The Power of Invitation
I once read an article by author, educator, and activist bell hooks in which she stated that every student is invited, then ultimately expected, to speak at some point during each of her classes. Not only does this foster a more inclusive environment in which students come to regularly expect a richer exchange of ideas and perspectives, but it also allows them to discover the power of finding and using their unique voices. All that is needed for them to actively take a seat at the table and develop their ability to communicate expressively is her persistent invitation.
This is also one of the simple, yet elegantly brilliant, elements of Artistic Literacy—extending the invitation to everyone. Think about it. How often do we encourage young students to attend “challenging” performances? (By this we mean works that are complex, multi-layered, abstract, ambiguous, et cetera.) And to those unfamiliar with an art form, how readily do we extend the invitation to engage and forge personal connections with a work of art?
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I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of excluding students from certain performances based on what I felt was “developmentally appropriate”. When, in the past, teachers called for SchoolTime performance suggestions, I even had my classifications ready. Orchestra performances were generally appropriate for grades five and up, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was best for grades two onward, and a Chinese acrobat show would work for pre-K and older. (I even patted myself on the back for welcoming pre-K audiences. Prior to my tenure students younger than 5 years old were not invited to attend.)
In addition, performances chosen for SchoolTime were those we’d recommend for our “family” or “world stage” series. They were visually dynamic, yet conceptually or narratively straightforward enough for children to grasp. If the show illuminated a world culture, that was a bonus curricular connection.
This is actually the standard M.O. for most arts presenters, and it makes a certain amount of sense. If you’re merely providing a performance “field trip,” you need to present something with a basic structure, yet enough visual stimuli to keep young students engaged.
So when, three years ago, Sabrina suggested that the St. Louis Symphony perform a work by the notoriously complex 20th Century composer Olivier Messiaen as a SchoolTime show, I pushed back. “That’s not an appropriate show for children! They won’t get it at all,” I protested. In return, she reminded me of our Artistic Literacy goals: to offer audiences multiple points of entry, to provide lenses through which they might understand and connect with a performance.
Sabrina and I told the full tale of our Messiaen experience at the Institute, but I just want to share a few additional thoughts on how the idea of invitation has transformed and come to structure the work I do every day.
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First of all, when I say “invitation,” I don’t mean a simple request for passive presence. Instead of asking students and teachers merely to “come to Zellerbach Hall on this date and this time,” we seek to entice them on an active, multi-faceted journey: “Join us on an exploration of this performance. Together we’ll observe closely, discuss and reflect, then dive in as artists ourselves and create our own works.”
It’s a big ask, so it takes a lot of research, thought, and trial and error to design each invitation. The path they’ll follow through the work—the artistic concept—has to be specific to the performance, yet universal enough to enable participants to make personal meaning of it.
Once students are invited to enter into the work through an artistic concept (past examples include “contrast,” “tension and equilibrium,” and “how everyday movement is transformed into choreography”), they learn some tools and strategies of the artistic discipline and experience the artistic concept through experiential activities. Finally, in groups, they improvise, negotiate, and make choices together, developing short works of their own that they revise, rehearse and ultimately perform.
This last invitation, to step into the role of artists themselves, sharpens students’ observation of and insight into a performance, and strengthens their connection to it. They often find themselves feeling ownership toward the piece, as well as pride and even of a sense of peer comparison as fellow artists. After they’ve performed their own works we often hear students say, “What I thought we did better in our piece was... (insert performance choice here).”
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Now that we’ve had four years of Artistic Literacy residencies under our belts, it’s easy to forget how effective this kind of invitation can be. Given the expectation to see, think, and create as artists, students unleash impressive creativity and imagination.
Recently a representative of a potential donor visited a residency session. The students had just seen a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and they were reflecting together, demonstrating poses and movements they’d seen and describing moments both in literal and figurative detail. A few minutes later they were in groups, morphing body poses into movement, then collaborating on transitional movements. By the end of the 45-minute class, they were presenting their pieces to one another and sharing reflections on their experience of creating and viewing each other’s work.
The visitor was incredulous. “That’s crazy! How were they able to create all that in just that time?”
All I could think was, “They took us up on our invitation.”