I met Amanda Cantrell Roche a few years ago at an art event in Nashville, Tennessee. She was dancing with some of the members of Blue Moves Modern Dance Company, and I was so impressed with her passion for dance and the grace with which she moved. As a friend, she impresses me even more today. Amazing.
Amanda is passionate about human rights, something that has been of utmost importance to her since her teens, and that intensity shows through in the social justice pieces she choreographs. As you will see here, though; she not only choreographs, she writes and leads workshops as well. I attended her "Boundaries: An Exploration Through Writing and Movement" workshop last year, and came away with a deeper understanding of why I'd set boundaries - some intentional and some reflexive - and whether or not they were all needed at this point in my life.
Blue Moves, the modern dance company Amanda co-founded, will be performing Burning Blue, an evening of fire-inspired dance and theatre at Cumberland Park on Nashville's East Bank on October 25th - this weekend! Amanda's newest social justice piece, "Divine Sparks", will debut that evening. The event is free to attend, you need only RSVP on Facebook.
What does Creativity mean to you?
Creativity is deep play. It’s an exploration with a purpose, but not so driven by prescribed methods that there is no room for trying lots of different approaches. It may mean working for months on a social justice choreographic project, but it also can be playing with how fabric moves underwater; certainly not always product-focused but not completely random either.
How do you expand yourself creatively?
My work as a teaching artist for TPAC Education has deeply impacted my work as an artist, in expanding and deepening my own creativity and vision. In the aesthetic education approach, each season we delve into a new work of art that has been chosen by the presenting organization. In my case, since I’m a dance teaching artist, it is a different dance performance each year by a nationally or internationally-touring company. We ask questions about that work of art, about the process of its creation, about its meaning or connection to our lives, about the context in which it was created. We wonder about and reflect upon and study and research that work and the people who created it. And then we design reflective and art-making activities for students or teachers to deeply explore that work of art, or an aspect of it, rather than demonstrating some of the moves they will see or disseminating information about it. In the process of this, I have the opportunity to work with teaching artists of different arts disciplines and teaching styles and different works of art in music, visual art and theater as well. You must be creative in your approach; it’s essential to do this work with the heart of both an artist and a child with beginner’s mind.
That requires balancing the knowledge of your arts discipline with the wonder of seeing and exploring a work of art from the perspective of someone free of the education and training that can, at times, stifle our response to a work of art. Although there are certain elements always present in aesthetic education -- reflection, inquiry, art-making and context -- the way you approach them is unique for each work of art. This process and the quality and richness of the focus works of art has made me think much more deeply about my own creations as well as those I encounter -- in the words of the late Maxine Greene on aesthetic education teaching artists: “We are concerned with possibility, with opening windows on alternative realities, with moving through doorways into spaces some of us have never seen before. We are interested in breakthroughs and new beginnings, in the kind of wide-awakeness that allows for wonder and unease and questionings and the pursuit of what is not yet.”
Additionally, I teach workshops and when I can, take workshops at Art & Soul. There is no where else I’ve found where such deep creative play and spirituality and creating from the soul are so fully nurtured and facilitated. And I’m in two writing groups, both of which have long stretches of inactivity and which are quite different in their approach. I’ve found I’m drawn to the discipline of writing to other people’s weekly prompts in one, and in the other creating more fleshed-out works around a theme chosen by the group.
Were you creative as a child? If so, how have you evolved through the years? Did anyone encourage you, especially?
I started taking dance classes when I was about six years old and fortunately my mother took me to a teacher who was incredible. Her name is Ann Holland Cole, and she taught us technique but she really pushed creative expression in dance, and had us choreographing and improvising at a very early age. I’m sure this impacted my work as an adult. I also drew quite a bit and had a penchant for visual art for a while, but then my ability seemed to remain at about a sixth grade level while I continued to age! I went through phases of mediums; pastels, watercolors, acrylics, clay. My mother, who is a visual artist, was wonderful about always providing materials for the big cardboard box where I kept my art supplies. And when I was 11, I saved money and bought myself an electric typewriter. I’ve been writing ever since.
What inspires you most?
As far as the art I want to make, I’m most inspired by social justice and human rights issues. As for other artists, Bill T. Jones is one of my favorite choreographers because of his blending of spoken word, his bent towards journalistic/historical context and his passionate, moving choreography. And I love the rawness and passion of Pina Baush. In creating work, the issues that currently inspire me are immigration, human rights in Tibet, community activism, homelessness and poverty, and global conflict resolution.
What turns you on creatively?
A balance of shaping an over-arching theme as a group and then having time to create art or teaching artistry around that theme individually is a process that has inspired many a Blue Moves dance performance or Nashville Skyline issue or TPAC Education Arts Integration Institute. I also enjoy collaborating with other choreographers. And any time I have the opportunity to do freewriting or other exploration facilitated by someone else in a workshop or class, I tend to love it. I think it’s important for those of us who teach to also be students on a regular basis.
