simple but straight forward and easier to define than other forms. I had previously studied the body through many other forms like tai chi, shiatsu, traditional Chinese medicine, contact improvisation which was inspired by aikido, release technique, other postmodern dance traditions, and in addition, Otto has also studied capoeira which creates a certain type of mind-body integration, and all those pieces start to layer as approaches that we can easily categorize as not generating a certain style of moving but generate a certain way of focusing as a way of generating movement.”

The field of somatic inquiry emerged in the early twentieth century and has been applied to dance for some five decades. As Martha Eddy, Director of Somatic Studies at the Moving On Center and Director of the Center for Kinesthetic Education, explains in her seminal article, “When the dancing body is approached from a holistic perspective, which involves experiential inquiry inclusive of physical awareness, cognitive reflection, and insights from feelings, the dancing is somatic.” Somatics–from the Greek sōmatikos concerning the body, from the root sōma meaning body–is a loose grouping of body-based exercise or repatterning techniques, primarily therapeutic, that were initially developed through research and inquiry beginning just before the turn of the century and heavily evolved into the early twentieth century. The term was only later assigned to this trend of consciousness-raising body training techniques in the1970s by the philosopher and somatic practitioner Thomas Hanna.

“According to Hanna, somatics is the study of the soma, not as an objective ‘body,’ but an embodied process of internal awareness and communication,” clarifies University of North Carolina at Greensboro dance professor and Somatics scholar Jill Green in her research. “Process is an inherent concept in this field. In this sense, somatics focuses on an inner experiential body, not on a body as an objective entity or mechanical instrument. Further, some somatic theorists and educators move into a more macro sociopolitical sphere and address how our bodies and somatic experiences are inscribed by the culture in which we live.”

Both Bieringa and Ramstad are certified Body-Mind Centering (BMC) teachers. It is common for North American contemporary dancers to pursue a healing practice for insight into their own longevity as a performer in the dance field and as an additional source of income. Bieringa was introduced to BMC during her time at EDDC studying with Lisa Nelson; Ramstad began experimenting with dance improvisation and BMC at the age of six through the teaching of Suzanne River. The founder of BMC, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen was an occupational therapist, Certified Laban Movement Analyst, and dancer who developed the system in 1973 for accessing cellular consciousness through actions.

“It is empirical science,” Ramstad emphasizes. “It is based on many different people’s experiences, comparing and contrasting them over time. BMC has [methods] for identifying [patterns] and two big categories of how you approach the experience are by looking at anatomy books and then exploring [concepts] in order to have a new experience–one of the closest ways I have to experiencing new movement because you might be doing the same shapes, pathway or pattern of movement but getting at it through a new access point so it feels like a new movement–or identifying sensations that are familiar and then naming it. It is interesting for performance to privilege the dancer’s experience over the external bodily form. BMC takes such a long time to deeply get into the approach to gain the confidence of what you are experiencing; [it] can be from the cell membrane, for example. It seems impossible, like magic, before you have had enough experience with it to trust [the senses].”

In terms of building movement vocabulary in their new work, they rely on skills from BMC training to quickly provoke deep body awareness and original movement creation even if the dancers are not authentically performing BMC. Ramstad continues, “So with dancers in the piece, it would take a long time to build up the palette of experiences that you need to do certain things, you don’t have enough time. BMC is part of the process of making the piece which becomes more like set choreography. We are not asking people to perform BMC. If you are going to get on stage, there are so many factors happening that it would be very difficult to have a real detailed somatic experience–being able to deal with performing and remembering and being present for the others in the right timing–because there are so many other energetic elements to keep track of. If there was a reason then you could do it, but it would be a challenging thing to do. You would need to be fluidly moving through all those different ways of using your attention because there are so many factors in performance.”

