MFA-IA Commencement Address
Goddard College - February 1, 2015
Delivered by Heather Bryce
I recently had the honor of being asked to deliver the commencement address for Goddard College MFAIA Program graduates. It was a beautiful ceremony and I'm so thankful that I was able to be part of it.
"It is an amazing feeling to be standing in front of you today, one year after my own graduation, to celebrate this incredible group of graduates who I’ve known since they began this life-changing program. Goddard College is a unique place and the individuals who choose to come here are extraordinary. This group is clearly no exception.
To the graduates, I’m honored to call you my colleagues and friends.
You are all talented, accomplished artists who have the means and ability to create positive change in your communities and the world through your art making and social engagement.
The graduates asked me to give this commencement address in three parts – which seems fitting - to me, this represents the many ways in which Goddard graduates (and particularly this group) carve their own path in the world and think outside the box. Because of this format I’ll be speaking three times, addressing the past, then the present and then the future. I’ll begin now with the past.
As the Admissions Counselor for this group I had the pleasure of being in contact with each of them during the application process and after their acceptance to the program. I had lengthy conversations or email exchanges with many of them.
Graduates, I’d like you to think back to the moment that you decided to apply to this program. Remember the excitement, uncertainty and questions you had about beginning this next stage in your life and making the decision to dedicate yourself to your art practice.
I remember many conversations centering around the questions “how does this self-designed degree work?” Or “what is a study plan and how in the world do I fill that part of the application out?” At the time it may have felt overwhelming and confusing but you didn’t give up and you’re now sitting here about to receive your MFA.
To quote Stephen King, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
Think back to your very first residency, arriving on campus and suddenly being immersed in a new community and a new language. Take a moment to remember what that felt like and take a moment to think about how you’ve grown as an artist and as an individual throughout your time in this program. Think back to your first moments on campus; a celebration of welcome at the fire, your first study plan, your first packet response, your practicum, writing your portfolio and now this moment of commencement and celebration of once again entering a new stage in your life.
I wonder if some of the feelings you experienced when you began this journey two and a half years ago are the same as you sit here now about to join the academy.
Part Two - Present:
Well, here we are... Take a breath, look around and really see where you are right now in this present moment. Some of you have already received your degrees and the rest of you will soon follow. As you’re sitting here thinking you’re finished, know that really, you’re just beginning...
You no longer have packet deadlines or study plans to provide the catalyst for making work. Without that structure it can sometimes feel like you are once again a beginner and that you are making it up as you go along – which really, you are. For the past year I’ve put a lot of faith into the saying, fake it until you make it. It seems to work. Remember that not all the work you make will live up to your own expectations. When that happens, use it to keep pushing forward.
To quote Ira Glass,
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
What I take from Ira Glass’ words is that even when you make work that you don’t like or that doesn’t meet your personal (very high) standards, keep going. Whatever you do don’t give up. I’m sure that the past two and a half years in this program haven’t always been easy for you. I’m sure there were times when you wanted to give up but you didn’t. Take that same tenacity and spirit with you when you leave here into this new phase of your life.
From talking with many of you this weekend and attending your graduate presentations, the passion that you each hold for art making, social change, and creating community is palpable. It puts my mind at ease knowing that you will all continue to move forward ignited by that passion and excitement and make real and lasting change in your communities and in the world.
As Anne Bogart said, “It is easy to coast through life rather than find the will to continually reach out into the world. To reach out is to risk. There is little grace in a life that never extends out beyond the boundaries of self”. It’s clear to me that each of you has and will continue to take that risk. Trust in yourself. Remember that you already know how to do this. Remember that you are not an impostor. Remember your passion – that’s what got you here to begin with.
Remember that this community is still here for you – continue to collaborate with each other, support and inspire each other. Bring the magic of residencies and fireside conversations with you out into the world. Continue to question your own intentions and motivations and never be afraid to make mistakes – those mistakes have the potential to inspire growth and even bigger dreams and goals.
