Friday, October 28, 2016

Performance as Process in the Birthplace of Freedom

What if the performance wasn't (isn't) the final product?

A theatre director reflected to me - "dance is really different in that there are only two, maybe three shows, if you're lucky. In theatre, we have at least a two weekend run, and then, six shows is a minimum."

Is this because of cost? Funding? Availability? Process?

I've been lucky enough to work in both what I'll call Traditional Theatre and Concert Dance settings. (and lucky enough to work in Entertainment Settings). The difference? In my mind, Traditional Theatre and Concert Dance performances have limited runs whereas Entertainment Settings may have many, many performances - think a well-planned theme park, casino, or cruise line show. All of these venues have value.

As a performer, I learned so much from doing 4-8 shows a day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. I learned how to read and relate to an audience. I learned how to read and relate to my cast. I learned stamina - physically, emotionally, and performatively. I learned how to take care of my body, mind, and heart space in and out of the "job" setting. I learned the value of the performance "job" and the difference between dance/ art being a "job" and a "passion". I learned that creative expression can be a part of monotony and that monotony can be a part of creative challenges.

Fast forward over a decade and I'm still learning and sharing.

I've been lucky to have been put in the position of directing several university productions, linked to academic learning. Because I believe that performance is a vital part of the artistic and educational process of dance, I push my students to perform - not only to outwardly express themselves on stage, but also to use performance as a means of discovering more about themselves, their art, and the roles they play as educated, artistic-citizens. Logistically, what does this mean? In the past, when my academic classes have been tied to performance, it has meant that I challenge my dancers to practice performing in class and prepare at least two performances for the public. Many of my students may not become professional dancers, but performance skills are vital in our current workforce. My students will need to communicate; make presentations; talk about their journeys, trials, and successes; understand how to relate to their peers and managers; improvise in moments of uncertainty. Performance trains them for this.

And performance also provides information about the process (to students, professional dancers, and choreographers).

What do I learn about myself in performance (as a professional dancer)?
I learn about what has made me comfortable and subconsciously uncomfortable in the process.
I learn about my habits and interactions with people - how do I relate to/with my fellow performers and audience? With regular performance practice, I have the opportunity to change, challenge, and/or reinforce these practices.
I learn about my reaction to environments - how to I respond to a slippery stage, an unwelcoming audience, an empty house, an enthusiastic house, a faulty sound system, an inconsistency in lighting? I have an opportunity to reflect on and change my ability to react and improvise.
I learn about the work - what intuitively feels right? what feels challenging? Dance, for as many formulas as there are for technique and composition, is still an art. And it is the basic human instinct and intuition that deems it art (instead of sport, recreation, or drill). What do I learn from my intuitive need to communicate?

This learning process has been a great collision point between my own beliefs and the practices of KYL/D.

For the past seven years, I've been growing from and alongside KYL/D. Kun-Yang and Ken challenged me with developing InHale in the fall of 2008 and in January of 2009, we had our first Performance Series. This seven-year-process/series has been a journey of learning about the Philadelphia Dance Community and beyond; learning about the challenges of limited resources; learning about production and direction; learning about the Philadelphia Dance Audience; learning about community; learning about process; learning about performance; learning about direction; learning about learning...

In her reflection/ review of KYL/D's 30th InHale Performance Series, Hannah Joo wrote "What is special about InHale is that it provides an alternative to this notion that the artist's worth is defined by the product by highlighting the artist in process."

Something I've learned over the past severn years is that I and KYL/D are deeply invested in process. Of course, there comes a time when a product needs to be delivered, but InHale and KYL/D's most recent journey of Home/ S. 9th St. have demonstrated that process is an important part of the product. And educating audiences about the process within the frame of performance is equally important as part of the product.

This 30th InHale did feature more "works in process" than any in the past.

This 30th InHale did feature more "different modes of collaboration" than any in the past.

This 30th InHale did feature more variations of the female voice than any in the past.

This 30th InHale did feature a diversity of styles, themes, backgrounds, and modalities for presenting these female voices.

As curator and director, some of these features were subconscious, but the ultimate performance was very much intentional.

I've been affected and effected by the political climate. I've been aware of the challenges women and artists face, in October 2016. I'm aware of the many relationships between women and seemingly inanimate forces of nature and objects. And I'm aware of my intuition as a person, artist, and woman.

This 30th InHale was a reflection on me as much as it was a reflection of the Dance Community in Philadelphia, the artistic community beyond dance and Philly, and the issues of the country at large.

Earlier in October, I presented at the National Dance Education Organization's national conference with KYL/D's Rehearsal Director Lingyuan "Maggie" Zhao. We discussed the ways that KYL/D advocated for dance education through the various works-in-progress showings of "HOME/ S. 9th St." In the 18 months before it premiered at FringeArts, KYL/D previewed HOME at several in-process showings. These showings allowed me (as a performer) to learn more about the way the performance was being received and how my role as a performer was implicating what the audience viewed as Kun-Yang's creative voice on national issues. I believe that Kun-Yang Lin did, too, as Artistic Director, not only from his personal experience of the piece, but also in hearing about audience reactions from the piece. Those audience reactions came from people who were experiencing KYL/D for the first time (for example at the Philadelphia Art Museum showing at Art After 5) or people who were long-time fans of KYL/D (for example at private rehearsal showings). KYL/D utilized the performance practice to gain insight into how the final piece would unfold at FringeArts in November, 2015. But honestly, the piece continues to unfold in rehearsal as we prepare for future performances.

