The last blog post before the New Year features community dance artist, educator and researcher Lizz Fort. Since studying sports science and psychology at Leeds University, Lizz moved to London in 2000, where she has lived for the past twenty years, currently based in Woolwich in the southeast of the city. After a few years of dance being on the side of her career in the corporate world, Lizz changed course and gained a dance teaching qualification at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) in 2007. Significant moments of learning in her dance career and realisation of her artistic and pedagogic values occurred when she joined a training programme with Magpie Dance on inclusive practice, and discovering Amici Dance Theatre Company working with differently-abled and neuro-diverse people. Lizz developed a portfolio as a community dance artist, which led to a Master’s degree in Community Dance at Roehampton University to deepen her practice. Giving her a taste for dance research, this has led to where Lizz is today: studying for a PhD, teaching at Greenwich Dance and at Trinity Laban Dance Conservatoire for Music and Dance, and caring for her one year old daughter!
Alongside giving us an insight into her current research practice, Lizz’s passion for community, connection, kindness and care shine through, making this article a truly heart-warming read.
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
At the moment, it’s Woolwich where I live. I intentionally designed my PhD research to be local to my neighbourhood. Prior to this, I was commuting for several hours a day to work at the RAD Faculty of Education, and therefore I was spending most of my week away from home. I felt as though I didn’t have a hugely close connection to where I lived, which bothered me. So I designed the PhD to allow me to have a more immersive experience in Woolwich, getting to know the people, the places and spaces. This was a really important part of my first year of research which was enabled and enlightened through a regular walking practice.
One of the things I was noticing in exploring Woolwich was the feeling of being a tourist in the place where you live. I was feeling quite like a visitor – many of the walks I was doing and the places I was visiting were new to me, so I was viewing them with this almost tourist-like gaze. I was a resident yet feeling like a tourist, which created this strange opposition. I needed to understand Woolwich better: understand its people, the issues they are experiencing, the regeneration that is occurring and the upheaval that brings. My walking practice around Woolwich in particular has been eye-opening to discover why this place is relevant and important to me at the moment. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, languages and life experiences with community groups and a lot of community activism that is keeping the corporate developers on their toes. It’s a fascinating time to be living here.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
I would describe my process as exploratory, intuitive, responsive, collaborative, and place-based; and at the moment all those ways to describe site-specific, site-responsive, site-immersive work. My practice is like a series of mini experiments, where chaos and focused logic intermingle. I’m also playing with the idea of calling it curatorial and thinking of myself as an artist-curator. This is looking at my practice through the lens of care and the curatorial, and I’m still exploring what this means to be an artist-curator in the role of a community dance artist. My current process is a dynamic range of doing, thinking, reading, researching and writing. My roles as an artist, educator and researcher are hard to separate as they all inform each other.
The core values of inclusion, joy, and valuing everyone as an artist are apparent across my practice, however the flexibility, intuition and responsiveness of a creative process might vary depending on who I’m working with and the setting. I did a project with Charlton Park Academy last year, working with a range of students around 12-16 years of age; a neuro-diverse, differently abled, wonderful group of individuals. I collaborated with a sound artist and beat-boxer, and a visual artist. At the beginning, we took it in turns to take the lead week to week, however we didn’t prescribe an end result. We tried to keep it responsive and intuitive, but ultimately we had to craft towards something semi-structured as there was to be a sharing at the end of the project. I think my core values are always there, but perhaps the process changes from context to context, in response to what is required for the group and what the group wants, as they have an important say in the process too.
"The core values of inclusion, joy, and valuing everyone as an artist are apparent across my practice, however the flexibility, intuition and responsiveness of a creative process might vary depending on who I’m working with and the setting."
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
Speaking broadly, I would say people, their stories and different experiences of life, which keeps my practice fresh and interesting.
