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An interview with Shannon Hummel
From a movement standpoint - Dance

Part 1 - People in isolated rural communities

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Harlan County, Kentucky

The following interview with Shannon Hummel is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

People in isolated rural communities

Shannon Hummel: I am Shannon Hummel and I'm from Brooklyn, New York.

In Motion Magazine: What do you do in your community in New York?

Shannon Hummel: I am a choreographer and a dancer. I have a company of my own called Shannon Hummel/Home Grown Dance Works. We're small. There are four of us in the company. We perform a lot in the city. We're based in Brooklyn but we have this New York-Virginia connection so we also do a lot of work in Virginia.

I also work as a dancer with Martha Bowers and Peggy Peloquin. Martha Bowers, who is also here in Kentucky, has a company called Martha Bowers Dance/Theater/Etcetera. She creates mostly large scale site-specific community events surrounding the histories and stories of specific comminites, places, and people. Peggy Peloquin works as an independent choreographer and is also a community artist. We've been working for two years on a performance piece called "Tender: The Nurses Project". The project involves hospice nurses and professional performers collaborating on an evening length work about nursing issues. Specifically, issues dealing with death and the extreme moments that one becomes involved in as a health care provider. Or as a patient. Or as someone who is grieving. Peggy has been creating, generating this project based around those major themes.

In Motion Magazine: So, your art involves the community?

Shannon Hummel: Yes, the involvement in "The Nurses Project" is pretty straight forward in how it involves a specific community. The work I've done with Martha has also been eye-opening as far as how to work within a community. Both have really affected the way I work as a choreographer. I've been choreographing professionally for about five or six years. I feel that what interests me artistically is not a specific physical technique. I don't work within a set of physical principles or criteria that I need for the dancers to have. I'm more a person who goes in with an image revolving around a relationship, like a relationship to a community or a relationship between two people.

I'm working on a piece right now about the relationships of people in very isolated rural communities and how those relationships change over a period of years. What happens and how does a relationship evolve when it is so ongoing and you are so connected to a place, a community, you don't see yourself uprooting from that community and going out. You are there for a lifetime. How can relationships continue to evolve when you are so isolated.

I guess I'm realizing in my own life that I hop around a lot. I go from place to place a lot and so, and I know this sounds terrible, relationships become disposable. I will have a relationship with a place or a person for a period of time and then I move onto something new. Relationships kind of spring up and then die away.

People change so much over time. That's fascinating to me. It's something that I guess I have difficulty doing, committing to one place and committing to one relationship. Dance and performance, for me, are more about telling a story, exploring the issues of specific relationships that people have with one another.

Martha's work is similar in some ways which is why I enjoy dancing for her. Her work is very specific to a location usually. It brings attention to a social issue or a group of people that maybe a community wouldn't be aware of if she didn't shed light on it.

Martha's last project, "Safe Harbor," took place in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It's a community most New York residents don't know about or are afraid of, a place that people who don't live there don't dare go, especially at night. But it's absolutely beautiful and she created this amazing multi-media project there of huge scale that brought thousands of people down to the area. People that never would have come there before. That's really exciting to me and something that I would like to investigate in my own work. How to bring attention to something that I feel is important, or people that I feel need to have their story told.

The idea of opposites

In Motion Magazine: So how do you express some of these ideas in dance? Like the one you are working on now?

Shannon Hummel: Well, this is what I'm hoping to learn, too, by being here and by working with Martha, and other community-based artists.

The project I'm working on right now is a piece for the stage. The way that I make work, it actually is more abstract than the way I'm making it sound. For example, the reason that I wanted to start working with this idea of small communities is I'm from one and I've moved to New York City. I feel like on a day-to-day basis I'm really out of touch with the community I'm originally from. I'm not a part of it any more. But through the time that I have been in New York relatives call, friends call that I've known since I was born and they say, "Oh, we've been talking about you. We've been thinking about you"

Just to know that I'm a part of this place that I've long since departed from and that my stories and my existence are somehow tied into their existence is fascinating to me. But, it's not like you would watch what I make and know that. It was the seed that made me think, really made me notice, that these communities maintain their relationships even after someone is gone. You are still a part. It made me think and focus on, pay attention to outside in the world what it is that holds long-standing relationships together. Even if it's just that it's hard to get out of this rural place, you're in the mountains. It's just physically difficult to leave. Maybe that is the only thing that holds people together.

