Social Choreography

Arts leader, performance curator and cultural producer, Tonya Lockyer is joining livable futures as a contributor to the research on art and climate change. Once called “one of the key cultural change-makers in the Northwest” by The Seattle Times, Tonya is truly a change maker in the world of dance. Norah Zuniga Shaw, Livable Futures co-director and professor, recently spoke with Lockyer about her work, social engagement and the path to a livable future. An abbreviated version is available here.

NZS: Tonya, we are so excited to have you in residence here at Ohio State in May for our Livable Futures project. You have been a powerful force in increasing the impact of the arts in social change and the development to strong communities for many years now and I want to talk about that but let’s start where we start with all our Livable Futures guests and talk about what sustains you?

TL: What sustains me…I recently have moved out of the city, I live in the Pacific Northwest Archipelago, and I have learned how much noise pollution impacted my thinking and wellbeing. My back door now is one of the quietest places on earth, the Olympic National Park. Silence, supports my sustainability. My ability to listen, to the people I love, hear my environment, be able to listen as a mover to my body, my impulses, to be able to be receptive and have the space for stillness and silence to do that. Sustainability is a combination of ensuring that I have solitude without loneliness, which is made possible because I have genuine relationships in my life where there is love, trust, and reciprocity. Knowing that one has intrinsic value helps one create a sustainable life. I once had a brilliant student who now has a very successful career in Europe, and I asked him, “What would make you come back [to the US]?”  He said, to feel valued by my society.

Remembering the past can inform what kind of future we want to create for ourselves.

NZS: And what are livable futures to you? How can you help us live into that idea?

 TL: Lately I’ve been thinking about how remembering the past can inform what kind of future we want to create for ourselves. I’m from Newfoundland, and the values of where I’m from, growing up in Newfoundland, inform my ideas of what I think a Livable Future looks like. I remember my grandmother telling me that if I locked my car door it was an insult to my neighbor, because it implied I didn’t trust them. I come from a place where in the morning you might wake up and your friend and neighbor has made a cup of tea in your kitchen. That kind of radical trust and coexistence might be part of my vision of livable futures. I recognize it’s probably utopian. 

NZS: I think the work you do is definitely a part of that vision, part of creating radical coexistence. Can you talk a little about this idea in your work of social choreography? What do you mean by that?

 TL: I see culture as a lived, constantly changing and shifting thing that is produced in everyday life –which to me is a dance. We choreograph our lives everyday but our environment is simultaneously choreographing us. 

Social choreography is the social organization of people so that they can manifest things that are meaningful to them in the world.

About 15 years ago, my identity started to transform from being someone who created work for the stage to creating work out in the world. I created a project that involved 32 artists on a street in Seattle, embedded into the regular flow of life. The goal was to conceal the activities we were doing, but to do them in a way that amplified the life around them –to make people more aware. It was fascinating to watch a crowd slowly gather and trying to figure-out what was going on. A man, not knowing I was one of the artists, ecstatically said to me, “The street is dreaming!” And then people started joining in. One woman started running down the street while playing her violin.

So in my own dances I rarely make steps. I work with choreography as a bigger idea, choreographing patterns of embodied interaction between people, events and ideas; patterns of space, time, supporting meaning making through cultural production. Ultimately, I create spaces that encourage and provoke meaning making. I see choreography as: a making possible.

Dances are usually made with others, they are co-created. My choreographies in many ways are not “mine” but there are things that are distinctive to me about them: often a lot of multiplicity, finding connections across diverse aesthetics and media and cultures and perspectives, shared agency and responsibility in how they unfold in time in very intentional spaces. And that’s true whether I’m making a dance or opening a new space or producing a series of performances. 

