Shifting Climates: Applying Principles of Sustainability to Dance-Making Endeavors

Kelly Silliman

Five colleges, the tinydance project

We live in an era of increasingly limited resources, and the challenges of producing dance in these times have prompted some dance makers to critique prevailing paradigms of concert dance and to seek out innovative ways of presenting work. By applying principles from the field of sustainability to dance-making endeavors, artists can potentially shift expectations of both artists and audiences towards viable, sustainable models more appropriate for current times. Such a shift is currently underway in Western Massachusetts, an area that prides itself on progressive sustainability action and a rich arts culture.

Situated three hours north of New York City and two hours west of Boston, Western Massachusetts has been a leader in alternative energy options and the slow food movement, and boasts several “Transition Towns”1  which actively work to build community in direct response to climate change and economic crises. The vibrant arts scene includes Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Five College Dance Department, which presents hundreds of performances each year by students, professors, and professional choreographers. As a result of this density of well-established, institutionally supported dance performance, independent dance-makers face challenges in finding performance venues, funding, and an audience base. While these conditions are not unique to Western Massachusetts, my status as both an academic and a working artist in this locale positions me to analyze both the specific local attributes as well as the broader social and artistic contexts, and to connect one to the other. In this paper, I present my work with the tinydance project in the context of the current climate of underfunded support for the arts and environmental concerns related to overconsumption, and in the spirit of local sourcing I introduce the work of three other dance artists from Western Massachusetts: Deborah Goffe/Scapegoat Garden, Terre Unité Vandale/Movement Arts Ensemble, and Rythea Lee/Zany Angels Dance Theatre Company. Drawing from my own experience, interviews with the other artists, the history of experimental site performance, and scholarship on current sustainability initiatives, I analyze the realities of producing dance performances with limited artistic and financial resources in the context of shrinking environmental resources. I position the work of these artists as pragmatic exemplars that reveal the transformative potential in simpler productions and local, community-based support for creative process and performance.

Concepts of place, locality, and environment are central to both sustainability analyses and dance works produced outside of the theatre setting. Site work, site dance, site-specific dance, and site-adaptive dance all stem from the experimental performance work of the mid-twentieth century, and the recent scholarship on site dance offers a foundation for examining trends in non-theatre based performance. During the 1950s and 60s, artists in various genres began both to resist the conventions of traditional creative process and to explore the boundaries between art and everyday life. The term “site-specific” emerged in the field of visual art in the late 1960s from the desire for artwork and art-making to connect with specific places outside of the studio. Parallel to this trend, dance artists such as Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and Twyla Tharp were experimenting with non-theatre and outdoor venues, and using their movements to highlight aspects of their chosen spaces. The work of Trisha Brown and Meredith Monk, often considered the founders of site dance, followed these pioneers.2  These dancers all achieved financial and critical success by any estimation, however they began their work in an era of unprecedented support for the arts, which no longer exists. Despite this historical shift in funding and performance opportunities, their work offers practical examples of more sustainable creative process and production that remain relevant today.

Throughout its evolution, the practice of site-based performance has offered the opportunity to negotiate behavioral norms and codes; site dance can uniquely highlight people’s relationship to locales and the social construction of place.3  In a 2006 interview, Meredith Monk spoke to the lure of creating work outside of the theatre space: “Site work gave me the ability to create an immersive experience. A proscenium implies a separation between the performance and the audience. Taking people out of the theatre and including them in the same space as the performers blurs boundaries and transforms experience.”4  Stuart Grant’s article, “Dispositioned Intimacy” explores “questions of relationships between intimacy, time, place, and movement”5  which form the foundation of site dance theory, and point to a sense of interdisciplinary collaboration also trending in both sustainability studies and the Transition Movement. Site work broadens the range of expected audience and performer experiences, shifting the paradigm away from one which foregrounds the proscenium theatre experience. Artists who wish to stay relevant must approach decisions conscientiously, rather than making default choices about process and production. We can approach performance in the context of sustainability as an articulation of ecological concerns, as well as a critique of current models of funding for the arts and dance production.

