30 December 2014

The Glory And The Flame

Originally written 27 December 2014. See this post for a fuller explanation of my apprehension.

This has never happened before. I have never had a performance actually bring me to call into question my ability and calling. Even this spring when I danced entirely the wrong section in the middle of the Waltz of the Snowflakes in Nutcracker, I did not doubt my calling or ability (my memory, maybe...). But tonight, on the eve of my second-ever solo performance I am actually ready to quit. To just drop everything related to dance -- performing, choreography, everything. I can't do this. What made me think that I could? What insanity made me think that dance was my calling? Was it just me playing God? Because, when I think about it, how do I actually know God called me?

And the stupid part is, I can't even articulate why this one impending performance has me in such a state. It's a five-minute solo piece in front of an audience that, by and large, doesn't know the first thing about dance. Like at all. Most of them probably don't even know the stereotypes. Anything I do, whether technically correct or not, will be a novelty to them. They will honestly have no clue whether my dancing is good or bad other than from their own aesthetic perspective which I can't help anyway.

It's a solo. I can (theoretically) improvise if I forget or screw up, and nobody will have a clue. I don't even care about that. All the articles say that as long as you perform with confidence, you could make a thousand mistakes and people won't notice. And if there's one thing I've learnt at college, it's that. I would never have survived my voice finals (or my theatrical audition) if it wasn't for that. You just put on the mask. You lie. You smile and pretend it's all right.

So I guess tomorrow I'm going to church to lie.

I want instant gratification. I want to know in advance that I won't fall over in the balance in attitude devant. I want to know, right now, that I won't blank at the easiest part of the choreography. I want to know in advance I will actually have the physical strength to get through this. I want to know, now, that I won't bore the crap out of my audience with some kind of self-centered, self-serving, made-up crap for five irretrievable minutes of their lives. I want to respect my audience. And that means giving them something good to watch -- something well-prepared and well-executed and pregnant with meaning.

But on the other hand, we who claim to serve God also have to toss in that whole 'Soli Deo gloria' thing. Am I doing only for the glory of God? Or for the glory of God and the pleasure of man? And if it's the latter, does that not cheapen the glory of God? But then where does respecting the audience -- His creation -- come in?

26 December 2014

Music Day - O Come O Come Immanuel

My Christmas gift to you: this song, and the re-instation of Music Day, beginning the first Friday in January.

Merry Christmas.

Title: O Come O Come Immanuel
Artist: Gene Eugene, Riki Michele, and Ojo
Album: The Broken Christmas
Year: 1988
Label: Frontline Records
iTunes here; listen on SoundCloud here.

One of the more beautiful, soothing, peaceful, lovely and yearning versions of this song that I've heard.

23 December 2014

Stage Fright

I perform (dance) again in less than a week. It's my own choreography. Theoretically I should be excited and I am, but I'm sick with worry over the performer -- namely, me.

I've always considered myself rather an average performer, as that seems to be the general attitude towards my performing. I'm all right with that. I'm much better at and more excited about composing choreography anyway. The problem is that I have all this great choreography that I want to see on a stage, if only for purposes of critique, and I have no performers except myself. And, as noted, I'm not exactly Anna Pavlova.

The line between performing and composing is not even thought about in Canada, never mind among my typical audience of Baptists and farmers. Therefore, if the performer is terrible, the entire dance is criticised -- even though the choreography itself may have been stellar. Therefore, if I am the only performer of my choreography, and I as a performer am only a sub-par vehicle for what may very well be excellent choreography, I will not get good, clear, honest feedback about either the choreography or the execution of it. By extension, folks will be reluctant to see any more of my choreography -- even if I'm not performing it -- because a sub-par performance will have sullied its merits.

The nature of my audience magnifies the pressure. Baptist churches are not exactly known for their kind-heartedness, grace, or mercy. They know me, yes, but that means they expect me to be utterly perfect -- by their idiosyncratic definition of perfect. I'm already toeing the line by dancing in the first place. If I screw this up, if it turns out this choreography is poorly represented by the relatively out-of-practice performer, there is a very real chance of living the rest of my life as a punch line: "Remember that time Kate tried to dance back in '14? I thought Hell had broken its banks."