With the artistic innovations of François Delsarte (1811–1871), Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865–1950), Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), and Mary Wigman (1886–1973), the turn of the 20th century was a pivotal moment of artistic inventions. The application of somatic techniques to movement creation and performance was highly influenced by these individuals. Eddy confirms, “They shaped the culture in which the primary somatic pioneers were working. As dancers they were breaking rules; as people they were reintroducing non-Cartesian models.” Dancers became critical contributors to the second wave of somatics as practitioners and by creating over eleven of today’s most predominant somatic movement approaches from their work in dance. These techniques include Bartenieff Fundamentals, Body-Mind Centering, Continuum, EastWest Somatics, Ideokinesis, Anna Halprin’s contributions at the Tamalpa Institute, Kinetic Awareness, Patricia Bardi’s program in voice and dance integration, Skinner Releasing, Somatic Coaching, and the Topf Technique. By 1977, the American Dance Festival had moved to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and integrating somatics into training workshops in their summer programs. This further integrated the natural evolution and relationship between professional dance pedagogy and somatics awareness. The benefits were clear as dancers were able to move more fluidly, efficiently, and expressively.

The field of Contemporary Dance increasingly demands more complex understanding and execution of performance and creation techniques. From BodyCartography Project’s perspective, even if the starting point for their movement scores are not purely BMC, they use BMC as a directorial device to bring out certain aspects in a performer, to amplify qualities, to identify what elements are missing, and to layer sensations (i.e. more ‘bones’ in order to create more extreme shapes). The BMC language becomes a tool that is useful for their choreography. Words like tensegrity (balance between tension and compression), turgidity (bloated), yielding (give under pressure), terms that are common in BMC work, are useful indicators for movement qualities explored in the studio. However, they often need to be explained to find a shared meaning. Bieringa elaborates, “Even with the word bones, you are recreating how people think about their bones because people think about their bones as dry brittle things, but actually they are living tissue full of blood and they bend and they are full of nerves and fluids, and so you are creating a new value system around each word you are using. It is this play between language and sensation and the gaming that exists within that process of BMC–of either naming something that is familiar or having new experiences and then putting names to them or pretending that you get it until you actually get somewhere–are tools that are super useful as part of our creative process.” This tension and dialogue created through somatic work is “a creative interplay.”

The fundamental somatic value of non-judgmental observation is fruitful when defining and instigating the impossible, and encouraging the exploration within that state from a fake-it-until-you-make-it stage in the creative process. Choreographers can amass plenty of choreographic material to draw on, plus also foster an environment of generosity amongst their cast and collaborators. Dancers contributing to the creative process through somatic exploration of states of deep embodiment of concepts and choreographic directives, such as in BodyCartography Project’s approach, need to provide feedback. This feedback will build a shared vocabulary and establish language for layering choreographic intentions in order to fine tune the final performance scores. Dancers in this environment are essential collaborators in building the content for the performance:

Their ‘truth’ is linked to their experience and as such their voice is a construction of their reality. Their multiple meanings are constructed, rather than found, according to their values, context and interests. Socio-constructivism emphasizes the collective generation and transmission of meanings.—Research in Dance Education

By empowering the individuals within a communal experience and drawing wisdom through bodily experiences, we open our communication up to each other and create a system of empathy and connection that challenges authoritarian and dominant meaning systems. Other contemporary choreographers use somatics and specifically BMC to inform their process. RoseAnne Spradlin utilizes BMC to make the dancers’ experience more essential, stripping them of layers of excess, information in order to expose their core as individuals. Choreographer and BMC practitioner Darcy McGehee mines the most subtle and obvious aspects of movement communication to promote the social contract within a performance.

In an interview the day after the world premiere of his latest group piece, Miguel Gutierrez credited somatics and their philosophical outcomes in the creative environment that produced this project. Gutierrez, “Making And lose the name of action for me was about tapping into the specialness of that present moment with those people, and the very specific contingency of those bodies in that time and in that situation, which feels like a somatic value, tapping into presence. Invested in the process of creation is an internal excavation. It is about sensitizing yourself to what is happening, sensitizing the situation, creating a shared body with the practitioners in room. Somatics inform that with a relationship to listening, a relationship to the politics of a situation, trying not to establish hierarchies.”

Gutierrez is currently pursuing certification to become a Feldenkrais practitioner. He acknowledges the values that were instilled in his creative process are being reconfirmed. Important to Gutierrez are Feldenkrais principles about not making assumptions about the situation, supporting what is already happening, supporting what is already present. He holds these same notions as strong directorial values while balancing a perception that is both based in specificity and globality. “Somatic values that come from somatic practices, like go micro and macro, have a holistic consciousness of what is happening in the piece. You need to be in a state of receptivity and physical preparedness for that.”