The concepts of interdisciplinary collaboration, community-oriented focus, and connection to one’s environment prevalent in site dance also emerge in sustainability scholarship. Scientists now recognize that conventional scientific problem solving tactics are inadequate for addressing complex societal issues such as sustainable development and existence that also protects the future of the planet. Scholars from disparate fields are calling for a paradigm shift.6  We can see this same shift affecting dance practices, as conventional models of successful dance-making no longer serve most artists. The most widely accepted responses to dwindling environmental resources and the need for sustainable development often align with the decades-old call to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Most concrete suggestions fall into one of four categories: reducing consumption, sourcing locally, building community, and using technology carefully, considerately and with a focus on efficiency. Erik Paredis discusses four basic lenses through which to examine technology and sustainability: intermediate performance levels, regionalization, appropriate lifestyle, and community resource rights.7  In 2000, scientists developed seven core questions of sustainability science that explore complex interrelated issues such as relationships between nature and society, long term trends in the field, meaningful limits or boundaries, and realistic ways to move society towards more sustainable trajectories.8  Applying these questions and frameworks to dance-making endeavors frees artists from traditional, largely unattainable models of presenting work, and opens the possibility of creating professionally on a smaller scale by choice rather than last resort.

Increasing numbers of dance artists are choosing to produce smaller, more sustainable works. My own work, the tinydance project, began in 2012 with the question of what dance and performance art would look like if high-tech resources were no longer available.  I develop and present extremely low-tech dance art for small, sustainable spaces in order to facilitate interdisciplinary performances, discussions, and events about issues related to sustainability. The absence of technology serves to highlight the ways in which declining resources affect us as artists and citizens of the world, and to address other issues related to sustainability such as consumption, economic inequality, and waste. Tinydance pieces are presented in natural light, to live acoustic accompaniment, on a 4' by 8' stage that can be towed by bicycle to performance venues. I work only with local collaborators, all dance pieces are performed without theatrical lights or recorded music, and costumes are created from recycled or salvaged materials. Practicing artists have been employing similar tactics for reasons of economic necessity for many years, but more recently dance makers have shifted towards utilizing these methods strategically to create work in a more sustainable way, and to engage new audiences with their work.

In addition to myself, each of the three artists interviewed for this paper made a conscientious choice to step away from the proscenium theatre model. Deborah Goffe spent over a decade exploring concepts of place and home, developing salon-style performance events in her company’s homey studio space. She speaks of falling victim to “the mythology around the way successful dance happens, as if that happens as often as people make it sound.”9  Rythea Lee presents her one-woman work in people’s living rooms or community common areas, and articulates her need to leave her years in New York City, being “brainwashed and trained,” behind in order to become the artist she is now.10   Terre Unité Vandale’s outdoor dance events, inspired partly by her mentorship with Anna Halprin, cultivate a deep connection to the specific performance locations, and stem from Vandale’s personal love of the biological environment.11

Situating the work of these artists in the context of the sustainability frameworks mentioned previously--reduction of consumption, local sourcing, community building, and considerate use of technology with a focus on efficiency--illuminates common threads. Simply by performing outside of a theatre setting, the artists reduce consumption of materials and resources, such as electricity, set and costume materials, and money for rent and personnel. Goffe created a community studio space that also functioned as a performance venue, deliberately keeping the space the same regardless of which purpose it was serving at the time, thereby reusing the space itself. The same can be said for Lee’s reuse of people’s living rooms. While Goffe and Lee do use limited lighting and sound systems, the financial and ecological impact is dramatically lower than that of a proscenium theatre production. Vandale performs outside in existing environments, shaping her performance around the space, and says,  “I can appreciate traditional form but for me it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t challenge our social habits enough; it doesn’t challenge our relationship with the environment; it plays into a mechanization of the body. ” The tinydance project literally reduces the traditional stage to a 4’ by 8’ mobile platform, complete with marley flooring. Because they take place outside, Vandale’s and my productions require no rental fees, lighting or sound systems. The artists source locally, from Goffe’s current solo and Lee’s one woman show to Vandale’s and my company members, all of whom live in the area. Musical accompaniment is usually self-created or evolves from collaborations with local musicians.12