There is only one chance in the Baptist church. Do it flawlessly (their definition) the first time or stop being a Christian. There is no room for trailblazing, for learning, for refinement and development of a craft. Add to this that I'm not entirely happy with the choreography itself, and I'm seriously wondering if I should pull out rather than risk submitting five minutes of random potentially-self-serving crap to an audience that never asked for it. Most of them wouldn't know the difference between bad dance and good dance, which makes me want even more badly to show them a shining example of good dance lest they see one example of the bad and subsequently write off all dance everywhere. At the moment, I can't guarantee that I can show them an example of good dance.

But then, if not now, when? I've been chomping at the bit to get my choreography staged, and now it's finally starting to happen a bit. Logic says I should just take the chance and run. But am I really ready? Is this just normal pre-show nerves? I wouldn't know, I've never really had issues with stage fright.

22 December 2014

The Quiet Miracle

Trigger warning -- suicide.

The twenty-second of December, 2009.

I was at my grandmother's house. They are trying to induce labour in my mother... again. Six times they've tried this. Six times she's been at least two weeks overdue no matter how many drugs they pump into her system. The fourth time, when I was only nine, they started inducing her over a full week before her due date. She went in for induction on 26 December that year, and I didn't see her or my dad again till 15 January, the day after my sister was born. In the meantime, my siblings and I were shuffled between extended family members with great abandon. And I, being the oldest, was expected to mind my similarly traumatised siblings, even as my own world seemed as if it was falling to pieces around me without my parents there to stabilise it.

Now, six years later, in 2009, here I am at my grandma's again, waiting for a 'successful' induction that will never be and well we all know it. But by now, the next-oldest sister has taken over some babysitting capabilities, and I am alone in my grandma's basement in the 1970s-orange spinning armchair.

The Christmas lights shine all around me -- the basement is the grandkids' Christmas decoration bonanza, where all Christmas heck breaks loose -- and the gas fireplace runs at regular intervals. This has been my place of solace for years. If the people get too much for me, I retreat here. This is my thinking space, this room, this chair, these warm-coloured surroundings. Some might find 1970s orange shag ugly, but I find it reassuring. (Thinking back, I'm surprised my looks-conscious grandmother lived with that carpet for twelve years.)

I stare at the TV cabinet, thinking, sinking deeply into the bleeding gash across my soul, the bleeding no-one will acknowledge, never mind attempt to stop. I stare at the TV cabinet, at the reflection of the Christmas lights making a plastic smile in the glass door, and I search my mind for the reasons I should live.

On the other end of the basement, in the kitchenette, in the first drawer on the right, are knives. Sharp, turkey-carving knives. I don't know how I know that's where they are, but somehow I do.

But suicide is not something to be taken lightly -- I know that much. So before doing anything, I must be sure this is what I want. To that end I'm sitting here thinking, making sure I really truly have nothing left to live for.

After at least an hour of contemplation, I come to the conclusion -- no. There is nothing.

I am convinced that no-one loves me. That no-one would notice I was gone. Or, that if I was gone, they could finally be happy because then -- finally -- I would have done something 'right.' Then I would be out of their hair and they wouldn't have to deal with needy, annoying me anymore. Perhaps my death would be the only way I could please them, and I so wanted to do well -- to please them, so then they would finally be able to love me. The irony was not lost on me -- that if I was dead, therefore they would finally be able to be happy with me and to love me, I wouldn't actually be able to experience that love and appreciation. But no matter -- at least I could be at peace knowing they would be pleased with me for sensing when I wasn't wanted and removing myself from their lives so they could live in peace, without having to deal with me.

Yes... yes. This was the only way. I didn't want it to be, but there was no reason for me to stay. They wouldn't love me as long as I was here, and all I wanted to do was to make them happy for once.

I sat there in that chair for a good hour (maybe more, I don't know -- time doesn't matter much when you're going to die), thinking it through, every angle, trying to foresee any potential hitch.

No. There was none. All I had to do was get up, cross the room to the kitchenette, and get out a knife. And that would be it. And then they -- that is, everyone -- could finally live in peace, knowing that I would never bother them again.

I sat there. And sat there. Visualising everything, how it would play out. My arms rested, fully and utterly relaxed, on the overstuffed arms of the orange chair. I sank deep into the cushion, my weight, my head, pressing against the back. Comfy. Too tired, too spent, to get up. I wasn't so much sitting in the chair as the chair was holding me. My body was totally relaxed for once. I had surrendered to the chair's sturdy padding.

