For the the first interview in this new series, I talked to indigenous artist and dance maker brooke smiley.
brooke currently lives in California, in a rural town on the coastline in Northern Chumash territory, also known as Valley of the Bears. This was where she was born, and after traveling for many years, has returned to base her current practice here for a short time.
brooke studied at CalArts, California, gaining her BFA in Dance Performance and Choreography, and becoming a long-term apprentice of California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture. This led her to wanting to be a part of work that was being made in the present moment, rather than performing works that were created a long time ago. This began with what brooke describes as “a wild, instinct-driven journey and mad quest,” travelling to Germany and studying with the Forsythe Company. After gaining a scholarship to train at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, brooke moved to London and performed with Transitions Dance Company. This led to her achieving her dream of dancing with the Michael Clark Dance Company, and creating and performing new work with Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre of Ireland.
brooke continues to develop her own practice. When she returned to the US, a friend invited her to a workshop with Body-Mind Centering (BMC®) founder Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, which was the beginning of a journey into receiving support in the act of “micro-listening” to the body and its relationship with the surrounding environment.
This is a truly heartfelt and thoughtful read as brooke’s genuine passion for connecting bodies, people and the natural world comes across powerfully in her words here. She also touches on the importance of revaluing and realigning with the work of traditional native communities; an important topic no matter where we live in the world.
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
It’s my body. I have been through a big letting go of needing to be anywhere. Tending to the body comes first, every morning, and being comfortable with how this evolves and changes. There is an important responsiveness. When I work with the body, I am also working with space. Embodiment is not something separate from anything or anyone – it is everyone! We all are embodied, we all have bodies, and there is this cellular communication that is always present.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
I’m lucky to have had many great teachers along the way who have shared these languages of the body with me. A big part of me and my practice is honouring who is here now and who came before. I worked with Anna Halprin and her way of approaching improvisation, and Simone Forti, whose way of creating solos has been a huge influence.
In the spaces of being with my body, it’s about a personal permission process, and it’s through this process that I allow myself to gravitate towards possibilities or sensations that I’m drawn to, without judgement or logic. There is an element of instinct in my creative process. After improvising and moving for a long time, I sometimes use a big piece of paper and coloured markers in both hands to draw the intricacies of the body with my eyes closed. The language between the two hands has a lot to say to each other. This practice came from Rebecca Hazeltine, a San Francisco based artist and also one of my BMC® teachers.
I would also say that my creative process requires a lot of doing nothing! My ideas come in the absence of doing things. This often happens in nature.
Part of the reason for returning to my home country was that I started to build with the Earth. Alongside listening is also the act of repeating movements, such as shovelling the Earth, or building with the hands. This is a multi-sensory creative space and the way that listening can happen through all the senses is very interesting to observe.
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
To bring feeling or expression to what is not yet known but felt. An act of translation, not just for myself, but to hold this space for other people to experience. I’m curious about what is stored in the body, posing this as a question so as to invite everyone in to consider it. It creates the possibility to value other ways of listening and speaking. Listening to places within the body doesn’t happen through thinking, an invitation in the body has to occur. We don’t learn through strength or force, but through ease. This is part of my practice to consider how ease can be valued. It has taken my whole life to learn to validate ease, especially within my own practice.
"Listening to places within the body doesn’t happen through thinking, an invitation in the body has to occur. We don’t learn through strength or force, but through ease."
What are you working on at the moment?
