back to news May 9, 2019

Dancer, writer and choreographer Tonya Lockyer discusses livable futures, social engagement

Arts leader, performance curator and cultural producer Tonya Lockyer was called “one of the key cultural change-makers in the Northwest” by The Seattle Times, and she'll be at the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD) for a free talk and lunch (RSVP required) at noon on Thursday, May 16, as part of a residency with ACCAD, the Department of Dance and the Livable Futures project. Norah Zuniga Shaw, Livable Futures co-director and professor, recently spoke with Lockyer about her work, social engagement and the path to a livable future. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation. Read the entire interview here.

On what a "livable future" is for her

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how remembering the past can inform what kind of future we want to create for ourselves. I’m from Newfoundland and the values of where I’m from, growing up in Newfoundland, inform my ideas of what I think a Livable Future looks like. I remember my grandmother telling me that if I locked my car door it was an insult to my neighbor, because it implied I didn’t trust them. I come from a place where in the morning you might wake up and your friend and neighbor has made a cup of tea in your kitchen. That kind of radical trust and coexistence might be part of my vision of livable futures. I recognize it’s probably utopian. 

On social choreography

Social choreography is the social organization of people so that people can manifest things that are meaningful to them in the world.

I see culture as a lived, constantly changing and shifting thing that is produced in everyday life — which to me is a dance. We choreograph our lives everyday but our environment is simultaneously choreographing us. 

About 15 years ago, my identity started to transform from being someone who created work for the stage to creating work out in the world. I created a project that involved 32 artists on a street in Seattle, embedded into the regular flow of life. The goal was to conceal the activities we were doing, but to do them in a way that amplified the life around them — to make people more aware. It was fascinating to watch a crowd slowly gather and trying to figure-out what was going on. A man, not knowing I was one of the artists, ecstatically said to me, “The street is dreaming!” And then people started joining in. One woman started running down the street while playing her violin.

So in my own dances, I rarely make steps. I work with choreography as a bigger idea, choreographing patterns of embodied interaction between people, events and ideas; patterns of space, time, supporting meaning making through cultural production. Ultimately, I create spaces that encourage and provoke meaning making. I see choreography as: a making possible.

On her upcoming talk

In my artist talk, I give some moving examples of how I’ve experienced art and choreography doing just that. When I was the Artistic and Executive Director of Velocity, I worked with artists in so many different capacities. One way you can amplify the impact of a project is by developing the narratives around the project. The way I see it, a work of art begins the moment someone starts thinking about it and ends when they stop thinking about it. And often that begins with a narrative. It might be something they’ve read online, or in the newspaper, or an image ... I try to be creative with this idea of narrative. 

On how she engages with audiences

I got started on this path because I used to find that I would go to panel conversations with other dancers and it would always devolve, regardless of the original topic, into why we needed more money. And I’d go to post-show conversations and there was such a hierarchy set-up between the artists and the audience. Audiences were often told they could only ask questions, but they were clearly wanting to share their own experience with the artist. I questioned why that seemed to be a habit in our field, and the false assumption that the artist holds all the meaning and the audiences’ job is to “get it” or “not get it”. We are all creating all kinds of meaning together. One of my teachers was Merce Cunningham, and I remember Merce once saying, “If people get bored or look away while watching my work, that’s great because I want people to look at my work the way they like looking at a lake.” Meaning, if your mind wanders, that’s great. So I started thinking, what if ask audiences about this by saying, if your mind wandered, where did it wander? Share that. And often that’s what connects. All that internal process, let’s all share it.

On upcoming projects

I’m really focusing on writing right now and reflecting. What is the value of what I’ve been doing, and how do I share it? It is not like I can Google this and find others with my exact profile. I am also choreographing for Seattle Repertory Theater on a production by playwright Paula Vogel about anti-Semitism and queer love. And I’m really excited about working with you on Livable Futures and the Climate Gathering project; it seems like the perfect process for where I am right now. I have admired you and your work for years, and the fact that you are turning your attention to something as vital as climate change is exciting to me. I’m excited to be part of the team to help maximize the impact of that work. And the fact that it is such a multidimensional project that really does have the goal of connecting with audiences in ways that are meaningful for them, making change through performance, is totally in line with where I feel that my skills and knowledge can be helpful. 

This event is funded by the Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme, an Ohio State initiative foregrounding the role of arts and humanities in making meaningful social change.

Tonya Lockyer