Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tending the Field: A Talk with Field Facilitator Toni Valle

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Photo by Teresa O'Conner

With quiet persistence, the field has changed the New York performing arts scene. It has created a heightened awareness of and place to search for clear, personal artistic voices. In the midst of tempestuous times for art making, The Field insists on the importance of these voices.

- Tere O'Connor - "Bessie" New York Dance & Performance Award

Fieldwork is a rigorous 10-week workshop designed to help artists hone their work through honest, non-directive peer feedback. An experienced facilitator, who is also creating work, guides the process that culminates in an informal showing. Since 1986, The field has served over 10,000 artists and reached over 30,000 audience members with 15 sites outside of New York City. Houston has been a Fieldwork site for a decade now. I had the privileged of being the Houston’s second facilitator for three years. Toni Valle, the current facilitator, brings us up to date.

The Field must have crossed the decade mark here in Houston. How long have you been involved?
TV: In 1999, I was introduced to Fieldwork through Karen Stokes. She had recommended it to help my choreography evolve. I became a facilitator in 2001 and have been ever since.When I facilitated I was a stickler on the rules. The artist never introduces or defends the work after a showing. Has that loosened up a bit? We were the early hard-core fielders.TV: No. Sara Draper is harder on this point than I am, but over the years, I have realized the importance of this rule and have been better at spotting it. This rule is to protect the integrity of the work and artist, as well as the feedback. Anything outside of the work influences the feedback given. We want the feedback to be as genuine and honest as possible without outside information. We are allowed to give a title and maybe a one-liner - something the audience might read in a program before they see the piece. The only exception is a script, where the author may give us stage directions or info that the audience would see if it were produced.There is no defending the work! We foster the idea that the work can stand alone!
In my day the facilitator showed work as well to take the same risk as the participants. How has the experience of showing your own work enriched your job as a facilitator?
TV: It keeps me raw and involved in the process. I am as anxious to hear feedback today as I was when I started. Otherwise, I think I would slip into a "teaching" role and become emotionally detached. I also stay tuned into the camaraderie of the group - we are all friends and fellow artists and I just introduce the rules and keep a timer. Oh, I also help organize the show - but even then, we all pitch in together to create it.
Why don't more choreographers participate? Do you think artists really want peer feedback?
TV: I think writers are more open to the process of discussing - talking is part of their art. I also think there are avenues to finding Fieldwork - one writer loves it and invites a few friends to join, etc. It becomes a writers group for a while. When I first joined, we had many movement artists and few writers. Now we have few movers, but more writers and poets. We've also gone through stages of musicians.Even more important, we've had a crossover of disciplines - some poets have begun to perform their work, which has transformed them into fledgling actors and movers. I've done several collaborations with musicians, writers and movers.

Because the field is about "seeing" the work, the experience not only hones one’s skills crafting work but sharpens perception as well. Do you agree?
TV: Yes, the field has trained me to be sensitive in reading, not what I want to see, but to see what is actually there. I'm also much better at giving feedback - I am more aware of the artist's personal ability to hear feedback. You learn to sense when an artist may be too sensitive to hear, "I'm totally lost on what's going on in your piece." At these points, I’ve learned to rephrase my initial feelings into something more constructive, like "When you said .... I was confused and did not see how it related to...." Fieldwork is wonderful for learning how to articulate your experience.

How do the mixed disciplines work? Sometimes I felt that we wasted time trying to bring others not in our field up to snuff on dance and it was cumbersome. Other times it worked great.
TV: It depends on the group. I've noticed that mixed discipline groups are not a problem - it’s the awareness of the other artists. I've had poets who were astute in their listening and seeing skills and were able to relate and interpret accurately what they've experienced. I've had others that simply cannot grasp what they are seeing, yet their own work is wonderful.In my personal experience, I always create work for Fieldwork that I want to be accessible to non-dancers. This makes the feedback pertinent to my piece. The other side is that when I am ready for a dancer’s critical feedback, I ask freguent field participant Sara Draper to take mental notes to tell me what’s working or not from a choreographic point and we talk after the workshop. This happens often with everyone - Fieldwork opens other doors of discussion later.
As a choreographer showing work what amazed me was finding out something about my work that was out of my awareness-- for example, my tendency to dance on just the left side of the stage. I had no idea I was doing this and it added something to my work that I didn't intend, and it made the empty right side of the stage seem important. We can't be aware of everything and we miss things. Do you have any tales like this?
TV: Yes - I recently recognized that I create daring works in Fieldwork, things I am afraid to bring up in front of my colleagues and friends. I saw that I was afraid to expose myself to outsiders. This came as quite a shock to me I trusted the Fielders with these personal pieces and they have helped me bridge a confidence gap I had about my choreography and my performance ability. As a result, I premiered a work called "I Take My Clothes Off" at Draper’s fundraiser a few weeks ago. I never would have had the courage to do a piece like this a few years ago. That comes directly from Fieldwork.
Do you have any miracle stories where a work traveled a long distance in development?
TV: Draper created a solo called "Feet" one year in Fieldwork. The next session she asked me to dance it as a duet. The next year, we took it to Chicago for the Fieldwork showcase there. The next year, Draper decided to do a whole concept of body parts, which eventually become her concert "Life Museum" a few years ago.

I started my last year in college on a piece about my family. I was introduced to Fieldwork, which caused my work to grow progressively. I premiered the piece at the student dance concert and then took it to ACDFA the next spring. It was chosen for the Gala. Each time, I worked on it in Fieldwork. The following year, I received the CACHH Emerging Artist Grant to do my first evening length concert, based on that one piece. That piece grew into a full concert of stories about my family. All that happened from the first piece I ever choreographed - in Fieldwork. It’s my advertisement for Fieldwork - I created a whole concert from one Field piece.
The best part of the field is getting comfortable with the raw stages of our work. I used to say that every good dance started out as a bad dance. We all want to be brilliant on day one and it just doesn't happen that way. Any thoughts on this?
TV: I come from a theater and performance art background where almost anything is acceptable, so I've always been comfortable with the process rather than the end product. I love the raw stage better.

How do you manage having first time artists and more experiences types in the same room?
TV: I don't. I personally try to gear my feedback to the level of the artist, but as a facilitator, I just give each artist the room to be who they are and keep them focused on the etiquette of proper feedback.

What brings you back year after year as a facilitator?
TV: Nobody else wants to do it - they enjoy the process too much to get bogged down in the technicalities. I keep at it because I believe that Fieldwork should exist for the type of artist that cannot listen to or does not want a certain kind of feedback. Field feedback is couched in statements coming from “I hear, see, feel,” rather than “you need to, that doesn’t work, why are you doing that?

I continue because I want to give back what it has given me in terms of friendship, growth, and contacts. The hand was there for me to grasp; it’s my turn to reach out with the other hand. I also do it for myself - it commits me to creating new works and meeting with other artists no matter how complicated my life becomes.
Learn more at

Fieldwork meets from February 22-April 26, 2006 Wednesdays, 7-9pm, at the
University of Houston, Melcher Gymnasium, Room 230. The fee is $50.
Several Dancers Core presenst the Fieldwork Showcase on Sunday 7pm, April 30, at 7pm 2006, Barnevelder Theater, 2201 Preston. Admission: $7. Call 713/409-2838