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An interview with Shannon Hummel
From a movement standpoint - Dance

Part 2 - An impact on the community

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Harlan County, Kentucky

The following interview with Shannon Hummel (part 2) is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Community arts and art for the elite

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk a little about what impact art can have on its community, whether in a rural area or in a city?

Shannon Hummel: In New York, there is a very established arts community but I feel like arts in general are struggling to make an impact on their community. Dance feels like the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to attention from people who are not involved in the arts. Especially the kind of dance that I'm involved with.

Art is not about deciphering what the artist experienced, it's about you experiencing as you take it in. Or you discovering something about yourself Or finding yourself in it. I feel like in any community that's true. Sometimes, I feel that the general population is moving further and further away from that.

Just having returned from working in Virginia and teaching many students who were not dancers, who were not involved in the arts, I feel that they didn't feel like the arts had anything to do with them. It was this other thing that existed out to the side that was hard to understand, and elitist.

But that's not really what the arts are about or community arts at least. When you are watching something, or when you are experiencing something, it is not a puzzle to figure out what the person who made it was thinking at that moment. It's more about having your own experience and having your own emotional reaction to it. That is what I feel as an artist, is my responsibility to get across. Otherwise you have nobody coming to see art but artists who feel comfortable crossing that barrier - or who come for whatever their agenda is.

I feel that if arts are going to survive and continue then artists in general, need to pay attention to the community beyond their artistic community.

In Motion Magazine: You've run into people who think art is just for an elite?

Shannon Hummel: Many people I know. Though my experience specifically is with modern dance.

As I just mentioned, I taught at a university this semester and one of my classes was an elementary modern dance class. It was called "Introduction to modern dance". I had thirty-one students.

At this particular university you are required to take one semester of a phys. ed. Requirement and modern dance fulfills that requirement. So I had this whole class room full of future accountants and business law majors and early childhood education majors whose agenda was, "Get me in. Get me out. Give me my A. I don't care about this class. I just need to take it to graduate." They were all upper classmen because everybody puts it off to the last minute because they don't want to take it. I found that that class was my favorite because I thought, "What better impact can I have on my artistic community, what better thing could I do than have thirty-one people leave this class feeling like it's not strange and not weird to go see modern dance?"

They were required to see live performances, we watched video tapes and we danced in class. We did improvisations. They were really enjoying the movement part but whenever they would go see something I would get these critique papers back that were all about if the piece didn't have flashy lights and bright costumes they didn't like it. Or they just didn't comment on it.

I kept asking, "Why is that?" They said, "Oh, that's just my taste." But it seemed, in general, that this was the the taste of all thirty-one people. That the only dances they wanted to see were the ones with sexy costumes and Janet Jackson music. Then, I sent them to a student concert which included an incredibly beautiful piece that was so very sad. It was well done. It was short. No text. Not literal. Just very sad. The emotion of the piece was strong. I knew the choreographer and I knew that part of her inspiration for the piece was her father dying. But nobody else knew that.

When I asked my students later to talk about the piece in class they said, "Oh, it was sad. I thought about this time in my life when I lost this person." Or, "I thought about when I was so frustrated."

I remember saying, "You've had an emotional reaction to this. Would you say that you enjoyed this piece" It was like "Oh my God, yes. I think this piece is successful. I didn't leave the theater humming the music and snapping my fingers, but yes, I think it was a successful piece. I had an emotional reaction to it."

It was at that point that they realized that it was not about what the choreographer knew, what her motivation was, it was about having this experience themselves. Nobody lives the same life, so it's going to be for me about my mother having cancer. It's going to be for you the time your sister left you alone somewhere. It's going to be about different things for different people. I felt so confident in leaving that class, I had this sense of accomplishment that I've never had -- knowing that they had that they had begun to acquire the tool of allowing themselves to experience emotion in watching art work.

In Motion Magazine: Is that going to be able to happen here?

Shannon Hummel: I hope so. Why not? Absolutely.

