Winter Institute, Washington DC

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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