General 5-31-2005

What Is the Work of an Artist? The Dance Conversation at the Walker

Lightsey Darst attended the convocation of dancers held at the Walker this May; her thoughts on the relation of art and life follow. Yeats' question--perfection of the life, or of the work?--is answered here, in part, with a practical synthesis.

On Friday, May 13, more than one hundred dancers, dance makers, dance teachers, dance supporters, dance administrators, dance writers, and other dance workers from around the state met in the Walker’s McGuire Theater for the second Minnesota Dance Community Gathering, organized by the McKnight Foundation. We met to consider the question “How can we collectively enhance and support our efforts to make dance and dance artists thrive in Minnesota? Where are we now? Where do we want to be?” Using Open-Space Technology, a democratic meeting system that requires no advance planning, participants organized their own discussion sessions, then voted on which discussions were most important; the most important sessions were then reconvened. While earlier sessions collected ideas, later sessions moved towards action.

The proceedings of the conference have been archived on this site (click “Forums” at the top of this page to reach the notes), so what follows does not pretend to be a report on the action. Instead, I want to think about what organization and action mean for artists, and how dance differs from other arts.

Last year, participants were so excited by the idea and fact of the meeting, this magic circle of dance colleagues, that there wasn’t much pressure to get anything done. I remember going to a dreamy session where we sat on the floor and talked about the poetry of dance. But this year, the emphasis was on accomplishment. Even the most abstract sessions asked the dreaded question: What are you going to do about it?

I instinctively shy away from this. I consider myself an artist, not an organizer. I don’t get involved; I save my energy for thought and creation. And I don’t feel guilty. I used to live with a Sierra Club activist, a beautiful person who cared more about saving the environment than about anything else. I supported her campaigns, but I cared more about art than about anything else. We respected each other and lived in harmony because we understood that our household needed both a doer and an asker, an activist and a poet.

At the meeting, a choreographer complained that many grants required her to show educational outreach or to discuss impact on the wider community; I second her complaint. Why should artists who can come up with impact statements be superior to those who cannot? Perhaps writing impact statements gets in the way of the production of art. The drudgery, the boilerplate, the absurd things you must say as you attempt to justify what can’t, by its nature, be justified—your art—surely this can’t be good for the artistic brain. The cliché-ridden language of action makes me cringe: Chair a task force. Brainstorm an action plan. Grow audiences. Infrastructure. Outreach. After nine hours of the Dance Community Meeting, I’m unable to think; all night in my dreams I stutter through questions about what I can do for dance.

It’s not that I don’t want to work. I just want to do my work, which I understand as writing and thinking. I try to lead a session on multi-genre performances, but I realize quickly I have nothing to say. I think multi-genre performances are a good idea, and I wouldn’t turn down a request to read poetry at one, but I’m not planning to produce one any time soon. That’s not my work.

And yet. At the meeting I run into Lise Houlton, the artistic director of Minnesota Dance Theatre. It’s hard to imagine anyone more art than Lise, with her red hair that stretches, electric, beyond the natural realm; her breathless, romantic speech (when I appear, she says, “It’s the poet”); her wide blue eyes that flick and then clutch; and her generous, selfless dancing, which illuminates far corners. And what is Lise talking about? Getting health insurance for her dancers for the coming season. If she doesn’t do this, she has less to offer her dancers, is less able to show them how she values them, may not be able to keep them. And though brilliant people help Lise run MDT, if she doesn’t do the work, no one will.

Choreographers have to be their own doers more than any other type of artist. The young choreographers who met on a landing outside the McGuire Theater understand this. As a choreographer, you have to find dancers, secure a venue, organize technical staff, make props, fund the performance, design the publicity, and run the show—on top of creating art. After a few of these self-produced shows, you become qualified to seek funding, but funding doesn’t necessarily make the job any easier. Unlike writers, who merely have to be their own agents, choreographers do it all. No wonder they’re keen on organization. No wonder they’re willing to give up a Friday to see if they can make the burden easier for everyone in the dance community.

Consider that word community for a second. Dancers often use it; it’s just one of a fleet of words you hear in dance, all having to do with health. More than any group of artists I’ve encountered, dancers insist on health: bodily purity, emotional and spiritual well-being, planet health, healthy friendships, healthy community. Perhaps because their art demands so much from them physically, dancers continually detox their lives and bodies, seeking a lower level of effort, or perhaps a higher level of awareness. And, in fact, the best dancers do look as if they belong to some other plane: they float in air effortlessly, fix their technique without losing their equilibrium. Dancers are anti-tension, anti-obsession, anti-indulgence; in this they’re the perfect opposite of writers, who fetishize their bad habits, soaking in booze, bitterness, romance, and lost religion. As a writer, I find this insistence on health suspicious. Now, as I watch the dance community feverishly planning to make itself better, I wonder, does better community health mean better individual art?

Maybe so. Consider this: dancers own the means of production. When you produce a performance, you deal with people you already know, people in the community, all of whom must be interested in dance because there’s not a penny in it. Because there’s no money in it, the dance community’s accepting: there’s work here for anyone who wants to join. This acceptance means a diversity of styles: on stage this year you can see everything from classical ballet to hipster tap, bharatanatyam to breakdance. With all these forms sharing space, dancers, and resources, prejudice is impossible. Because everyone’s involved in everyone else’s work, ideas flash across the community like lightning. And dance is egalitarian: no matter who you are, no matter how long you’ve been around or what awards you’ve won, you can’t keep the attention of dancers or the dance audience without producing new good work.

Contrast this with literature’s aristocratic system. Thousands of no-name writers fling themselves at the walls of a citadel, hoping—by luck or connection or talent or sheer dumb persistence—to get a golden rope tossed to them. That rope—the Stegner Fellowship, a story in The New Yorker, a book prize—will get them inside, and once they’re in the citadel, doors open: jobs, books, visiting writer gigs at universities and summer programs. Once you’re in the citadel, too, the quality of your writing becomes less important; the string of awards after your name assures that you’ll be printed and read. Because the market is full of second-rate work, no reader can hone her taste; reading becomes a dispiriting duty, a task completed with nothing but a sense of bitterness towards the elite but mediocre author. I often hear writers and editors complain that there’s no money in writing. There’s as much money in writing as there is in dance; it’s just that we distribute it unwisely.

The dance community gathering? A success. What else can you call a meeting that brings together more than a hundred artists from across the state, without the promise of prestige or money, for the single purpose of making their art better?

So I will do my work too. That means writing and thinking, but also planning and organizing: my mission—one of many begun at the meeting—is to see how can better serve the dance community. (If you have ideas, send them to me at And if anyone wants to create a multi-genre performance, I’ll help—with everything.