A new month, another artist: a conversation with dancer, poet, and writer Celeste Nazeli Snowber.
Celeste grew up in an island town, Nahant, outside Boston, Massachusetts, where she lived until she finished her MA in theology and her journey took her to Canada. Celeste’s love of dance came from her mother but she didn’t start formal training until her last year in college, mostly in contemporary dance styles. Now her focus is largely on site-specific dance, and integrating dance, comedy and voice in one-woman shows.
She eventually settled in Vancouver, British Colombia. Celeste is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, focusing on embodiment, arts based research, and ways of knowing through the body. It’s important for Celeste not to separate her art, education and scholarly work, and she has worked hard to find a way to bring the artistry and scholarly together. She has found a ‘little pocket’ within the field of arts-based research where the academic and the art can be companions together. Her art, research, practice, and wellness are all integrated. Celeste has published three collections of poetry and other books, with her most recent being Dance, Place and Poetics: Site-specific Performance as a Portal to Knowing (2022). Her book, Embodied Inquiry: Writing, living and being through the body (2016) continues to be utilised internationally.
Celeste’s work has had a huge influence on my own practice as a dance artist so it was such a pleasure to speak with her. Read on to discover how Celeste dedicates time every day to creativity, the importance of noticing the invisible and unseen, and an insight into her next book.
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
I rarely work in a studio, unless I’m working on a one-woman show, as I don’t have frequent access to studio space. I’m very interested in where the land meets the sea; it’s a riparian zone. Because I grew up in an island town, coastal places really call to me. The walk that I did for nearly twenty years, where I raised my children, was along an inlet by the Salish Sea in Port Moody, B.C. Eventually dance performances emerged from this place which I would share with the public: I would walk, interpret, dance and create poetry out of the landscape and seascape. Since Covid, I’ve found that I will find many places in proximity to my home, where something will call to me and I’ll converse with the natural world through improvisation and dance. And yet, I’m always moving in-between urban and wild.
Over the last few years, I have been working in the University of British Columbia Botanical garden where I became the artist-in-residence for two years. I have a similar process in that I’ll walk, dance, and create poetry where I’m listening to the land and the different species there. It’s a conversation where I’m part of the more-than-human world: the trees, plants, magnolias and maples, the eagle that flies overhead. I still offer performances for the public in the garden, even though my residency has ended, just this weekend I did one in connection to the magnolias. Everything is part of that place. Everywhere I dance is in-between urban and wild.
I also feel very drawn to go back to my ancestral lands, both in Ireland and Armenia. In particular, ‘thin’ places as in within Celtic spirituality are places ripe with fertility and they are often found bordering land and sea. I feel that there is a connection with this in-between state and my life, in a liminal sense which is full of creativity. What happens when we are open to the invisible and the unseen?
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
I think it happens in many different ways because I’m an interdisciplinary artist. What is really important is to have a dedicated practice every day of time to creativity. This may not mean that I dance every day but I do something that nourishes my body soul – if I don’t do this, I won’t have anything to access. I see creativity as part of life, I allow it to seep into every moment, but a dedicated time is also important so that there are no distractions. Discipline, practice, passion, perseverance, and play are all crucial.
With this work we are often leaping into and having a relationship with the unknown. We are often more concerned with the known but site-specific work has to be about the unknown. I often call myself a recovering choreographer because I love improvisation and as a practice it’s in a relationship with the unforeseen. It’s a risk but it’s okay to leap into the unknown.
Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?
My daily practice of waking or moving spontaneously is a way of emptying, and for me this is a ritual and ceremony. The simple acts of walking and moving spontaneously have become lifelong practices that allow me to do my creative work. There is something about going into a state of flow where we empty. If I don’t walk or dance every day, I don’t feel calm. I need to move to be calm as it’s in the moving that I find stillness. If you have to do something for your survival, you can’t not do it! I would go crazy if I didn’t walk, dance or have my somatic practices – it’s a matter of life or death for me!
