Justin Tornow: Dance Artist, Educator and Researcher

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.

Photo by Alex Maness

Photo by Alex Maness

Justin Tornow (MFA) is a dance artist, educator, and researcher based in Durham, NC. Her artistic work is primarily collaborative and interdisciplinary, created with a core group of partners in visual art, sound design, filmmaking, and lighting design. Tornow’s solo and collaborative work has been widely presented in North Carolina, as well as New York City, Philadelphia, France, Italy, and Germany. She is a co-founder and organizer of DIDA (Durham Independent Dance Artists) and the producer of PROMPTS, a Durham-based series for artists.

Tornow teaches college-level courses and workshops in dance technique, composition, and repertory. She was the 2017 teaching-artist-in-residence at Tanzart Atelier in Kirschau, Germany, and is currently a 2019 artist-in-residence at The Commons at UNC-Chapel Hill, working to develop a score-based Happening that blurs the line between performer and audience, prioritizing process and personal interpretation in order to highlight performance as a responsive practice. Justin was a 2018-2019 Cunningham Dance Research Fellow with the New York Public Library, publishing original research on the pedagogy and practice of the Cunningham Technique as a Practice of Freedom. She continues this research through workshops and series at Duke University, ACDA, and ADF, examining sustainable pedagogy methods for studio dance practices, and devising collaborative lab environments for repertory and composition courses.

You’re a dancer, you’re an educator. How would you describe yourself?

Well I’m wearing a lot of hats right now so it’s an interesting time to ask me. A few years ago I would have just been like, dancer, that’s it. Currently I’m a dancer and I just dance for myself. I’m an improvisational artist. I have a [dance] company but we stopped operating like a fulltime company – I’ve suspended operations because we had this huge show last year and the fundraising was such a flop. And we needed so much money. And it’s the same story that everyone has – the Kickstarter, and applying to grants you don’t get, yadda yadda, and I was finally like, forget this, I’m not going to do this anymore.

You end up doing so much administrative stuff that you don’t get to do your art.

Exactly. It was this huge multidisciplinary, highly collaborative performance we did at The Fruit. It was a ton of coordinating, the administrative part was pretty incredible. And then trying to get the fundraising was just deflating. And I felt so strongly about the performances and what we did. We had tons of people attending and coming back because it was changing every night and shifting. After it was over, I basically spent the month of August in this sort of zombie haze of exhaustion. And I can’t do it like that anymore because it makes me feel like that [work of art] wasn’t successful, in a way, and I know it was amazing.

So I needed to get back to the art making. I’ve also been getting some pretty incredible opportunities to do research. I was a New York Public Library Dance Research Fellow. I was able to dedicate nine months of my life going back and forth to New York and sitting in the archives and culminating all of this thinking I’ve been doing while teaching this particular technique, the Cunningham Technique.

This research piece is new for me. But I am applying for more and more fellowships and it’s leading me to consider pursuing a PhD… so hopefully I’ll be getting a doctorate in Dance Pedagogy one day as well.

Tornow teaching at ADF. Photo by Ben McKeown

Tornow teaching at ADF. Photo by Ben McKeown

What do you think that dance offers that the other art forms don’t?

I collaborate with people in a lot of other disciplines, that’s very much at the center of my practice. And one of my closest art partners, Heather Gordon, who is a visual artist in the area, Heather always says how solitary it is to be a visual artist. I get community from dance. You’re feeding off the energy of each other and the audience. But the thing that’s the most attractive to me is that it’s pre-verbal. I’m not the most articulate or the most interested in verbalizing…

When you start theorizing about dance and its place in society, it’s probably the lowest form on the totem pole of art. It gets the least amount of funding, it gets the least amount of support, audiences are dwindling. And some of the theories I tend to agree with are that as a society we like to privilege the mind over the body. We give the body second class status.

True, think about all the ways we numb our bodies. Alcohol, television.

Yes, and all of our technology. And when you think of the way we are educated, all of that training is distancing the mind from the body. And it’s also not providing a lot of critical thinking skills, which is very much something you get by studying dance. Especially when you get into improvisation and interpretation. You throw a three year old in a classroom and give them creative movement exercises and they have no problem. They understand what you mean by interpret this idea with your body. And we lose that because it’s trained out of us.

I’m teaching college students now and they’re getting one kind of line about how their resume has to be like this, your headshot needs to look like this and you need to network. And I’m like, OK that’s good, and it’s important that you know that. But I also want you to know that if you feel friction around those ideas, don’t devalue that friction, don’t devalue your own feelings – instead try to excavate that [and see where it takes you].
— Justin Tornow

What does living a creative life mean to you?

I can’t imagine not living a creative life. I went through a shake up in the last few years of my life. I was with a partner for a really long time and we got divorced. You know when you’re partnered – especially partnering very young—you’re really adapting to another person’s needs and interests. And then once you have pleasantly departed – or not, I guess -- you have to reclaim [what you really want to do with your life.] I’m getting this new opportunity to make 100% of my decisions for myself, so I began an examination of what I wanted...