In Motion Magazine: So far?

Shannon Hummel: I think it's great. I'm enjoying it on a lot of levels. I'm enjoying leaving the city for a week and focusing on something else. I'm enjoying hearing all these different stories, meeting these incredible people. I'm enjoying not feeling like there's this incredible deadline. I like that you don't have to come up at the end of the week and say this is the master blue print for this enormous project. It can be an ongoing relationship. I like that.

A truck hauls coal away.
A truck hauls coal away from a strip mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
At the end of the week ...

Migration from a movement standpoint

In Motion Magazine: How did your original project change over the week?

Shannon Hummel: We left the original theme Danielle had been interested in, body image, and pretty quickly realized that was something not specifically local but was, in the way that she was dealing with it, more of an American issue. How the media portrays women and how body image, people's individual perception of their bodies, is reflective of that.

It turned into more of an investigation of community health which is broad because we were dealing with environmental health and individual physical health and emotional health. What work that we did while we were here with Danielle was more fodder for her to work with after we left. I don't feel that Amira and I really concentrated on a project in that vein.

But bringing in all those questions about community health, environmental health, and personal well-being, opened up a wider focus and lead us in to the larger issues of the community. How individuals felt about their perception of themselves and their community. Their perception of the community as a whole. What is going on in the community: like the strip-mining issues, issues of poverty, lack of clean water. Larger issues and how they trickle down into influencing individuals quality of life. That's how it changed.

In the beginning, I really had no idea what we were doing, as far as were we making something, even within such a small group as the three of us. There were different perspectives on that and Amira pretty immediately had something she was focused on and wanted to accomplish before she left. Danielle was interested in that too and was assisting her. Danielle knows how to edit and knows how to work the equipment that Amira was using to create this video. So they worked together in that capacity.

That set me free to explore what I was interested in. I had the opportunity to go around and see what other groups were doing and it brought in for me, as far as a project based in community health, the perspectives of all of the other communities. It seemed to play a part in what we had been looking at and helping me break down what it is that interests me. Where do my talents lie and how could I participate in something effectively without creating something that says this is who this community is because I'm not from this community.

This had a big effect on my own perceptions if I was to do a performance project. If that was going to be my take on this whole experience. How would I utilize all that information? For me it became an issue of looking at departures and arrivals. There's a lot of migration through this area and most of it is out. Just from a movement standpoint that was the universal recognizable theme for me. That physically was very exciting to me, because I felt like it was something that could be stored on an emotional level and can be supported with stories. It's very simple actually as far as imagery goes. The emotional connotations of how that happens. It can be supported with a great deal of other things, with video, with sound, story-telling, visuals, something that collaboratively would work well on a larger scheme.

Not as just someone who makes movement

I have no idea of how or if that will take place. Coming full circle to the end of the week I feel like I know more, because I've never created a large-scale work. For me, knowing where my skills are, it was me rooting out this path through the week and figuring out if I was to participate in making a performance project how would I best support that collaboratively. I think I found that out. It doesn't mean I wouldn't go in a different direction if something actually takes place but I feel like it doesn't seem so overwhelming to me. I don't feel like I've come into this community and I'm expected to generate this enormous change. None of us have the power in one fell swoop to create this enormous change. It's an ongoing process. How do I fit in to that? That's more where I ended up focusing my attention at the end of the week.

Lastly, looking at things that are artistic projects but not necessarily performance projects, there are a lot of ideas being thrown around and for me that was incredible, pushing the envelope as far as, "I'm not just a performer." I don't have to think of myself as just someone who makes movement." There's a lot of other skills and experiences that I have that I could lend to a process that would be something more permanent in a community, that could lay some seeds and be a self-generating process that goes on after we're gone. Which I think is the ultimate goal. It's not just a one time thing where we come in and do our work and then we get out of here. That's the antithesis of what we have come to. I now have more of a sense of how we are connected by that belief.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 21, 2000