I started playing in the studio with the idea of opposites. We began long studies of improvisations based around the ideas of laughing and falling. When somebody falls down, somebody falls behind, you can do a number of different things. You can leave them. You can help them up. You can lay down next to them. And each one of the options has a different emotional connotation.

Amira HaQQ, Danielle Burke and Shannon Hummel
Amira HaQQ, Danielle Burke and Shannon Hummel on a field of strip mine coal waste dumped into a valley. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
We would play with them. If you were walking and someone fell how does it feel different for the person who falls to laugh versus the person who was leaving you to laugh. There is a different emotional investment there. It may not seem from the outside that it had anything to do with a rural community in Virginia but in my mind it had similar emotional connotations. And that was the seed of where we started.

Then there were other things that came in to it, like a physical metaphor for depending on someone Like building phrases around the idea of someone not contributing to the relationship. Someone being completely passive and not contributing to the relationship but the relationship is such that the other person drags you along anyway. Those sort of abstract images somehow related to that community for me because I felt that I'm not participating in this relationship, I'm not really doing anything, but they're pulling me in. They are dragging me along with them. They are making me a part of that place.

And I thought, "Wow", especially living in a fast-paced place like New York, "I don't see this every day". It really stood out to me as something I wanted to work with.

I'm always drawn to relationships that are not necessarily happy, easy ones. Like the ones that continue on, be it to a place, or to another person, or whatever, in spite of the easy choice. That interests me a lot. It seems to be kind of a through-line in my life.

Stories of people who actually exist in a place

My work is very specific, and I like that it's very specific. I would also like to open it up to work that happens beyond the stage, to take a step and incorporate an actual site. Or incorporate the verbal stories of people that actually exist in a place. To go more directly right to the source. Go to a community and involve the people who "live" that community and it's experiences. I have found this to be incredibly moving in both Martha's work and in Peggy's work. They were able to do that. They were able to involve people who are not accustomed to performing to participate in something that brought attention to their own issues, their stories. For them to be able to show the rest of the world their ownership and pride in their place and their stories.

In Motion Magazine: What were you thinking you would be able to bring to this situation?

Shannon Hummel: In coming I wasn't really sure what the situation was. I came here „second hand‰ because Martha was invited to come and she said, "I really want this other person to come".

I guess what I enjoy bringing is a sense of investment. The reason that I do what I do is I enjoy investing myself in the experience. I bring excitement toward investing myself in a community that I'm not familiar with, that I haven't lived in. I don't really know what their issues are, and in a way I'm becoming a part of that community. That is exciting to me. I wanted to come and experience that.

I wanted to come to get something, too. I definitely wanted to come to see how all these other people do what they do who have come in to this place, but also I wanted see how the people here integrate art into their lives and use it as tool to communicate what they feel is important or needs to be changed, or needs to be noticed.

When I went to Danielle Burke's house last night and I sat in her living room, I thought, "This person who is 18 years old is a film maker". That's phenomenal to me. I didn't have that growing up. For her to be able to make the work that she makes about who she is and where she is, I just want to be exposed to that.

It's about the people who live in this community

In Motion Magazine: What have you done so far?

Shannon Hummel: Today was an education day for me because, as I said when I got here I wasn't really sure what to expect.

I didn't realize coming that we were going to be so involved with video and media. It was exciting for me today to learn and recognize the similarities between what I do and what that is.

Last night when I came and discovered that a lot of what we were going to be doing was very video-based I was terrified. I was, like. "Oh my God, they brought the wrong person. I don't know what the hell I'm doing here." But then to go and actually see the strip mining and hear someone talk about living in this community and how it effects them personally, that was really powerful and made me realize that it doesn't matter if you are making a video tape, or you are making a dance, all of those images and all of those questions that arise around those images, all that information, seeing those things and talking with these people -- we can all come together in our own ways.

This is not about me making a good dance. It's not about me making a great video. It's about the people who live in this community. Going out and experiencing first-hand. Stepping on a strip mine area. Experiencing that first hand. Realizing that experience.

I guess that's why I feel that what I've done today has been meeting up with the community. It's been me acquiring experiences of my own to draw from. Not just regurgitating what they've told me but actually having an emotional reaction to it and then working from that emotional reaction.

In Motion Magazine: From your experience today how do you see the interplay between you and local artists?

Shannon Hummel: Danielle and Amira and myself have been talking about how this could manifest itself, this ongoing process. But it's loose as it is still the first day.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 21, 2000