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New Arts Alum, lavender grey higley, Gets Ready for the Next Steps

lavender grey higley

Having recently graduated in June, 2023, lavender grey higley, who majored in anthropology and minored in dance, is ready for whatever lies ahead as they start exploring various graduate school programs. lavender is also looking forward, for the second time, to being a part of the Okinawa Memories Initiative Scholars cohort at UC Santa Cruz that’s taking place this summer.

“Most of my previous work with them has been in media production, especially in creative direction and videography, but this summer I will be shifting to work more with the exhibits team as I design a physical installation for a digital exhibit developed from oral history work with the Okinawa Association of America,” says lavender. “I'm excited to apply choreographic understanding of spatial design to the communication of community history in a way that is meaningful to the OAA!”

When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, lavender lists a wide range of interests, which isn’t surprising considering how they have so successfully woven what may seem like two divergent areas of study – anthropology and dance. “I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be a rock star and a pop star, I wanted to be a teacher, a paleontologist, a librarian, an actor, a zoologist, a wizard, and a construction worker,” they say. “I wanted to be everything, so that's what I've studied, and now I'm a little bit of most of those things!”

After beginning their education in cultural anthropology and dance at San Diego Mesa College, UC Santa Cruz was on the top of lavender’s list when it was time to transfer to a four-year university. While in San Diego, they also danced with Visionary Dance Theatre and Mojalet Dance Collective's Core Group, as well in multiple International Fringe Festivals.

Since coming to Santa Cruz, lavender has been a choreographer and director of UCSC’s Random With A Purpose and of the Queer Fashion Show. Their work centers queer embodiment and communication, especially as an intersection, but they also pursue research into sex, gender, social justice, and the arts more broadly, as well as religion, spirituality, and the occult. They find the insights of queer and dance theories—with their understandings of identity, body, internal experience, and external observation—to be infinitely applicable in studies of culture and the human.

Lavender was attracted to UC Santa Cruz because of how well the campus supports and encourages multidisciplinary study. “The curriculum, faculty, and research I saw representing this institution showed me hope of a future where diverse voices are communicated through diverse media, each respected for their unique contributions to the bigger picture,” they say. “It was just clearly the right place for someone who is drawn in many directions but is also capable of using those varietal interests and talents to zoom in on pressing issues.”

They were also recently recognized by being granted two Chancellor Awards for their work, Random With A Purpose XXXI: The Community Movement, and also for their collaboration with fellow student Kyler Salameda, in Eye Like The Way She Moves: issues at the intersection of dance, femininity, and video games. In addition, lavender was given the prestigious Steck Award, also in recognition of Random With A Purpose XXXI: The Community Movement. The Chancellor’s Awards are given to only 15 students who are selected out of 50 of the Dean’s Awards winners for their excellence in undergraduate thesis projects, and the Steck Award is in turn given to the most outstanding research project that’s chosen from the 15 Chancellor’s Awardees.

2023 Steck Award winner and their mentors. From left; Rebecca DuBois, Joseph Cruz, Ted Warburton, Chancellor Larive, lavender grey, Annette Yee Steck, and Loren Steck (Photo by Emily Reynolds)

Of their award-winning work, lavender explains what motivated them and how the process unfolded: “As a neurodivergent dancer, it has been imperative for me to learn how movement itself is cognition. Random has a long lineage of being a place where undergrad dancers can really experiment and express their unique visions, so I immediately saw an opening to direct that open-ended, generative force into autoethnography. I curated student choreographers who were up to the task of developing research questions and methodologies to be implemented in the studio and asked them to work with their casts to develop pieces that represented their combined visions of the answers (or further questions) they found.”

Originally from New Hampshire, lavender moved to Wyoming with their family at age 16 and then further west to San Diego when they were 24 years old. “I spent most of my time when I was younger with my mom and my two older sisters, all of whom are very funny and very fashionable,” they say. “I have a lot of memories that play in my mind with the tone of Gilmore Girls. My mom is a preschool teacher, and she taught me my love of words, my insistence on creative reinterpretation, and my belief in magic which all persist to this day. My dad is a fun-loving if quiet man who taught me the importance of working hard and keeping myself secure but also to enjoy what life has to offer. My brother taught me not to be scared of the things that go bump in the night, and my goddessmother taught me how to be one when necessary.”

While growing up, lavender was grateful for having opportunities in the performing arts and access to dance, along with a developing interest in anthropology that they were able to meld. They’re most recent work centers on the inherently autoethnographic nature of art creation, but other, more personal work focuses on queer conceptions of gender, individual identity, and relationship structures.

“Some very important themes of my recent work include community building, fashion and gaming as avenues of identity exploration, witchcraft as a symbol of the societal fear of feminine power, tactility as a source of subjective truth and communication, and the liberating power of kink and polyamory in the search for more accessible, more fulfilling relationships,” says lavender. “It may seem a bit broad to some, but I think a big central theme is learning how to feel together and embracing the messiness inherent to that togetherness.”

For fun, lavender looks forward to continuing with their Dungeons and Dragons games and keeping up with the numerous international seasons of Drag Race. “I do still see it as possibly the most visible stage for queer performers in the world right now, and I am so proud of so much of the queer art and perspectives that it has shared.”

Lavender advises new students to not be afraid to try new things and go beyond comfort levels when it comes to learning and expanding one’s experiences. “I was scared when I proposed my first choreography concept for Random before I even considered directing,” they say. “I was scared when I went to my first meeting for the Queer Fashion Show. I was scared when I applied to study abroad in France at the Centre national de la danse…when I was drafting my resume for my first internship with Okinawa Memories Initiative…when I applied to be an ArtsBridge Scholar teaching dance improvisation to 2nd and 3rd graders at a local public school…when I proposed to present at a creative research symposium at McGill University in Montreal, but I did all those things! I definitely didn't get every opportunity I applied for, but persisting through failure and fear is what brought those successes ”

They also emphasize the importance of not only learning what one’s taught, but also questioning those teachings and embracing one’s own perspective. Taking advantage of resources on campus is immensely important as well, including the Arts Dean’s Fund for Excellence and Equity that enabled lavender to travel to Montreal to share their research on critiquing the use of dance in video games through a feminist lens.

“Get familiar with every single thing you are offered as a student because if you plan to take advantage of the exciting opportunities and you're coming from a background like mine, you're really going to need the support of the less exciting opportunities,” advises lavender. “Even if you don't think you need it right now, just check it out. There are still so many student services here that I wish I had taken advantage of, but the ones I did access were integral in my ability to take on bigger projects….Stay on it, and go for it.”