It's called Life Lines. It brings together three different fields that are all integral and connected in the body. It utilises somatic movement education, Earth building, dance improvisation and performance. Bridging these fields is my aim for the next ten years, creating projects based in different lands, where Native and non-Native communities can come together. Through this act of somatically listening to the space and being with the indigenous history of the land, including the messages that are present that might have teachings relevant for us right now, and the diversity of this through each body, we will collectively build a new marker out of the Earth that communicates and expresses this message. This will then follow with a dance performance event and multi-sensory installation, where we can invite a greater public to come and listen and explore more about the process. My hope is to partner with Native communities, National Parks, and institutions worldwide to bring guardianship back into Native tribes. This includes creating artist residencies for youth to have access and expression in these most sacred spaces. Somatic education is at the root of this billowing dream, in re-mapping our world and who it serves.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
This is unique to each person and is comprised of the senses, feelings, emotions, and the actual physicality of the place and the meaning of this. It involves transmission: we have a sense of a place through our capacity to receive, dissolve or reach out. All of this arrives at a feeling, and this feeling informs how we move, think, speak, treat one another. It’s really important to value the availability of this and the challenge that can come with it. Nature teaches us that there is always change, always a turnover.
Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?
It’s a listening practice with observation and connection. Through the study of somatics, we look at how movement rises and grows life, not only within ourselves, but in the natural world too. A focus for me recently has been to return to the smaller movements and patterns that comprise the whole. These are shared with nature – we are not disconnected from it, we are nature. When we work with the Earth, we are working with our bodies as well. Even when I worked inside studios for long periods of time, I was still studying the natural world. There is something about orientation: the act of turning around and realising that your surroundings have altered. It gives the body the ability to grow and redefine who and what we are, and what we are capable of.
A big turning point for me was learning how to Earth build. It wasn’t until I worked specifically with the Earth that all of these connections started to form, and the Earth became my partner.
"A focus for me recently has been to return to the smaller movements and patterns that comprise the whole. These are shared with nature – we are not disconnected from it, we are nature. When we work with the Earth, we are working with our bodies as well."
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
Yes, it is everything! I usually do my morning practice outside. I also go for walks frequently and tend to my garden. I have recently started to watch birds. My parents were doing this and having visited them, this is something I’m enjoying spending time doing. Hawks, owls and ravens have always been important to me, but I’m now noticing the smaller birds.
Computer life and spending time outdoors is the biggest balancing act! It’s really important for me to be in wild, untouched places.
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and the BMC® community have taught me a lot, with many different practitioners who have influenced me.
The artist Richard Serra is inspiring. All he did was make curved walls, yet when you are around them, they change your perspective. In my practice of making pathways and creating experiences for the body through Earthworks, his work is very relevant.
I also look back to the history of Robert Smithson and other land artists of the 1970’s. I love Smithson’s work.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
Be gentle with yourself. Having a friend, or even a dog, who can slow you down and allow you to take pauses is helpful! Taking time for pause is beneficial, particularly if you can be outside in nature.
Healing and allowing experiences to happen, rather than forcing them. Learning to be gentle might mean you have to let go of certain things. It’s part of this gentle act of holding what has not yet had space to be seen. Support precedes movement: the more support we give ourselves, we can allow growth and change to happen. This might mean letting go of patterns that are no longer serving us, to let other things rise and be seen, instead of holding them stuck inside the body.
The ways in which we take care of ourselves really inform our capacity to care for others. You have to be able to care for yourself before you can do this for others – and there lies the hard work! Creating a list of say ten ways that you feel cared for might be helpful, for example: if you know watching the sunset will make you feel better, then this is an easy way to pause.
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
I want to create connections through our differences. In spaces of protest, the two sides can become harder and harder within themselves. Yet I feel that the message through my work is that there is possibility in the body. There is the possibility to move beyond what we already know, and this possibility might allow us to bridge between the gaps. I’m hoping that our bodies can find ways to be together with respect and a curiosity to learn from one another; to soften, to receive support, so there can be movement and choice, rather than frozen in fear.
brooke's Book List:
There are so many I could choose as I love books so much! Here are a few for now:
1. An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo
This is a beautiful book of poetry.
2. The Power of Silence by Carlos Castaneda
3. Sensing, Feeling and Action by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen
4. Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies by Renee Linklater
Currently, I’m looking into trauma work and this book is about returning back to traditional native ways within this.
All Images: Artist's Own