I stared blankly into the fireplace, still thinking through my decision. Letting my mind wander a little, for the last time. Thinking... would there be anything I would miss? I was crying, inexplicably. But the tears meant nothing. It was only the bleeding, gaping soul wound doing a little housecleaning.

My body sank deeper and deeper into the chair. It wasn't particularly warm, but it was my grandma's and that was enough. I let my head fall back, still thinking, still feeling numb pain, waiting for the decisive moment. Giving someone, anyone, one last chance to call me up and tell me how much they loved me and how much I meant to them, like in all the stories... you know the ones, where someone's decided to kill themselves, and just before they take the pills/fire the gun/whatever, someone they know randomly calls or shows up and says, 'I don't know why, but I really felt like I needed to tell you how much I love you...'

Well, God. Give me one reason.

I waited. I waited.

No-one did.

Time passed, and the wound stretched bigger. So even God wouldn't send someone to stop me? Even God was just going to apathetically let me die?

My grandma came down and told me to come upstairs for supper. I did without a fuss. I had no reason to disobey.

The rest of the evening is lost to me. I don't remember what I did after supper. I don't remember if we stayed the night or if my dad picked us up so we could spend the night at home. He must have because on the morning of the twenty-third I was at home, ironing my mother's present before wrapping it.

Four days later, 26 December 2009.

I was at a family gathering -- the extended-extended family (my great-grandmother's descendants) Christmas celebration. Sitting at the table next to my (predictably still-pregnant) mother and my aunt, I suddenly felt horribly sick -- faint and hot.

I remember my mother calling my dad over and then everything began to shift and I closed my eyes. I heard voices around me, voices I knew, but it was too much effort to discern what they were saying. My heart felt like it was racing. I was only vaguely aware of someone taking my right arm.

"What's her normal heart rate?"

"I don't know. We've never really paid attention."

"Either way, it's too fast."

"Do you trust me?"

It took a moment for me to register the words were directed at me.

"Do you trust me?"

I couldn't breathe. My head felt like it would explode.

"I guess."

"I'm going to carry you to your vehicle and your dad's going to take you to the hospital. Okay?"

I nodded and was carried, without a coat, into the sharp December air, into the rattletrap (the family vehicle at the time). I lay limp in the seat as my dad drove the two blocks to the hospital. I don't recall if I even had the strength to buckle my seat belt.

My dad stopped outside Admitting and brought out a wheelchair for me, then wheeled me into the emergency room and went back to park the van.

The emergency room was full -- my dad took the last empty seat -- but my ashen face and irregular racing heartbeat got me in within five minutes. I realised years later that they had honestly thought I was dying.

I was given an IV -- to this day I have no idea what it was for or what was in it -- and tests were taken. An hour later the doctor came back with a verdict and a prescription. The former was a dangerously low hemoglobin count, and the latter was for the most disgusting substance on the face of the Earth. I swear they scrape the stuff out of the murky depths of Hell and bottle it and give it to the innocent populace with the wide-eyed promise that it'll restore their iron levels (which it never does, at least not enough that you can stop taking it).

Anemia. A curse that never goes away. It causes not only prescriptions for the nastiest substance in the galaxy, but it causes lightheadedness/dizziness, extreme weakness, and a complete inability on the part of the doctors to diagnose you with anything but anemia ("Fractured leg? It's because you're anemic. Take more iron. You'll be fine"). And based on the fact that I was only six points away from getting a blood transfusion, I had been crashing for a while.

At least four days.

I didn't make the connection until November 2012, when I inserted the experience as backstory in a novel (nothing is sacred). Only then did I see the miracle that happened that day, 22 December 2009.

God didn't send anyone to stop me. He Himself, who formed my body, reached down and stopped me.

That 'curse' -- that curse saved my life that day. I was already crashing, too weak to get up. And that saved my life. Because I can tell you if I had gotten as far as the knife in my hand I would not be writing this now.

17 December 2014

Childlike Wonder

Something clicked for me the other day. Why I do this. Why I want to do this -- this art thing. Creating things.

