Brooke Smiley: Jumping down the rabbit hole

Finishing an ecodome in Guachochi, Mexico for the Tarahumara womenFinishing an ecodome in Guachochi, Mexico for the Tarahumara women

We are in Melbourne to perform with Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre and my colleague Brooke Smiley has just attended the three-day Earth Builders of Australia (EBAA) annual conference at Bamarang Bush Retreat via Nowra, Australia. Brooke holds a California Contractors License and has trained at CalEarth in superadobe earth architecture. We have a chat about health, healing and building with the earth – all in the frame of a dancer’s body.

Going back a bit, you left dancing a few years ago – what made you quit?

I was working too hard and my body told me to stop. It shut me down, I needed to stop. A lot of women don’t know, but cysts can form on your ovaries when you’re really stressed out and that happened and I didn’t know it, and it burst.

That must have been very painful.

It’s like ‘wow’, but it’s really common with women. I didn’t know that until I had it happen, and then I talked to other women about it and they were like ‘yeah’ – it’s the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. And that was a big red flag, like, ‘hey girl’, you gotta be gentle.

Definitely, it’s your health and it’s generally not something that is given a lot of attention in the dance world, women’s health I mean. It’s been some time now and you’re dancing again, what is it like having movement back in your life? I guess movement was always there or?

No it was a shift of identity for sure, and it was awkward in ways, because there was the shutdown and then from that shutdown you re-find what feels good, what feels bad, what feels true, for you, what doesn’t anymore, what you will, what you won’t do… for whom, ha ha. I just feel like the doors kept opening for me to dance for a reason, and I’ve always been super interested in science and how our body works, kinesiology, and healing, but just never taken the time to go down those roads in a ‘be all and end all’ way – because movement is where all of the knowledge is. That’s where you get to push the limits, find out what they are, find out the joy of moving. So it feels great to be in my body and connecting with a group of people that are committed to doing the same things and sharing that. That’s what it’s all about. I feel very lucky. And I wanna thank my friend Louise Tanoto for seeing that in me, seeing how strong that was.

-that’s a friend.

-that’s a friend, you know, when you don’t want to see it or claim it for whatever reason. We all deserve to move and we all deserve to fail moving. We all deserve to grow and succeed.

Yes, and in terms of your personal growth, between quitting dance and getting back into it, you got involved with earth building. What was the experience of this transition?

When I first came in contact with super adobe, with building with the earth, it was because something happened to my health that brought me away from the dance world for a second. Just for a second. That’s all I’ve ever really, you know… the knowledge that dancers are harnessing every day in their awareness to themselves and their internal structures is something that is really rare and we don’t realise how much we’re doing it until we step into another world or something. And so when I came to CalEarth, and it was in the beginning of my first workshop, everything that I was learning about: where the weak points are in an arch, if it’s gonna fail, where’s it gonna fail. I was equating that unconsciously with where those weak points are in our bodies, which has been so exciting to piece together – what’s going on on the inside of our bodies, perhaps, is lending to the motivation to build the shapes and the forms in our external world. So I think there is a mirror; I think there is a big relevance in that, at least to me, that I’m finding.

Main dome, Southbank Centre, London

Main dome, Southbank Centre, London

Looking at the world from this angle makes complete sense, yes. I think we forget to do this most of the time-

-right, it’s not the lay of the land. It can become abstract quickly – we’re separating from the source. It’s just whether you’re putting bad things in there without being aware, then your body has to work extra hard and clear and filter and attack that toxic poison, whatever it is.

And how does this transfer to earth building?

