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Choreographer Victoria Marks on Working with Dancers Diverse in Ability, Age and More

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This article was originally published Sept. 28, 2020 by UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture.

Victoria Marks sits in front of a black background. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA
Victoria Marks sits in front of a black background. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA

Conversations feel especially fraught in this time of political and social division. Choreographer, filmmaker, scholar and activist Victoria Marks has made a career of orchestrating dances for people one normally wouldn’t see on stage — mothers and daughters, elderly men, combat veterans — in what she calls “action conversations.”

Marks is the associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, a professor of choreography in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, and the chair of the UCLA disability studies minor. 

In this episode of Works In Progress, Marks reflects on the importance of leading by listening, the “10 Questions” event series she co-curates and hosts with an arts-led multi-disciplinary approach to exploring essential questions and how she is making dance in a time of physical distancing.

Listen to the full conversation below.

“It’s been a very cloudy six months,” Marks said, as she has had to help manage the school’s transition to remote learning and support student, faculty and staff needs. As a choreographer and dance maker, she said she didn’t like watching dance videos online that had been made before the pandemic. She wanted to see dances that reflected “new environmental, social parameters for existence.”

“I think all artists are always responding to their moment. The very framework of the art that they make is a response to the moment in time,” she said.

Dances in a Pandemic

So, Marks made a dance for a box of dirt in her home’s carport in Mar Vista. She called it “Dirt.” In some ways, she said, it’s a continuation of “Pastoral,” a stage piece that premiered in February at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles, just before the COVID-19 pandemic closed down public performances. “Pastoral” addresses early 20th century idealization of Americana and reflects on “settler colonialism, land, our framings of nature and ownership,” she said. “Dirt” focuses on Marks’ own backyard and its histories.

The piece takes place in a box about the size of a large sandbox or raised garden bed. It includes a solo dance and a duet with two dancers who live together. Marks has been staging the performances on Sundays with an audience of about five people standing outside the carport. The performances are free to attend, and she pays the performers. “I’m just trying to think about it as a little gift that I’m giving to people who come,” she said.

While dancers and dance companies are struggling to find ways to pay their bills during the pandemic, Marks sees a glimmer of hope.

“What I’m seeing is new parameters for curation, new methods of being with people and a new landscape, really,” she said. “I think in that sense, you know, as horrible as it all is, it’s very exciting. It’s sort of a rebirth moment. But very, very scary for artists who have always been living a precarious life financially.”

Discovering Dance

Marks began dancing as a young girl in the 1950s in the suburbs outside New York City. “My mom felt that dance lessons were important for daughters. Little did she know that it would stick. I think the idea was basically just to develop some sense of grace or something,” she said. “But I became obsessed.”

She said dance became the throughline that supported her explorations of identity, womanhood and activism.

“It was like the place of rehearsal or the place of imagining the values that I was developing as an artist, as a person,” she said.

After attending college, Marks moved to New York City, where she supported herself as a janitor at Dance Theater Workshop, now New York Live Arts. She also worked as a grant writer for dance management organization Pentacle and as a dance instructor for children.

In 1987 she went to London for a year on a Fulbright Fellowship in choreography. Afterwards, she moved to New York and led her own dance company, the Victoria Marks Performance Company She returned to London in 1992, where for three and a half years she worked on her own choreographic projects and served as head of choreography at London Contemporary Dance School, a conservatory for the training of professional dance artists in Europe.

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Exploring Disability Aesthetics

While in London, Marks began working with the director Margaret Williams. They created a number of dance films together in the 1990s, beginning with “Outside In,” with funding from the BBC and the British Arts Council and in partnership with mixed-ability dance company CandoCo.

Marks was the first outside choreographer to work with CandoCo. “I realized that the best way that I could make work for this group was to make work about this group. It started me thinking about choreography as a kind of portraiture, and it taught me listening skills, questioning skills, instead of being the person who gives out information and direction. It was more about question asking,” she said.

With that 13-minute film, Marks “wanted to change the way disability was perceived in the space of the public.”

“Margaret and I sat down with the performers and said, ‘what are the issues in the field?’ And one of them said ‘being invisible.’ So that clearly became a directive for the work, like how to really emphasize visibility and to move beyond the external perception of a body, and to disconnect this idea of a disabled body as a disabled person, and to have the opportunity to have a dance render subjectivity,” she said.

“I saw these people as funny, witty, sexy, flirtatious, mischievous,” she added. “I was trying to make a portrait of how these people were together with each other.”

That project began Marks’ longtime interest in challenging the audience’s aesthetic expectations of dance and of the possibilities in theatrical dancing involving disabled bodies.

Unlike ballet or other traditional dance forms, Marks’ choreography doesn’t typically include dramatic movements or impressive feats of physicality. Rather, the choreography is meant to reflect an interior conversation.

“I love seeing amazing movers, but I’m not very interested in making amazing movement. I’m really interested in how what we do is an expression of our being present and who we are at that moment and how we’re feeling,” she said.

Marks continued her collaboration with Williams in the 1994 film “Mothers and Daughters,” made with 10 pairs of actual mothers and daughters. It was inspired by a student, Ana Pons Carrera, who invited Marks to visit her home city of Barcelona and meet her mother, Marta. Marks decided to create a dance for the two of them, and with the support of Channel 4 in the U.K., recruited more dancers and their mothers (or daughters) to join.

