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I have been creating site-specific dances for over 30 years in such places as a sewage treatment plant, an Aerial Lift bridge, on skyscrapers, on cherry pickers at a Farmers Market, on a bombed-out Parliament Building in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on a clock tower on the Volga in Russia, on a Mediterranean beach in Israel with a Palestinian community, and on oyster harvesting boats on the Housatonic River. I’ve worked with community and trained dancers all over the globe, and have turned Bobcat loaders, fire trucks, Coast Guard and US Army Corps boats into dancers.
My form of art
My form of art is outdoor site-specific performance. These performances are created especially for a specific outdoor site. The costumes, the movement vocabulary, and the music are all designed for that one particular location. I find a local composer to create the music for the dance and a radio station to broadcast the music so that dancers and audience members alike, no matter how far apart, can hear the exact same beat at the exact same moment. Sound travels at 1100 feet per second; if there were to be a single source of music when the dancers are so far apart, being one whole second off from each other makes a big visual difference in unison movements. Another added benefit in the early days was that the audience became the sound system when they all brought their own portable radios. All my performances are free and open to the public.
I go to the site every day for 30 days, at different times of the day and different light, as well as in different weather. When I go to a foreign place, I try to be there for a minimum of three weeks. I never bring dancers with me. I bring one colleague at most, but I feel that it’s best to have dancers that are from that site, not brought with me.
The site is my boss. I ask myself, ‘‘What does the site want? Who comes to the site? What colors already exist at the site?’’If roller bladers come to the site, I ask them if they would like to be in the performance. When the rehearsals start, I ask the dancers to tune into the environment, and to let some movement phrases emerge from the site through their bodies. I work these into the final choreography.
Again and again, audience members and performers alike tell me that they never see the site again in the same way as a result of the performance.[Read an article “What is Site-Specific Choreography” by Camille Lefevre, Twin Cities dance critic. ]
How I got here
I am trained as a dance/movement therapist, and it was this training that first led me to site-specific choreography. Without question, Irmgard Bartenieff, of the Laban Institute, has had the most influence on my creations. During the 1970s, well before the concept of site-specific dance came into my mind, I studied Rudolf Laban’s concept of Space Harmony with her in New York. My knowledge of Space Harmony has deeply informed how I look at spaces and how people can move within those spaces.
It was with Bartenieff that I was introduced to the concept of movement choirs. I was stunned to learn that Laban himself had led movement choirs for thousands of people dancing together. I was further inspired by dancing in movement choirs created by Bartineff. I watched her create them, and her method influenced how I worked with people ever after.
In 1985, during my very first year at the University of Minnesota teaching DMT and LMA, I felt so proud to be sitting at the dance department faculty meeting. The head of the department asked, ‘‘Who will choreograph for the faculty recital in February?’’ Everyone slunk down in their chair, but I was eager and said I would. I asked twelve dancer friends of mine, and three weeks before the show, I was kicked off because my dancers seemed under-rehearsed. I went home devastated. Luckily, one of the visiting artists told me to just perform it when my dancers were ready. Another lucky thing was that one of my dancers was an architectural historian. She suggested performing it at the Landmark Center, in the interior courtyard. So, the next month, the spring equinox was on a Sunday and the show went on. Since the dance was only 11 min, we asked the audience to watch it once at eye-level, and then a second time from the fourth or fifth floor (Fig. 2). When I saw the video, taken from above, it really opened my eyes. I would never go back to the proscenium stage. For me, a truly mortifying event ended up changing my life.
A few months later, as I was walking over a bridge across the Mississippi River, I spied round concrete structures in the water, which I later learned were called “mooring cells,” used for large ships. I thought to myself, ‘‘Wouldn’t those make marvelous stages, one dancer on each?’’ After quite a bit of research, I found out that the United States Army Corps of Engineers owned those structures. When I telephoned, without thinking I asked if I could speak to someone with an open mind. The person on the other end said, ‘‘Oh you must mean Roger.’’ I invited Roger out to lunch, and told him of my vision of placing dancers in the river. He told me to send him two or three pages and he would ‘‘kick it upstairs.’’ It was nearly a year later when I answered the phone and some guy said, ‘‘They said yes.’’
‘‘Who is this?’’ I said.
‘‘It’s Roger, and the Colonel said yes!’’
Not only did they end up saying yes but also they ended up ferrying the dancers out to the mooring cells. There were nine dancers, one on each mooring cell. They wore costumes the shape of the mooring cells (Fig. 3).
This performance was the first annual Solstice River event. Between 1985 and 2016?, I choreographed eighteen?Such performances, always on the summer solstice and focusing on that spot on the Mississippi River.