The art of Live Art is never dead. It continues to evolve.

And this is one of the reasons why I am so grateful for KYL/D's InHale.

As curator, I get to see the creative voices of artists evolve! I am witness to the process of performance and perceived final products; process; ideas; dreams. I cultivate possibilities and challenge limitations on artistic intent.

As an educator, I get to facilitate the space between dream and reality - for artists, participants, volunteers, and audience members. Creative challenges pose opportunities for me, the tech crew, artists, and audiences. But this is a lesson in real life. What impossibilities can we create with few resources? And for funders - if we can do this much with our limitations... imagine what we could do with a little bit (or a lot) of resources!

KYL/D's InHale has presented over 700 artists from the Western Hemisphere. Literally - from over 14 states and Mexico. KYL/D's InHale has made Philadelphia a hub for international dance exploration.

I'll leave that there....

But one more time.

KYL/D's InHale has made Philadelphia a hub for international dance exploration.

Dance is language that every population on Earth understands. In this political climate, why are we not investing more in a language that can bridge boundaries?


Last Friday, at KYL/D's 30th InHale, I previewed a new work:
"One foot yet in this wonder place,
One testing new ground that feels more like home."*
*from Michael Lancaster's "Heading Old" August, 2016

Here's part of the story:
After many months of correspondence and art sharing, a collaborative proposal emerged between Michael Lancaster, Ellen Rosenberg, and myself.

Michael is a retiree from the Army and a poet. Ellen, among her many stories, is a photographer.

Both of these individuals have been influential in my growth as a person and in reflecting on and learning about life.

My dancers, Katherine Kiefer Stark and Jennifer Yackel, granted me permission and time to explore some of the facets of my communication between Michael and Ellen. Another collaborator, Paul Fejko, allowed me space and time to throw ideas and movement at him and to absorb my process and return with a musical reflection of his own.

I spent days holed up with this information - from Michael, Katherine, Ellen, Jennifer, and Paul. I could spent more days holed up in my head, but the beauty and challenge wouldn't get anywhere, publically. KYL/D's InHale presented an opportunity for me to share and learn from the performance process.

As Joo mentioned, InHale provides an "organic state of the choreographic evolution."

Life and therefore dance, does not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, I need the performance process as part of the organic state of choreography. In undergrad and grad school, this was a part of learning. Why is it absent during the professional experience? Is it...?

And speaking of the professional experience...

In figuring out what The Embodiment Project was, I met with a small business team. We talked about the process of developing a "product", researching it, redeveloping it, and then launching it. As I described my creative process to them, they looked at me quizzically, "Why are you here? You've done all of your research and development already. You have a product."

"And that is why I'm here" I wanted to say. It's part of our creative process to try, reflect, redesign, and try again. That part is nothing new to creative development. As artists, we redesign and research everyday. We're constantly perfecting our product, no matter how many times it's been tested.

The hard part is the sell...

And that is why there is so much value in understanding process!

In my work, process is so intricately woven with education. KYL/D's InHale, my own research, my teaching practice, and KYL/D's journey of sharing HOME/S 9th St indicate the intrinsic value of performance as process, and process as a form of product.

In our NDEO presentation, Maggie and I discussed the diverse venues and populations in which/ to whom KYL/D shared HOME. What we discovered through the sharing of HOME was (at least in my own perspective) that our "audience" was much larger than we expected because we were willing to be vulnerable in the process. I, as a white female born in the US, had a unique position to say "I don't have the same experiences as you (immigrants/ minorities/ desperate populations). I have my own stories from my family's immigration and the World Wars. I also acknowledge my white privilege; but I experience challenges as a woman and as an artist. How can we work together? I have some ideas, but I'm limited. What are yours?"

Maybe it's not the ultimate solution, but perhaps it can be part of the larger conversation. Apparently, as Loo suggests, it already is.

So... thanks to everyone who's supported me, KYL/D and InHale over the past seven years. It's been a journey in learning about who we are as artists.

And, I think it's important that we're doing this work in Philadelphia during this time in history. InHale has found a pivotal place in the birthplace of freedom.


  1. Wow: thoughtful and thoughtfully extravagant too. Thank you for doing my poem, but thank you ever so much more for imagining this track you are embarked upon and being willing to explore possibilities... one foot comfortably in this beautiful world, one exploring the footing in something that feels like home. Words in my case a pleasing exploration of the end of my life as a writer, soldier, whatever, one comfortable with life another way. You are exploring two different worlds and opportunities for exploration for thought, for art, and in the end for life. Dance more than any art form save perhaps music, involves life as process and process as life and a way of living. You are blest Jessica with intelligence and beauty and an ability to live both as art. As you grow in wisdom, your beauty will be like an Amati Violin, a Whistler nocturne, a Shakespearean poetry. I love what you do and what you are doing. Thanks for letting me be a witness. Thanks for your explanation here...thanks more for you in form and motion. Blessings and grace. Mike Lancaster

  2. jessica,,,, such beautiful words, so visual and personal. You are truly an old soul, with a young open heart. Although i am cannot express what i see in your dance, with words, the shift in your dance, and the openness of your heart can be seen by all those who watch you move. As well,as those you direct. So grateful for your continued exploration of feelings, life, and that which tskes ypu out of your comfort zone. Blessed to be able to witness this journey.