The somatics applications accessible to dance artists have elevated the expressive potential of dancers to new levels of potential as highly conscious individuals. The field of somatics has branched off into three categories of inquiry and application: somatic psychology, somatic bodywork, and somatic movement. At the core of somatic movement is ‘listening to the body’ and creating new pathways for movement experience by raising awareness of habits and exploring alternatives. Repatterning movement choices is extremely useful to expand the palette of options for a choreographer’s research and expanding a dancer’s range. The outcomes as internalized observations are innately beneficial to each person’s daily life as well as performance career. For Bieringa, “Everything is possible. It is possible to repattern your behavior. Bodies open up to that paradigm shifting, to bring in more fluid transitions, and create more ease. On a level beyond bodywork or dance making, it is a super useful tool for life and how can we apply that on bigger and bigger levels. How do we make use of that?”

Although Gutierrez romanticizes about the tyranny of a traditional theater director, he supports a caring environment to situate his dance process but wishes there were more examples of the “somatically kind” director. “As a director, my role is to share, not withhold. I found that it was such a weird gift to have these people willing to listen to me. I gave no homework so instead we researched everything together during our creative residencies. But I have to ask myself: What are you as a director or as a person in a piece? If nothing else, you are this energetic instigator. Why does a person need a director? What is different about a person taking charge of something versus things just happening?”

In Berlin, a collective with choreographers Isabelle Schad, Alice Chauchat, Frédéric de Carlo, Frédéric Gies and Odile Seitz, trained as Body-Mind Centering practitioners and presenting work under the name Practicable, are pushing that aspect of BMC and performance by letting more of the choreography just happen. The aesthetics of their works contain minimal design elements and the performers may or may not be trained dancers. The internal landscape of the individuals in the cast become one whole as an external expression of the states they embody. BodyCartography Project’s use of BMC instructions and Gutierrez’s use of Feldenkrais principles are highly crafted theatrical events that embody values and creativity by deepening the physicality and dialogue of the contributing cast.

Gutierrez continues, “Their mode, what energy the performers can bring into the room, what they can actualize in the room between people, I am intrigued by that as a director and as a person. How can I disseminate a value that can be shared between people, to be experienced with each other?” Somatic values create community and teach us to be in community within the cast, within the performance, within the space, within the audience, and back to the cast. The feedback loop, based in a movement language and choreographic logic developed through somatic research, is palpable to all experiencing the work. Gutierrez says, “I think it is love. It has to be. I mean there has to be this sense of desire to want to participate to birth this thing together and to understand the time you are spending in a performance together. I can’t think of a word that is more appropriate. That is a big part of it. That is why what we do is so fucking weird.”

The truths that are housed in our bodies reveal unique and universal sensations to be shared in performance under the sensitive direction of somatic practitioners. While BMC has been a strong influence on their process of mining their dancers for material and shaping their choreographic scores to create fully formed states of expression, Bieringa adds a few other guiding principles passed along from her studies at EDDC, “An influence that I carry from Deborah Hay’s work is that moment of just ‘do the impossible.’ When you have this set of instructions that you don’t really know what it is and you just try to embody it, this list of words. There is something about that that I really love and have carried into my own work. And then Eva Karczag’s practice–coming out of the Alexander work but which is actually really BMC that she is doing in combination with Ideokinesis–that unknowing hands-on practice and the magic of the space that she would create in a classroom. It is really important to me in my generating and making dance practice to go there myself and be able to bring others to that space, the invitation and generosity to find their full engagement. Otto and I are not telling people what to do but bring ideas of things to try together. Those are key pieces that are still there.”

