Choreographing New Life and Death: A Conversation with Liz Walker

Choreographing New Life and Death: A Conversation with Liz Walker
May 2, 2022

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, whose “Dance of Arrival” will feature a behind-the-scenes preview for members on May 15, 2022 and a full performance in the fall.

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”?

Pregnant woman in a ballet costume
Liz Walker (photo by Jim Doyle)

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?

Pregnant woman practices ballet next to a fountain in a garden
Liz Walker rehearsing for her preview performance in Asa Gray Garden

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.

“World’s Greatest Cemeteries” – A Conversation with the Filmmaker

“World’s Greatest Cemeteries” – A Conversation with the Filmmaker
April 1, 2022

Mount Auburn is one of the featured sites in the new series “World’s Greatest Cemeteries,” coming to the Boston area on Sundays at 11:30 am on GBH 2, starting April 17th, 2022. Learn more about the series from producer and host Roberto Mighty – our first Artist-in-Residence back in 2014 – and mark your calendars for the series premiere!

In your series you focus on so many different aspects of cemeteries, from horticulture to preservation to personal stories. I love your notion that cemeteries are a way for previous generations to share important messages. Can you elaborate on that?

This is a great question. First of all, the bereaved choose cemeteries based on location, landscape, who else is interred there, plantings, price, and so on. I believe that is the first message: “Our loved one belongs in this place, not that place.” Furthermore, when we visit diverse cemeteries in many places, we start to notice significant attributes. For example, some of the funerary iconography at London’s Highgate Cemetery is similar to what can be found at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. German-American “Tree Stone” markers in Ohio are carved with elaborate shapes and biblical allusions. Pre-colonial, Puritan inspired “death’s head” carvings at Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery eschew Christian symbols, although the deceased were surely of a Protestant faith. Jewish grave markers may incorporate Hebrew language and symbols. Some of the Armenian gravestones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery include etched photographic images of the interred. Finally, there isn’t much room on the headstones, markers, and monuments for text. So families carefully consider what is written or depicted there in symbols – perhaps who this person was related to, their religion, some notable accomplishment, and so on. These are just a few examples of messaging from the past.

How did you choose the stories to highlight at each cemetery?

I’ll give you a few examples. First of all, I look for classic story structure, in Aristotelian terms. A good narrative has to have peaks and valleys, and, ideally, three acts. “She was a kind woman and everyone loved her” is not as engaging as “1. She was born in difficult circumstances 2. She faced hardships. 3. She finally triumphed in the end.” I’m committed to stories about people who were outsiders in their day, but still managed to make amazing contributions. A great example of this is Dorothea Dix, a mental health crusader who was largely responsible for the development of the American insane asylum movement. She was also the U.S.’ first Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War. She is buried at Mount Auburn. Another story type is “Wow, I never knew that!” For instance, I found out that Alexandre Dumas, the legendary French author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the grandson of an enslaved Haitian woman. He’s interred at The Panthéon, a spectacular mausoleum in Paris. I also look for “celebrities” likely to be known to PBS viewers, like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is interred at Highgate Cemetery in London.

What are some of the differences between the cemeteries that you profile? How are they reflective of their geographic region?

Landscape was at the heart of my MFA studies and my artist residency at Harvard Forest (2010-2011). Looking at the work of 17th-century Qing Dynasty painters, 19th-century French Impressionists and 20th-century Ansel Adams photographs, one immediately discerns that “landscape” is as much an economic construct as it is a visual experience. Cemeteries reflect the idea of “land use” – i.e., the large green space at the edge of town chosen for a cemetery means one thing in 1831 and something else entirely in 2021 when it is surrounded by a teeming metropolis. In “World’s Greatest Cemeteries,” my goal is to visit cemeteries and mausoleums on every continent. Each place reflects its region, landscape, culture, religion, iconography, and peoples.

Mount Auburn is featured in the first episode. Can you tell us about your experience filming here? As you built this series and learned about these different cemeteries, what stood out to you about Mount Auburn that made it unique?

I began at Mount Auburn by directing the film crew at the first “A Glimpse Beyond” in 2012. Prior to that, I’d been there one time – for a funeral – circa 1990. Because “Glimpse” covered a significant portion of the grounds, I got to see the spectacular landscape, trees, plantings, elevations, monuments, and horticulture. I worked directly with senior staff and the “Glimpse” visionaries, and met grounds staff, office people, etc. Everyone was so nice, and they really appreciated art. I fell in love…like everybody else, ha ha.

You were Mount Auburn’s inaugural Artist-in-Residence from 2014-2016. How did that experience impact your filmmaking?