I was listening to Michael W. Smith's brilliant orchestral piece Glory Battle. I have wanted to choreograph this since I first heard it this past summer. I have blocking and theme all figured out -- all I'm lacking is time to flesh out the actual steps. But that day I was listening to it, trying to wake myself up so I could study. I never realised before how consistently that piece gives me chills. I swear I listened to it twenty times. I sat there on my bed for literally forty-five minutes and just kept hitting the back button every time it finished. I couldn't stop. I kept thinking, Okay, one more time. Okay now, last time. Now this really is the last time. But I kept hitting that button like an addict. I wanted to hear it again, see the dance in my mind's eye again, feel that orchestra again. Like a little kid watching his favourite film or playing his favourite song over and over and over again because it's so captivating and big and can't be experienced all in one go.

Once that little kid was me. And the song was David Meece's This Time. I could not get enough of it. It wasn't a 'kids' song,' but it absolutely captured my four-year-old mind. Perhaps it was because it wasn't a kids' song, deliberately dumbed down to pander to a younger mind. It made me feel happy and sad all the same time, and one listen could not sort through it all. I distinctly remember even as a child trying to articulate why I liked it so much, what exactly it made me feel -- but I couldn't. In a way I still can't. You can analyse the song structure and the theory and production all you like, but it doesn't explain why my soul seems to get bigger and simultaneously smaller when I hear it. It doesn't explain why the world shrinks and expands before me, why snowflakes seem to glitter brighter and yet so do the stars.

This is why -- or at least part of it. I want to give a little kid that moment -- that moment where the soul is simultaneously crushed and flying. Even if the old people don't care, if there can be a little kid that will watch this choreography on YouTube obsessively not because it's my work, but because it awakes in him a wonder and awe he can't explain away, that will be satisfactory. Emotionally, at least. (I do still need to put food on the table somehow. I don't know how that works yet.) I want to give them the same experience I had -- that sense of awe and wonder, as I build on the foundation of those who gave me that same experience. And then may the child go out and do the same for the next little child.

But is it art for art's sake? Wonder does fade. But that path back to the great artists of history that started with David Meece turned out to be a good one. From there I ended up largely in the hands of artists who knew that the wonder they create is elusive and fleeting and that it fades. They had already found -- and directed me to -- the source of the awe and the wonder that never fades. May I build on their foundation and direct the next generation of artists the way that those before have guided me.

08 December 2014

Movement And Power

Earlier this year, as I've mentioned, I choreographed a trio that two of my sisters and I performed several times over the summer. One of those performances was at our church, a Baptist church. For those who aren't aware of denominational stereotypes, one of the Baptist stereotypes is the eleventh commandment against dancing (and drinking and smoking). Our particular church gathering is pretty relaxed as far as Baptists go (we have drums in the song service, and that's a big deal for Baptists), but even so, we had to run the mere idea of a dance the by worship committee, pastor, and the deacon board before being given the go-ahead.

I've been dancing since age six. While public speaking and solo singing still causes serious nerves, I almost never get nervous before dancing. Dancing is just a thing that I do; it's part of my regular life. But that Sunday, as we took our places to perform what we had been working on for a month and a half, what had been in my head for nearly a year, I was nervous. I expected at least a few people in that congregation to fully hate this, on principle. I was also having trouble sticking one of the relevés in rehearsal and under the self-inflicted pressure to be perfect I could not allow that.

My entrance was a brush-step-step into a pas de valse, then a hold while my sister entered from the opposite side. As we launched into our choreography for the chorus, something I've pondered offstage rather often popped into my head and I pictured myself -- only for a moment -- in the throne room of God. I consciously told myself, "I am dancing for God," and there was a moment where I finally let the performance go. I surrendered myself to the choreography my body knew.

I have never done that before in a performance. I'm always considering what comes next, thinking about fixing the things I tend to mess up on -- plié deeper, hold the core on any kind of demi-pointe, turn out for Pete's sake... Dancers talk all the time about 'getting lost in the dance' and despite having been performing since age six, I've never actually experienced this. I'm almost scared to. As soon as I let myself get lost in the dance -- so the reasoning goes -- the technique will fall to pieces and by the time I notice it will be unsalvageable. And if there is one thing about the stage that terrifies me, it is improvising anything, but especially a dance. In dance you have to improvise with perfect technique and end up rejoining the set choreography on the proper foot... oh, and dynamics and timing and stuff.

