31 December 2015

Prelude: National Choreography Month

This is the first National Choreography Month (Nachmo) I've been able to participate in in two years. While I was able to manage NaNoWriMo through both years of college, choreography is a little more time-intensive so I couldn't do Nachmo.

I'm feeling pretty uninspired for this too. But at least I have a tiny bit of a game plan right now (which is better than my last NaNoWriMo attempt... I didn't even have a game plan at the end of NaNoWriMo, to be honest).

I haven't been inspired to do any softshoe (ballet/pointe or jazz) choreography since before Brittney died. When she died, of course, I still had a couple of works-in-progress to finish so the effect wasn't immediate, but once I had finished all of those, I was screwed. Nothing has really caught my attention since. I've written a few original pieces since then, but I worked far too hard for every single one of them (as in: pulling teeth out of a crocodile would be easier) and although I think there's some really beautiful sequencing in some of them, none of them consumed me the way that, say, Sanctuary did. To further the example (and to inform the newcomers), Sanctuary basically ate my life for about three months until I finally choreographed it. The song wouldn't let go of me and I could not rest until I had completed the dance to it. And until Brittney died, that was generally my process: I would stumble on a certain song that I just HAD to choreograph and then my brain would keep mulling over the song whether or not I consciously tried to choreograph it until I had worked out the dance. I had no choice. The song more or less grabbed me and dragged me along for the ride.

Now I know there are dry spots. I know it's not always going to be that easy. But what shocked me was how dead I feel now that there are no ideas, no sparks, nothing to catch my fancy. It seriously feels as if my soul has died. I always thought there might be at least a little something you could coax out though it would be harder than before. But no -- there is nothing. Just apathy.

But -- that's softshoe disciplines. Tap is another story.

I'm always reluctant to choreograph tap because I'm such a novice at it. I've spent so many years dancing and choreographing melody and (occasionally) lyric that although I have pretty good rhythm, I hardly ever choreograph it. Right now, though, even though I couldn't choreograph a pointe dance if my life depended on it, I have tap dance ideas oozing out of my ears. I'm finding myself tap-dancing around the house more than ever before, even though at the moment I'm taking five times more ballet classes than tap ones. So finally it occurred to me that rather than beat myself into the ground trying to come up with the next Sanctuary when it's simply not there, I should do something completely different.

I have decided to spend Nachmo (I keep wanting to type 'nacho') choreographing small tap dances. Solos, mostly, but maybe a couple of trios or something. Also, since this year Nachmo has rolled out a music video submission page (jury's still out on whether or not they will accept Canadian work at this point), that's my new goal (which is why I'm planning on doing solos and small dances rather than focusing on my great love and higher skill level, namely choreographing huge groups -- I don't have huge groups to work with right now). Maybe it's a new year's resolution? I don't know. I suppose it was a new year's resolution that got me choreographing in the first place, so it might be worth a shot.

I'm not sure how many dances I'm going to shoot for. If inspiration hits, it's totally feasible for me to choreograph an entire tap dance in a day (*cough* The Double), but then again, I don't know if I want to bank on that for thirty straight days, particularly when you take into account my work schedule and my dance schedule. I'm thinking maybe two or three small dances a week... if I can even find that many songs to work with. Right now the (still rough) setlist includes the likes of:

~ Chase That (Ambition) - Lecrae
~ Love Divine - Phil Keaggy
~ On The Other Side - Michael W. Smith
~ Wall Of Sound - Loyd Boldman
~ Independence Day - White Heart (haven't choreographed some White Heart in a good long time)
~ Jingle Ka-Ching - VeggieTales (hear me out... with the right treatment, this is prime satire material)
~ Rattle Me, Shake Me - David Meece (because it would be a fantastic video)
~ Surrender - ELO (I can't listen to this one without dancing anyway, so I might as well make it official)
~ Westminster Bridge - Doctor Who season one soundtrack
~ What Is The Measure Of Your Success? - Steve Taylor (this one is a maybe).