By 2014, I’d produced programs for three “Glimpse” productions, so I was familiar with the grounds. I had excellent working relationships with Visitor Services, Archives, Development, Volunteers, and other departments. All of these people were sophisticated, knowledgeable, respected history, and understood the artistic process. And they were warm, lovely folks. When I was offered the inaugural Artist Residency, my first thought was to film the landscape, monuments, and stories in all four seasons of at least one calendar year. I’d done that previously with “Trees of My City” – a yearlong multimedia project about the trees of Newton that was exhibited at The Arnold Arboretum; and “First Contact” – a yearlong piece for the Fisher Museum about Harvard Forest’s landscape in Central Massachusetts and the clash of indigenous/settler civilizations there in the early 17th century. It was also important to me to be able to film at night. I’d been studying long-exposure astrophotography and nighttime audio recording. Gus Fraser presented me with a key to the Cemetery. I was in heaven.

You are usually behind the camera, but on this show you are the host. How is it being in front of the camera?


What else have you been working on recently in addition to “World’s Greatest Cemeteries”?

In 2014 I began filming interviews with Baby Boomers for a program called “getting dot OLDER.” That program was greenlighted for public television in 2020. It premiered as a thirteen-episode weekly series nationwide on January 1st. It’s a hit, and we’re already filming for Season 2. My half-hour documentary about Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King’s meeting and romance, “Legacy of Love,” has just been added to nationwide. I’m developing a feature film about Edmonia Lewis – whom I first learned about at Mount Auburn; a children’s musical animated series about worldwide folk tales; and a sitcom about an Afro-Latin immigrant family in New York. And transposing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude from cello to my instrument, guitar. Yes, it hurts my fingers. But it’s worth it.

Tell us about the plans for Season 2. Where are you excited to visit and feature on the show next?

“World’s Greatest Cemeteries” gets a lot of fan mail from all across the U.S., and even from places as far away as Israel, Scotland, and Chile. Since we debuted in October, fans have recommended about fifty cemeteries around the world, in addition to my original list of twenty-six. That’s enough to keep me busy for a few more years.

Photo credit: Shawn Read

Welcoming our 2022 Artists-in-Residence

April 1, 2022

We are thrilled to welcome our 2022 Artist-in-Residence cohort! From spring 2022 until late winter 2023, this group of seven artists will be working on creative projects inspired by Mount Auburn. Updates on their projects and special programs will be announced on our website and social media, so keep an eye out for news in the coming year!

Woman wearing black with long, straight brown hair
Black-and-white photo of a man smiling

Madge Evers and Thierry Borcy
Visual artist Madge Evers and photographer Thierry Borcy are collaborating on Mount Auburn Statuary: A New Way of Seeing. Borcy will capture images of Mount Auburn’s monuments using monochrome photography, Evers will transform the printed images with patterns of foraged mushroom spores, and the altered images will be re-photographed, interpreting the original monuments in a transformed context. “The created imagery will depict the landscape, link human created statuary with natural materials, and present the regenerative qualities present in biodiversity, specifically fungi and plants.”

Artists Interview

Man holding guitar

Ira Klein
Musician Ira Klein will compose, produce, and perform The Oak Cycle, a series of guitar pieces inspired by specific oak trees at Mount Auburn. Klein is a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music, and his concentration in American roots music will inform his compositions. “I frequently visit the Cemetery, as I am fascinated by its natural landscape and bird population. As a musician, I find myself deeply inspired and recharged by the Cemetery’s tranquil environment.”

Artist interview

Woman stands in front of wall painted with big flowers

Simone Nemes
Multi-disciplinary artist (and former Gardening Technician at Mount Auburn) Simone Nemes is returning to create Memorializing Nature, a series of seasonally-themed illustrations of fantastical urns. These images will draw upon Nemes’ deep understanding of plants and the natural world from her previous horticultural career. “Painting in a realistic style, I will re-interpret traditional urn designs [found at Mount Auburn] to incorporate the flora and fauna of the cemetery, with each season featuring native species that are active during those months.”

Artist Interview

Woman wearing sunglasses in a garden

Jill Slosburg-Ackerman
Sculptor and wood carver Jill Slosburg-Ackerman will create Mourning Benches – several portable, low-to-the ground benches carved with designs inspired by Mount Auburn’s flora. Her project was inspired by her own experience of visiting her husband’s grave at the Cemetery. “I have longed for the means to sit closer, in order to comfortably commune with his spirit and to immerse myself in the landscape. Creating the Mourning Benches is my gesture of amelioration.”

Artist interview

Woman with long curly brown hair

Liz Walker
Ballet dancer and choreographer Liz Walker will produce Dance of Arrival, a contemporary dance performance on Mount Auburn’s grounds. The theme of her dance will connect directly with her current pregnancy, and was inspired by her experience visiting Mount Auburn with her partner upon learning of her pregnancy this fall. During their walks, they were deeply impacted by the graves of children, and found themselves seeking inspiration for baby names amongst the monuments. “This site-specific dance work will explore themes of life and death as they relate to Mount Auburn Cemetery as a destination for pivotal moments in one’s life. A crucial touchpoint for the project is my experience as a dancer who is pregnant and preparing to welcome a new life.”