As you leave here, I challenge you to envision and create the type of community and world you want to live in. As Petra Kuppers, a faculty member in our Port Townsend, WA MFAIA Program said, “We need to dream the world we want to live in: we can’t just critique the status quo”
Part three - Future:
It’s been powerful to witness the change and growth that each of you has experienced during your time in this program. Some of you came here hesitant to call yourselves artists. You might not have been able to envision yourself at this moment, graduating with your Master of Fine Arts degree. I hope that each of you can now clearly see yourself as an artist. I hope that you can recognize the gifts that you have given to this community through your presence and through your presentations this weekend. Please carry those gifts out into the world through continuing to share your work, facilitating dialogue, supporting others in recognizing their own gifts and by standing up for your beliefs and against injustice. You have the power to change people’s perspectives and impressions through speaking your truth and making work that honors that truth.
Leo Buscaglia said, “The majority of us lead quiet, unheralded lives as we pass through this world. There will most likely be no ticker-tape parades for us, no monuments created in our honor. But that does not lessen our possible impact, for there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give.”
I can tell you with absolute certainty that each of you has already impacted someone’s life through sharing what you have to give. I have been deeply touched by seeing your work, by your presentations and by my conversations with each of you over the past few years. I’m sure many people sitting in this room at this moment, here to celebrate your tremendous accomplishment, also have been inspired by you and have found their own voices and passions through witnessing and experiencing your gifts and courage.
In your presentations, many of you spoke of a turning point that you experienced during this program due to a conversation or collaboration. Know that you have also provided those turning points and breakthroughs for others, here on campus and out in your community. Whatever you do, keep going. Envision what you want and reach for it. Remember your impact because there is no question that you have one.
While today marks and ending, the exciting thing about that is that every ending leads to a new beginning. You get to decide what you want this beginning to look like, all the while knowing that your path from point A to point B may not happen the way you envision that it will. There will be grants that don’t pan out, jobs that fall through and moments where it feels like you are alone or everything is falling apart. In those moments, remember that you have everything you need within you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. You have all the tools you need to be successful and create positive change. Ask for help when you need it – remember that isn’t failure but strength. Keep pushing and, as Winston Churchill wisely said, “Never, ever give up”.
Graduates, congratulations on completing your MFA. This is a huge accomplishment and one that not everyone gets the chance to celebrate. You’ve worked hard and you’ve earned this. Enjoy this moment.
I’m thrilled to be here to with you today and I’m looking forward to celebrating the excitements, accomplishments and victories that are still yet to come for each of you. Each one of us in this room has faith in your ability to be great. In your ability to make this world a better place. Keep thinking outside the box, keep pushing others to venture outside of their comfort zone, and most importantly, keep speaking your truth through your words, actions and art practice.
I’ll leave you today with this quote from Neil Gaiman,
“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.”
“I am gone now, but I am still very near.
Death can never separate us.
Each time you feel a gentle breeze,
It’s my hand caressing your face.
Each time the wind blows,
It carries my voice whispering your name.
When the wind blows your hair ever so slightly,
Think of it as me pushing a few stray hairs back in place.
When you feel a few raindrops fall on your face,
It’s me placing soft kisses.
At night look up in the sky and see the stars shining so brightly.
I’m one of those stars and I’m winking at you and smiling with delight.
For never forget you’re the apple of my eye.”
-Mary M. Green
Grief has a way of working its way into deep folds and crevices that weren’t consciously recognized and finding its way back out in unexpected moments. A song, a smell, or taste can suddenly bring tears to my eyes and make me more aware of the empty space that loss has left behind. When memories well up it can be comforting and warm or it can feel like a heavy fog settling across my heart and seeping into my veins.
Time makes the pain less acute and the fog less intense. Time also makes me realize that I am forever changed by these losses and also by the beauty of having known and loved those who are no longer present.