Local sourcing itself helps build community, and the artists all mention community and relationship as integral components of their art making. In sharing the advantages of presenting work the way she does, Lee reveals, “It is profoundly empowering, it makes me feel makes me feel connected to my communities. It has connected me to people telling me their histories and their stories.” The tinydance project seeks to build community by bringing together people who might not otherwise cross paths, by reaching out to artists and environmentalists, and by performing in public spaces so that the audience is comprised of both intentional and unintentional members. Drawing from the Transition Movement, this focus on community-building as an act of resilience offers dance makers a new framework for artistic decision making, and broadens the range of participants by reaching beyond those people who attend traditional concert dance events.

In addition to community-based collaboration, sustainability scholars agree that a considered use of technology is vital to addressing climate change and other environmental issues. While zero or ultra low technology is not a viable solution to environmental crises, most experts agree that fossil fuel-based technology use must be reduced, and that the technology used must be implemented as efficiently as possible. This same paradigm can be applied to technology use in dance production. The tinydance project eschews the use of high technology in performance. Lee employs a modest sound and light system when she performs, and Vandale primarily performs outside with live accompaniment. Goffe speaks eloquently on the intersection of community building, conscientious choice-making, and the consideration of technology use in non-theatre based performances:

I don’t have an aversion to the traditional theatre experience. But I don’t want [audience members] to feel that we’re in two different realms. I’d like to invite people into whatever world is being created in the work, and I’d like to think that whatever world that is starts to emanate beyond the stage space, however the space is set up. And so I very much welcome the conventions that work in traditional theatre, and...I don’t think that they’re givens.13  

The re-examination of existing paradigms and careful consideration of choices in dance-making practices discussed previously must extend to artist compensation and viability. Practicing artists are not hobbyists, and for the vast majority of dancers and dance-makers who do not have full time positions, self-sustainability and financial independence become vital issues. Vandale often chooses to work outside the monetary economy, looking for opportunities to trade skills and resources creatively, such as trading environmental dance mentorship for business skills mentorship. She also utilizes her collaborators’ non-dance skills in the model of a skill share. By performing outside, Vandale eliminates rental costs that reduce profit. Lee’s living room performances are hosted by the homeowner, and as a one-woman show, all ticket sales go directly to her. With smaller audiences, she performs more often, and the run of her current show represented her most successful financial endeavor to date. By scaling back from proscenium theatre expectations, artists may be able to generate a greater financial profit than is possible on a larger scale. Goffe also performs more frequently for smaller audiences, and speaks to the benefits of choosing to work on a smaller scale. She says,

Someone asked me if I had small numbers of company members because I liked small groups or because I couldn’t afford to have more people. And I felt a little judged. But I don’t think there’s a problem with the answer to that question being ‘both.’ The reality is that if resources are limited, it’s okay for me to make art with found objects, it doesn't suddenly become lesser art. And so the size of the groups I’ve tended to use have been informed by access to resources both in terms of money and wanting to have at least a bare minimum for compensation, but also in terms of the places I’ve chosen to be, [without] an infinite pool of [performers] to draw from.14

While artists working from a proscenium theatre model sometimes create small works regardless of the size of their performance space, the dance artists highlighted here directly address spatial and financial limitations in considered ways, shaping their dance-making and their expectations to meet today’s realities.