On a dome, as soon as you introduce an element that’s not from the earth, like a petroleum product for waterproofing or cement for stabilizing, your body reacts and so does the dome. It’s completely different to work on a site with just earth, rather than adding stabiliser even though there are benefits to adding stabilisers, and we can be aware and knowledgeable about how we do that, and why, which is relative to where you are geographically, what the earth is doing there, if it’s raining a lot, or there’s earthquakes. It’s the same in towns and municipalities and cities and continents; how much we’re working together to create health and healing and how much energy we’re spending fighting things that aren’t sustainable; that are destructive. I’m just totally curious right now about the microcosm and macrocosm of health and healing and sharing that and providing and encouraging that in our bodies. If we can be our own example, I think that’s the only way it’s going to breathe and be a porous relationship with our circle of people, their circle of people.

What drew you towards building with the earth?

I’m drawn to it because it feels healthy. When I was building this dome in London a year and a half ago now, we did some earth sculptures there that were not standard to accomplish, so we were really sculpting this earth in many curves that I had not yet experienced at that scale. I think we sculpted over 40 tons of earth that month, and it was just like all these prayers of health and healing to the tubes and corridors of my body – that was the first real direct… like, the penny dropped. So that attention was – attention to giving that love and care to the thing that you’re building – finally was outside of my body. Cause with dance it’s so ephemeral, you do it, it’s an amazing celebration, things are transferred, it’s a visceral experience for everybody involved. But as soon as you see it on a video, it’s different, you’re looking at it differently; other people are going to experience it differently – unconsciously. Soon I was building in full scale, this huge monolithic body of a dome, and that really spurred me into wanting to get my building licence and just jump through the hoops, to be able to bring more integrity to the work of super adobe.

And why did you come to this resolution of getting your building licence?

I wanted it to be like ‘yes’, I’m proficient in this knowledge and yet we need to bring super adobe and earth building to our value system of building on society level. So how can I do that? I can get my licence, I can be a licenced contractor and work in California to get it permitted. California is known for its stringent safety codes because of all the earthquakes, so if it passes here its highly regarded as more than safe. But even though this is one of the most primitive, long lasting forms of building, its foreign to most building officials. How are enforcing agencies or energy rating agencies going to look at super adobe and understand it, if all they’ve ever looked at is regular stick or brick homes? It’s not because people don’t have the knowledge of how to build a rectangle, a square, a home that has nothing to do with where the sun is, where the winds come from, or how cold it gets. Getting my licence is a part of creating that dialogue, empowering people to ask these questions. It is literally living off the land. Plus my elders have always done this, I’m a fourth generation plumber. What was I supposed to do in twenty years when I had a leaky faucet, call a plumber? I couldn’t do that to my family’s tie in this trade, and building with the earth was the first time I connected into that heritage for myself. I think my Grandpa’s license number was 11, mine is 980256!

You said you build because it feels healthy, which you feel in body and mind, but are the earth domes you build also an evidence of this?

Yeah, you wake up the next morning and check out how your [plaster] went from the work and effort and the choices that you made from the day before, whereas your body is fluxing and changing everyday-

-so is it harder for you to pay that same attention to what goes on with your body when you’re dancing? Like, which kind of dancing is healthy or bad for you?

No, but our bodies are very complex, in that, maybe narrowing down the factors is sometimes more difficult, cause we have twelve systems working together in our body, and with super adobe you’re just kind of… it’s one medium rather than a whole flux of bones, tendons, you know, blood, nerves, digestive, reproductive, hormonal, we have [these] systems working together and the more we are invested in our experience of being in our bodies, and the more awareness we have of those systems and how they interact and the successes, I feel like that is a great starting off point for investing in the success and health of the systems that create our shelters. Our bodies are constantly rebuilding themselves, the choices we make now affect how we feel later. Similarly, every choice you make when building with the earth has a direct correlation to its success and longevity and comfort. When I was studying for the licence, as I was looking at the expansion tank on a water heater, and how its diaphragm worked and its release valve, it was completely mimicking, on a more basic level, our diaphragm, you know, passing gas, ha ha. It’s just like ‘wow’, to see such a mirror between the things that are successful and transferred and working for humanity and increasing our knowledge of technology; it’s already within us, happening on a grander scale. It blows my mind. Because coming at it from a dancer, you know, when I went to the earth builder conference, there wasn’t another dancer there, so I think it’s rare that dancers step out of the dancer world to see how much knowledge they have and how relevant and useful it is to other areas.

