Making art as a sustainable practice

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate to be part of a group of artists from New York, DC, and Dance Exchange who spent time with Paloma McGregor as part of her Green Choreographer Research Residency at Dance Exchange. We danced, explored, made maps, discussed ideas about water and the personal and global issues that go along with it, took a field trip to meet a fantastic river-keeper named Fred, and ended the week with an informal showing and engagement as part of Dance Exchange’s HOME series.

I will be carrying many things forward from that week’s experience, but one thing in particular is an idea that came up in an informal conversation with Paloma and Dance Exchange artistic director Cassie Meador. In my experience, some of the juiciest ideas and conversations happen “between things” in those moments when there’s no pressure to say something profound, and ideas can be batted back and forth with ease.

After class and before lunch had really begun, we got talking about the sustainability of the dance making model that many of us find ourselves involved in. That model looks something like this: spend months and sometimes years in a studio making a piece of art, have a public performance where we show our work two or three times, take our work and apply to various festivals, workshops, and residencies with it in order to try to share it a few more times, put the piece to rest and start the process again. While the process of making work is enjoyable in and of itself, this model brings up a lot of questions about the sustainability of the dance-making practice that I hold so near and dear to my heart, and has made me hunger for a model that is more sustainable for me as a performer and choreographer.

During my conversation with Cassie and Paloma, I expressed that I feel the need to try to show the same work in a number of different places in order for my art-making to be able to continue and for me to not feel like the process so outweighs the product when it comes to time and resources. Paloma and Cassie both felt that actually the model I was describing is not a sustainable one, and I had to agree with them. The model that Paloma is currently using to create her piece How To Build A Better Fish Trap, is one that is very different then the model described above. Paloma has been making her piece for a few years now, slowly working on it while still working on other projects as well. She has had a number of residencies where she’s work shopped her ideas with different groups of dancers and then had public showings of parts of her work that also might involve engaging audiences in workshop and dialogue activities. Paloma will have a NY premiere of her work next spring. The model that she has used for her project has still been heavy on the process like the model described above, but she has injected the outcome or public showing part that usually comes at the end, into the process itself, so that the outcome becomes part of the process and all of the information gleaned from showing work to others gets folded back into the making of the work. In this way, although her “premiere” is still a year away, Paloma has already premiered her work many times with many people and in many different places. Additionally, she has been able to maintain her art-making process in a way that has taken the emphasis off of her big premiere and instead put the emphasis on all of the little premieres that happen along the way.

Sustainability is being able to meaningfully maintain an act or ecosystem at a certain level, so that it can continue for a long period of time. In this way, Paloma’s residency had me thinking not only about the sustainability of our water and ecosystems, but about the sustainability of my art making process. This is clearly a large issue with many contributing factors and points of view that I hope to be able to delve in to in more depth as I move forward. In the mean time, as I carry the memory of Paloma’s residency with me, I hope to find ways to make my process full of product, my dance making more sustainable, and along the way have as many tiny premieres as possible.

Reclaiming a map during the final closing circle of Paloma's residency. Photo by Matthew Cumbie.

About Jessie Laurita Spanglet

Jessie is in her third year of the MFA in dance program at the University of Maryland-College Park, and is an intern with Dance Exchange this spring.