Conversations in action

Alexis Harris and Kathy Michel, participants in Action Conversations: Bel­lows Falls, a Vermont Performance Lab residency led by choreographer Vic­toria Marks with filmmaker Ann Kaneko. (Submitted photo by Ann Kaneko)

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Tuesday July 31, 2012

BELLOWS FALLS -- A choreographer, a filmmaker and 10 determined women may not be able to fix all the area's crumbling infrastructure, but thanks to an innovative program, they have been able to build a few needed bridges.

For the past month, Los Angeles-based choreographer Victoria Marks and filmmaker Ann Kaneko have been leading "Action Conversations: Bellows Falls," a dance-film project involving five adults and five teens, all women, from the Bellows Falls area.

With only a rough game plan going in, the project, produced jointly by Vermont Performance Lab and Youth Services of Windham County, represented a leap of faith for all. The long-term results may not be known for a while and may be hard to quantify, but in the short-term, the project is already paying dividends.

"I guess I subscribe to the idea that art can be a force for change in a positive way. I believe that it can be a factor in these places where we don't have anything else," said Marks, a professor of choreography at UCLA, whose first dance/film "Action Conversation" brought veterans and artists together.

This project in Bellows Falls, her second "Action Conversation," brings five young women ages 17-19 from Youth Services' summer employment program and five older women from the community together daily from 9 a.m. to noon for sessions that combine movement, self-expression and discussion, often of powerful, courageously personal subjects.

People at Youth Services and town officials embraced the idea as filling a crucial need in Bellows Falls.

"There's been such a small amount of attention given to the youth in this community. I think this type of program is empowering some people who otherwise will not be heard," said Francis "Dutch" Walsh, development director for the Town of Rockingham. "I think youth are misunderstood everywhere. In particular, they are pigeonholed here."

By bringing some of those young people together with some adults in the community, "Action Conversations: Bellows Falls" begins to address that.

"It opens you up to seeing people differently. I drive through Bellows Falls all the time. My kids are about the same age, 13 and 17, as some of these kids. I do look at them differently now," said Rachael Shaw, one of the adult volunteer participants. "I had no access. I had no way of connecting my experience to their experience. I feel more connected and a little bit more understanding."

All well and good for those in the program, but what about for the rest of us?

That's where the documentary film comes in. Getting that film in front of audiences all over the country and the world will help make what happened in Bellows Falls more universal -- and perhaps offer a blueprint for other communities who want to try things like this.

Locally, a work-in-progress screening of "Action Conversations: Bellows Falls" will be presented this Thursday at 7 p.m., at the Bellows Falls Opera House. The event is free and will include an informal presentation about the project and a showing of segments of the film that will be produced about it.

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"I would hope for the adults ... the bankers, the insurance people in the community ... to sit up and take note," said Walsh. "I hope they will come to the (Thursday's) event. ... I think it's a fantastic thing (Vermont Performance Lab founder) Sara Coffey has brought here."

Coffey and Marks have been friends for years, and they hatched the idea when they reconnected at a conference a couple of years ago.

"It's really (Victoria) saying ‘Find a conversation that needs to happen in your community,'" said Coffey. "I'm seeing this as being about artists and social action or artists and community or what can an artist do?"

The idea gelled further after Coffey talked with former Youth Services Executive Director Allyson Villars and current staff and management there.

"We were really excited to be asked because VPL is really an exciting organization. It seems like a no-brainer that giving youth in the community a voice to be heard was just a good opportunity," said Youth Services Youth Development Director Bianca Barry. "Historically, there's been kind of a chasm between young people and adults. ... What happens when you bring them together in a room and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, my preconceived notions of them are untrue.'"

Marks visited Windham County three times over the past 18 months to plan for "Action Conversations: Bellows Falls." She returned on June 23, to embark on the project.

In her art, Marks employs movement as a tool for self-expression and dialogue. Her "action conversation" project offers avenues of self-exploration and positive expression to help participants frame their relationships with themselves and others.

For the five teen women from Youth Services' summer employment program, the project serves as their job training, because of the commitment of time and intense engagement. With the help of an advisory committee comprising Kate Guerinna of Chroma Technology, Cindy Larsen of Vermont Performance Lab, Samantha Maskell of the Rockingham Free Library, Robert McBride of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, Barbara Ternes of Parks Place, as well as Barry, Villars and Walsh, Vermont Performance Lab was able to recruit five adult women to give up 60 hours of their summer to participate with the youth on the project.

The volunteers have no regrets.

"It just seems like everything is valid and held by the group as valid and valuable," said Shaw. "It's just kind of what I want to see more of in the world. We're all very lost in material places and less focused on our beautiful evolution as humans."

The "Action Conversations: Bellows Falls" project is made possible in part with support from the Vermont Council for the Arts, the Copper Beach Foundation, the Oswald Family Foundation and Vermont Performance Lab's Creation Fund donors.

Vermont Performance Lab is a Guilford-based laboratory for creative research and community engagement. Over the last five years VPL has brought artists to the grange halls, studios and classrooms of rural Vermont through its artist residency program. For more information, visit

Jon Potter can be reached at, or 802-254-2311 ext. 149.