29 February 2016

The Law And Grace In Performing Art - Part I

I was six years old when I started dance classes. Legend has it that I begged my parents for classes for an entire year previous and they figured if I could spend a whole year talking about it, I must really want it. So they enrolled me in the only dance school they could find that didn't require them to work a bingo at any point.

I loved it. I spent five years there, and enjoyed every second of the first three. Even in the final two years I did enjoy it (or at least I thought I did), but by then my teacher's extremely negative attitude was starting to have an effect on me, even though I couldn't see it in myself. But my parents could, and they made the executive decision to pull me out (despite many tears and vehement protests on my part). It wasn't until years later that they began to hear about some of the cruel things that teacher did to us -- demanding perfection and knowledge without first showing us what we were expected to do, mocking students in front of the entire class if we did a technical thing wrong that we didn't even know about yet, straight up being mean or condescending, and she was the queen of favouritism to boot. For my entire final year in that school, she never once referred to me by name. She would have us do a centre exercise in two groups, and it would always be: "Ashley, Jessica, and Stephanie, Group One, the rest of you, Group Two." I was always 'the rest of you.' This same teacher also once told my parents straight up that I would fail the RAD exam. I passed that exam with my highest personal mark ever on an RAD exam -- and I've passed every RAD exam I've ever taken.

It was, in short, an extremely shame-based style of instruction. You were told only that you were doing it wrong, you weren't even told what you were doing wrong. You were expected to be perfect right off the bat and if you weren't, then you obviously weren't cut out to be a ballerina and you would spend the rest of your years at that school being ignored.

After that school, I took three years off. I wandered about aimlessly, looking for something else to do with my time. This was about the time that I began to really get into music (as a listener), but aside from that, nothing stuck. I took voice lessons, realised I was awful at singing, took some scrapbooking and paper art classes, realised I didn't have the patience for it, tried to develop friendships at our new church, realised that nobody there at the time gave a crap whether I was breathing or not. Finally I relinquished myself to the fact that I really just wanted to be dancing.

Although my mother was clearly taken aback by my revelation and I think was really hoping I would have left my childhood dream behind and joined the real world, she did seek out another dance school. This one was significantly farther away, but that didn't matter to me and so my parents decided they'd give it a try.

For the first four years or so, I said absolutely nothing in class and I expected nothing less than absolute perfection of myself. That was how I was trained at the first school -- shut up and do it perfectly. And I motivated myself with shame. My new teacher didn't provide any kind of mocking or sarcastic feedback, but by that time I was perfectly capable of providing it for myself... You're about a flexible as a two-by-four. You'll never do a grande battement like that and how do you expect to be any good if you can't be flexible? You can't even do a basic single pirouette and look at that -- all of the others can. They probably think you're stupid because you can't even land a single. You should have remembered that sequence. It's so easy. You didn't remember it because you're stupid. How can you call yourself a dancer? How stupid can you be to think that you can just come back to it? You're too old for this. You should be better than them and you're not. What's the point of even trying? You'll never be good enough. You're too stupid. You have no talent.
I think I started to open up a little when my new teacher commented off-hand that I was 'very musical.'

...Say what?

For the entire five years that I had been at that first school, my teacher had been saying things like, 'you're too fast,' 'you never listen to the music,' 'you have no rhythm,' 'you need to slow down.' I didn't know at the time exactly what she was getting at because she never explained it to me, but by the time my second teacher made that comment about me being musical, I knew that I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, 'musical.' I couldn't even read music. My sister could, but not me. I was too stupid.

It was slow going, and I wonder how much that second teacher knew about my first school -- if anything, since my parents didn't know a lot of it either -- and how much she might have despaired over the years that I would never stop berating myself. I wouldn't do it out loud, of course, because nobody needs to hear that, but I wouldn't be surprised if my self-hatred was plainly written on my face (and she is perceptive -- the other day she remarked (not asked, remarked) that I wasn't feeling well and it wasn't until she said that that I realised I was, in fact, feeling a bit out of it).
Anyway, even after that 'musical' comment, it wasn't an instant turnaround. In fact, I never really realised how patient she had been with me and how good it is to study under her until this past year, when I started thinking about what my life would have been like had I either stayed at that first school, or stayed away from dance entirely.

That second teacher, whether she knew it or not, had her work cut out for her when I walked in the studio door. And she spent upwards of the next five years patiently undoing the knot of self-loathing that I had been taught to weave and pull tight at that first school. She's never addressed it directly -- I don't even know how much if it she knows. But over years of gentle corrections -- not mocking lectures -- and the calm assurance that we'll 'get it yet, even if it isn't today' -- not 'that was horrendous. You're making me seasick. Do it again until it resembles something good' -- I began to actually enjoy myself again. I began to feel like I wasn't an embarrassment to dance and most of all I began to lose my crippling fear of being noticed by the teacher. In the first school, being noticed by the teacher, especially if you weren't one of her special favourites, was almost worse than being ignored -- it meant a long tirade mocking you for some minor thing that was merely an oversight and easily corrected (she literally went on a fifteen-minute tear one time because another girl had forgotten to straighten her knees. If she had simply said, "Make sure your knees are straight," that would have done the trick. But she made snide comments about it for fifteen minutes).