A still from "Mothers and Daughters," 1994. Channel 4. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA
A still from "Mothers and Daughters," 1994. Channel 4. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA

The next film Marks and Williams made was “Men,” in 1997, with seven men in their 60s and 70s.

“My dad was getting old and, just as I had explored mother-daughter relationships, I was thinking a lot about my relationship with my dad. I actually asked him if he wanted to be in a dance with me. And he very kindly said no. I was sad about that, but not surprised. He had been this towering figure in my life and he was getting a little more frail. So I wanted to work with elderly men,” Marks explained.

Marks and Williams were invited by The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada to make a piece. Marks reached out to a friend’s father, a retired plumber, who assembled some friends to meet at a senior center in Canmore, a mining town near Banff.

A still from Men, 1997. ACE / BBC in association with Banff Centre for the Arts. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA
A still from "Men," 1997. ACE / BBC in association with Banff Centre for the Arts. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA

It took some convincing, but after Marks led them in a movement-based exercise that included sharing stories of their lives, they agreed to participate in the project. 

“They had lived in this town together almost all their lives, and they had never heard each other’s stories,” she said. “I thought the piece was going to be about old age. They thought it was about having a wonderful time together, and so I learned that from them.”

“Action Conversations” with Combat Veterans

In 2000, Marks gave birth to twins. The next year brought 9/11, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Peek into the creative ways SoCal dancers are keeping themselves active on "Southland Sessions" S1 E4: "Dance Break."

“I think that my viewpoint was particularly focused on having these two vulnerable little people in my life. I didn’t have any family members who were in the military, but I particularly wanted to know what this experience was like for a generation of young people, especially men who were being deployed,” she said. 

She began researching how to appropriately and ethically work with combat veterans.

“I started thinking about, how could I as a choreographer orchestrate conversations between two groups of people who wouldn’t typically find themselves in a conversation together? And how could that be a premise for creating something together?”

She realized that her idea for a project couldn’t really be called dance, so she began using the term “action conversations.” 

Marks was connected to a combat rehabilitation program at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, not far from UCLA. A doctor in the program helped her navigate the ethical considerations of working with traumatized people. Marks paired the combat veterans with graduate students in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance for these “action conversations.”

Harmanie Taylor, left, and Vanessa Cruz perform a duet during the Dancing Disability Lab at UCLA. | Reed Hutchinson/UCLA.
Harmanie Taylor, left, and Vanessa Cruz perform a duet during the Dancing Disability Lab at UCLA. | Reed Hutchinson/UCLA.

Rethinking Access During a Pandemic

In 2019, Marks launched the Dancing Disability Lab with Alice Sheppard, a dancer/choreographer, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a disability studies scholar, social justice activist, and bioethicist.

“Identifying as non-disabled, it was very important to me that I could bring a set of resources to a larger project of building community and knowledge for dancers with disabilities, who very often have not had the privilege of training,” she said.

In June 2020, the lab, with a new group of 10 artists and a scholar-in-residence, had to move online. However, Marks quickly realized the limitations of remote communications tools.

“Zoom is not a technology that is accessible for everyone. And access is an unfinished business, particularly also because our group of artists are a very diverse group of really exciting dance makers, some with sensory disabilities. So how to ensure that this incredibly visual and auditory medium can work for individuals who are blind or deaf? And so we’re still working on getting that right. And the general feeling in the lab is that we can’t move forward with the work we want to do until everyone has fully equal access. And so we’re still working that out, and that is the work of the lab right now,” she said.

Learning to Listen

The issue of equity is at the heart of the “10 Questions” series that Marks hosts and co-curates with Anne Marie Burke, who heads strategic communications at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. The hybrid class and public events series began in 2018, bringing together faculty members from across UCLA and across disciplines to look at key questions that we are all being asked to confront. In 2020, the third season of “10 Questions” will be virtual, with questions that speak to the current climate, such as: what is hope? what is justice? what is power? what is loss?

The questions have been framed around four themes, Marks said: the climate emergency, the movement for Black lives and systemic racism, the pandemic’s impact on our economic and mental health, and the presidential election.

“Our hope is that often within one question, we’ll be touching on some of those themes,” she said.

The series begins Oct. 5 with the question, what is presence? The question touches on many facets of our contemporary lives, she said: remote teaching, the loss of physical connection with others, the loss of contact with others, and the desire for community. 

“I think we’re navigating some really difficult times and issues,” she said. “I think we’re all full-on involved with these issues in our lives.”

But why does conversation matter? Especially as social media and self-contained opinion bubbles allow us to choose the information sources that bolster our beliefs?

“I think there’s a big difference between just conversation and the kind of conversations where we learn to listen. I’m really interested in the conversations that have a real give and take,” she said.

What we need now, Marks said, is to listen, be curious, be engaged, and appreciate complexity.

Because I think those are actually skills that will help us remain resilient and kind and loving and address what matters,” she said.

The third season of "10 Questions" launches Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. with the question, What is Presence? You can register for "10 Questions: What is Presence?" here and learn more about the full program here.

Top Image: A still from "Mothers and Daughters," 1994. Channel 4. | Courtesy of Victoria Marks and UCLA

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