Arting between fear and audacity
Reflections on a career in dance.
Falling in love with dance was easy. It could have been anything. I was primed to fall in love, the way teenagers often are. Dance was just the closest celestial body within range of my solitary planet.
Imagine if it were poetry or cocaine or any number of other dangerous things. How different would my life have been?
But dance is dangerous, too. A life in dance is a brave choice made by young fools who can’t possibly understand the consequences. It’s a decision to transform your body into the closest thing to music you’re capable of becoming, disappearing into the notes until you come out on the other side, reborn, finally seen, finally understood. In theory.
It’s not a real way to live a life, embedding yourself within stories, choreographing moments to breathe and then sometimes forgetting.
When you make dances, you spend your days within an empty room. Outside people do math and talk business and have happy hours and think about having babies. But you have that room. A room that’s waiting for you to fill it and a small collection of dancers who’ve subscribed to the same hysteria you have.
On some days that feels like opportunity. On other days the weight of all that emptiness is too much.
Supposedly love is patient.
But the empty room doesn’t feel patient. It wonders why you didn’t prepare more, why you don’t work harder. It sees that you’re leaning on your old tricks or you took the easy way out this time. It doesn’t care how good the last dance was. It only cares what you’re making now. It wants you to work faster, because there’s never enough time. You have to get 5 minutes done today, or there won’t be enough movement, the narrative won’t make sense, the audience will get bored and everyone will know you’ve been pretending all along.
They’ll wonder if dance is as useless as they always suspected.
Choosing a career in an art form most people know little about is a lot of pressure. Many see going to the ballet as a form of torture. Many couldn’t name a single choreographer. Many go their entire lives without seeing a modern dance. Many think that when I go to class it’s for fun and I’m only playing.
So when I rope them into attending my show, it’s a lot of pressure. I feel that I alone have to justify the whole existence of modern dance. I want my audiences to fall in love. I want them to understand why we do it.
I want people to know that dancers aren’t crazy for giving up any semblance of financial security, or grinding our joints down one jump at a time. We’re not crazy for caring so intensely about a pointed foot or an inclined head. Or, if we are crazy, the madness is in service to something that matters.
But, let’s be honest, we’re not feeding refugees or curing cancer or holding back the water. And everything is so serious now; everything is broken.
We’re just moving our bodies and hoping people feel things.
Does it matter so much?
I was in college when I saw Ohad Naharin’s dance Minus 16. It was set on Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and you’ll forgive me some poetic liberty when I say that it filled me with light. The power, the joy and the mystery of the experience made me want to crawl out of my skin because I knew my spirit was too large to be contained by the standard allotment of body parts.
And again I was destroyed and rebuilt when I saw Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort. Crystal Pite’s Emergence. In those moments, it was like having the door to Plato’s cave flung open and realizing exactly how wide and weird the world can be. Running out into the sunlight after a life crouched in shadows.
We rely so much on words, but they only carry us so far. Dance takes us a few steps further into the human story.
And these dances, these great dances deserve to stand beside any of the great works of art, deserve to be known as the Mona Lisa is known or as Mozart’s Requiem is known. They’re important and they’re good and they’re a gift to those who see them.
But I am not Ohad Naharin or Jiří Kylián or Crystal Pite.
I am just me.
I used to tell myself that if, at the end of my life, all I had to show for myself was a small collection of beautiful moments, then it would be enough. And when I look back, I can see those beautiful moments lined up behind me. But I can also see the fear that wove itself between each of them. Constant, unrelenting fear, a cloud that I had to push through for every dance, every rehearsal, and even some nights when I dreamed of the million ways I was going to disappoint everyone.
And I kind of wish I could try it without the fear.
I wonder what I could have made.
If I wasn’t so scared all the time.
If it didn’t have to be so important.
At the same time, I didn’t let the fear stop me. So, I guess that’s something. I knew I had to stick the stake in the ground, I had to book the theater so I couldn’t back out.
And I made dances.
And I created moments.
And it was never my job to decide whether they mattered.