Value in Questioning
Cassie Meador is the executive artistic director of Dance Exchange, founded by Liz Lerman. She wears multiple hats, including climate activist, educator, choreographer, and dancer. A true visionary, she expands the concept of dance by taking it outside the studio to foster action on climate change and a range of social issues. Her main projects include Bricks and Bones, a performance series co-created with Paloma McGregor in 2015 in response to the erasure of Black lives and communities in Dallas, TX; and Off-site/Insight: Stories from the Great Smoky Mountains, a collaboration with the National Park Service, leaders from the Cherokee community, and regional artists in 2017 to build capacities to contend with the complexities that shape our relationship to park land.
In 2011, she was selected as an artist representative of Initiatives of Change to attend the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. I asked her about her journey to join Dance Exchange, how she bridges climate education and activism with dance-making, and what pieces she has coming up.
How did you come to be the artistic director of Dance Exchange?
Today I am in Maryland. This is where I live and also where Dance Exchange is located, which is on the lands of the Nacotchtank (Anacostan) and Piscataway People. I met Dance Exchange in 2001 at the Bates Dance Festival when I was a senior at Ohio State University. They were working on a project called Hallelujah, which took place in around 15 different communities in the United States. They would ask those communities what they were in praise of, and the question would be answered in all kinds of different ways.
I came to Dance Exchange the next year. When I was at Ohio State, I started to question why at the university and in the dance program, I was surrounded by primarily young people instead of an intergenerational community of movers and makers, and why dance was only happening in the studio and on stage. There are all these things happening in the world right now, so what is it that we’re making dances about? In Dance Exchange, I found an organization asking these questions at its core – who gets to dance, where is the dance happening, what is it about, and why does it matter? To find a creative home that holds these questions central has been a gift. I’ve been with Dance Exchange for almost 20 years, becoming artistic director in 2012 following our founder’s tenure.
And that was Liz Lerman, right?
Yes. I overlapped with the founder, Liz Lerman, for about 10 years. Those years, working as a performer and dance-maker with Dance Exchange, I spent most of my time on tour and on the road. It was right after Liz received a MacArthur Fellowship, so I spent about the equivalent of six years on tour out of those ten years. The pace of travel and the time spent in airports, on planes, in hotel rooms and in theaters left me feeling disconnected from the natural world. There is this one trip in particular that I remember: we were waiting for our flight and I was standing in front of the magazine racks at the airport. I realized in that moment that I was using magazine covers to orient to the season, and even to know what time of the year it was. I asked myself, “Is this really how I want to be shaping and creating a life?” I also had a heightened awareness of the environmental impacts of moving and producing work at that speed.
It makes me think of how artificial our rhythm is in urban environments. What it means to be an artist today is so disconnected from the rhythms of nature. Is this why you decided to shift to making work about the environment?
I actually thought I was going to leave dancing altogether. I grew up in a family of scientists, so I was curious about pursuing a path in environmental science. But Dance Exchange is a place where you’re really encouraged to question and engage with discomfort. As our founder always says: turn discomfort into inquiry. Because I was in a place that didn’t say, “oh, well, you’re questioning this, so you have to leave,” but saw value in that questioning, saw that dance-making could be a partner, I started really thinking about the ways my experience as an artist could hold value in connecting people more deeply to the natural world. My work could have a role in communicating about our world and what’s happening to our planet. This kept me in it.
Some opportunities started to emerge because of this questioning. At that time, I was teaching a couple of courses at Wesleyan University that were cross-listed between the College of the Environment and the Dance Department. I was taking all these creative tools that had primarily lived in indoor spaces – whether that was a dance studio or school cafeteria or a hospital; I mean, with Dance Exchange, we worked within all kinds of contexts – and for the first time, using them outdoors. Those courses at Wesleyan became a real catalyst to investigate where I could take my dance-making. One of the places that this took me was to work on a project called How to Lose a Mountain. As I started to look at my own consumption, I was shocked at my lack of awareness of the places and communities that my resource use was connected to and impacting. At the time I was living in Washington, D.C., and I found that my house’s electrical power was directly linked to mountaintop removal only 500 miles from our nation’s capital. Learning more about the devastating impacts, both on the environment and on the health of communities in that region, I had the impulse to go and see this. I had the impulse to use my own body to cover that distance.