Somatics, as a loose collection of consciousness-building, body-based sensations with a goal towards a generous state of well being and bodily comfort even when pushed to the physical limits as a dancer in performance, can manifest into a residual behavior of self-betterment and community engagement. From Research in Dance Education,“Our heightened awareness has the potential to change the way we see the world around us and to render us more capable to act intentionally and effectively in it.” This next wave of somatically-inspired dance artists have the potential of great artistic expression and civic contribution. It is possible for the performances by BodyCartography Project for example to affect a deep transformation in the audience simply by their witnessing the actions on stage. Everyone can experience the pleasures of dance when viewers are somatically in tune with the values of these choreographers. By privileging the body-mind connection, dance literacy comes naturally and audiences with open hearts and mind have full access to the content and context of work performed. Although when a performance is produced and sourced from an internal experience, somatic-based choreography can seem less obvious to the average dance goer. However, since this work has been drawn from a shared process and displays both universal and personal bodily experiences, everyone is able to understand, simply by being present.

I wrote this research essay as part of my studies at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and invite any feedback you may have. Thanks!

Walker Art Center is a NPN Partner of the National Performance Network (NPN). Michèle Steinwald was supported by the NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative to attend ICPP. Major contributors of NPN include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  For more information:

Twin Cities Dance

  Fall is upon us with the Walker’s dance season beginning next week. In addition to the upcoming world premieres and special engagements as part of our offerings, we are celebrating two big anniversaries with our local dance platforms, Choreographers’ Evening  and the Momentum: New Dance Works. It will be an amazing year to share […]


Fall is upon us with the Walker’s dance season beginning next week. In addition to the upcoming world premieres and special engagements as part of our offerings, we are celebrating two big anniversaries with our local dance platforms, Choreographers’ Evening  and the Momentum: New Dance Works. It will be an amazing year to share these experiences together and jump for joy!


The 40th anniversary of Choreographers’ Evening featuring: Judith Brin Ingber, Christ Up Dance Crew, Michael Engel, Emily King & Ryan Underbakke, Blake Nellis, Luke Olson-Elm, Rosy Simas, Joanne Spencer, Third Coast Collective, and Voice of Culture.

The 10th anniversary of Momentum: New Dance Works, in partnership with the Southern Theater, featuring: SuperGroup/Rachel Jendrzejewski and Leslie O’Neill on July 11-13, and Pramila Vasudevan/Aniccha Arts and Jennifer Arave on July 18-21, 2013.

Fifth annual Twin Cities National Dance Week photo includes (in no particular order): Chris Holman (Executive Coach), Allie Hankins (Choreographer), Taylor Fleege (Irish Dancer), Britt White (Irish Dancer), Jeffrey Berger (Dancer), Jessi Fett (Dance Educator/ Dancer), Sam Johnson (Choreographer), Otto Ramstad (Dance Artist), Penelope Freeh (Dancer/ Choreographer), Charles Campbell (Performer/ Choreographer), Lewis McKinnell (Performer), Monica Thomas (Choreographer/ Dancer), Theresa Madaus (Choreographer/ Dancer), Sarah LaRose Holland (Dancer & Accountant), Abi Sebaly (Unitard Minder), Michèle Steinwald (Curator), Corey Horbison (Production Manager – Cowles), Rae Eden Frank (Recycling Coordinator), Laurie Van Wieren (Dance Maker/Producer), Noah Keesecker (Composer), Laura Bohne (Education Associate),  “J-Sun” Jason Noer (Choreographer), Jeffrey Wells (Performance Maker), Erinn Liebhard (Jazz Dance Artist), Dana Kassel (Dance Administrator), Olive Bieringa (Choreographer), April Sellers (Choreographer), and Chris Schlichting (Choreographer).

Deborah Hay: Turn Your F’ing Head!

For the last few months and up until the new year, the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group, of which I am a member, is organizing a variety of visiting speakers and events each of which is designed as research into how interdisciplinary matters engage individual practices in a variety of ways. As a member of the […]

For the last few months and up until the new year, the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group, of which I am a member, is organizing a variety of visiting speakers and events each of which is designed as research into how interdisciplinary matters engage individual practices in a variety of ways. As a member of the IWG, I chose Deborah Hay to be our first speaker since she has had a profound influence on my life and has developed endless strategies to rely on the wealth of information our beings have to offer while “dislodging,” as she puts it, “old patterns.” Seemed like the right starting point to shake up our ways of operating and to open up the conversation. Deborah will be returning to the Walker in December as part of a mini-festival of her current work in relation to the 50th anniversary of Judson Dance Theater.