And I went back to OK what did I like to do when I was ten? and it was making dances, leading other people in dance. And I was almost always on an instrument. And that was all still interesting to me. So I’ve re-formed my life around those sorts of things. And the more authentic I get, the more I’m able to have the right amount of space in my life for what I love and can attract abundance.

So it sounds like living a creative life means living a life that you’re able to examine.

Yes, that’s it.

Photo by Michelle Lotker

Photo by Michelle Lotker

What are some creative challenges you’ve come across during your artistic journey and how have you moved through them – or have you?

This might all be applicable to just about everyone… In terms of my art projects, I usually don’t have a lot of questions in the process… I get sparked by the artistic decision I’m making and off it goes. I never really do a lot of hand-wringing about what are other people going to think. And I’m good at the administrative aspect of it, I’m a Virgo.

But I get stuck in the process of making art a career. I sometimes suffer from the thing that most people do, which is that sense of being an outsider or feeling like an alien if I’m in negotiations or anything that’s about money or resources. I’m not great at advocating for myself or my work. I don’t operate in that realm, so I’ve had a lot of learning to do there.

But what I’ve discovered over the last couple of years is that [to establish an art career] I just need to be put into action. And so what’s worked for me is that I just say I have a cool idea for this project and I want you to help me do it when talking to a particular institution. So then I’m not selling myself [I’m coming at it from more of a collaborative perspective.]

Of course there’s always resources or funding issues. Operating inside of capitalism has never felt like a good fit for me. I think some people thrive a little better here than I do. [I come from the perspective of] let’s be generous, the more the merrier, let’s collaborate. And how do we teach that perspective?

I’m teaching college students now and they’re getting one kind of line about how their resume has to be like this, your headshot needs to look like this and you need to network. And I’m like, OK that’s good, and it’s important that you know that. But I also want you to know that if you feel friction around those ideas, don’t devalue that friction, don’t devalue your own feelings – instead try to excavate that [and see where it takes you].

How do you think we can get this country in particular and the world in general to value art and creativity more highly and what do you think it would look like if we did?

I mean, you know … ugh, capitalism…! (laughs) I was traveling in Europe at the end of 2017. And the thing that really struck me about being over there is that no matter what people’s experiences were with dance or art – I was in a rural part of Germany for a residency – when I said I was an artist or a dancer people didn’t have the same kind of reaction [that they do in the States.]

They didn’t see it as a sort of flippant or recreational kind of career. And that’s what I keep underlining [to my friends in Europe] – I know their financial situation in the arts is getting worse, but [in the United States] people think that what I do is irrelevant and some kind of playground life. I didn’t get that vibe in Italy, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Amsterdam. Artists were just artists and people’s reaction was basically, Yes, you’re an artist. You’re part of our economy. Thanks for existing.

We always joke that [in the United States] people think artists are magical fairies that don’t need art, food or housing.

Photo by Michelle Lotker

Photo by Michelle Lotker

What is the role of the artist within their community?

I think there are lots of roles depending on who the artist is and what their gifts are. For me, I’m feeling a strong pull to be clear about my moral and ethical stances. A lot of artists are making work that’s more transparently about their value system. I think that’s great and it’s important if you’re called to do that. But I worry that [that stance about work] might then seek to devalue other types of art. It’s important to have artists who are still abstracting ideas too…

[There are] artists who are educators, who are really called to share their experience with others. There are artists who really feel called to welcome people into participation so that art can be a more direct part of their lives. Artists have tons of different roles, and they’re all useful.

People need permission [to be more creative]. And oftentimes the only person who can give you permission is your own self. So you have to say, OK I’m allowed to do this and do it badly. We need permission to experiment and to fail.
— Justin Tornow

What or who are some creative influences?

Well everybody knows [that I’m going to say] Merce Cunningham. And yes, in part because I loved the dancing way before I loved the thinking [about dancing.] He’s also influenced other artists and their work has influenced me. So the Judson Dance Theater folks, Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, folks who have made political statements with their work and processes… not necessarily it was overt, but because the art is inherently subversive.

The collaborators I’ve worked with in the last five years have also had an incredible influence. I have this core group of 6 or 7 collaborators and we shift around on projects. They are from many different disciplines. A painter [Gordon], a lighting designer [Chris Fleming], Alex Maness who is a filmmaker, musicians [Lee Weisert, Matt McClure], and I’m inspired by writers like Chris Vitiello, Lightsey Darst, and Michaela Dwyer. Everybody has these different ways of looking at the world. So as much as Merce Cunningham is an influence who basically set me on my path, I surround myself with people who look at the world differently than I do, and those people are just as much of an influence – or more – than the big legends.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative?

Surround yourself with people who see the world differently than you. Create a diverse community around yourself. I like the way Heather puts it: “Artists set up a problem for themselves and then they solve it.” And also get out and see stuff! There need to be more butts in seats. Get out and see what other people are making.

But also, people need permission [to be more creative]. And oftentimes the only person who can give you permission is your own self. So you have to say, OK I’m allowed to do this and do it badly. We need permission to experiment and to fail.