Grief has made me search, run, wander, flounder, reach out, collapse inward, yell, fall to my knees, and search for meaning. It’s caused me to move forward in ways I wasn’t expecting, to become a better version of myself, to reach out in search of connection, to let go of connections that were once important and it’s caused me to hold on too tightly. When we lose someone we love it can cause ripples across our whole lives and being. The following story is my experience of one of the losses I've experienced and the way it has impacted how I live my life.
I wrote the following piece as part of my culminating MFA Portfolio for Goddard College a little over a year ago. Names have been changed in order to protect individual privacy.
In early November of 2011, I drove to Mass General Hospital, while my friend Jon was having emergency brain surgery to address the tumor they’d found the day before. Jon, the husband of my best friend Amy, was in his early 30's when they found the tumor. Amy was in her late 20's. Their daughter was just 6 months old.
Sitting with Amy, I learned with her that Jon’s tumor was a rare form of cancer, close to Jon’s brainstem and in both hemispheres. The doctors didn’t know exactly how to treat Jon’s cancer. In an effort to save him they were aggressive in the surgery. When Jon awoke he had severe aphasia. He couldn’t move the right side of his body. He didn’t remember Amy’s name. He didn’t remember his daughter.
Being present for Jon and Amy during this time, the focus and priorities of my life and practice began to change. A little over a month later, in late March of 2012, I ended up sitting in the same surgical waiting room where I had sat during Jon’s surgery, while my mother underwent a challenging (and ultimately, life-threatening) surgery on her neck. After a week in the hospital my mother turned the corner toward health and began to recover. Suddenly, illness and hospital waiting rooms became ever present in my life.
Jon was a fighter and his recovery from this surgery only demonstrated that further. The doctors said he wouldn’t walk again but he did. He fought to get his speech back and his strength back, all the while surrounded by the powerful love of his wife, their six month old baby, her loving family, his son and friends that had become his family over the years.
Jon never regained full function cognitively or physically. When Jon was released from rehab and strong enough, he began radiation treatment. Jon responded well to his first round of radiation but the tumor was never going to be “cured”.
In December of 2012, Jon’s health went downhill quickly. Jon was admitted back into the hospital. At this point it became clear that Jon didn’t have much time left. Jon hadn’t known that he was dying until this hospital admission. Hospice services were called in and Jon was sent home from the hospital without further treatment once he was stabilized.
In late December of 2012, I went to visit Jon and Amy. I saw this visit as my opportunity to say goodbye. Jon was no longer able to walk and he was having trouble eating and keeping food down. He was sleeping most of the time and not fully present. I was able to talk with him briefly before he got too tired. He stopped eating and drinking water that day and the next day he lost consciousness.
In early January of 2013 I went to stay with Amy and be present for Jon in the final stages of his life. The following afternoon, I sat at Jon’s bedside and read him the story The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. He was unconscious but I believe he was aware of my presence. Late that evening, Jon took his last breath, surrounded by the love of his wife, his mother-in-law, me and two other close friends.
I had never seen a dead body before. This wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t frightening. Jon was finally at peace for the first time in over a year. He simply wasn’t there in spirit anymore. It wasn’t as though he was sleeping, he was physically present but his energy was gone. Somehow, I felt a deep sense of relief. He was no longer in pain or fighting a losing battle. It was over.
When the cremation services representative arrived we all went to say one last goodbye to Jon’s physical body. I helped carry Jon’s body out of the house. I remember carefully zipping the body bag up to his face. Someone else zipped it the rest of the way.
This experience has caused deep and lasting effects and shifts in my life and in my priorities. Many of which I am still digesting. One of these shifts is that I am exploring the themes of health, aging, caretaking and dignity in my own life and artistic practice.
When people close to me have become sick I've noticed that some people often don’t hear – or really listen – to what they have to say. Friends might nod and smile instead of actively listening. Frequently, the individual has something relevant to say but it takes a little work and listening to figure out what. Many people don’t take the time to figure it out. I think that too often when someone is sick or in a late stage of life they go unheard – and often they have so much to say. This has made me realize the importance of individual’s stories. I’m drawn to oral history work as a way to uncover and tell these stories in a way that honors the individual.