Building a fire to heat the Guachochi dome on a freezing day

Building a fire to heat the Guachochi dome on a freezing day

And what is happening for you at the moment?

The tuning fork is ringing for me at the moment. I feel like I’ve just gone down one of the rabbit holes. The render guy, James Henderson, that drove us eleven hours from Nowra to [Melbourne] said ‘yeah I think I just shoved you into the rabbit hole’, and I was like, ‘yeah no I jumped’. Ha ha.

And what does that mean?

I guess in reference to the earth building community, I feel like I really came to connect and see who is doing what and what’s inspiring people and what research are they doing and where is that leading them? And I really feel like I definitely got in contact with that while I was here, you know, there’s times in your life where you’re just ready to have a new sphere of information, whether it’s music or books or language or people or culture, so that’s what’s been happening for me. I feel like the intentions that I’ve set in my internal world, it’s definitely very porous and receiving in the external world. I’m very happy.

And how has this experience transformed you, where have your discoveries brought you?

I’m inspired by what other people have learnt so much, so almost it’s like this weird dichotomy between ‘aw I don’t know anything, what could I possibly know’, and then it was equally empowering to be like ‘these are some things that I’ve done, this is what I’ve learnt from them’ and be able to share that information with other people. So like…you know as soon as you go to write something, you’re dated… Anna [Kaszuba] was just asking me if I wanna build a home, you know for myself, and not just build for other people, and it’s like ‘well yes’, but I still feel like I’ve so much to learn and so many things to research and grow from, that I feel like I can tell you aspects of it, you know, threads of the fabric – of the textile – but it’s just been nice to see from people of all different ages and regions and how they’re responding to what’s underneath them and how that’s inspiring their research and growth, so I feel like, I don’t know anything and at the same time, yes, these things have brought me to this place right now.

Sounds like earth building is rich on so many levels?

It’s kind of like a contact improvisation, in the sense where it’s a metaphor for your life, of where you are. Working with the earth has a way of…

-bringing it to the surface?

It’s just a complete mirror.

And what is it you’re waiting to complete or perfect in yourself and what is it you want to do with that knowledge when you get there?

It’s not that I’m trying to make anything perfect or obtain anything, I’m completely very lucky and content with this. But the introduction of like ‘building your house’, is uh… just not where I am. It’s bigger, it’s something bigger that I’m more invested in: the individual research of all these different components that comprise the whole, spending time with that, having gained a knowledge and wisdom and sharing it with other people. You know all the knowledge that we have is from the gifts and mistakes of others, so as long as we can create an honesty in our dialogue about that, then we can grow together. And so I feel like yeah, in the creative process I’m probably in the perspiration phase where I’ve done a lot of incubating, I’ve done a lot of setting intentions, and now it’s just about the exuberance of action, you know.

So the idea of building a house for yourself would that be relating to the idea of obtaining or gaining something more material?

Yeah, maybe that’s why it’s unattractive to me at the moment. Or it could just be a reflection of this afternoon and this day and this time. One of the gentlemen from the conference, on the way home we were reflecting about the different techniques, formally they’re called, of working with the earth in Australia, whether it’s mud brick, whether it’s rammed earth, whether it’s wattle and daub, whether it’s cob, straw-bale, form block, or now, super adobes finally catching on around here. All these different ways of approaching the same thing but the interesting thing that he picked up on was, there’s a spiritual component as well. The actions that you take, if you’re building in a circle versus building in a square, if you’re building layer by layer, or if you’re building one section at a time, says a lot about what we as human beings are investing in.

And creating.