So I see this a still very connected to another example, V2, a temporary pop-up space I co-created for community-responsive programming in Seattle. We learned there was going to be a huge, empty retail space just sitting empty for a year, in a neighborhood where people were being pushed out because everything in this city was becoming so expensive. It would have been demoralizing for it to just sit there empty when people were loosing their homes, gathering spaces, and artists studios. We realized we could activate this space with our events, but also open it up so the community could activate it in ways that were meaningful to them. So we got a lease for a $1 a month. An event I think captures some of what V2 made possible happened the day after the 2016 election. A community member called and asked if she could use the space for a Post-Election Community Forum. She created a Facebook page and that evening over 1000 people showed up!  A choreography was needed. So we organized the space into neighborhoods, and invited people into conversation by neighborhood; then we ran out of space and got the gallery across the street to open up. And then we overflowed into a nearby park. People were deeply connecting. That’s also social choreography. Social choreography is the social organization of people so that people can manifest things that are meaningful to them in the world. 

NZS: You use the phrase cultural production and I like it but I’m not sure I know what it means, can you help us understand what that means to you specifically?

TL: I think I use cultural production as a way of avoiding the word “art work”, and to focus on it being a process, rather than a product, that creates culture. If I’m choreographing the creation of new space like V2, or a cultural moment like the Post-Election Forum, or working with other artists to create a 5-hour performance that also becomes a cultural moment for our city; or helping to shape culture by curating community conversations, or a poster campaign . . . part of my role is to choreograph the space for that to happen in. I’m always interested in agency and responsibility and how to help people I work with become fully who they are. 

I use cultural production as a way of avoiding the word “art work”, and to focus on it being a process, rather than a product, that creates culture.

NZS: One of our goals with Livable Futures is to put arts front and center in responding to planetary crisis. How do you think about the arts in people’s lives? Can choreography change lives? Or as you write: ”Can it inspire new cultural structures and ways of being in the world? And if so, how do we maximize its impact?” That’s a lot. How do you start to answer these questions?

In my Artist Talk I give some moving examples of how I’ve experienced art, and choreography, doing just that. When I was the Artistic and Executive Director of Velocity, I worked with artists in so many different capacities. One way you can amplify the impact of a project, is by developing the narratives around the project. The way I see it, a work of art begins the moment someone starts thinking about it, and ends when they stop thinking about it. And often that begins with a narrative. It might be something they’ve read online, or in the newspaper, or an image . . .I try to be creative with this idea of narrative. In one case, I was working with an artist who made a series or performances and objects for his mother. I gradually learned that he was raised by a single mother with schizophrenia and had lost touch with her. I asked him what his real goal was for this project, if anything was possible, and he said, “for people to feel love for my mother”, and to find his mother. So, I went to a local journalist and said, I think I have an interesting story for you. You can write about the process of making this performance, and write about mental health and homelessness in our city, and perhaps, in an investigative journalist role, help this artist find his mother. It was a powerful narrative that touched on how mental health issues impact all of us, and it ended up being picked up by local television and radio stations. Even if they weren’t usually interested in Dance, they were interested in this very human, relevant, personal story. And the artist did end up finding his mother through the process. Also, the performance took place outside, leading the audience from the bus station, to the court house, through an alley and park. And over time, some of the people who lived in those parks and alleys, engaged with the work. So I think about choreography and dance as more than a product that happens on the stage. It really is a cultural process and I look for all the points of meaning making that can happen in that process. 

That’s one example. There are many. 

I think a big part of being a cultural producer is you are extending the studio practice into life. You bring an awareness of all the different forces that are involved in shaping our culture, that inform the impact of the work, and help to make it more relevant to people – and also more sustainable for the artist.

Of course there are other things I do. I work to increase the sustainability of artists’ efforts through things like effective grant-writing, and strategically knowing how grant panels operate, and building relationships with donors. I advocate for dance as an art form. I track the forces that shape who we are and what we make, and curate public conversations and learning opportunities that are timely but also foster dance literacy. A big part of my work has been changing the kinds of conversations we have with our audiences in Seattle. I think we need to be conscious and creative along all those points to really maximize them.

NZS: That’s one thing I have really experienced with your work as a curator and presenter. You create amazing dialogs with audiences that I actually want to be a part of and I’m someone who normally hates doing the artist talk after the show both as a maker and an audience member. Can you share some of your techniques?