When it became clear that Jon’s illness was terminal, I decided to take a Hospice Volunteer training in order to be able to support my friends and deal with my own grief. I wanted to be fully present and be informed. When I took the training I was not planning to actively volunteer, I was instead hoping to gain some tools that I could utilize in a traumatic situation. After Jon passed, I decided to become an active volunteer. In part, this decision to volunteer was based on a need to process Jon’s death and was also based on a want to help others through end of life and through the loss of a loved one.
In the volunteer training I learned how to listen deeply and authentically and how to engage people in conversations around their stories, including stories of mortality. I was encouraged to do oral history work with the people I work with, as that is meaningful to them and to their families and gives the family something to hold onto once the individual is gone.
I recently volunteered with a hospice patient who was in her early 90’s. I visited her twice a week to help with light housekeeping tasks and to provide companionship. Frequently during my visits we simply sat together watching T.V., though sometimes we engaged in deep conversations about life, family and death. In one of my visits I saw that she was reading a book called Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying. I had heard about this book within hospice volunteer training and asked about it. This opened a door for talking deeply about her emotions related to the end of life. She asked me “did you know that I am dying?” I replied that I did know. I left room for her to speak in whatever way was comfortable for her but didn’t push. If I hadn’t been trained as a hospice volunteer, I don’t believe I would have known how to respond to this. Hospice Volunteer training provided me the knowledge that I could leave some open space so that she could talk freely about this final stage in her life. It was a powerful conversation that provided me with perspective into her view of the end of her own life.
To me, being a Hospice volunteer means that death is always nearby. It opens doors to conversations about death, dying, loss and end of life. It also means learning how to let go and being present to death. Being with someone who is dying had the effect of reminding me that nothing is permanent. It has shifted my perspective and it has made me further consider what happens after death and how the loss of a loved one changes individuals.
This work has made me a more spiritual person, has impacted the work I make as a choreographer and has impacted the way that I live my life. For me, being close to someone who is dying is a lesson in letting go and saying goodbye. Death is a fact of life, though not an easy one for those who are left behind after someone they loved passes.
This week Bryce Dance Company is taking steps toward 501(c)3 status. This opportunity comes with a learning curve. While I am confident in my abilities as a Choreographer, Artistic Director and Arts Administrator, this is new (and exciting!) territory. This week I've spent time on general company administration in addition to assembling a Board of Directors and learning about non-profit laws and regulations in VT. Thus far we have a number of board candidates and I hope to announce the incorporating board within the next few weeks. This is an exciting time for the company.
In addition to incorporation, we are busy applying to dance festivals, fellowships, and writing proposals for performances at various locations across the US and abroad. We are also beginning to create new work! A new solo titled Breathing Under Water (choreographed and performed by me with music by Jason Beaudreau) will premiere (as a work in progress) in Burlington on March 15th with additional performances scheduled in Montpelier and Waterbury, VT in late March. This new solo continues to work with many of the themes present in To You, Around You, About You - though it approaches the themes from a different perspective. It explores the idea of being left behind and trying to tread water. It often follows the path of one step forward, three steps back; though as one continues on this path, resolution and change become easier to reach.
We are continuing our fundraising efforts and we are incredibly grateful for any support offered. Performances, dance festival application fees, touring, renting equipment, and paying the artists involved in production and performance costs quite a bit of money. Money that we don't yet have. Please consider supporting the company. Our current wish list includes the cost of dance festival applications - generally around $50-$60 each, theater rentals ($400+/each), pr materials, paying the artists a stipend for performances, and non-profit incorporation fees ($500+). Please help us meet and exceed our current fundraising goal of $3000. Every little bit helps!