The IWG invited writer Susannah Schouweiler to sit in on our events, and write up her account of the proceedings. Here is her first dispatch, with many more to come:

The IWG is organizing eight meetings between now and December 2012; they invited me to attend in order that I might serve as a chronicler of sorts – I’m being allowed intimate access as a participant and witness to these private sessions, in order to provide an enduring account of whatever stories and the insights may emerge in the course of our conversations.

For our first conversation in early May, Walker performing arts assistant curator Michèle Steinwald selected our presenter: dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay, an artist renowned as much for her innovations in writing on dance and educational practice as she is for the raw inventiveness of her choreography.  A small group of us, just 11 in all, spent the day in informal conversation with her in the large conference room on the top floor of the Walker. It was a bit awkward at first – everyone knows one another, of course, and the vibe is collegial, but none of us know what to expect from these discussions. Deeply embedded though we are in a workplace driven by meetings, we’re, all of us, a bit off kilter by the lack of formal agenda or explicit objectives.

Hay and Steinwald begin informally – some introductions, a little small talk. Then Hay, a natural storyteller, begins. We ask questions, but mostly she talks for a while and we ease into her narrative with a little background; as the conversation sprawls into a second, then third hour, we begin to ask questions. She talks about her uniquely meditative style of practice and performance, and ultimately, her own idiosyncratic iteration and interpretation of “interdisciplinary” work.

Hay’s mother was a dancer; she says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t dancing as well. She grew up in Brooklyn and recalls seeing every Balanchine premiere from the mid-1940s through the ’50s, and going every year to Radio City Music Hall to watch the Rockettes perform with a live orchestra (“those were the only times we’d make that train trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan,” she laughs).

She tells us about a formative experience in her teenage years, sneaking into Merce Cunningham’s closed rehearsals at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut one summer. She describes hiding just out of sight, so she could watch their rehearsal sessions: “I flattened myself on the floor of the balcony so I could watch them practice – no music, just continuity/discontinuity and moments of synchronicity. I was there every night, completely mesmerized by what was going on onstage.”

By 19, she was attending classes in Cunningham’s top-floor studio on 14th Street and 6th Avenue in New York City. Cunningham, of course, is famed for his interdisciplinary partnerships with artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Hay says, “Dance and art was enmeshed for us; we were partying together, eating together, making work with and about each other. There were openings every weekend, all of us seeing each other’s work. It was a very interconnected community, and I loved it – I was so comfortable there.”

But, she says, that very comfort began to chafe and, in the late ’60s, Hay left her New York life for a fresh start as part of a commune in Northern Vermont. She says, “It was the spirit of the time to go off and do that. I was one of its more passionate victims. I burned everything – all the records of my life – to get back to the land, leave all else behind.”

And still, she danced. In a tiny studio in northern Vermont, “where no one really cared about dance,” she practiced alone, daily. She says she aimed to reconfigure her perception of the three-dimensional dumb meat of her form; she wanted to create dance with and from what she calls “the cellular body” – all 385 trillion cells alive and conscious, performing individually and in concert.

She describes her routine:

“I’d lock myself in a room for one hour; I was going to listen, perform, and surrender to the dance that emerged from my body, from every cell simultaneously, each and every moment, for one hour. The rules I gave myself also included not allowing practice with anything accumulated from the day before. Sometimes, I spent the time with my nose in the floor, in tears.

I did that every day for six or seven years. And in the course of that practice I learned to surrender – what it means to ‘dis-attach.’ Over time, I learned to trust that my body had an infinite source of material, a new dance for me every day, as long as I stopped looking for it, attaching to its end. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s what I discovered.”

OF COURSE, I’VE HEARD THE PHRASE “POETRY IN MOTION,” even used it on occasion, but until Deborah Hay, I’d never really witnessed a literal exemplar. And I don’t mean it in the flowery sense you usually hear that cliché – hers is a raw sort of poetry, visceral, instinctive, beautiful in its authenticity but far from pretty. To see Hay dance is to be ensnared by sheer force of will and utterly focused, unstinting attention – on her movement, her every limb and gesture, her evolving situation onstage and, in every moment, on you, as well, the viewer, in relation.