TL: There are so many. I got started on this path because I used to find that I would go to panel conversations with other dancers and it would always devolve, regardless of the original topic, into why we needed more money. And I’d go to post-show conversations and there was such a hierarchy set-up between the artists and the audience. Audiences were often told they could only ask questions, but they were clearly wanting to share their own experience with the artist. I questioned why that seemed to be a habit in our field, and the false assumption that the artist holds all the meaning and the audiences’ job is to “get it” or “not get it”. We are all creating all kinds of meaning together. One of my teachers was Merce Cunningham and I remember Merce once saying, “If people get bored or look away while watching my work, that’s great because I want people to look at my work the way they like looking at a lake.” Meaning, if your mind wanders, that’s great. So I started thinking, what if I ask audiences about this by saying, if your mind wandered, where did it wander? Share that. And often that’s what connects. All that internal process, let’s all share it.

If your mind wandered, where did it wander? Share that. And often that’s what connects.

It is also about working in more than one space. Some the projects I’m most excited about happened in other environments. Cathedrals. Public parks. Museums. Train stations. Parked cars . . . Velocity had only 80 seats so I also partnered with big 1000 seat venues. I started thinking more about where this work lives rather than a theater. And then the next question became, who do we want to be in conversation with? You know, if I can use a metaphor, dance usually isn’t invited to the dinner party. So I decided to throw the dinner party, make sure dance was invited, but also try and inspire the kinds of rich, juicy conversations I wanted happening in my city.

NZS: You’ve recently stepped out of your role at Velocity and are taking a sabbatical to re-assess and do passion projects. That’s amazing and courageous. Can you tell something about what you’re working on?

 TL: I’m really focusing on writing right now and reflecting. What is the value of what I’ve been doing and how do I share it? It is not like I can google this and find others with my exact profile. I am choreographing for Seattle Repertory Theater on a production by playwright Paula Vogel about anti-Semitism and queer love. And I’m really excited about working with you on Livable Futures and the Climate Gathering project, It seems like the perfect process for where I am right now. I have admired you and your work for years. You are also a really cross-disciplinary thinker, finding connections across diverse mediums, perspectives, pushing the boundaries of what dance is, and you have been doing that work brilliantly for a long time and with some amazing collaborators. And the fact that you are turning your attention to something as vital as climate change is exciting to me. I’m excited to be part of the team to help maximize the impact of that work. And the fact that it is such a multidimensional project that really does have the goal of connecting with audiences in ways that are meaningful for them, making change through performance, is totally in line with where I feel that my skills and knowledge can be helpful. 

One thing about performance is that it gives people what I think is one of our most endangered resources—time. That’s one reason I do a lot of durational work that requires commitment and creates immersion. The kind of performance that I try to help make possible gives people the resource of time. Time to experience something in a way where their whole bodies can be mindful. We need to stop talking about dance as a visual thing. I’ve stopped saying to people, I’m really looking forward to seeing your work. Instead I say, I’m looking forward to experiencing your work. 

One of the reasons I’m focused on audience participation is I’m not particularly engaged in performances where I feel like a receiving head plopped onto a body imprisoned in a chair. Performance can give people a deep experience in time where their whole body can be mindful, multisensory, where their intuition and empathy have an opportunity, have space. In a world so dominated by language, sometimes dance and performance allows for a reorganization of our perceptions, which in-turn reorganizes how we think, which ultimately changes how we behave. If you only perceive the world through language it is definitely going to impact how you perceive issues and challenges and how you act on them. That’s one reason the Climate Gathering performances are so important.

Dance gives us this opportunity to experience in a new way—visceral, empathetic, embodied—and can really tap into that deep physical thing that needs to happen when we do act. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever taken action on something that lived purely in my head, I don’t think so.

If you only perceive the world through language it is definitely going to impact how you perceive issues and challenges and how you act on them. That’s one reason the Climate Gathering performances are so important.