Kaitlin Stack Whitney recently interviewed Cassie Meador, dancer and choreographer with Dance Exchange, about their Moving Field Guides. The program is an experiential learning program about environment and place that uses art, science, and the moving body. Below is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of their phone conversation.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney: What originally inspired this project?
Cassie Meador: Dancing is a way to understand and question the world around me, questions both big and small. In 2002, I joined Dance Exchange and started touring with the company. I was spending almost all of my time in dark theaters, hotel rooms, or airports, in transit. It left me uneasy, not having a sense of connection to place or changes taking place in the world on a large scale. The only way I could orient to the seasons was through the shifting magazine covers in airport terminals.
I had my dream job as a professional dancer and was doing meaningful work that gathered all kinds of people, but in other ways, the work was happening with such speed that I rarely had time to consider what mattered most on the planet: change. Not just seasonal change, really large-scale ecological change.
So I think that was a turning point for me; I thought I would leave and contribute in a different way. But Dance Exchange is a place that asks you to turn discomfort into inquiry. They encouraged me to look at how my experience could inspire people. I started to think, what would that look like? Who would I partner with? The questions that emerged out of that discomfort as a touring artist led to the creation of the Moving Field Guide (MFG) program. I had a chance to create dances around the world inspired by the places and the communities that we work with, embracing change while asking who that change affects and why.
KSW: Can you describe some of the Moving Field Guides?
CM: Moving Field Guides are a direct way to learn about science and environment. Each one is customized based on the site and the people gathered to engage that site, bringing multiple narratives together. Who are our guides? We call them “knowledge keepers.” Sometimes the knowledge keepers are not scientists or naturalists but are the people who have lived in the town the longest, possess forgotten knowledge about the place. Those views can be lost if we don’t engage elders.
The first time that we did a MFG series was along the 500-mile walk of How to Lose a Mountain, another Dance Exchange project. [Editor’s note: How to Lose a Mountain was a multiyear choreographic project about mountaintop removal, coal mining, and energy that involved a 500-mile trek and community engagement.] During that project, I became really interested in how people were connecting to place beyond what we were extracting from the place, beyond the resources we were consuming. There were other aspects that held value in people’s lives. MFG is also a way to bring visibility to sites that we have a direct link and impact to, but that might not be visible in our daily lives. With How to Lose a Mountain, I couldn’t believe that only 500 miles from my home in the nation’s capital was a devastating fight to which I was directly linked.
One recent MFG was in Chestertown, MD along the Chester River. We brought together youth from the local schools, Washington College students, and a group of elders from a local senior community center. We all met along the edge of the river. Our knowledge keepers were an ichthyologist, a retired waterman, a 90-year-old gospel singer who lived in that community her whole life, and a local historian. Each of them was sharing and imparting knowledge about that river. That knowledge was woven together into a dance. It’s not dancers in front an audience but rather participants and makers.
Many of our projects are about gathering knowledge in communities that are in transition. The community has a stake in the site, and MFG gives an opportunity to explore what the site is and its impact. MFG offers an opportunity to learn about history and ecology but because we’re engaged with our bodies; MFG also gives an opportunity to envision what a place can be. The discoveries can also be challenges, because they raise questions. It’s a never-ending process, because our relationships to the places we inhibit take ongoing reflection. For example, I’ve become really interested in place- and body- based knowledge. How does our connection to a place relate to our care for and our understanding of that place and its wellbeing? And our wellbeing?
KSW: How can dance connect people who don’t consider themselves dancers with the natural world?
CM: Dance and MFGs offer anyone the opportunity to activate their senses and observation skills, through movement and interpretation. Words hold one part of the story, but the body tells something more. We use dance as a way to make new meaning and value about places, as a way for people to make connections between their bodies and the environment. MFG gives everyone an opportunity to create movement to document what they are learning, to close the divide between their bodies and the world, between the natural and the built world.
Conditions are never certain when you work outside. Working outside, dancing outside, asks you to embrace that uncertainty and stay responsive to your surroundings. You’re asked to look at the ways you’re shaping it and it’s shaping you. What excites me most about dancemaking outside is that responsiveness, how it can allow us to bring that quality to our daily choices and actions. Some of the actions that need to be taken [to address environmental crises] seem of a scale that can be paralyzing. When we come into conversation through a process of moving, it allows us to embody the larger actions on a smaller scale that we can understand. Moving our bodies makes it easier to carry forward.
Featured image: “Moving Field Guide,” provided by and used with permission from Dance Exchange.
Cassie Meador is Artistic Director of the Dance Exchange. Cassie received her B.F.A. in dance from The Ohio State University. She joined the performing company of the Dance Exchange in 2002 and assumed the role of Artistic Director in 2011. Contact.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a CHE Graduate Affiliate, a PhD candidate in Zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and currently serves as Editor-at-Large for Edge Effects. Contact.