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Small art: An interview with Minneapolis choreographer Laura Holway

Holway’s story speaks to benefits of taking a pause and scaling down a notch.

Photos by Marie Ketring

At the outset of her career, Minneapolis artist Laura Holway thought of success as scaling up: securing more grants, staging bigger productions, and receiving invitations from ever-more prestigious venues to present her performance work. But then she discovered that getting external validation didn’t necessarily translate into personal happiness.

While so many of us (and the institutions we work for) feel pressured to scale up and impact increasing numbers of people, Laura’s story speaks to benefits of taking a pause and scaling down a notch. Here’s a tribute to the hard-won rewards of creating our own successful manifestos.

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When choreographer and curator Laura Holway, 31, was still an undergrad in the theater department at St. Olaf College back in the early 2000s, the adult future she imagined for herself went something like this: Get a Ph.D. and wow people with her ivory-tower amazingness.

But after graduation, she scrapped her Ph.D. plan for another kind of success script—that of a reputable working artist. “Once I realized I wanted to make my own work,” she says, “what made sense was to climb the grant totem pole. Having someone else say, ‘Yes! Your work is okay and it’s worthy of funding!’ seemed like the dream.”

In 2011, it appeared as though Laura’s dream was coming true when she was invited to turn a 15-minute dance piece into an evening-length show at Minneapolis’ Red Eye Theater. The intimate “I Like You” showcased Laura’s infatuation with human connection. But soon after getting the gig, she began to self-impose pressure about its success, which only landed her sleepless, depressed, and in debt. She needed to do some soul searching and decide what her definition of “success” actually was. Here’s her take on how she figured out what mattered to her.

Magic is something you make

After “I Like You” ended, I gave myself permission to take a total break and reevaluate a lot of things. I needed to convince myself that I could have an identity outside of being an artist. I told myself, “It’s okay if I don’t make anything for years.” I had to think about what I even liked. I didn’t know what I was passionate about anymore or what was a driving force in my life. I suffered from a lot of personal anxiety and depression. I was driven by false things: a desire for achievement and approval and a desire to show certain people in my life that I could be legitimate as an artist.

My husband suggested that I ask people I admire out to lunch and that I just talk to them about their creative work. At the time, it was terrifying to me because a big thing of experiencing severe depression is that you’re really self-conscious in making eye contact with strangers. Going outside your comfort zone is really hard.

I took [content strategist] Kate O’Reilly out and I was so inspired by her and how she’d essentially made up a job for herself. And I thought, I can make up a job for myself. I just need to think about this whole idea of creativity differently. I need to start with what is interesting to me and work out from there.

I started paying attention to anything that gave me that tremor of joy. And it really seemed to be connected to people. I loved interviewing people and I loved hearing what was honestly hard for them. I started a blog. And, I was just saying yes to whatever seemed interesting. When someone would say, “read that book or call that person or go to this website,” I did it.

Kate asked me if I wanted to be the volunteer coordinator for Artcrank. I knew it wouldn’t pay, but I thought I might learn something. And I did. I met Charles Youel who runs Artcrank and I was so inspired by the model. It totally informs my work to this day, which is a model of unlikely collaboration.

After being there, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to make anything, but I knew I wasn’t going to make something completely on my own again; that despite being an introvert, I needed collaborators.

In December 2012, Laura and her husband Ben invited a musician, a poet, and a dancer to perform in their living room. They put the word out and called the event “Small Art.” Twenty people showed up. Laura didn’t know it at the time, but Small Art would grow into an evolving series. Later, it would open the doors to other opportunities.

There was something magical about having strangers over. People had to talk to each other. And I would overhear people exchanging phone numbers and information. Again, it was that obsession I’ve had with introducing strangers to one another. There’s something about such an intimate space; things just really come alive differently. You notice different details. You’re all sharing this experience together and that’s so much of what made me like it.

Afterwards, it wasn’t like I said, “Wow, I want to make work like that.” I just knew that it had gone well and that I had wanted to do it again. I did not want to just make dance for dancers anymore. I love ordinary people. I love people that come to Artcrank who just want to buy a poster and drink a beer.

So I wondered if I could bring this into other homes, where people would invite their friends and I could expose my work to new audiences. And I wanted to do it in the winter, when we’re most isolated and lonely—we could bring people together instead.

From the living room to the field

Building on the momentum of Small Art, Laura received a grant to produce a project calledSmall Dances—a series of dance vignettes that she toured to assorted living rooms and gallery spaces around the Twin Cities over four weeks in the winter of 2014. Laura was also hired in 2014 to coordinate Open Field at The Walker Art Center, a summer-long event and performance series that transforms the Walker’s sprawling grassy backyard into an outdoor arty playground. Collectively, these experiences are all fodder for what she calls her “manifesto” of how she wants to work and what truly matters to her as an artist.

Open Field is all about the experience of being on that field. I love that anyone can come, that it’s inclusive. The longer I continue to make work, the more I realize that it’s really important to have a voice even if it’s not a voice that melds in with everyone around you.

And I think it’s interesting to note that the only reason why I was considered for this job was because I made up a performance series in my house and I started a blog. No one gave me a key to the door.

Laura’s Postscript: There’s more than one script

I really thought that there was one way to be a choreographer. I have a lot more confidence in my work now. I also have more clarity about why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Something that happened in the process of this unraveling is that before, I’d felt a little competitive with people, and a little jealous. It sounds really cheesy, but the more specific I get about my work, the more confident I get that my work is my work and there’s room for that alongside everyone else’s. I stopped feeling jealous. And it opened up a lot of space for really good things to happen.

A Tour of Laura’s home

Laura’s hard-won advice for getting unstuck and forging your own path:

  1. Take notice of things. Take notice of what you’re loving. Take notice of what gets you up in the morning, even if it has nothing to do with your job. There’s probably an overlap somewhere. I picture a barometer of zero to ten and finding out where your excitement is about things. And I’m not just even talking about excitement—it could be disgust. Any kind of a strong reaction, take note of that.
  2. Small changes. I feel like this about everything in my life: It’s not about scrapping it and cashing in all of your chips and going to the Bahamas. It’s about changing something small like doing a little bit more of something that you really, really love.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make a ‘wrong’ move. Oftentimes people don’t take a step because they’re afraid that it’s the wrong step. It’s okay to make some of the wrong moves as well. Nothing is set in stone. For the most part, you can just change your mind. It’s still movement. When you’re unhappy or feeling stuck, anything that moves you forwards, backwards, or side-to-side is just huge and so necessary.

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