Choreographing New Life and Death: A Conversation with Liz Walker

Jessica Bussmann May 1, 2022 Art
In 2022, we have welcomed seven Artists-in-Residence to create original works inspired by their experiences at Mount Auburn. Meet choreographer and ballet dancer Liz Walker. This interview was originally published in May 2022. _____________________________ Tell us about yourself and your work. I am a lifelong classically trained…

In 2022, we have welcomed seven Artists-in-Residence to create original works inspired by their experiences at Mount Auburn. Meet choreographer and ballet dancer Liz Walker. This interview was originally published in May 2022.


Tell us about yourself and your work.

I am a lifelong classically trained ballet dancer. I performed for 12 years on and off with Los Angeles Ballet. The bulk of my career there was the 7 years after I had graduated from college. I had a great experience, but being in a ballet company is very all-consuming, and it takes a lot of physical maintenance. So as that time was coming to an end, I moved back here to Cambridge. I knew that I wanted to keep dancing and stay creative. I started picking up a few choreography jobs as a way to keep moving and keep doing projects. And then I found that I really enjoyed creating things, particularly site-specific works that respond to a particular environment. And so, I’ve been doing projects like that over the past several years since I retired from full-time ballet, and have been gaining my own voice as a creator, which has been really rewarding.

Has your performance experience informed your creative process for developing choreography?

I think so. When I’m creating on other people, I remember the experiences I had during my dance career: what was particularly meaningful, what techniques worked, what sort of pet peeves the dancers had when working with a choreographer. I remember how meaningful it was when someone really involved the dancers in the process. And I also try to bring an attitude of positivity and support for the performers I’m working with, because that was what I responded to well as a dancer during a creative process.

Choreographing for myself is different, because I use a lot of video to know what it looks like from the outside. But I think all those years do come into play, of being steeped in the world of a ballet company and understanding what works for the audience, what resonates, and then trying to tap into that as I’m creating.

You are beginning your residency at Mount Auburn partway through your pregnancy (congratulations on both counts)! Could you talk about how this experience is informing your project, “Dance of Arrival”?

It’s been interesting – I applied towards the end of my first trimester or in the second trimester, which was when my energy levels went way up. So I came in with all these ideas. But then I hit the reality of just how physically restrictive it can be, and how rapid the changes are during the third trimester. So I had to tell myself, I’m just going to do my best with the preview in May, when I’m going to be a little less than a month out from my due date. I obviously want it to be to the best of my abilities, but the best of my abilities is constantly evolving. And as I prepare a more substantial piece in the fall, that will respond to the changes that I’ve undergone giving birth.

So I’m thinking of this as a practice of letting go of control and being okay with that. It adds a layer to the whole project, responding to the changes in my physical abilities. And that’s such a metaphor for life, right? Responding to things as they come up. I don’t know yet firsthand, but I think it’s a metaphor for what parenthood will be, too.

Tell us more about “Dance of Arrival.” Audiences will have multiple opportunities to see your work on this project, starting with the preview event in May. What are you planning for these different programs?

I’ll start with what I’m hoping the larger work will be in the fall. I’d like to structure it as a walking tour with stops along the way that are focused on monuments or residents with an interesting story of motherhood, or an interesting story as a parent and a child. I’m going to work with Mount Auburn staff to select the sites. For example, one potential stop would be at Margaret Fuller’s memorial, where there are very tragic circumstances of her death and her child’s death. A lot of this is balancing the joy of new parenthood and new life with the realities of being in this Cemetery and all the stories that are attached to it.

So at each site, audiences can hear a little bit about what we’re seeing, and then there will be a short dance responding to that site and story. And we’ll move from one stop to the next. All of this will be anchored by a slightly longer dance in Asa Gray Garden. That is the portion I’m aiming to show during the preview this spring.

I’m viewing the preview as a “behind-the-scenes” of my process. It will start with an open warmup where I’m preparing my body to move. That’s definitely evolved with pregnancy, and hopefully it will interesting for people to get a window into that. And then I will perform the piece, which is about 6.5 minutes. At the end there will be a Q&A. It’s a lot of moving pieces, and it should be fun to work on.

What is your process for selecting music for each dance segment?

I have tentatively selected the music for that anchor piece in the garden, capturing a spring theme. But I want to know more about what the stops on the walking tour will be before I think about what music or dance could respond to them.

Typically, what gets me inspired is having the music first, or having concept and music. That anchors me, and then I’ll progress into the choreography and the shape of the piece. But this is a little bit reversed. For the preview portion, I wanted to have the music first. But the little stops along the tour are going to be so responsive to the subject matter, and I might actually create the movement before I select the music. So it’s a little different from how I usually approach creating.

Tell us about your experiences as a visitor to Mount Auburn. What memories or places stand out for you?

I live close by and go for walks often. The day I found out I was pregnant, my husband and I decided to walk there – it just felt like the place to be for this moment. I really remember that day, and this disbelief washing over us – excitement and feeling how momentous this was. It was such a perfect place to process that type of momentous event and emotion.

We’ve come back regularly since that first day. As we’re thinking about baby names, we see these beautiful, often antiquated names on the gravestones, and I always start to imagine people’s lives, and all the stories behind who they were and who their family members were. Even before my pregnancy, I would do that at Mount Auburn, unconsciously. And now it’s taken on a whole other level of significance, knowing that we’re bringing someone from a new generation into the world, among all the history of prior generations.

I love how when I walk at Mount Auburn, I always see something new that I haven’t noticed before. It’s so wonderful to visit and really take your time strolling through. I never feel like I’m in a rush when I’m there. I’m just meandering and seeing what happens. It’s such a special place for that.