Back to the point: the moment where I think I really finally put my dancing -- at least for one performance -- in God's hands. I don't actually remember anything specific about the rest of the performance, but I do remember thinking it went quite well. The video bears that out. After the service, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had just trampled the number one rule of being a Baptist at the front of the very sanctuary. I knew there were some people in that congregation who are just as fed up with Baptist fundamentalism as I am, but I also knew there were some diehard Baptist traditionalists. I was bracing myself for some strong negativity mixed with the compliments. To my great surprise, the angry comments never came, but one consistent thread seemed to join the positive responses. The fullest verbalisation of it came from the pastor: "It moved me to tears, especially the part near the end where [youngest sister] knelt down. It just reminded me of the importance of kneeling in worship before the Lord."

That comment surprised me. And consistently the comments were about the ending, that kneel, how it made folks misty-eyed. I was not expecting a response like that.

Personally, I find it hard to know what effect a dance has on people. I've been performing them so long and from such a young age that even I rarely actually get to watch a dance outside of rehearsals, and when I do, I'm usually watching the technique and the musicality and the use of pliés or the line of the arm or something -- I'm so engrossed in the details that make up the whole that I have a hard time seeing the whole. As a result, I often suspect the average dance audience only shows up because either a) their kid is in it, or b) it's perceived as really high-society and upper-crusty and therefore it's something you should do if you want to look high-society and upper-crusty. I always sort of assumed someone without a dance background could not be really inspired or moved by watching somebody else perform a dance, even if it was good choreography and well executed. After all, the dancers are up on the stage doing wonderful things with decades of training and the audience is sitting in upholstered theatre seats, likely digesting a rich meal and trying to look impressive to the folks around them. Can dance even awake any feeling at all in a non-dancer? I didn't know, but I assumed it didn't. People talk all the time about how music moves them and makes them happy or cheers them up and how stage plays make them cry or make them think. But no-one talks about their response to watching dance. Is it too sublime for words to convey or simply too boring? I had no way of knowing. I asked my non-dancing family, but they didn't seem to understand the question.

The other thing that took me aback about the general theme of comments following that church performance was that it was the ending, the kneel, that moved them. The ending was actually the choreographically weakest part of the dance. It was literally just two consecutive repeats of the port de bras from the second verse at a painstakingly slow rate as the youngest one knelt on centre stage. I just tacked something on to run out the music (I was NOT going to cut it -- I loathe it when people chop off the song they're dancing to mid-note. Ever heard about the satisfying quality of the final perfect cadence?). But it seemed to be the most powerful part of the performance for people.

Now, I've kind of got myself into doing a solo for this same church for Christmas. I'm fine with dancing at church again, but as I've (probably) mentioned on this blog before, I really don't like solos. I don't like watching them, I don't like dancing them, and I don't like choreographing them. The one I originally proposed to the church has already been choreographed, technically, but the thing is, I do this thing where I choreograph things WAY above my actual skill level (hoping that some angel dancer with loads of experience will join up with me and perform my work while I choreograph it). I could alter it, at the risk of forgetting my own choreography because of confusion between the original version and my modified version. I will have to modify it, however, I just flat-out don't know how to make a solo 'powerful.' Give me a (theoretical) stage laden with twelve dancers and I can make magic happen. But give me one person and I draw a total blank. How do you add dynamics and pacing with only one person? Even with two people you can utilise some give-and-take, push-and-pull, opposition or symmetry or unison as needed. You don't have that kind of variety with a soloist and that makes it so much harder to give both the dancer and the audience anything to connect to. In a duo, there's another dancer to keep the audience's eyes and the other dancer's use of space grounded. In a solo, there is no point of reference. The soloist is self-contained. (Incidentally, that is what I hate most about modern/contemporary dancing -- how the movement all comes from 'within' the dancer rather than from interacting -- meaningfully -- with people or even the music.)

I feel this need to 'top' what I did this summer -- though the response to that was far kinder than anything I expected. I want to be able to move the congregation/audience like that again. But how did the dance this summer bring such a positive response? How did it move the congregation so deeply? Was it really my choreography or was it my surrender? In my intellect I think I know the answer, but it hasn't pervaded my reason. My pride wants a formula, a step-by-step guide, but I don't think there is one. Art is rarely (if ever) formulaic -- if it was, it wouldn't be art. This has been my cry for years as someone just learning to appreciate art, but as an aspiring artist, the idea of making this easier has such an allure...