Do you have any gratefulness practices?
I do my best to give back to my community. I do quite a bit of volunteer work and some activism, and I organize a monthly dance happenings listing for the Nashville Dance Community to keep us connected. A few times a year I’ll offer a free class or workshop to under-served populations because I believe deeply in giving back.
How does a relationship and/or children affect your creativity?
Parenting two children took a toll on my time as an artist for a few years, when my son and daughter were younger. But during that time, I was also painting with them, creating fairy houses, reading all the time and just playing so I was creatively open in a different way; one which was less driven by product but more by pleasure and exploration and discovery. Now that they are older our relationship has less effect on my creativity.
Is there a Creative, past or present, that you would give just about anything to work with? Who, and why?
I love Peter Gabriel – particularly his instrumental work and I have choreographed quite a bit to his music. I think he has such a brilliant mind for music, but also visuals and theatrical scenes, and it would be amazing to collaborate on a dance. And I’d love to just be in the same room with Bill T. Jones and watch him work, or talk to him about his research and creative process in approaching a new work. Pilobolus is also one of those groups who are just mind-blowingly imaginative and experimental and physical without losing focus on theme and storytelling or just plain beauty in their choreography. There’s no way I could begin to keep up with them physically, but it’s fun to imagine what that might be like to move with them in the studio and collaboratively discover and shape choreography.
How do you balance life and art effectively? Or, do you?
My life is my art, for the most part. It’s who I am. And while I don’t make a living as a social justice choreographer, I consider my teaching artistry work art. Fortunately, since choreography doesn’t pay the bills, my family does not rely on my income for any major support; I have been so lucky to pursue my art at least part time. About two years ago, I made a commitment to myself to treat my choreography like a part time job, and thus I have given a significant amount of time to it. That’s starting to pay off artistically and also with some modest grants and stipends. But I’ve always held space for family – for picking up my two children, Ella and John, from school. Family dinners with my husband and kids are important, so I do my best not to be away more than a couple of nights a week. And yet, there are days when I’m so immersed in a project I find hours have flown by, and it’s time to pick up the kids from school and I’ve not even run a brush through my hair. I love those days!
How do you deal with change, especially when it comes to creative mediums and passion?
At one point in my life, I was rather afraid of change. I’ve been working on that, exposing myself to new classes and workshop and techniques, new ways of approaching projects and trying not to get too comfortable or settled with my art. Since around the time I turned 40 I’ve been wrestling with how I will continue choreography and even sometimes performing with an aging body. Being in advanced dance classes on a weekly basis is essential to who I am as a mover and a creator of movement, so wondering about the change that will someday come when I’m physically no longer able to continue in advanced classes is something that I’ve considered quite a bit, with no answer of yet. I did make the choice to concentrate on dance and choreography now and let some of my writing pursuits go, knowing that is a medium to which I can return when and if dance ever becomes beyond my reach. And I can see myself evolving from producing live choreography to creating movement for film, which would still involve dance but probably poetry as well, and visuals. I’ve been making baby steps towards that and hope to someday pursue it more fully. But dance is in my bones and will be forever, no matter how achy they can be!
How does criticism affect you?
It can be painful but necessary. I do my best not to be defensive but see it as a learning experience and an opportunity for growth. Critical feedback is vital and Blue Moves solicits it from our Advisory Board during the process and near the end of creating choreography.
Do you have any other mediums you use to express yourself creatively?
Yes, I am a writer. Personal narrative is my favorite genre, and I occasionally write poetry. As I mentioned earlier, I made a choice to pursue choreography over writing at this point in my life. I was feeling somewhat fractured creatively and also in energy and time, so I made the hard choice to let go of some of my writing projects for now. I’ll be able to write in my 60s and 70s, and in the meantime, I’ve been using my journalism and editing skills in social justice choreography by interviewing subjects and weaving their recorded words into music and dance.
Do you enjoy collaborating, or prefer to work alone?
I love both, with the right collaborators. With my social justice choreography projects I tend to work alone, but I’ve really enjoyed collaborating on other choreographic projects with dancers Kristen Hubbard and Holly Cannon Hesse, as well as group projects with the company I co-founded in college, Blue Moves.
The entire structure of the company is a collaboration since it is a true democracy and we all take part in deciding themes for shows, where and how they will take place, choosing guest artists whom we often bring in on the collaborative process, and hundreds of logistical and artistic details. I love working as a collaborative team for TPAC Education, designing and facilitating teacher institutes, and also with my colleague and dear friend Lynne Bachleda in offering reflective, creative process classes for adults. The work is so much richer and deeper when two or more minds are put together.
Do you work in a studio/space designed specifically for your creativity, or on the spur of the moment/anywhere inspiration strikes?
