I’ve been acquainted with Elizabeth Reed for a few years, but the nature of our busy minds and lives has kept us from spending significant or sustained time together. After a few recent emails about a community project, she eventually sent me a link to her own catch-all online art portfolio. I had known her more as a social activist, writer, philosopher, counselor, and someone interested in spirituality; but when I clicked on her “Moving” project page, dedicated to what she calls “Public Dancing,” I knew that I had to hear more about this specific creative practice, (among her many other artistic pursuits that I was previously unaware of). We set the date to meet.
Says Reed of the practice, “Dance in public space is my rebellious affirmation of living. It is a physical socratic method asking: ‘How else, and how better, can we go about this living (together) bit?’ Could we pause to feel throughout our bodies? What great good magic is here!?”
Collaborating with her friend, Valerie Suter, they began the practice almost by chance or intuition; based in a pure moment of inspiration! The essential elements are – space, movement, and a collaborator with a camera. The documentation is an important aspect, though the live performance, and the interactions with passersby are another key element.
The collaborators take turns, assuming a supportive / spectative role, or that of the performer. “Sometimes the dance is an ‘ode’. Especially when someone’s art is nearby. When visual art is filmed alongside the dance, the dance can be a conversation with the spirit of the art and its artist.”
“The first one was very spontaneous. We were in a little church garden near Hudson and Barrow, [Church of St. Luke in the fields, in Manhattan]. They have a really pretty garden, like a secret garden. We were just spinning around, one of us started dancing and then one of us started filming.” “So, maybe we didn’t get enough attention as three year olds.” [laughs.]
“Part of what enables the dancing is knowing that you are being watched by a really good friend. It is really safe and supportive. We’ll talk about it a little before hand… but it is very improvisational.” She talks about Valerie as her dance Partner in this project, and the dance itself as an outpouring of their friendship.
When Reed was a little girl her mother told her “I don’t care if you like it or not – you’re [going to ballet class] until you’re 13.” She interprets this as a kind of right of passage into womanhood that may have informed her idea of that structure and its formality. Studying Modern dance as an adult with Marian Hopkins, (à la José Limón,) happened to be quite revelatory for Reed, as she correspondingly discovered a parallel instinct for humans to move (and to learn how to fall) in psychology. Reed took on an independent study in St Petersburg with a young Modern company there. (Even the director admitted that it was unusual to practice Modern dance in Russia whose primary “National exports are Ballet, Vodka, and Caviar.” Perhaps that was part of the draw.)
The early pressure to develop as a ballerina aside, her Mother also introduced her to Art museums. She remembers going to the Museum of Fine Art, Houston and looking at the Frida Kahlo paintings together. Then, at age 13, her drama teacher, Ms. Edwards, arranged for her class to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, allowing for each one of them to perform a dance, or some kind of dramatic act, in front of the works in the museum. “Mine was a Kandinsky. So I danced to the Kandinsky in a black unitard, with face painting – very tribal looking. Then my mom picked me up and took me to a gallery across the street. And I think that was maybe the real beginning of my dancing with art.”
When asked if there was one special place that she wishes she could dance, Reed had a difficult time choosing… “I used to entertain myself when I was falling asleep by imagining dancing an entire marathon with two other dancing partners.” She also likes the idea of dancing in “forgotten” spaces that have lost their sense of place or soulfulness. She compared the sensibility of the practice to that of the tightrope walker in “Man on Wire,” describing it further as a “romance” with the space.
“I think it would also be fun to dance across the ocean… Around the world.” I asked her if she knew about Matt Harding, but she had not. She had seen Min Tanaka perform at MoMA’s PS1. Tanaka is an acclaimed Japanese Butoh master whose movements were constantly creative. He inspired her to dance, not walk, away from the performance.
I probed further, “Would you rather constantly be dancing everywhere you go? Or dance in one particular place for all of time?” Unequivocally she responded, “I don’t think I would ever want to dance in one place, unless I could remember that places change – which they do. But I like the variety. And I like the shock value of someone unexpectedly seeing a performance.”
My own experience with dance was as a young dedicated student of ballet for many early years. I did not end up having the attention span or, rather, the singular interest to stick with that one artistic practice. I did not really have the professional dedication to spend the needed time in the dance studio to ‘make it’ at the early age that some do, that is institutionally expected. Though I did love it, having been told that even the best could only expect a few years of ‘success’ before retirement, and hopefully a chance to continue via teaching, did not excite or motivate me.
Experiencing more (for lack of a better word) experimental performance art has reinvigorated my love of movement-based creativity – particularly in college, and since moving to New York City where it is very accessible. During these years, my understanding of how we may creatively / bodily express ourselves has broadened significantly. Likewise, Elizabeth’s practice has reminded me to again think of dance as much less institutional. She sets a liberating example for those of us who may want to move, nay, need to move, but have accepted constraints on how that should look, especially in public as non-professionals.
As she states on her website, “You’re invited, of course, to uniquely define what you see, what you feel, and when, why, and where you dance.” – Elizabeth Reed, Public Dancer.
Here is their performance outside the Cy Twombly Gallery, part of The Menil Collection:
Dedicated to my oldest friend and dance partner, Gina.