A Sacred Shift: An Interview with Marlee Grace

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Marlee Grace is a dancer and author of the book A Sacred Shift: A Book about Personal Practice, inspired by Personal Practice, an Instagram account on which Marlee posts videos of herself dancing in places ranging from her kitchen to a graveyard to a eucalyptus grove. She currently has over 29,000 followers.

She is an alumna of the University of Michigan, where she was enrolled in the School of Dance. Previously, Grace founded Have Company, a storefront in Grand Rapids with other iterations (a zine, a podcast, and an artist residency, to name a few), which is how I was first introduced to her work. After reading A Sacred Shift, I reached out to Marlee for an interview–yet another an act, one might argue, of improvisation.

How long did you live in Michigan? How did it affect your art?

Twenty-eight and a half years. There’s something about intense seasons that taught me a certain kind of resilience.

When did you know you needed to leave the state? How often do you return? 

I decided to move in August of 2016 and it was a pretty swift decision. I had just ended a five-year partnership and decided I didn’t want to see snow for a while. I had friends in Oakland who invited me to live in their home, but once I got to California, it was the coastal, rural landscape that became my home. I have returned to Michigan four times since moving.

How did dance school shape or inform Personal Practice? 

My work as an improviser started at the University of Michigan with my professor and mentor Amy Chavasse. Amy introduced me to four women who work collaboratively under the name The Architects. Personal Practice was born in 2015 at The Architects’ yearly intensive, so although that project began five years after I graduated with a dance degree, it was created in hopes of returning to the same type of daily discipline I experienced in an academic setting.

How has your relationship with dance changed?

My relationship with dance is always changing. Since leaving college, I don’t really ever take technique classes and I exclusively identify as an improviser. I didn’t come into regular teaching until 2016, and my daily commitment to dancing is what led me to more regular research. I go through waves of mostly working as a solo practitioner but also enjoy collaborating with other movers.

What was the process of writing A Sacred Shift? How has your relationship to the book changed since it’s publication? 

The process of making the book was more difficult that I expected. I went through to catalogue each video that documents the end of my marriage and my move to California. When I would re-listen to each song and see myself in my old home, it brought up a lot of unprocessed and unexpected grief, but I’d like to think that everything is on time.

Since the book has come out, the response has been humbling. What both the book and the project have taught me is that when you realize you’re not the only one experiencing your specific pain, it is a relief. The longer the book has been out,  the more I question its relevance — but I think that is just part of making things. Sometimes I read parts of it that were written in 2015 and I think to myself, “Wow, that’s not how I think or speak or write anymore.” But it is also a gift to get to go back and see how I have changed.

In the introduction you state, “Putting this book together was also a true act of patience and self forgiveness.” I’m interested about the self-forgiveness: What was this process? How and when did you realize this was taking place? Did you set out to forgive your self? 

I am continuously in a process of self-forgiveness. I truly believe this is the homework of my life. I set out to finish the book in December of 2016. When I didn’t meet this deadline, I was filled with shame and sadness. I sat on the book for a few more months and realized that in order to finish it I had to forgive myself not only for not finishing it when i had originally intended, but also for other ways in which I felt I had not shown up for myself fully, both in regards to the actual writing of the book and things that occurred in the timeline that the book represents.

Are the small pieces in the prologue written on a phone? Paper? I can even imagine these being tweets!

I wrote the prologue after I finished the book. They are simply poetic gestures to set up the timeframe of my dance history.

How did you use the “practices”? Were they written before or after the movement? Were they inspiration for the videos / dances you filmed?

The list of practices is simply a catalogue of what I titled the videos on the Instagram account. I almost always came up with a title for a practice after I had filmed it, although sometimes the title would emerge first and then I would dance within that theme.

Did you bring your work with improvisation to the book? How? Can you speak a bit more about your connection to improvisation? 

Absolutely. I exclusively work in the method of improvising. The way that I write, teach, sew, think, feel is rooted in the spirit of improvisation. Specifically, the lens of improvising that I am looking through is compositional improvisation, so my method of creating is through a series of compositional questions I might ask myself. These include but are not limited to: How long should a thing be? What shape does a beginning take? How can I do the same thing but slower? Is it generous to enter, or is it more generous to pause?

Who inspires or informs your work? 

My current inspiration is the place that I live. I feel grateful to live in an eucalyptus grove and to be able to visit the ocean and to swim and to live in such a small town with so many amazing artists.

On what are you currently working? 

I’m currently working on my self-worth. I’m always thinking of new ways to teach. I just launched a new project that is an experiment called Center. I am working on liking myself outside of my work. I also just finished writing a book that comes out in fall of 2018 called How To Not Always Be Working.

What’s next?

I really have no idea. Sometimes in the winter when the days are so short, I really try to hibernate and look within. I have produced so much work in the past few years. I don’t do much planning ahead — maybe this is a part of my commitment to improvising.

Images courtesy of Marlee Grace.

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