At the time of this first Solstice River performance, I knew of no one else who had created such a performance. But soon thereafter I discovered I was not alone. In 1987, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis mounted a Bauhaus exhibit. I vividly remember standing in front of a 1920s photograph showing dancers atop the new Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany. Oskar Schlemmer, a choreographer associated with the Bauhaus, had created the dance. Oh, I thought, here is someone else who puts dancers up on buildings or architectural spaces. I stood in front of that photo for quite a while as feelings of relief and recognition washed over me, and tears came to my eyes. Having grown up in a Bauhaus-inspired house designed by the architect father, I felt especially connected to using dancers to highlight architectural spaces.
My idea of site-specific performance, however, encompassed more than just the architecture, as I realized from the responses to the 1985 Solstice River performance. The day after that first performance, a stranger called me and said, ‘‘I just wanted to tell you thanks for giving the river back to the people.’’ Another audience member said, ‘‘Didn’t you see the sense of community on that bridge? No one wanted to leave.’’
These reactions were surprising to me. In my mind, I was only creating beauty on the Mississippi River. I belatedly realized that my dance/movement therapy training had a significant impact on my choreography. As dance/movement therapists, we learn early on the basic intentions of connecting to self, connecting to others, and connecting to greater purpose. In community-based site work, connection expands beyond the individuals in each performance group to the site, the townspeople, and the environment.
There is power in performance. I think it is magic. These performances have the power to transform how people feel. In my career, I have repeatedly seen such transformations.
In 1992, I was invited to create a dance for the groundbreaking ceremony of the new art museum at the University of Minnesota. I choreographed a dance for eight bobcats and eight women in white skirts. The bobcat operators were chosen for their skills. They performed well at competitions where they have to pick up a raw egg in their bucket and race it over to a small circle. At our very first rehearsal at 6:00 a.m., they folded their arms and spat on the ground when I tried to teach them about the cannon form I wanted them to execute. They went back to their boss and said, ‘‘What the heck have you gotten us into? This is stupid!’’ Fast-forward ten days later, after the performance: they came up to me and told me that if I wanted to take this dance on tour, they were ready (Fig. 4). Another operator after the performance said, ‘‘This art stuff isn’t so bad.’’ I have found over and over again that the performers go through a change of heart during the rehearsal process.
The performers always have a powerful effect on the direction of the performance. Perhaps the most poignant example of my career occurred in Sarajevo. In 1996, I heeded an insistent inner voice telling me to go to that war-torn city and use my dance/movement therapy skills to bring the three religious groups together in a performance. My colleague and I arrived 2 months after the last shot was fired. As we were setting up the auditions, the community begged us not to ask for ‘‘Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Christian dancers.’’ They said, ‘‘Please don’t separate us into religious groups like that; we never did so before’’ (Fig. 12). Thus, we abandoned our original agenda and followed our bigger purpose of serving the community. I chose as a site the bombed out Parliament building. After the performance, an audience member came up and said, ‘‘Those dancers up on the roof looked like angels. This is the first time I really believed that peace will come.’’ (Fig. 13).
I call what I do community-inspired site-specific dance. At one time, I would come to the first rehearsal with the choreography all worked out. Now I work directly with the dancers and have a lot more faith in the process. This is not unlike my growth as a therapist. With the performance as a containing tool, we can address community needs, meeting the community where they are. In Sarajevo, I was told that other artists before me had come and said, ‘‘I’m here to help you,’’ but that I was different—I came and said, ‘‘I need your help.’’
The above account was based on Marylee’s 2015 Marian Chace Foundation Lecture: At One Time. Read the entire lecture.
Development of Movement Choirs, using Laban Concepts
Beginning in 1994, I began creating, leading and directing movement choirs, inspired by my Laban training. Movement Choirs might not involve a specific outdoor site, but wherever a movement choir happens, it always involves community building. These highly participative events engage the attendees and foster a deep sense of connection within the group and within the individual. [See Commission Me LINK page if you would like me to create a Movement Choir for your group.]
I have come to call these Laban-inspired movement choirs “Community-based Dance Performances” Such performances have a strange and wonderful way of creating rippling, healing effects on the community. Therapeutic aspects include such concepts as:
- shared purpose
- a reconnection to something larger
- seeing oneself in a new way
In the process of creating movement choirs, I am able to share with participants the Laban concepts of Space Harmony. I present this beautiful material in a way that is simple yet profound, making it accessible to all. Laban believed that every-body is a dancer. Some are high movers, some are middle movers, and some are low movers, but EVERYONE is a dancer. After being priviledged to study with Irmgard Bartenieff in New York City, I am honored to carry forward this direct lineage from Rudolf Laban.
My new work in Dance Film
In the past few years, I have begun to explore the possibilities inherent in….. recently added a new dance film website for her Confluence Mississippi project.