Thanks for following Bryce Dance Company! We hope to see you at a show soon!
This collaborative project developed through a five-session workshop creation process. At the end of the five workshops we had an informal showing of the work. The piece involved eight individuals of varying backgrounds and ages and one non-performing collaborator. The oldest participant was in her fifties and the youngest was in her teens. Most of the participants came from a movement or performance background. I chose to situate myself outside of the work so that I could see it with an objective eye and support the development of the piece through outside direction. With the short timeline I felt my outside eye was vital.
Within the structure of the workshops I provided opportunities for participant reflection. Following movement exercises I frequently questions such as, “What did you observe?” and “What were your impressions of what we just did?” The reactions from participants guided the structure of the creation workshops.
This project was highly successful in that it was a stretch of my artistic practice and it will continue to influence the way that I work and the elements that I integrate into my work. Because of the community engaged nature of this work it led me to further consider and explore issues of power and privilege and connect to the possible interpretations of the work by the participants and the audience.
I had not previously taken on collaborative work to this extent. Collaboration has always come into my practice as a choreographer in developing partnering sections and in creating movement that works for the dancers. In this project my role was different and I did not incorporate any of my own movement but instead served as a director and outside eye focused on the structure of the work.
In order to build this piece I utilized and built on many of Liz Lerman’s tools for creating collaborative work. I worked heavily with Lerman’s prompts to create movement from words that held meaning for individuals. We used the prompts “I come from” (Developed by Lerman), “My body” and “I am”. Participants were asked to free write using these prompts on various occasions and then were asked to develop movement. The movement was then paired down or further developed by participants in small groups. I found Lerman’s tools accessible and user-friendly. Translating words to movement seemed to help newer movers create phrases and participants commented on the usefulness of these prompts a number of times in follow up interviews.
Initially, I had hoped to use the prompt work to strengthen the group and develop a short section of the piece that would tell the story of who each individual is outside of her relationship to health and illness. Because of limited time, the piece ended up being heavily built around these prompts.
To support the original intention of the piece (a focus on health and loss of health), I incorporated individual participant stories through sound recording, text, and movement. Oral history practices informed the ways in which I supported participants in telling their stories. I then recorded the stories related to health with three of the participants and edited them down to 45 second sound clips from which the participants created solo work. Initially I had hoped to record sound clips with each of the participants and develop solos, duets, and trios based on those clips and stories. In this project time ran short so I picked three participants to do this with.
In the future when developing collaborative work, I plan to experiment with Open Space Technology and other focused small group activities in order to determine what is most important about a theme or topic to the participants and to develop movement phrases based on this work. If we had started this piece more firmly grounded in what brought individuals to want to participate in it and what was important to them about health or illness, then the piece might have looked quite different and participants might have felt more connected to it and to its intention.
Integrating sound and voice was new for me and I tried my hand at sound editing for the first time in making the sound score for this piece. In retrospect, I realize that creating the sound score myself and editing three interviews into sound clips for solos gave me more of a role in the meaning an arc of the work as a whole. Because one of the questions I asked the interviewees was related to health insurance, a portion of each of the solos was then about health insurance which made that topic have stronger positioning within the work as a whole. While this was one of the directions I had hoped the work would go, I didn’t make that as clear to the participants as I might have in describing my intention for the piece.
Collaboration presents challenges as individuals have very different definitions of what collaborative work means. It can be challenging to find the ‘right amount’ of collaboration. In follow up interviews that I conducted with participants regarding their experiences with this piece I found that some wanted more control over the work and the process of creation and some wanted less control.
In order to make this piece successful for each individual involved in a short period of time, I had to find middle ground where people new to movement, movers, and other experienced performers could create something together. In so doing, some people were left wanting more or feeling disconnected to the work in its final form. Overall, I wish I had more time and more consistent participants. Commitment on the part of the participants was a big problem in this work.
