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Dancing in the Discourse of the Montana Legislature

Public legislative discussion about the role of arts and public funding of arts in recent years has concentrated on justifying the place of arts in community.  Sometimes defensive after years of legislative discussions across the country diminishing the role of the arts and then funding, this discussion has emphasized the economic impact of the arts, the statistical positive result for youth in the arts, and the communal connections that the arts bring in towns and neighborhoods across the country. Missing sometimes in that discussion is the visceral reality of the connection that all art makes in the moment for people. The testimony and debate about art often happens in historic rooms decorated with beautiful art that defines the legislative body and its history, but the legislators don’t always look up from their desk.

Out of a desire to bring a more direct connection between the actual experience of art and to draw legislative attention to the direct experience of live performance, the project “Dancing in the Discourse” emerged. In discussions with Bebe Miller and Ed Noonan, Executive Director of the Myrna Loy Center starting two years ago, this project was imagined as a way to bring direct contact between live performance and legislative and government staff in the Montana State Capitol. The residency had several components. Bebe Miller worked with 10 local young dancers and developed a movement workshop. The young dancers had also done a residency with Zoe Scofield and several of them had been in Zoe’s performance at the Myrna. This movement workshop was then done in several historic rooms of the Capitol.

First, it was done in the Governor’s Reception Room, a beautiful Tudor style 19th-century room honoring the role of England in democratic development. Governor’s staff and the Lt. Governor of Montana enjoyed St. Patrick Day treats while stopping in to experience the workshop. Then several other workshops were held in other Capitol spaces that were open to the legislative staff and the public. People gathered to watch the Bebe Miller Company and the young Helena dancers perform in the Old Supreme Court Chambers, Senate Conference Room and, most visible, the floor of the House of Representative. Each room has important art work connected to Montana’s history. One of the specific comments revealed the connection this experience made. The Secretary of the Montana Senate was standing at the Senate podium putting out agendas and she looked through the chamber windows to the Old Supreme Court Chamber and saw young dancers performing. For a moment, she was taken aback and then realized it was dancers from the Myrna Loy Center.

The workshop in the House of Representative was done on the 165th Birthday of Charlie Russell, Montana and the West’s most revered painter, in the room that has a massive mural on the front wall that is considered his greatest work. This event was celebrated with birthday cake honoring Charlie. Legislators and staffers and the general public stopped by to see all of these events.

Probably the most fun event was the special workshop for 4th graders from a nearby grade school. Bebe Miller’s tech staff set up video cameras and she led the students and company in a workshop that got the students up on their feet dancing with images of themselves. This event received great local coverage in the Helena Independent Record (link will open in a new window).

The workshops served a different lobbying purpose along with an artistic one. It brought the experience of performance and dance into the chambers where the role and funding for the arts was a reoccurring discussion, an experiential lobby by one of the strongest American contemporary dance companies.

Project Goals:
1) To provide 10 young dancers with scholarships to work with the company across 6 events within their community.
2) To bring the experience of dance residency activities to different historic rooms and buildings around the legislature.
3) To allow Bebe Miller the opportunity to engage audiences in unique spaces as she hoped in the constructing of “Necessary Beauty”

Photo credits:  courtesy of Lisa Kunkel/Independent Record Photographer

The Community Fund is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), the MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

published April 2009

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