Dancing with Science: Collaborating for Vocational Activism and Effective Citizenry

By Amy M. Wilkinson

On a recent icy morning, a group of fourth-graders from Peirce Elementary International Studies School arrived at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability to shoot a dance film.

Costumed and ready for action, the 30-person group performed movement studies on camera, creating visual representations of science concepts pulled from the online textbook, Healing Earth. The concepts ranged from nuclear fusion to the phases of photosynthesis to the making of bio-diesel. Four Loyola dance majors worked with the students to orchestrate the performance and capture it on film. Developed in Loyola’s dance division, the project’s mission was tied to the philosophy of dance citizenry and a deep commitment to environmental stewardship.

It was a triumph for the collaboration of art and science — one that reflects the kind of cross-disciplinary work supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Yet today, artists and educators around the country face the defunding of the NEA. As a professional dance artist and instructor in the field for more than 20 years, I see this threat as both personal and professional.

NEA projects cover a broad range of disciplines. For example, the NEA supported the 2015 report, “How Creativity Works in the Brain,” which summarized psychological and neurobiological themes emerging from studies on creativity. The NEA also supports the Walter Reed Healing Arts Partnership, which promotes creative arts therapies for service members and combat veterans with traumatic brain injury. Using NEA funding, Akua Kouyate-Tate, Senior Director of Education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, has expanded educational programming. One of Wolf Trap’s projects worked to integrate art with fundamental science and math education for young children. Without the NEA, such endeavors might never have received support.

Moreover, cutting the NEA would mainly serve as a symbolic gesture. Its annual budget of $146 million totals no more than .003 percent of federal discretionary spending — a near-insignificant total given the government’s other expenditures. But this small sum is important to artists; the increased pressure to do more with less feels acute.

The threat to the NEA — itself a nexus between art, education, and advocacy — is not the only problem. The scientific community is in danger as well.

President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that federal contracts and grants will be temporarily frozen at the Environmental Protection Agency has sparked nationwide plans for marches in support of both scientific reasoning and the environment — including the upcoming March For Science in Washington, D.C. on April 22nd.

For artists and scientists alike, the imperative is to strengthen the urgency of our relevance. It would be powerful to combine efforts.

Artists are traditionally known for our willingness to take risks and for resilience in the face of failure. Dancers, for example, use the human body as an artistic medium, exposing all its strengths and frailties while remaining open to scrutiny. Furthermore, fighting for funding and justifying our existence as an essential part of culture rather than a luxury has always been part of our identity; The legendary company Dance Theatre of Harlem famously closed its doors for eight years due to financial difficulties before its comeback in 2013, and at least three major Chicago companies — Luna Negra Dance Theater, Hubbard Street 2, and River North Dance Company — have been forced to shut down in the past three years.

Artists speak fluently in languages of the heart, which sometimes have more power to change minds than statistics. Scientists, trained in the tradition of gathering evidence, facts, and finite discoveries, might be uncomfortable joining a team of artists whose methodologies are non-linear and ephemeral. But my experience with the Loyola Peirce Dance Project can inspire us to see our shared marginalization as an opportunity for more radical collaboration.

Artists are in a remarkable position to generate passion for issues like sustainability within their chosen mediums. A quick survey of dance history reveals iconic pieces such as Isadora Duncan’s 1924 Varshovianka, Charles Weidman’s 1936 Lynchtown, and Pearl Primus’ 1945 Strange Fruit, which each provide a voice for the voiceless. More contemporary choreographers such as Oakland Company Axis Dance’s Marc Brew and New York-based Emily Berry of B3W (Beyond Third Wave) Performance Group often present work with a social justice angle.

When artists see their position as one of strength and transformation — rather than one of scarcity — their work can serve as a model for others, including scientists hoping to drive forward a progressive agenda that fosters commitment to issues like environmental sustainability.

Dance citizenry, a term coined by Julie Nakagawa, a former performance artist with Twyla Tharp and the Artistic Director of DanceWorks Chicago, implies that along with rights like freedom of speech, citizenship confers upon dancers responsibilities to the common good. For those of us in the privileged position to have found our calling, now is a good time to consider how to turn passion for our craft (often isolated within our genres), into a more focused vocational activism.

This brand of activism should be inspired by creative processes and could be defined as a dynamic, values-based approach to work and partnerships that mobilize individuals for social change. It should be characterized by the understanding that our daily endeavors can be bent towards serving justice, and by the recognition that fearlessness, generosity, irreverence, innovation, and discomfort within relationships contribute to new knowledge and policies that can transform communities.

In order to practice vocational activism, we might consider harnessing the power of opportunism, expanding our networks beyond our disciplines, and seeking collaborators who are willing to share leadership.

To be sure, there are those who will challenge the concept of vocational activism based on potential conflicts of interest that exist within workplaces. But consider The Loyola and Peirce Dance Project: it began with a desire to empower a younger generation to act on climate change through dance movement, and it concluded with a spirit of joy expressed by all participants. Despite challenges, the principles of vocational activism provided a foundation for planning the project. In March, the film from the collaboration will premiere at the In/Motion Dance Film Festival in Chicago; later it will be shown at Loyola’s annual Climate Change Conference.

If such creative partnerships are to thrive, then we, as artists and scientists, should explore moving into new physical and cultural spaces, blending traditional or specific methodologies across disciplines to expand the benefits for all citizens.

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