Because this was a community engaged collaborative process, I felt it necessary to leave the door open to people coming and going as they needed to. In general, I don’t work this way. I usually ask for a solid commitment from participants and if they aren’t able to do that than they are asked to step out of the piece. Because this process was so time sensitive and different from my usual way of making work, I did not ask anyone to step out of the process.
I feel that the result of continuing the project with an inconsistent group of people was that the group didn’t ‘gel’ as well as it could have and the collaboration and outcome of the work did not go as deep as I had hoped which can be seen in the informal showing of the work. Some of the ‘meat’ is missing. There was a level of creation and exploration related to health and illness that I had planned and wanted to include but the reality of this project didn’t allow for that level of exploration.
Much of the time in workshops was spent remembering and teaching what had happened the week before rather than digging deeper. I felt that lack of depth was a shortcoming of this project that only time would have remedied. In addition to wanting more time, I would spend the first weeks of the process on group work, finding ways to support the group in gelling, talking about what is important about the topic to each of the individuals involved, and developing the piece more slowly.
The informal showing of this piece was an important part of this process. The showing was the first time that all the participants were there (minus one who had to step out two weeks before the showing due to personal reasons) and it was the first time the work was done in its entirety. Some of the participants commented that this was the first time they felt fully connected to the work. The other important piece of the informal showing was that it allowed for outside feedback and allowed for the participants to interact with the audience. The participant-audience interaction provided the opportunity for participants to feel more ownership over the work, as they were able to ask questions of the audience.
In the audience question and answer session I was pleasantly surprised to discover the depth of audience questions, feedback, and interpretations. I also appreciated the questions that participants asked the audience. I firmly believe that question and answer sessions help everyone connected to the work (as participant or viewer) further process and develop his or her own interpretations and it helps the work take on a life of its own. The feedback process also helps me to see where the work met its intention and where it fell short.
Moving forward, this work already has a second phase. My main collaborator and I plan to do a series of movement workshops in nursing/respite homes. I will conduct oral history interviews with the workshop participants and the interviews and movement developed by the workshop participants will then support the development of choreography and a full-length piece. The work will be further developed and performed by a small group of dancers. Some of the movement and sound from the first phase of the project will carry into the next phase of the work but we will take more time to build on it and develop it. This segment of the process will move slowly with the development of the work centering on what happens in the creative movement workshops and individual stories that we gather from this process.
I had a conversation with someone last night in which we were talking about how in the new piece I am creating I am more of a director because the movement is "choreographed" by the dancers. I had an initial strong negative reaction to that statement but didn't know how to present my thoughts in a cohesive and open way at the time so the conversation soon moved away from that topic and I did not bring up my reaction.
As I've continued to process my feelings related to the conversation, I've come to realize that the reason I had such a strong reaction to that statement is because I believe that choreography is more than the development of movement. I also feel that collaboration is incredibly important and can support participation from the community and goes beyond using just technically trained dancers in the work. To me, choreography encompasses much more than making movement that will be part of a performed dance. Choreography is the arranging of movement material, gesture, space, time, pattern, and more, with an eye turned toward the aesthetic.
While I am using a collaborative improvisational process to create movement for the piece the choices related to when, how, why, where, and what remain mine. I may feel more ownership over my work then is necessary which I also need to take time to consider. I am enjoying the collaborative making process but feel a bit wary of issues of ownership that may arise, not necessarily in this current piece, but in the future when I employ collaboration as a tool for the development of new work.
These are just a few of my thoughts as I continue considering my own reactions and feelings related to collaboration, ownership, and the nature of choreography.
We had a fantastic performance in Somerville, MA this past Saturday as part of the Third Life Studios Choreographer's Series. Other choreographers who participated in the event were: Gabrielle Orcha, Margot Parsons, BoSoma Dance Company, and Kelley Donovan. Kelley Donovan is curating the series and she's looking for choreographers to perform in three more series events. To view information and to apply go to: http://kddcompany.wordpress.com/third-life-studio-choreographer-series/