Artist Interview

Man in blue plaid shirt with art supplies

John M. Williams
Visual artist John M. Williams is creating a pair of collages depicting the Cemetery’s landscape in multiple seasons, layering pieces of cut paper to create a sculptural effect: Seeing Mount Auburn with a Different Eye. His work is influenced by his experience as an artist who is autistic. “The title of my project relates to the special skills and way of seeing the world that comes with autism. My work is a completely new way of seeing and depicting the landscape.”

Artist Interview

Exploring Nature’s Impermanence with Ponnapa Prakkamakul

Exploring Nature’s Impermanence with Ponnapa Prakkamakul
January 25, 2022

This past year we have made mini-grants to five artists to create original works inspired by the Cemetery during a one-year period. Each of the selected artists will create an original project rooted in their experiences at Mount Auburn. Today, meet Ponnapa Prakkamakul and learn about her project, “Mount Auburn: Seasons of Change.”

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your art.

I am a visual artist and a licensed landscape architect at Sasaki. My artwork includes a broad range of practices from mixed media painting to public art, place-making/place-keeping, and participatory art-making. While some of the work overlaps between these fields, all the work is place-specific artwork that is inspired by landscape and people in those locations.

Could you talk more about your work as a landscape architect? Does your work in one field inform the other, and vice versa?

They definitely inform each other. To me, the boundaries between the two fields are blurry. For example, I believe that a mural and a streetscape design can achieve the same goal, with different approaches and medium. Working on both fields helps me look at things in a broader perspective and see more possibilities, in all scales.

Tell us about your project, “Mount Auburn, Seasons of Change.” How are you exploring this concept though the changing landscape?

At Mount Auburn Cemetery, human bodies are transitioning into the earth through burial, or into the sky through cremation. In this project, I explore the concept of change through the landscape foliage and colors of the sky. Throughout the year, the landscape of Mount Auburn changes from lush green to fall colors, open sky, and blooming in spring. I express these changing scenes in my mixed media paintings and abstract pastel on paper.

In Theravada Buddhism, impermanence is a nature of everything. One of the practices to accept all changes in life is to observe nature and understand its changing quality. I hope that this project will invite people to visit Mount Auburn throughout the year and have their own reflections on the concept of change.

During the time you have spent capturing Mount Auburn through the changing seasons, have you observed anything that stood out to you, or surprised you?

I usually think that the best spot to see colors of the sky or a sunset would be at a high ground – a place with a panoramic view or a spot with no obstructions to the Sun. However, I discovered that watching a sunset at a low spot is also fascinating. I discovered this in December; I was on Spruce Avenue trying to walk to Washington Tower to see a sunset. The sun was already setting, and I realized that I was in a bowl of glowing orange light. It was so beautiful.

I think it was because of the unique topography at the Mount Auburn together with the atmospheric refraction in winter. I plan to go back more often and hope to discover more special moments there.

What has your artistic process been during your residency? What do you work on while you’re onsite at Mount Auburn, versus in your studio?

I did en plein air pastel on paper while I was at the Cemetery. This medium was suitable to quickly capture the changing color of the sky during sunset. Also while onsite, I joined tours to learn the history of the Cemetery, interesting stories, and plant species. I really enjoyed the tours and conversations with other participants. It made me feel more connected to the place even though I do not personally know anyone buried there.

I also collected soil, snow, water, and plant materials to use as painting medium in a studio at home during winter. Although I have been collecting soil from several places, this time is the most challenging thing for me as a Thai. In Thai culture, people believe that taking home anything from temples, graveyards, or cemeteries would bring spirits. I have realized how superstitious I am even though I grew up in an urban contemporary life.

Do you have a favorite place at Mount Auburn?

There are several places that I like and always walk to when I visit Mount Auburn. Washington Tower is one of my favorite spots. I like the experience of going up the dark spiral staircase, walking counter clockwise and feeling almost like walking up into the past. Then you see a box of light when you reach the top, and then everything is so bright. Sometimes I wonder if this is the experience of the afterlife.

What has been your favorite season at Mount Auburn?

I like Mount Auburn in all seasons. In summer, I feel that the space is very dense with tree canopies, humidity, and sounds from bugs like a wash of sound in shoegaze songs. I think fall season at the Cemetery is very impressionist; with the picturesque style and the intense texture of the foliage colors. On a sunny day in fall, the bright light that goes through the yellow leaves is my favorite. And of course, spring makes everywhere so pleasant.

Before working on this residency, I had never visited in winter. During the residency, I actually discovered that I love walking through the Cemetery in winter a lot. The space seemed to be expanded, with tree canopies open up for the sky and the quiet atmosphere. The sunsets were also as beautiful as other months.

Top image: Cycle, 2021; image courtesy of the artist.