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“Feedback that makes you want to go back to work, rather than go back to bed” – Interview with Elizabeth “EJ” Johnson

As part of an occasional series, we will be learning more about the Bartol Foundation’s board members and teaching artists. Elizabeth “EJ” Johnson is Associate Artistic Director/Partnerships at Dance Exchange. She is a choreographer, dancer, and educator with a focus in socially engaged dance practices.

On Sunday, March 25, 2018, EJ will be leading a Bartol workshop, Feedback that Nurtures: Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Register for this workshop here: http://bit.ly/2EabXw4.

 

Can you tell me a bit about your work at Dance Exchange?

I have been a part of the company since 1998, so going into my 20th anniversary season. I was the Associate Artistic Director when Liz Lerman, our founding Artistic Director, was here—I was with her for 12 years dancing in the company, directing the Teen Exchange program, and facilitating workshops. And then as she was departing, I left my full-time post to go work at Arizona State University to develop a new program for socially engaged practice and to get my Master of Fine Arts. And then I came back to work more fully with the organization in 2015. Basically, I’ve been at Dance Exchange for a long, long time, with a brief stint in the desert.

 

Why was Critical Response Process developed and what are its key elements?

The key elements of Critical Response is that it’s feedback that makes you want to go back to work, rather than go back to bed. When defensiveness starts, listening stops. And so, this is a structured way of being able to give and receive helpful feedback that is about the artist making their best work for their own vision, rather than us as outside responders imposing our vision on the artist’s work.

Critical Response Process was developed by Liz Lerman when a few key things were happening in her life and at the Dance Exchange. One, she was teaching university students, and she was wondering on what grounds she was evaluating their choreography. And she recognized that she could not do that without a dialogue being a key point of the process. She was also, as an artist, creating very political work and work that was with performers across generations that didn’t necessarily look like a lot of the work that was already out there. And she found that she really dreaded those post-show backstage conversations with people, and also the critics—she felt like she, as an artist, needed a voice in how her work was being critiqued.

She recognizes, too—and this is something that I completely relate to—that there’s a cultural narrative that artists should just toughen up and get a thicker skin to be able to “take brutally honest feedback.” Her question is, why does honesty have to be brutal? Is there a better way? Can you be honest, and can you give feedback, in a way that doesn’t make you just want to give up? So, this is a system that has helped her to maintain her own thin skin. Because as artists who work in communities, the capacity to have thin skin is an asset—to be able to feel, to be able to connect. We don’t want to get rid of our thin skin, we just want to be able to work in a way that we don’t have to “toughen up” to take it. That there is a more productive and humane way to be in a dialogue about work in progress.

 

How can Critical Response Process be used by teaching artists in their work in the community?

I think that there are multiple ways. There are certain values that underpin the Critical Response Process that can be used in the teaching practice. It’s about generosity, about curiosity, about being invested in somebody else’s success in the ways that the process can be used for peer-to-peer feedback—that the teacher doesn’t have to be the only person in the room with the knowledge and power. It provides a structure where many, many people can have the capacity to help grow each other’s work.

In the formal process, there are some elements that are really important. There are four key steps.

Step 1: Statements of Meaning. What was valuable, meaningful, evocative, surprising, curious, memorable, exciting, effective about the work that was created? Being able to have that spirit of working from what’s working is an incredible asset to bring to any learning environment.

Step 2: Artist as Questioner. In a learning environment for somebody who is creating, to have the opportunity to articulate what are their struggles and desires. It allows a person to really create their own vision and voice.

Step 3: Neutral Questions. These are questions that have no opinion embedded inside. So, instead of saying “Why is your lighting so dark?” we’d ask something like “What informed your lighting choices?” This allows people, without defensiveness, to be able to explore why they’re making the choices that they are.

Step 4: Opinion Time. These permissioned opinions. For instance, “I have an opinion about your lighting choices, would you like to hear it?” If somebody has gone through the process of creating, people usually want to know those opinions. But it just allows us to prepare for the opinions, to allow ourselves to receive it.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think that the Critical Response Process has so much to offer people of different fields and domains. We’ve done it with people who do marketing, people who do grant proposals, people who do lesson plans. Although this grew out of a dance organization, it’s been used very widely in the visual arts, in theatre arts, and then also with business. So, I think it has a broad range of applicability.

I also think that you don’t need to be an expert to be able to have something of value to contribute. When I’ve done Critical Response with faculty and students, it kind of democratizes the playing field—that somebody’s response to somebody’s work can be about the chord progression, but it can also be a comment like “it reminds me of being outside in my grandmother’s yard.” And that those both have value in the room. So, I think that there’s a usefulness to it, but then there’s also a process about it that can help cultivate community as we invest in each other’s success.

 

To learn more about EJ’s work, visit http://danceexchange.org/.

Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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