If I wind up sticking with exactly that, that's one song every three days. It just might be doable. But in the meantime, I'll keep combing my music library for more potential tap pieces and the list might get a bit of an overhaul yet.

30 December 2015

Dancing At The Edge Of Time And Memory

23 November 2015, 12.08am.

On Sunday we got a call that my grandpa -- already in frail health -- has been diagnosed with a superbug.

He may die.

Apparently the last couple of weeks he's been talking about how he's so exhausted and how he just wants to sleep and not have to wake up.

At first I took this news fairly resolutely -- he's been ill for several years now and it's always kind of in the back of one's mind... this Christmas could be the last.

But then suddenly I remembered that he's been asking for months for my sisters and I to come and do a dance performance in the nursing home where he lives now. I didn't have anything prepared and I wanted to wait until I actually had several pieces in a danceable state. And then life happened and I forgot. When I remembered today that I had said I would -- and especially how he's been looking forward to it -- I cried as if my heart would break. What if we don't get it together in time? What if he never gets to see us dance? He's been so excited to see us dance and I haven't given it to him yet. And maybe now it's too late.

Plus, there's this matter of living on the edge of time, knowing it's coming but not knowing exactly when, walking on pins and needles, knowing he can't live forever but not ready to live without him yet. And what do you say to a person who's close to death? With the three deaths earlier this year, I had no warning, no time to say anything I might have wanted to say. They were just taken and I had to live with the fallout. But now I have the chance to say anything I want -- but I don't know yet. And the stupid thing is, I probably won't know what -- if anything -- I have to say to him until after it's too late.

I do this all the time. Going to the doctor is an exercise in frustration because I have a whole big list of questions going into the appointment but when they ask if I have any questions, every single one of those questions is completely gone. And I don't remember until I get home and start coughing again and go, oh yeah -- I cough until I can't breathe for nearly a full minute. Is that a problem? Same at the bank -- "Do you have any other banking?" "I DON'T KNOW MY BRAIN DOESN'T WORK WHEN I'M IN A PROFESSIONAL BUILDING." And it terrifies me that I'm going to think of something I wanted very badly to say to him two minutes after he dies. And then I'll hate myself for the rest of my life because this time I actually had the chance to put a sentence together and I didn't because I totally forgot every word in the English language and what if that was something he really needed to hear?

30 December 2015, 12.52am.

Against all sanity, I arranged this performance. Yes, over Christmas. Yes, despite not having rehearsal space. No, I have no idea what the floor is actually like in the performing space. No, neither dance piece is really in great shape. We perform in fourteen hours.

I'm so done with everything. I had set aside today for rehearsing, particularly my solo, which I have yet to do full-out all the way through (also I remembered that I still HATE solos). Instead, I have spent thirteen hours going over the house with a fine-toothed comb looking for the power cord for my video camera.

This may not seem like a big deal, but the fact is that if I want to get into the performing arts, I will eventually need a portfolio of my previous work. In dance, that's video footage. This performance will be particularly valuable as it will be me performing my own choreography -- that counts double. It shows both my skill as a dancer (don't laugh) and my style of choreography. This doesn't even include the educational factor for me -- if I have footage of myself performing my own work that I can review later, it will provide invaluable feedback on what worked and what didn't and I can use that information to refine what I do and how I do it.

Except, of course, I can't use the video camera because it can't be charged because I can't find the stupid power cord.

So as a result of this fruitless search I am now frustrated beyond words, I haven't practiced at all, I've lost an entire day of my life that could have been productive, and I still don't have a useable video camera. To buy a new cord for my perfectly good and now utterly useless six hundred dollar camera? $125. For the cord.

My grandpa had better enjoy this show. He's going to be the only one lucky enough to see it.

25 December 2015

Christmas For The Broken (Music Day)

Usually I'm that really annoying hyper-Christmas person who starts working Boney M. and Michael W. Smith into the music rotation in the middle of August. But this year, it's already Christmas Day and I'm still not feeling it.