Specifically, at the moment within my walking practice in Woolwich, I’m honing in on this idea of pausing and stillness when I choose to pause in particular places on a walk. I have also been drawn to what I’m calling incongruent objects: objects that are in spaces that throw you off to question “Why is that there? How did that get there?” It disrupts the narrative or process of a walk by catching your unawares and taking you into a different headspace. I’ve begun to photograph a lot of these objects, and recently this has been focused on chairs. I have discovered a lot of empty, abandoned, melancholic chairs and I’m interested in how they got there, and exploring the sense of both absence and presence. I wonder who last sat in them and what stories those chairs might tell. This artistic idea has really captured me, but one of the things I’m learning more and more is not to necessarily hold onto an idea that is not working. It’s okay to put it to one side and return to it later. However, at the moment I feel there may be some connection between the chairs and the loss of spontaneous acts of sitting down and talking to a stranger in public. The project may lead to a socially-distanced seated installation where chairs become a safe place to sit across from someone you wouldn’t normally talk to and have a conversation with them. It might go in this direction but I’m trying not to force this. Practice-research is very much about listening to the practice and responding to it with integrity.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m questioning what the act of pausing on a walk might generate. It links to my research because spending time and pausing in places where I live is a way of caring for my neighbourhood and gaining a deeper understanding of it as a place. Caring for a place is core to my research. I’m starting some field work in January encompassing walking conversations and photo journaling with Woolwich residents, and as I begin to open up my practice to others, I want to explore this idea that if we care for each other and the place where we live, this kindness and care will breathe more kindness and care. I think in urban environments we should take our responsibilities as citizens to care for where we live and look after each other. I’m thinking about care as a collective act and something that we can invest in together.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
This is a big question as it can mean so many things! For me, sense of place is feeling a sense of significance and connection to a particular location or environment. If we think of space on its own, it can be more defined as a geographical location, but sense of place is very subjective. It’s more than space. This can be mathematical or dimensional, whereas place has more personal resonance.
There is a lovely quote from geographer Yi-Fu Tuan: “If we think of space as that which allows movement then place is pause. Each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place,” (Yi-Fu Tian (1977) Space and Place: The Perspectives of Experience, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.6). It conveys this idea that by spending time and pausing in a place, it becomes more meaningful. A space becomes a place because of this sensed meaning. This feels very relevant to my work at the moment.
Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?
I’m working in urban settings at the moment and I have come to really despise littering and fly-tipping. I think if there is a collective understanding of caring for the place where you live, we are more likely to take responsibility for our impacts of our behaviours on the environment. This is where my practice connects with the natural world. Although I live and work in this urban environment, there is still the ever-present responsibility to care for the natural world and be aware of climate change.
"I think if there is a collective understanding of caring for the place where you live, we are more likely to take responsibility for our impacts of our behaviours on the environment. This is where my practice connects with the natural world."
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
Yes, through my garden, and walks in the park with my daughter and her play with the leaves, mud and grass; and watching birds and spotting other animals when we are out and about. It’s an important connection to have and I do very much miss where I grew up just outside of the New Forest, three miles from the beach. It was a beautiful place to grow up. I miss being near the water. The Thames is a great escape, but it’s not the same as looking out over the expanse of the sea. Those experiences connect me to home, my upbringing and my family.
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
At the moment, I love the work of this great organisation called People United. They have done some incredible projects over the last few months around kindness, community and place. They have also had some amazing artist commissions.
The work of Restoke, an organisation based in Stoke-on-Trent, is also brilliant. They work with a whole range of different people from their local community through cultural exchanges and connections. One of their works that I went to see in 2018 was called Man Up, which is to do with male mental health and masculinity. It was co-created with a community cast and professional artists, and performed in a working man’s club. They also did a work recently with mothers. Their practice is often based in specific buildings or sites, and connects such a huge range of people from the local community. I find their work really inspiring.
Tim Casson’s company Casson and Friends is very interesting. His project The Dance We Made seems to be everywhere! Tim and his team take to the streets and members of the public choreograph a dance that his team then performs. He has also done a lot of work with technology and working remotely throughout this period of lockdown.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
Embrace uncertainty and embrace unknowing as a positive place for creativity to happen. Settle into it and see where it can take you. This sometimes feels risky so therefore you need to feel safe in that place to do it. I think this then allows you to work intuitively and responsibly to how the process speaks to you.
Having an initial chat with yourself might allow you to acknowledge a starting point, trust the process, and put a framework in place that enables you to work through a series of tasks, processes or improvisations. This provides that safe space for your creative process to happen. Sometimes working without a framework can feel daunting, and the instinctive self can be a barrier as you’re not sure what the first step is. The other thing is to have clear check-in points where you reflect and think “Is this working? Do I need to take it in a different direction? Do I need to bring in support from others?” You are then working in an intuitive and reflective way.
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
Kindness breathes kindness. I see it all the time and that gives me hope for this crazy world that we're living in. If you receive it, or even if you don’t, pay it forward.
For more information on the organisations Lizz mentions, visit:
All Images: Artist's Own