Creating with others in a community. You know, in a dance or in contact improvisation, it’s only contact improvisation if you’re using another persons body weight; if they were to step away you would fall. And it’s the same in building ring by ring by ring; if somebody were to not be making the mix, you’d have nothing to put in the bag. If somebody were not doing the centre compass, you wouldn’t know where you’re building towards. So like, I love the connectivity that it takes a village and that you’re all on a journey together and whether you have a strong back or whether you have a weak back there’s a place for you and you are needed. We all have disabilities and we all have gifts, just like you would in a community, just like you would if you’re building in circles. What I love doing is barb wire, ha ha, I don’t know why, I just love it. I love putting the barb in. You find different aspects that you’re… when the tuning fork rings for you.

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a backyard on the Havasupai Indian Reservation

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a backyard on the Havasupai Indian Reservation

Is there anything you would like to add?

Besides recruiting a dance earth builder coalition? Just that, it’s not about my home or your home, but it’s about our home and it’s about approaching building with that love and attention, that what you’re building is housing not only you but generations to come for thousands of years, so it’s a gift and maybe I’m not focusing on my home, it’s not about me, it’s about homes of us. It’s not about having my home to shut my doors. One of the earth builders is like, ‘I don’t want any doors!’, ha ha ha. But you’re building your community and so it’s what it’s about…

It’s such a symbolic thing isn’t it, if there’s a door or not, and if there is, is it open or closed or locked…

And if you feel the need to lock it…or not. And what society is doing, you know, creating for that too… The Navajo put the door of their hogan’s, their round homes, facing the East, so that every morning they would start their day with the light of the sun… [super adobe] is the most basic, primitive even, form of building. Nader [Khalili] he achieved high rises, he achieved building the LAX parking structure, he can do it, he chose to create a form for humanity, for everyone, so that women, children, old, young, have a place building their circle, and it’s not just for the rich or the elite, it’s for everybody, if we’re working with the earth, if we’re cultivating that knowledge and how to work with it, for it to strengthen and give life to us, you’re nurturing a relationship that’s not just yours, but it’s like the rain drop, so it’s for everybody, it’s the most affordable way to build. And whether you’re down in a canyon in Mexico or out in the deserts of Oman, you’re not gonna have to cut down forests or transport a bunch of energy produced steel and cement, that toxic, that poison, that then you’re surrounding yourself with and that being enforced in society, that being encouraged. ‘Argh’, gets the hair up!

It’s tragic really…reminds me of Bébé(s) which is this non-speech documentary, following the birth and first year of four babies from around the world. When I saw it, I was shocked to realise how much time we spend surrounded by walls in many cultures, looking at the difference between the babies’ surroundings in Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo, life in more primitive nature versus life in the city. The Mongolian and Namibian babies in the film had a lot less frustration fits and seemed so much freer… For me, being a dancer means a sense of freedom within the unnatural, confined spaces I find myself in and I notice how stressed I get if I spend too much time indoors during times when not dancing.

The dancer’s awareness to the inside of our bodies, is one of the most beautiful and rare and unique relationships that can educate a lot of people in just that joy of being aware and asking what it means to be in this body, what it feels like. Cause then we can ask what it feels like to be in rooms, what it feels like to be in different spaces in nature, and that’s only going to determine your quality of life and the quality of life of the people around you and that is for everybody, it’s not just for the rich, and that’s deterred me a lot from dancing, too. I was dancing for a company that only rich people could come and pay to see, and so when we had shows I’d take one night’s wages and buy tickets and be a little bit robin hood and give them to people. I do it from time to time, when I can afford it, working on this scale, because I have a big conflict with [the fact that] only people that can afford it will then go and see it, when it really should be for everybody. It’s kin to everybody, everybody needs it, everybody can understand it. It’s not high art.

BROOKE SMILEY has contributed to new works with Michael Clark Company, Ventura Dance Company, and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. Her choreographic work has shown at RedCat (Los Angeles), Movement Research (New York), and Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells (London). Smiley is currently based in California.