It was an awful year. It was right around this time of year that I heard from Brittney for the very last time -- although I didn't know it. It was at Christmas 2014 that I last saw my cousin, my aunt, the family friend we lost, and an entire family unit out of our extended family -- we didn't know it then either. I distinctly remember my uncle hugging me after our family Christmas last year and telling me to 'be good' -- his usual way of saying goodbye. Less than a month later, he left his wife, God abandoned me, and so began the Year From Hell.

How do you celebrate Christmas when the loving family who swore they'd love each other and stick together through thick and thin is either dead, banished, or not speaking to each other?

Peace on earth and good will to men.

This year I learnt that despite all my extended family's insistence to the contrary, their love for each other is EXTREMELY fickle. And if these people are willing to leave spouses and children, if they are willing to skip freaking Christmas after a year like this because of some spat with some in-law, how much longer until it's me they're leaving? How long until they tell me they don't love me anymore, the same way they're telling everyone else? How do you expect me, your niece, to believe you care for me and want the best for me when you are willing to walk out on your own spouse just because you decided you didn't like them anymore?

Does anybody not see what is wrong with this?

Title: Where Are You Christmas
Artist: The Piano Guys
Album: A Family Christmas
Year: 2013
Label: Portrait
iTunes here; YouTube here.

This arrangement is a prime example of when the beautiful is so lovely is also makes one sad -- or at least melancholy. It's an experience that's getting more and more rare these days, but one that really should be getting more frequent. There's 'sad because it's so awful,' there's 'sad because the lyrics are sad,' there's 'sad because of extenuating circumstances,' but this is the increasingly rare 'sad because of its sheer beauty.' The piano melody throughout the piece gets me every time. And then the girl's plaintive voice comes in with that question: where are you, Christmas? and it somehow sounds just like me.

What happened to Christmas with all my aunt and uncles laughing, with the voices of all of the children ringing happily off the ceiling? What happened to Christmas where love pervaded the room and not an awkward tiptoeing around pretty much every single subject we always used to talk about?

Death happens. I get that. My cousin didn't really have a choice in the matter. But divorce -- that's another story. That's your own selfish choice. That is a very clear message that the people you said you committed to don't matter. You committed to me. Don't I matter?

I can never be assured of that again.

19 December 2015

Music Day - Comedian

So guess who else has a Kickstarter going?

Steve Taylor is perhaps the most controversial and most well-known figure in CCM history. He is one of those rare figures in CCM who has managed to be both controversial and well-known for longer than a year. Plenty have been controversial (Petra, post-¡Alarma!-era Daniel Amos), but are not known by today's generation of Christians -- their perceived sins were forgotten after a year or two. And plenty have been well-known (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith), but not really boat-rockers.

Steve Taylor, however, managed to get signed to Sparrow Records -- historically one of the biggest labels in CCM -- which gave him a far bigger potential audience to start with. Add to that a few strong opinions about controversial topics, his knowledge of sarcasm as a first language, and an uncanny ability to pick just the right details and/or wordplay to infuse colour and the unexpected into a song, and you have a recipe for an infamous artist. Even after he stopped releasing solo work, he kept writing songs... my generation of CCM listeners is well acquainted with songs like Breakfast, Shine, Reality, and Million Pieces (Kissing Your Cares Goodbye), all made famous by the Newsboys.

Then the Newsboys Americanised and the brilliant songwriting of Steve Taylor seemed doomed to disappear forever.

But then, two years ago, he launched a Kickstarter campaign with the eventual goal of recording another album with himself on vocals -- his first in over twenty years (the previous Steve Taylor album, Squint, came out in 1993). Naturally, hungry fans pounced on it and if memory serves the campaign was fully funded in twenty-four hours.

This song was a result of that campaign and the resulting album.

Title: Comedian
Artist: Steve Taylor And The Perfect Foil
Album: Goliath
Year: 2014
Label: Independent release
iTunes here; YouTube here.

Now there is another Kickstarter campaign in the works. Steve and his band (which includes Newsboys alum Peter Furler on drums) intend to record an EP, so if you want more of this, go support it here.

Now -- if you're still with me after all that ancient history and the advert -- about the actual song.