Read Hay’s scoring for a dance, any score, and it’s immediately clear she never offers mere stage direction or choreography in her writing about the work, although there is that. Rather, her dance annotations are animate meditations, musical wordplay peppered throughout with little images, elucidating notes and pregnant fragments of poetry. None of these are static things but suggestive and inviting of elaboration — like conversational prompts.

Her writing about dance grew from a practical need to find a language with which to articulate the inchoate experiences, the nonlinear feedback from her body in the studio, for her own and her dancers’ sakes. “I thought, I’d better put this into some linear form, to give dancers a frame for what they’re experiencing.” She goes on, “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my body – from the experience of the ‘cellular body,’ and then from the act of squeezing that experience into a linear form. The feeling, the experience comes first; then there’s the naming of it, calling it into being. … Writing about it creates a space for others – dancers and audience – also to talk about it.” She describes this transliteration of experience into words in terms of looting, or of alchemy – the act of turning one thing into another.

She describes her practice rooted in the ‘cellular body’ as “playing awake,” saying: “I have to trick myself into being in this body, into noticing time passing, so that I’m there, in that room, in the experience. I can’t grasp it all, and that’s precisely the point — and I love it — because it means I have all this work I can do, in the name of dance, in the name of research, in the name of caring. I trick myself.”

Her “tricks” take the form of “What if” questions. She explains, “What if questions are playful, they don’t feel too extreme; the stakes aren’t high, they’re not invasive, and there’s room for endless variability of response. But it gets the imagination moving, the questions give permission to experience things in a new way.”

Some examples:

What if where I am is where I need to be?

What if every cell in my body could notice the feeling of time passing — could experience its own mortality, the sense of hanging on, then loss?

What if I were to dance as if every cell in my body invites being seen?

“I’m not attached to an answer,” she says. “It’s only about the question, about staying in that question and therefore staying in the body, noticing feedback. I’m in the practice of posing impossible questions – I can’t get it. I’ll never get it. Simply asking the question dislodges old patterns, gives me room to enlarge myself into a new kind of experience.”

Hay recalls a moment of epiphany, seeing herself on video some years ago performing with her head rigidly facing one direction; seeing that, she had a flash of insight: “Turn your fucking head!” And in subsequent practice, she did: “It totally changes your experience of what you’re doing, what you’re noticing as you do it — simply in the act of turning your head. How differently my body feels when I turn my head, when I also get information from over here! Once you decide on a direction, it edits what you see, what you perceive.”

As our conversation draws to a close — after hours of listening and asking questions, of her and of each other, the implications of Hay’s insights for worlds well beyond dance begin to resolve into view: what’s the tension between instinctive creativity and run-of-the-mill institutional hierarchies? How might we free ourselves in the moment, to see our tasks and operate differently? What might be accomplished in the act of deconstructing fruitless mores and habits? How could we changes our modes of working to affect more agility, more harmony?

Steinwald observes: “The idea of the importance of one’s direction, of ‘turning your fucking head,’ it’s also relevant to this notion of ‘interdisciplinary’ as being the spaces between – between front and back … maybe on the diagonal?” Steinwald wonders aloud: “What are we editing out when we work according to habit,” inside the comfortable boundaries of our usual workplace interests and obligations? What might we see in the spaces between if we only turned to look?

Isn’t this precisely the promise of true interdisciplinary practice? That invention springs from working in the unfamiliar zones between the silos of specialty, and doing so in such a way that one is, quite deliberately, always off-kilter. Zen practitioners call that fertile discomfort the “beginner’s mind.” Travelers know it for the anxious exhilaration that comes from exploring utterly foreign territory without a map or knowledge of the language.  Actually, it seems fitting that genuine discomfort, what Hay calls a sensation of “catastrophic loss of former behavior,” is the necessary companion of such preternatural awareness and sensitivity.  Seeking out real experience in the moment and genuine insight, outside the twin constructs of habit and preconception – that’s inherently risky business.

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine,, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

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