Historically, professional non-theatre based dance performances manifest in one of two ways. Site work resists and challenges theatrical conventions of showmanship, mystery, and the separation of artists and audiences. Venue productions such as studio theatre and black box performances tend to mimic those conventions on a smaller scale, without examining the value of such trappings to the specific production. Many artists beyond those discussed in this paper now seek to create artistically, financially, and environmentally sustainable alternatives to the “mythology” of concert dance.15  Dance practice often experiences a perceived lack of resources, and dancers are often trained in the mentality of the noble starving artist. I propose that one framework for creating alternative models is to look to sustainability studies for the questions, examination, and reframing necessary to broaden and deepen the practice of dance in the twenty-first century.

highlights from the 2015 tiny tour
compiled and edited by Kelly Silliman

1. Kloetzal, Melanie, and Carolyn Pavlik, ed, Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009), 7-13. back to text

2. Kiek, Sela. “Site Dance and site-specific dance: Circulate,” Brolga, December 2007, 33. back to text

3. Meredith Monk, interview by Melanie Kloetzal, in Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces, ed. Kloetzal, Melanie, and Carolyn Pavlik, (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009), 40. back to text

4. Grant, Stuart. “Dispositioned Intimacy,” Choreography Practices 4, no. 2 (2013): 205. back to text

5. Hart, David D, and Kathleen Ball, “Sustainability Science: A Call to Collaborative Action,” (keynote address, Northern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association annual meeting, Lowell, MA, June 12-13, 2012). back to text

6. Paredis, Erik, “Sustainability Transitions and the Nature of Technology,” Foundations of Science 16, no. 2/3 (2011), 208-209. back to text

7. Kates, William, et al, “Sustainability Science,” Science 292 no. 5517 (2001): 641-642, doi: 10.1126/science.1059386. back to text

8. Deborah Goff, in discussion with the author, February 2015. back to text

9. Rythea Lee, in discussion with the author, October 2014. back to text

10. Terre Unité Vandale, in discussion with the author, November 2014. back to text

11. Vandale, Lee, and Silliman all created original music/sound scores for their most recent dance works. Vandale also recently collaborated with Greenfield, MA-based cellist Chris Phillips. back to text

12. Deborah Goffe, in discussion with the author, February 2015. back to text

13. Deborah Goffe, in discussion with the author, February 2015. back to text

14. Goffe mentions this mythology several times in her interview, “Advice I have given to young, emerging dance artists is to abandon Plan B and to make Plan A really comprehensive, and real, and responsive to fact, not myth. And so rather than having five things you’ll do if dance doesn’t work out, to have a real conversation about what relationship it is you want to have with dance and why it’s something that’s calling you, and to create a life that may have many components that fit together like a puzzle, where all of the needs towards sustainability may not come from one source, and to view the ability to do that as success rather than there being only one path that has to come from an external gatekeeper who chooses or doesn’t choose you.” back to text

15. From the Transitions US website: “The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.” back to text

Works Cited

“About Us.” Transition United States. Accessed May 15, 2014.

The Brooklyn Commune Project. “The View From Here: A report on the state of performing arts from the perspective of the artists.” The Brooklyn Commune Project, January 2014.

Hart, David D, and Kathleen Ball. “Sustainability Science: A Call to Collaborative Action.” Keynote address, Northern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association annual meeting, Lowell, MA, June 12-13, 2012.

Grant, Stuart. “Dispositioned Intimacy.” Choreography Practices 4, no. 2. (2013): 205-222.

Kates, William, et al. “Sustainability Science.” Science 292 no. 5517 (2001): 641-642. doi: 10.1126/science.1059386

Kiek, Sela. “Site Dance and site-specific dance: Circulate.” Brolga, (2007): 26-35. 

Kloetzal, Melanie, and Carolyn Pavlik, ed. Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009. 

Monk, Meredith. Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces. By Melanie Kloetzal. ed. Kloetzal, Melanie, and Carolyn Pavlik. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009.

Paredis, Erik. “Sustainability Transitions and the Nature of Technology.” Foundations of Science 16, no. 2/3 (2011): 195-225.

Silliman, Kelly. “the tinydance project: sustainable dance art for small spaces.” Kinebago no. 7. (2015): 28-32.