On mentorship: Liz Lerman and Yvonne Montoya in conversation

Choreographer, performer, writer, educator and speaker Liz Lerman. Photo by Lise Metzger.

Shortly after Liz Lerman arrived at ASU as the first Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, she was asked to select a fellow for the inaugural year of Projecting All Voices, a new initiative launched by Dean Steven J. Tepper with the support of ASU Gammage. The goal of the program was to provide resources for artists of color and to help the institution address ways in which the school could improve its capacity for supporting such artists.

In this conversation, Liz Lerman speaks with Yvonne Montoya, one of three inaugural fellows in the Projecting All Voices initiative for 2017–18, about their experience as, respectively, mentor and mentee.

Liz Lerman: Before we jump into the story of our year together, I would like to note that we had met earlier. First through your being willing to bring a dance of yours to a training session for the critical response process sponsored by AZ ArtWorker, an initiative of the Arizona Commission on the Arts funded by a grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. Then followed by our co-leading a statewide gathering of dance artists while the New England Foundation for the Arts was in Arizona. Both of these experiences made it clear why I thought you were right for the first round of Projecting All Voices fellowships. You are local to our state and that was also important. You had experience in academia so I knew you would have sensibilities about the best and worst of that. And in getting to know you I saw that you would bring so much knowledge to this new endeavor at ASU.

Yvonne Montoya: Yes, relationships grow over time. It is important to recognize the work we did together prior to our time at ASU and to note that our relationship and work together continues. Oftentimes, large institutions do not recognize this labor.

LL: I’m not completely convinced of the meaning of the word mentorship. It’s often defined as one person knows something and the other is always learning. That is contrary to what I believe. There were so many discoveries in what we planned together, in your inquiry, and in my own trying to understand what equity actually looks and feels like… so a balance was critical. Also, getting to work alongside you as you made your new piece was invigorating for my own pursuits as a choreographer.

YM: I agree. I’ve been a mentee many times. There’s no standard definition of mentorship, and every mentor brought to the relationship his or her own definition of mentorship. When I started working with you, I was open to anything. With you the relationship was developed and cultivated rather than assigned.

LL: And you were so good at structuring the tasks during the mentorship and brought conceptual ideas as well. You had a deep sense of what you wanted. You came prepared with lists, which was helpful for me as a mentor. A mentor receiving some direction is wonderful. I had a need to learn from you as well: the consistency of back-and-forth feedback. For example, your willingness to help me understand how the Atlas of Creative Tools could work across cultures was so generous of you and so important to me. The fact that we worked with the tools while also addressing their usage in the context of your particular work was challenging and heartening.

YM: I learned so much from the experience. Not only working with the tools, which I found very helpful to my choreographic practice. But I also learned by watching. I admire and strive to have the grace and curiosity to keep learning and growing as an artist and scholar. I also learned by watching you advocate for resources, not only for my choreography, but also for Dance in the Desert: A Gathering of Latinx Dancemakers as well. That advocacy resulted in meaningful and tangible results.

LL: You had a big impact on our students. You made a space for them to come forward with their whole selves by performing in the work you made about your father, and by your raising issues with the school about our cultural competency.

YM: Thank you, Liz. I am excited to share that this work continues. I am currently a reader and mentor to an ASU undergrad student for their thesis project. And this student came to me with what they needed versus asking me to provide complete direction. I believe working with mentorship as a two-way street is highly beneficial as it grounds the relationship in reciprocity, versus me operating as an informational vessel inundating mentees with knowledge. I recognize the knowledge and experiences mentees bring to the relationship. But it could be different for other mentors, I suppose. Perhaps some mentors do not want mentee feedback of their experiences or input into the process. As your mentee, I appreciated that you requested information from me regarding my experiences. I felt so lucky and blessed with my experience.

LL: I did as well. Reciprocity has important value to me. It’s a true thing. When you reciprocate it brings an equitable understanding of the world into practice. It’s hard for me to envision a positive example that excludes it. It gives a relationship a combination of elasticity and nourishment, which helps when mistakes happen, and they do and will.

YM: Reciprocity is the foundation of any relationship and it is not always equal in the same ways at the same times. It ebbs and flows based on the needs of the people in the relationship. And reciprocity looks different to different people, but it’s critical over the course of a relationship. Without reciprocity, relationships can feel purely transactional, hollow. It’s a precursor to trust.

LL: I absolutely agree. We are in on this together. One other thing about Projecting All Voices is that ours was a pilot year, and that meant that we had to work together to notice the problems and work on fixing them. This presented a curious dynamic in that I felt responsible to a system I barely understood as a newcomer, but also that I had some power to effect change. I needed you to help me see what should be changed, and somehow this helped me be bold in other areas too.

As a 2017–18 Projecting All Voices fellow, Montoya launched Dance in the Desert: A Gathering of Latinx Dancemakers, with the support of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. This year’s Dance in the Desert, which takes place in Tucson May 15–20, engages Arizona-based Latinx choreographers and dancers in a choreography retreat and professional development series that will support the development of new work. In March, NALAC (National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures) awarded a Pod Grant to Dance in the Desert 2019, one of five grants awarded this year in support of activities that, according to a NALAC press release, ”foster community building, refine leadership skills, polish aesthetics, sharpen critical thinking, amplify exposure, encourage advocacy, and promote messaging in support of Latinx arts, culture and equity.”

On mentorship: Liz Lerman and Yvonne Montoya in conversation was originally published in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts