JPCiM at Monument Mountatin; photo David Dashiell
JPCiM at Monument Mountatin; photo David Dashiell

For two weeks in late 2017, Jacob’s Pillow Curriculum in Motion® (JPCiM) Artist Educators Elizabeth Johnson, Liv Schaffer, and Margot Greenlee spent time in residence at the Pillow and at Monument Mountain Regional High School, developing their own personal dance projects, collaborating on choreographic ideas, and making connections to their work with high school students. Pillow staffer Abby Wood spoke with Johnson and Schaffer about how their varied projects can inform each other and their work as educators. Gain a glimpse into their artistic process below.

Could you tell us a bit about what you do at home and what you are working on here in the studio?

Liv Schaffer: At home, I perform as a company member with Robert Moses’ Kin, and teach for Youth Art Exchange; a program that offers free art classes to public high school students. My own choreographic work is taking shape as a project that I’ve titled Deadication, which includes curriculum development and movement explorations rooted in death ideologies and engagement with caregivers and grieving families. I’m bringing a bit of those ideas with me [to the Pillow], figuring out how they relate to the ideas of my colleagues, as well as to high school students—and maybe that’s not death in a literal way, but the bigger picture of beginnings and endings, letting go of the past, or just an ability to use dance to tackle tough subjects.

Elizabeth Johnson: There are  a few projects that I’m working on outside of here that I am considering as we work together in these weeks. I’m working with Liz Lerman on a  large scale, arts-based sexual violence prevention program at Arizona State University. I am really understanding the importance of healthy relationship development and… how important it is that we develop a community of care. It is a community of care that keeps us safe. It allows a stranger to step up for someone else. Which, really relates to the work that we do in the schools—how we build relationships of trust and goodwill with students and between students. It allows students to take risks, to explore, and to create. I hope this remains after the residency in some ways.

I’m also working to train a group of artists in Creative Aging,working with senior adults, sometimes with advanced dementia or physical challenges. In this work I talk a lot about how an artistic process can build the skills for agency, providing structures that allow for autonomous choice at a time when older individuals may feel their choices are becoming more limited. We also talk about how the work fosters necessary social connections (very much like it does with teenagers). Research shows that isolation can have very real and sometimes deadly health effects, especially for older adults.

What is a big idea that can connect these high school classes projects? In a very big sense, it’s the act of relating. And, how our relationships keep us safe.

That’s interesting that you’re both working on these projects about relationships and how to deal with bigger issues, which you can bring into your work at the schools. What is your process like while you’re here? Do you work separately or together?

LS: We really take the temperature of each other every time we’re in the studio space, and bounce ideas between us very casually throughout the whole day. When we arrive in the studio we ask, “What do you feel like doing? What do I feel like doing? Where is the intersectionality between those things?” We typically make a bunch of material without a set landing point in mind, and then string and remix those ideas together closer to the end of the residency, watching some ideas fall to the cutting room floor.

How do you bring the work that you’re developing on your own and together into the school? How do you bring that relationship-building into the program?

EJ: Being in the school is research for the studio, and being in the studio is research for being in the school. It’s all related.

In terms of the relationship building.. I think the relationship building is this creative act that happens as soon as you are with the students.  How you greet them, how you really work hard to learn their names right away… Liz Lerman has said that when she was younger she realized that when her dance teacher knew her name, she danced better. I think it’s the same when we are in a high school. It shows right away that we recognize them as people, not just students—and then they are more willing to participate.

This kinesthetic learning really upends their experiences of being in school and in relationship to each other. [We teach] ways you can use movement to help you remember and retain an idea. The ways that we are asking people to engage with their bodies are sometimes really new and different and can make them feel vulnerable. I believe that when we are vulnerable it opens ourselves to build new connections. One of my favorite things in this process is to see how students, who in the cliques of school life don’t usually talk to each other, work together respectfully. It’s a beautiful example of how an artistic process can build authentic connections, sometimes across difference.

Does your work with the students then also inform your personal work?

LS: Totally! The students are experiencing loss and trauma of their own in very real ways. Witnessing the students’ perspectives, I am able to get a glimpse of what loss looks like through the lens of a high schooler and gather information on what it would take to present the topic of death to their demographic in an inviting way. Inspired by the work of my colleagues, I wonder how can I use my work to relate to the students, and how I can gather student views I hadn’t yet incorporated into my practice.

EJ: As dancers we sometimes take for granted the power of dance as a communicative act. But being in relation to students who are new to movement, I’m reminded even more of the ways we dance all the time and also how dance is able to communicate something we can’t say in words.

“As dancers we sometimes take for granted the power of dance as a communicative act.”

This sounds like the ultimate residency, where you are working on your personal projects, you’re working on things together, and you’re also informing your work in the schools. What does an opportunity like mean to you?

LS: What a refreshing opportunity to not have to compartmentalize myself, but instead be invited to fill each choreographer, dancer, and educator roles simultaneously—and then be pushed by the work to imagine, “What else could I be?” The access to the archives, paired with excellent mentorship by EJ & Margot, builds in a research component that yields deeper threads between my work, and the work of those who came before me, creating connections and flints of inspiration that span across space and time. I’ve been working with JPCiM® since 2014, and having these resources and support regularly each year as an emerging artist stimulates my craft and confidence to a point that I can churn my dreams into reality. This opportunity and organization invite me to be my fullest self, which I am so grateful for. It’s just so infinite.

EJ: As a socially-engaged dance artist, I am always investigating the relationship between authentic community participation and social relevance. But there aren’t always the structures in the world that can be wide enough to embrace all of that. This program at the Pillow is one of those structures that says, “Yes, we do expect you to be a fantastic educator, facilitator, someone who is cultivating participation and looking through the lens of social relevance.” JPCiM not only asks, “How are you an artist citizen in the world?, it provides a platform to practice and grow capacities of individual artists and the field of socially engaged arts practice.

“This opportunity and organization invite me to be my fullest self, which I am so grateful for. It’s just so infinite.”