I'm not even going to attempt to explain a Steve Taylor lyric because I'll probably get it wrong, so read the lyrics and form your own conclusions here. There's some really great wordplay in the first three verses though (The saints came marching in this morning / And they marched back out the door / Wholly offended...).

Musically speaking, this might be called progressive (I don't actually know, I suck at this genre-classification thing). The music is really sparse until the three-and-a-half-minute mark when the cymbals start competing with Steve's voice for first place in the mix. An electric guitar joins in about a minute later, only to drop out for the ending: a haunting synthesized half-spoken repetition of the phrase Man makes plans / God laughs... (although maybe it only sounds haunting to me because I was watching the Doctor Who episode The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances last night... the voice in the song reminds me a LOT of the voice of the kid saying "Are you my mummy?") This song is significantly mellower than the rest of the album (I very nearly featured Double Negative today instead of Comedian), so if slow songs aren't your thing -- and I don't blame you -- do check out the rest of the album, because if memory serves, this is actually by far the most mellow song on it.

07 December 2015

The Musical From Afar and Chronic Indecisiveness

28 November 2015, 11.04pm.

Christmas musical weekend at my college. And I'm not there.

I see the pictures from my friends who are still there. I can almost smell the makeup and hairspray and plywood from the set, I can see the spotlights cutting through the artificial fog on the state-of-the-art set, I can still hear the voices of the school's best singers and performers, I can feel the angel robe draping over me, and I can still taste the apples we were provided with backstage.

How many times since I graduated have I dreamed about this place? Literally dreamed -- at least once a week I find myself back in the dorm hallway, overjoyed to be back. Invariably I find a friend or two and am disoriented when I find a freshman in a room that once held someone else. And then I wake up. Suddenly the nine-hour drive I thought was behind me is undone, and I'm still here in Alberta.

It wasn't school itself that I liked. I didn't exactly enjoy finishing out a ridiculously hectic semester by writing four papers in 36 hours. Oh sure, I loved some of the classes (all the performing ones, anyway -- musical theatre workshop and choir and dance and voice lessons), but mostly what I liked was performing. And in prairie Canada, that school was probably the best place to go to cut one's theatrical teeth. If I could go to that college without having to actually take history classes, that would almost be a dream come true -- something so good I might commit to never leaving.

So why am I not there this year? And why am I not sure if I'm going back next year?

First answer: money. College is not cheap. Especially when your $1800-a-semester meal plan is basically unusable to due the horrendous schedule and you end up spending even more money to buy food because you're not actually eating in the cafeteria.

Second answer: dance. Longtime readers know how much I love dance. I thought I could give it up -- and I committed to giving it up for two years when I went to college. Long story short, I didn't have to give it up entirely, but I did have to go from training at Advanced One to taking classes at Grade Three. And I lost a lot of stamina, a lot of technique, and a lot of the joy in my life. I've spent my year in Alberta so far overdosing on dance classes -- I'm currently taking the heaviest dance schedule I've ever attempted and I still feel so far behind my peers who kept training at the advanced level during my two-year absence. The stamina and technique and definitely the joy is back in my life, but the thing is, to return to college, to return to theatre, I have to give this up. Yes, there are some dance classes at the school, but the reality is that for all intents and purposes, I have to give up dance. I have to pick one or the other. I have to either go back to college, back to theatre and the life it infused into me after years of just being a shell and turn my back on dancing or I have to stay here, keep training at my actual skill level in dance and dying inside every time I see backstage pictures from the many performances that the school puts on every year.

I've been agonising over this decision ever since I realised this past semester how much I loved acting. And the pressure only got higher when the people around me, the people in my program and the people in my dorm started telling me that I should stay, that I should continue on for a Bachelor's degree in performing. I didn't know what to do with that. I'd never received such validation -- ever, in anything. Most of the time, people never notice me as a person, let alone any strengths I have.

And I'm going to end up hating myself, no matter what decision I make. It probably won't matter if I pick theatre or if I pick dance. I'm always going to be thinking, what if I had done the other thing...?