Oh if only I had a dance studio in my back yard! Usually I have to work in my living room, which is not ideal. Company rehearsals, of course, take place in a dance studio and we are so grateful to have a home at DancEast. I do sometimes work outside and once in a blue moon I have a studio in which to choreograph. Occasionally I do site-specific work, such as a collaborative dance and spoken word piece I created with my choreographic soul sister Holly Cannon Hesse at Cave Springs for Shelby Park’s Centennial Celebration. And she and I worked together in a maple tree in my back yard with videographer and editor Mallory Mapes creating a short dance film, set to a poem by my friend Brad Porter. I was so excited to truly have a “dance studio” in my backyard that fall! One of my favorite but most challenging site-specific places to work was Rutledge Falls, where Blue Moves work shopped and filmed a water dance project I created called “Confluence”. It was an exquisitely beautiful setting but the water was extremely cold, even in mid June, and the rocks were treacherous. Add that to dragging equipment down a steep, muddy and rocky trail where you have to scramble over boulders and trying to work around the people who were there to swim on the weekend we filmed, and it was quite a challenge.
Do you plan thoroughly for projects, or go with the flow?
I’ve learned not to just take an initial idea and pursue it without allowing it to evolve, but rather let a project shape itself as I live it and research a theme. For instance, my current work, “Divine Sparks,” started out with the idea of focusing on poetry from Amnesty International’s book “Fire in the Soul; 100 poems for Human Rights”. I wanted to address the passion of activism for Blue Moves’ fire-themed production, and thought I’d incorporate one or two of the poems in that book. But as I continued to research and consider the theme over the course of two or three months, I realized it would be much more powerful to utilize the voices of local activists I know whom I could interview. And while I was interviewing one of four people featured in this piece, Tamara Ambar, she spoke about the concept of gathering the Divine Sparks in Judaism. It was just kind of an add-on at the end of the interview, and she shared the creation story of God’s explosion in which sparks of divinity exploded forth and went into every living thing, so that every person and living thing has a spark of divinity, a spark of shimmering potential and fire within us. It was a perfect metaphor for the ending of the dance and the entire theme; it’s not just the activists who have a fire in their soul to work for the betterment of their community; every single one of us has a divine spark. My hope is that this dance may inspire audience members to remember that spark and engage in community outreach in whatever form that inspires them. Thank goodness I was open to diversions in creating this piece, as sometimes that’s where you find the truest and best path to take!
Do you believe art can change the world? If so, how?
Of course! Art has the power to heighten awareness, deepen sensitivity, cultivate understanding and spur people to change their belief systems and sometimes take direct action for a cause. I’ve always felt it my responsibility and duty as a citizen of a free country to use my art to speak out against injustices or the wrongs in our community and the world. Art can touch us on a deeply human level, and when it is addressing social justice issues, it has the power to open hearts and minds, to transport people to new understandings of an issue, and to inspire them to do something about it.
What effect do you want your art to have on the world?
Oh, just a few things: End China’s occupation of Tibet (“Breaking the Bones; A Plea for Tibet”) free prisoners of conscience (“Freedom from Fear” and “ Desparacidos/the Disappeared”), end prejudice against immigrants and promote comprehensive immigration reform (“Yearning to Breathe Free”) and inspire the people of Nashville to all work to improve our community (“Divine Sparks”)! ;>) But seriously, I do hope seeing my work inspires people to think more deeply on issues and maybe even shifts their perspective to one of greater compassion and understanding. In that perception shift, I hope there are positive actions taken by that person to not only be more compassionate, but to be inspired to volunteer or call their political representatives or take other actions to support a cause.
What music, if any, plays while you work? What are you listening to at this very moment?
When I’m doing choreography, the music is whatever music is being used for the dance. So at the moment that’s Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet’s soundtrack to “The Fountain”. I’m also listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations (a work I never thought I’d much like) because it was the inspiration for the TPAC Education dance focus work of art this year; Cas Public’s “Gold”. I was surprised to find how it focused my mind when writing lesson plans and doing research. But generally, I get so swept away by music that it’s hard for me to listen to music I love when I work if it’s not already integrated into the choreography.
Do you have any upcoming projects/collections to share?
Blue Moves performs “Yearning to Breathe Free” and Andrea Robert’s “Back to the Burning” at Celebrate Nashville, Saturday October 4th in Centennial Park, 3 p.m. Free.
Where can we find your art?
Since I’m a choreographer, it’s best found on stage live. But here are a couple of videos:
Excerpts of “Yearning to Breathe Free” performed at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention: http://youtu.be/cdZ-f-lsy-k
Confluence, a dance film: http://youtu.be/521BoUzfpq8
And here is a personal essay from one of my writing projects: http://www.nashvilleskyline.org/April2010/body_amanda.php