As artists, our minds are often very busy and we are often obsessed by the tyranny of the urgent, and so I have to go into another zone, dropping down, which allows inspiration to come. This often happens when I’m swimming in the lake in the summer as ideas come once I’ve found a sense of rhythm in movement. You have to find the ritual or practice that feeds you as an artist because the consistency in doing it every day is important.
'If we as human beings shifted our relationship to understand the ecology of place, we would respond differently to the environment and care for it. The world often separates itself from place and the environment, but if you understand it from a body-place connection, you care in a different way.'
What are you working on at the moment?
Although my residency at UBC Botanical Garden has come to an end, I developed a strong relationship with them so I still do performances at various times of the year. One of these is In Conversation with Magnolias. The garden has many different species of magnolias and they are one of the oldest plants on the planet. What I found when I was exploring the garden was that they became metaphors for so much of living. There was one tree that rarely bloomed and it was going to be cut down; they decided not to and afterwards it finally flowered! It became a metaphor to bloom in impossible times. We have to bloom in our own timing as it cannot always be predictable. The magnolias are beautiful yet incredibly resilient.
I’m looking to shift what I do to a wider audience as it’s so difficult in this world to be an artist, yet the world needs art, so those of us who are living artistic lives need to be voicing our practices. My next book is called Creating in Dangerous Times, and it's about the fact that we create no matter what. This might mean we have to spend time away in order to follow an idea through. Once you follow the thread, other things happen, but there is always a risk! You have to have courage to do this type of work in the world. Life is short and there is no other option but to do it.
Also, I’m currently creating a short film of my dance and poetry that is connected to my Armenian identity, which I have a small grant for.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
All of my work is deeply connected to place, both the outer landscape and the inner landscape. Place and the body are intertwined and therefore we are not separated from place. Site-specific work is a way of listening and responding to the land. If we as human beings shifted our relationship to understand the ecology of place, we would respond differently to the environment and care for it. The world often separates itself from place and the environment, but if you understand it from a body-place connection, you care in a different way. This is why I believe site-responsive work is really important. When you become vulnerable and feel the earth somatically, you are changed. This is what the earth is calling for.
This work can be challenging: the land is colonised or threatened, species are dying… it can be difficult to approach because as a dancer I feel this in my body. I also believe deeply that the land holds memories so when I’m moving on the land, I’m also responding to what is hidden there, similarly to epigenetics and cellular memory from our ancestors. I see myself as a landscape dancer.
'Artists, and particularly those who work in connection to the land, have something to offer that opens up what it means to be deeply human, and what it means to be vulnerable.'
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
I think my work speaks to the soul of the earth and what it is calling for. Artists, dancers, poets, and particularly those who work in connection to the land, have something to offer that opens up what it means to be deeply human, and what it means to be vulnerable. I don’t think you can do this work without being vulnerable, to break open. The earth is in a very vulnerable state right now. When we are in conversation with the earth through dance, movement, voice, music, I think the land hears us. This work is more important than we realise, and it may not be valued, but we must keep going as it’s needed. Through this we are sustained in a way we don’t completely understand. It’s a ripe time to be doing this creative work as the world is in a state of readiness.
Celeste's Book List:
My reading list doesn’t often contain books you might expect, and I’m often inspired by poets rather than writers. There’s always new, interesting work coming out and so this list could contain many more!
1.The Living Mountain by Nan Shephard
Shephard’s work has been recently rediscovered and there’s a beautiful dance film by the National Theatre of Scotland called How the Earth Must See Itself (2019) related to this book. I love that sense of her going to a place every day.
2. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer is an indigenous poet and biologist, whose writing is very poetic.
3. Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
I really loved reading this book.
4. Dancing in the Muddy Temple: A Moving Spirituality of Land and Body by Eline Kieft
Kieft is a friend of mine and her work is very much related to place and the body.
5. Art, Ritual and Trance Inquiry: Arational Learning in an Irrational World by Barbara Bickel This book is bridging the areas between scholarly and artistic dance work.
To learn more about Celeste's practice and work, visit her website www.celestesnowber.com and Instagram @celeste.snowber
Images 1, 4, 5: Chris Randle
Images 2, 3: Michele Mateus