Emily Balli

Artists have long been awestruck by the unmatched beauty of Arizona’s best-known natural wonder, the Grand Canyon. Using the Canyon’s rich colors and history as inspiration, artists of all media have created some of their most memorable works. From September 27 to November 5, Erin Reynolds will follow in that tradition as the latest Grand Canyon Conservancy artist in residence.

Reynolds, an award-winning dancer and choreographer from California, will be the second artist in residence at the Canyon this year. The GCC program, relaunched in 2021 after initially running from 2003 to 2017, has hosted dozens of artists from a variety of media, including jewelry design, musical composition, painting, sculpting, photography and writing. The relaunched program emphasizes substantial projects that will benefit the public and the park.

Reynolds is the co-artistic director of the collaborative dance performance groups EC and Bare Outlines, the artistic director of Erin Reynolds Performances, and an ongoing collaborator with Heather Barker and the Immersive Design Research Lab. She also works as a lecturer in the Department of Dance at California State University-Long Beach and in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University-Chico, where she researches the intersections between performance, new media and public space.

We spoke with Reynolds to learn more about her work, how the Canyon inspires her and what she’s looking forward to in her role as artist in residence. (This QA has been edited for clarity and length.)

How would you describe your style as a dancer?
I create site- and film-based performances using public-living spaces that accommodate interaction between people and ephemeral live-ness. Through the utilization of unconventional spaces in the public sphere, my performances interact with communities who do not normally have the opportunity to witness dance. I discover and utilize innovative spaces for contemporary dance that are accessible to our 21st century new media age.   

I choreograph using sensory and visual imagery. If you were to stand in a field of wheat, what would it feel like? I think of the bright yellow lines and the feel of the grains between my fingers, the bright blue sky above and the integral role of agriculture. I think of the grassy roots in the ground and the smell of dry grain wafting through the air. I imagine feeling a lovely, stark loneliness as I look across the vast landscape. I use these receptive modalities to create performances that live and breathe within the sites they are performed. Works whose relatable movement and imagery are as intricate as the worlds by which they are inspired.    

If nothing else, what feels most important to my work is that I simply wish to show people the beauty of bodies in motion, for I hold no higher aim as a choreographer than this simple truth. 

Do you have any personal connections to the Grand Canyon?
I visited the Grand Canyon a few times as a child, and I remember looking out at the Canyon and feeling as if the land were a vast, endless, unbounded landscape — as if the unrefined natural beauty was a beacon of hope for a world filled with people condemned to destroy land via overconsumption. It was a time I will never forget, and I hold it close to my heart whenever I feel destitute about the unsustainable ways people have treated, and continue to treat, this land since the colonization of the Americas.  

How has your previous work led you to apply for the artist-in-residence program?
A residency within a national park seems to align perfectly with my history as an artist. Much of my work is within similar spaces, so applying for such a residency seemed kismet. In fact, it feels like so much of my life has led me perfectly here.  

As an undergraduate student, I studied both dance performance and the environmental sciences. While straddling these two seemingly disparate worlds, I was always trying to find ways to bring the two worlds together in ways that felt authentic. I ultimately chose to continue more specifically within the arts, but the feeling that the two were interconnected has never left. One of the main ways I have found to connect these two worlds is in site-based choreographic work.   

What drew you to the Grand Canyon?
My Cherokee great-grandmother taught me about the inseparably intertwined relationship of land, body, mind and culture. There is no culture without place. Space is something you can measure — it only becomes place when action happens there. I see myself as a steward of the land, of culture and land coming together to create place. The connection of body, mind and place is what I crave as an artist, and what keeps me delving deeper into my choreographic work. There seems no more vastly spectacular place to find a connection between these three pillars than the Grand Canyon. By creating a living dance work and a subsequent film within the Canyon, my performance could steward the transformation of space into place — broadening our understanding of the Canyon to include perspectives of body, land, mind and culture as interconnected in hopes of furthering sustainable relationships for communities going forward.            

How do the Grand Canyon’s interpretive themes for artists inspire you? Do you draw any connections between these themes and your work?
Each theme seems of equal importance to me, but I’m especially drawn to Grand Canyon National Park’s relationship to the American Indian cultures — particularly when thinking about how Indigenous peoples have been treated in relation to land throughout the history of the United States. I’m curious to learn more about how the parks are working to break down some of the complex and contentious relationships between the United States and American Indians. Living in a country that has historically disenfranchised peoples of non-white cultures and races weighs heavy on my heart as an artist and is always something that I think needs to be a part of my artistic process when working in the United States. Honoring the Indigenous peoples that stewarded the land I am working within seems of utmost importance.  

What are you most looking forward to during your time at the Canyon?
I don’t know if I could point to any one thing — except maybe the thought of moving my body within such an incredibly beautiful place.

What do you hope to accomplish during your residency?
This year has been declared the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development by the United Nations, in an effort to rebuild creative and cultural industries in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. My work speaks to this call for action. In addition to dance and movement investigations, I am an engaged advocate for sustainability. Over time, our collective relationship with the land has become focused on augmentation, rather than coexistence. We have manipulated our land to the point of complete disassociation from it. We lack interactively social experiences in which one becomes aware of the presence of intangible but primordial kinesthetic knowledge that can ground the mind to the simple yet powerful reality of terra firma. It is this void that I aim to begin filling.

Learn more about the Grand Canyon Conservancy’s artist-in-residence program.