Cari Cunningham is an Associate Professor of Dance at University of Nevada, Reno where she was a key player in the implementation of a Dance major in 2017. Her choreographic works have been performed in Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Mexico, and in New York City at City Center “On the 6th Floor,” The Ailey School, La Mama Experimental Theatre, the 2009 Cool NY Dance Festival, the DUMBO Dance Festival (2008, 2011, 2014, and 2017), and in the Take Root series at Greenspace. In 2008 she formed the all-female dance company, bellē contemporary dance co., which has toured many national venues – most notably, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2012. Her newest full-length choreographic work, on being fuller, will premiere in Reno in
September 2019. —if you are in town, you should check it out, but plan ahead for football traffic!
For people who don’t know your medium well, could you explain what your art is like?
I am a dancer and choreographer who makes work in the modern/postmodern dance tradition. My choreographic works are both long and short format, often integrating props and exploring various theatrical lighting techniques. I am interested in physical storytelling, but my work is more abstract than perhaps classical ballet.
What are important motherhood contexts people should know about you that?
I have one daughter, Loie, who is six years old. I had no issues getting pregnant, but experienced difficulties with breastfeeding, some postpartum anxiety and depression, and then developed an autoimmune thyroid condition that may or may not have been triggered by giving birth.
How has your artmaking changed since motherhood?
My stamina, both mentally and physically, has changed drastically since becoming a mother. I can no longer work in the studio later in the evening. I experienced a great degree of guilt, especially in the early years of my daughter’s life, when I would go into the studio instead of going to pick her up from daycare right away. I am much more likely to revamp an existing work rather than make something new because of the physical and emotional toll new work takes on me.
What has been most challenging about sustaining a creative life in motherhood?
Everything! Mostly balancing my time and then finding the creative energy once I do find myself with time to invest in my own work. Motherhood has also made me realize how reliant I had become on my husband for support in my creative endeavors. He would often come to rehearsals to bring me things or to watch the dance and give me input, but now he is the primary parent if I am in the studio. I also still feel guilt when I try to prioritize choreography and art-making. It doesn’t seem “fair” to be doing that instead of spending time with my daughter.
I have also really struggled with the physical demands of my creative life and the impact of motherhood on my body. Not only did I gain weight that I am still unable to lose, but my body is a completely different shape than it used to be and behaves in a manner that is often foreign to me. It is so hard to make movement on a body that you sometimes feel isn’t your own and trust that the movement will be “good” and convey something to an audience. Often when I start a new choreographic work I have to get through the feelings of my own physical inadequacy first. I experienced a bit of this just getting older, but giving birth to my daughter took that experience of discomfort in my own skin to a whole new level.
What’s been the best surprise about having a creative life in motherhood?
This past year I have been on sabbatical and I gave myself the challenge of creating a new evening-length choreographic work that I would perform in with my daughter. This was a big undertaking since I have only created one full-length show (in 2010), have not performed since prior to becoming pregnant with Loie, and pretty much have no authority whatsoever when it comes to dance and my daughter. It has been so amazing, however, to see her really embrace the process and she challenges me in ways that are actually rather fruitful, infuriating too, but ultimately very interesting. I’m surprised by what she’s capable of and what we can achieve together on stage and I didn’t think that either of us were really up for that challenge initially.
What are the particular issues that come up as an artist in your field with
I think the impact to the body is paramount in the field of dance and is maybe not discussed as openly as it should/could be. But there are numerous issues that are likely shared across other artistic disciplines – splitting of time, guilt…
What’s been the your most important source of inspiration to continue having a creative life as a mother?
I think I’m pretty lucky that dance making is a big part of my job or I would have likely let go of it when I got a taste of motherhood and what that meant for me. I think I have also drawn a great deal of inspiration from other artists in the field who are finding ways to make the radical act of motherhood central to their dance making and honoring the creativity in creation of another human being.
Who are other artist mothers that inspire you?
There are a few artists in my field whose work I’m drawn to, because it foregrounds motherhood in an interesting way. Alexandra Beller has a piece “Milk Dreams” that I haven’t seen in its entirety, but the clips are so intriguing and I am inspired by the idea of imitation of a child’s movement as a basis for movement invention. I am also inspired, however, by the artist mothers that I was exposed to in graduate school who made work that didn’t necessarily overtly address motherhood, but who made work – really powerful, innovative, imaginative work – and rocked it with their kids
at the same time. Onye Ozuzu, who was a single mother of two when I danced for her company in Colorado. Michelle Ellsworth, who recently won a Guggenheim fellowship (and now a Doris Duke award) and makes work that completely blows my mind, while also raising two children. And, perhaps more importantly, I’m inspired by so many mothers that I am in contact with on a daily basis who make parenting a creative practice and do it with exceptional grace and honest vulnerability. It’s powerful stuff, motherhood, and I’m kind of blown away by women who do it so
Any other bits of advice you’d give to mothers who make creative work?
I would just encourage all mothers and all artists and especially mother artists to trust their gut. Just because your body, your artistic voice, your inspiration, is perhaps changing doesn’t make it less valid.
This post is an extra-special one because you all can go see Cari now! If you live in Reno, go see “on being fuller” on September 28th or 29th. Just be sure to plan ahead for football traffic!