I received support and encouragement from Dance Exchange for my journey, and to understand how the dance-making process could involve more communities along the way. It led to a 500-mile walk from my home in Washington, D.C. to one of the sources of its electrical power, a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. It really broadened my concepts and assumptions around dance. You mentioned putting your body to use, for me that is to actually investigate with it.
That’s so exciting. You mentioned that for a moment, you thought about becoming an environmental scientist. What do you think the role of dance is in relation to science? Would you say there is a complementary relationship between the two?
You can’t get to climate action without finding ways to connect and move through a range of emotions. As we have greater access to both the science and stories of the climate crisis, the emotions evoked and experienced are intensifying. I think art, and dance in particular, helps us to move along the spectrum of emotions we may be experiencing or need to experience to make way for change.
I also think that dance-making offers a way to experience and hold contrasting emotions and ideas at the same time, to be more honest about what we’re facing. We need this range of emotions to process the trauma inflicted by the climate crisis. If it were just about a rational response to scientific facts, we’d be much further along than we are – but it’s also about power. Facts alone don’t shift power. They have to work in relationship with the emotions that live in our bodies and with what moves us to change. I don’t think science has in any way failed us. We need the facts and the science, but we need them to be in relationship to opportunities that give us space to process those emotions, to be vulnerable.
Reading about the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal made me want to use the power of my own body to walk, to see and hear about those the impacts. Hearing the stories, embodying the stories, and moving with these stories stays with you and reshapes your life in a different way than consuming information does. For me, making dances has never been about a single trajectory to the stage; it is more a plunge into the unknown, a way to ask questions, to go new places, a way to return home and to reshape our lives and actions.
So, for you, this inquiry about mountaintop removal was born out of a deeply personal investigation. At the same time, you mention the importance of communities in the work. Do you see your work as going deep into your own individuality, or is it more about connecting to people?
It’s definitely both. With How to Lose a Mountain, the impulse to create was very personal. In another instance, with the Schuylkill Center, the commission and the impulse to create came from a partner. We were working on a project as part of their LandLab residency program. They commission artists to create work that addresses environmental change through the art-making process, but also supports the deepening of community relationships to the center. One of the things we were looking at was how to connect the personal experiences people have in that place and weave them into the larger story of climate change.
We led many walks at the center and on one of the first walks, I noticed these large bundles of sticks that were being used to slow the water’s movement across the land and to collect debris that would otherwise end up in the river. We learned that these bundles are called fascines. I was struck by the fact that each stick does very little on its own – it is the collection of them that holds the strength and the ability to slow and divert the powerful force of water. This became a metaphor for us; each stick is needed but is not as significant alone. It is the aggregate of them that holds the power. Strength can be found in the ways that we come together.
As part of that project, we ended up working with a designer and the communities connected to the Schuylkill Center to create large weavings. Sticks and native plants were rolled, bundled, and carried as the audience followed us in and through the woods. Then, these fascines were placed in areas heavily impacted by increased storm occurrences due to the warming climate to help slow the water cutting through the eroded land. The fascines continue to be useful to consider as we reflect on the times we’re living in right now.
This is such a powerful metaphor. I wish I had seen the work.
Collective action can move in directions that offer resilience and strength, for each of us individually and also for our communities.
Thank you, Cassie.
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This is the first part of a two-part interview with Cassie Meador. In the second part, we talk about the sacredness of what we share.
(Top image: Performance of How To Lose a Mountain. Photo by Zachary Z. Handler.)
Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, studying dance, drama, and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for Artists & Climate Change, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices, and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.