What do we call it?

This post was originally published on Dance Exchange’s blog on June 19, 2013.  

In early May, Shula and I spent a week in Edmonton, Alberta. We facilitated workshops with three groups there, all at the forefront of community art-making in Edmonton. These groups we worked closely with–an intergenerational acting troupe and an integrated dance group–are in a position to question, make bold choices with their work, and not follow anyone’s lead. They are the leaders, and they are making the model for what this work looks like in their city.

This residency opened up a lot of questions for me around how we describe this kind of work. I find the words I use to describe what I do very challenging, particularly “community” and “community art-making”. I suppose they are apt descriptors in one sense because it is true that the art is happening out in the world, not just in the dance/theatre/arts world, and the participants, in theory, are of various ages and backgrounds and have a variety of relationships to the art in which they are participating. But I think what we’re really saying when we say “community” is that the people with whom we’re working don’t have training (or the same training as we do), and aren’t practicing artists or professional artists. In practice, though, any group of people is a “community”: university dance departments, students, groups of professionals, etc: each individual that makes up that group brings different skills and views to a process even if they do share similar artistic training.

So, to people unfamiliar with dance beyond the “So You Think You Can” variety, or for grant proposals, I say “community art-making”. To my colleagues, I say “dance-making”. Because no matter the population, the artistic process is a journey of finding a shared way of working to make art. We often use familiar structures and tools to start, and then we see what emerges because of the people present in the room.

I’ve been rolling this idea of labels around for a while now and what their value is in the arts, and in Edmonton, I started to really consider the words I use more closely in describing my work. Usually, I’d say that I was in Canada for a week teaching “community dance workshops” (aka workshops for people who don’t consider themselves dancers), and that is one way to describe what happened. But what I’d rather say is that Shula and I went to Edmonton and taught advanced composition classes for a week. And we can say that these are just words, but the labels matter: I find that when I say “community”, people hear “outreach”, and when I say “comp class”, they hear “art”.

Dance Exchange has developed an incredible array of tools that get people unfamiliar with dance moving and making movement very quickly, allowing them access points to their creative potential as artists. So Shula and I taught those tools, but early on in the week, we switched into big picture choreographic mode: how are we framing the space? How are entrances and exits happening? How do these two duets relate to each other? How can the group highlight the shared gestures in a duet? What does it say if someone exits the group early on in this dance? If this duet ends the piece, what does that leave the audience with?

These are not the questions that always come up in these settings. When I’m facilitating workshops of this nature, I am usually very concerned with participants feeling comfortable, feeling empowered, understanding the structure, and I don’t always get to the deeper questions. But in teaching choreography and compositional tools, the material generated by our participants got stronger, their editing eyes got sharper, and I think they were more quickly able to connect the work in the studio to the world outside. How quickly a question about the spatial relationship between two dancers becomes a bigger question about friendships, power structure, Canada’s political system vs. America’s.

So, I will still use the word “community” for its convenience and because it is at least a jumping-off point to talk about art. And I’ll still describe Geri Actors as an intergenerational acting troupe, but I’ll also say that they are a theatre company making devised work. The most exciting thing I saw in Edmonton was an excerpt of a play they wrote based on The Red Shoes. At a certain moment in the show, an actor from their company sitting in the audience jumps up to insist that the narrative around gender in The Red Shoes is perpetuating human trafficking and the oppression of girls and women all over the world. The actors onstage acknowledge what she says, but then go back to telling the old story. It was a brilliant moment of breaking up a familiar fable and forcing it up against modern questions, and a brief but pointed reminder that injustices are easy, and sometimes even pleasant, to swallow when they look like fairy tales.

And when I talk about iDance, I’ll call them an integrated dance group, but I’ll talk about their rigorous artistic process, and how their work challenges issues of accessibility in the Edmonton theatre community. When we were there, iDance was creating a work they would perform in the seats and aisles of a theatre since the stage itself was not accessible to their performers in wheelchairs.

All that to say: the words to describe the work are not perfect, and I often think they only exist for grant proposals and marketing. (Important stuff, don’t get me wrong: these things often provide us the resources to do the work). But the words also act as a hindrance to growth with all the labels, fractures, and factions getting in the way of the art itself. Because at the end of the day, what we’re all doing, with any group of people gathered together to make art is….make art.


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