In my Graduate Seminar course this semester, we developed “mock” proposals for our MFA projects. As you may know, these culminating projects take place in our third year of school, so starting our proposals in our first semester may seem a little bit early. The idea is that we’ll be prepared, through this practice round, to write our real proposals in the first semester of our second year.
Like many members of my class, my “mock” proposal is not “mock” at all. I set out to write something that would have connections to my research interests, and ended up developing a project I’m really excited about. It is fairly ambitious in terms of scope, timeline, and goals, and it is for this reason I’m thankful we started our proposals this year. Although the proposal will certainly require some refining and reimagining next fall, I see the version I developed this year as a great first draft.
My project, Quintessential, is a dance-theatre work I will create in collaboration with 5-6 people from Columbus who don’t label themselves as dancers prior to their participation in this project. Together we will make a 20-minute dance work, rehearsing in public spaces in Columbus to blur the line between process and performance, and performing the culminating work in a shared concert with other MFA projects, blurring the line between community-based art and contemporary dance. Through using “non-dancers” from Columbus, I hope to “trouble” (as we say around here) the labels of “dance” and “dancer” both for the participants and the viewers, and examine how the methods and role of community-based art have changed since it emerged as a movement in the 1970’s.
In working on drafts of this proposal, Candace Feck, who co-taught our course with Norah Zuniga-Shaw, asked me how this project differed from my past work with Liz Lerman and Dance Exchange. What is new for me about a project of this kind, beyond making it in a new city? As Candace is wont to do, she asked the tough question, and it is the one I’ve been mulling over. Much of what I did during my time with Dance Exchange was make art in communities, with people of varying ages, skill levels, and histories, and I loved that work. For me, the biggest difference between my previous work and Quintessential is in the goals of this project, which are less about using dance as a means to explore subject matter or address social justice aims, and more about the role of dance in daily life and American culture, and who has access to it.
In this vein, I’m really inspired by Headlong Dance Theater’s This Town is a Mystery. This Philadelphia-based company built performances with groups of people in different neighborhoods in Philly. The performance venue: the family or group’s house. The audience traveled around to different sites, to neighborhoods they may never have visited, to see these works. And, Headlong created a great guide for people who want to make dances in their own homes for their friends and family. If I could have a crush on a project, this would be the one.
Headlong’s project represents for me a kind of community-based art in which a political stance is embedded in the foundation of the work and the reasons for making it, rather than in the artistic content. This is how I think of Quintessential as well: my beliefs about dance, dancers, dance-making, and who has access to all of it are in the process, but I don’t plan to explore those questions directly through the content.
I’m pretty obsessed with this business of repurposing “dance” and “dancer” to refer to a wider range of people, and a wider range of experiences. I just think of everyone as a dancer. Probably, some people don’t want to call themselves by this name, and that is okay by me. But my desire is that the image that comes to mind when people think of “dancer” shifts, even a little bit, so that it becomes less extraordinary to see older people dancing, to see non-normative bodies dancing, to see trained dancers and people new to dance dancing together.
I think Headlong did a great job using a website to document this project, to highlight the participants, and to provide a platform for accessing process. I’m planning to document my project through a blog that will hold video documentation of the public rehearsals, and perhaps profiles of the participants. The website will also serve as a way to recruit people for the project, and let people know where public rehearsals are being held.