I probably don't have to tell you at this point that in five years at the second school, I made significantly more progress than I did in the same amount of time at the first school. My second teacher certainly didn't expect any less of us -- in fact, I had a hard time at first keeping up with the sheer amount of technique in her school because I wasn't used to it -- but we were allowed to make the occasional mistake. We were expected to improve, but not without the teacher demonstrating and explaining the correct way until we understood.

The difference was grace.

At the first school, we were expected to follow the letter of the law, instantly, without question, and without a single fault. At the second school, we were expected to adhere to the general 'laws' of ballet, but she understood that internalising the feel of it wasn't instant, and she gave us a(n) (often extremely lengthy) grace period within which to master it. And whenever she did correct our technique, it was gently, not with a harsh derisive smoker's laugh.

14 February 2016

Postlude: National Choreography Month

To recap: this past January I committed to choreographing a whole bunch of tap dances. I simply combed through my list of songs-that-I-want-to-choreograph-someday and picked out ten that I thought I could feasibly push my way through (see the pre-event list here). At the time, I knew ten songs was a lot to ask, but I figured the higher the bar was set, the more I would accomplish, even if I fell short of that exact goal. And that's exactly what happened.

I choreographed eight full dances this past month. While that alone is a feat in itself, what I'm really impressed with is how diverse these dances are. There were solos and a duo and a trio... and a piece for twenty-three. There were dances for elaborate stage sets and dances that were intended to be performed on very small platforms. There was sweet and adorable, there was dark and creepy, there was fun and ridiculous, there was tight and skilled, there was haunting and brooding. There were specific characters and there were stereotypes and there were simply dancers. I touched on most of these pieces throughout the month (read through the blog posts of January 2016), but I'll recap them here.

Surrender (ELO) - A story dance, the dark and creepy one. It's a story that has long since attracted my attention in dance, and this is the first time I've even been able to do a microcosmic version of it. I'm most excited about the use of 'extras' to set the scene. I haven't tried my hand at that very often, but here it was appropriate and I thought it turned out well. It really enriches the feel of the situation and frames the scene.

Love Divine (Phil Keaggy) - This was a duet, sweet and light. If Surrender was dark, bitter chocolate, this one was cotton candy, pink and cheery. My favourite part about it is how simple and joyful the song is, which in turn lent buoyancy to the dance itself.

Rattle Me, Shake Me (David Meece) - Easily the most ambitious choreographic project I've tackled to date. This one involved a myriad of specific characters as well as many extras, and each character needed to have their own specific style of tapping to differentiate them and bring life to the piece. I was also a lot more 'loose' in my approach to this -- it has a very big-band, musical-theatre feel to it.

On The Other Side (Michael W. Smith) - I'm not sure how I feel about this one. For years it's been in my head as a dance for six. I choreographed it as a solo this month. I've not yet come to terms with that. If I re-work any dance from this month, this might be it. However, I think pushing myself to think more outside the box with the choreography itself paid off.

Westminster Bridge (BBC National Orchestra) - This was a tight, fast dance, lots of synchronicity and lots of sharp canon. I'm very excited to see how this one actually looks on three real people at the same time.

Chase That (Ambition) (Lecrae) - I've always wanted to try my hand -- well, feet -- at choreographing a legitimate rap song and I finally the bit the bullet. It was difficult trying to decide whether or not to follow the rhythm of the beat or the rhythm of the lyrics or make a parallel rhythm to run alongside both. But I'm extremely happy with how the climax of the song turned out. This was choreographed as a solo and its travel footprint is small, to be performed on extremely small stages or platforms.

What Is The Measure Of Your Success? (Steve Taylor) - This almost didn't make it on the starting list, but I'm glad I put it on there. I think out of all the dances I choreographed this month, I'm most proud of this one. This one also touched my heart more than any of the others. It awoke exactly the kind of emotions in me that I hope it will awaken in the audience. It was choreographically very simple, but rich in food for thought and (I hope) in metaphor.

Independence Day (White Heart) - By this time I was starting to power out and you can see that, especially at the end. However, I was terrified to even start this dance, so slogging through it till the end is an accomplishment in itself. It's for six people, which is actually a really fun number to choreograph for because you can do a lot in terms of formations with six people. The transitions between formations were particularly fun. Also, this was one of the few this month that wasn't a story song (or at least clear-cut characters), and that seemed odd to me after writing so many different distinctive 'voices' this month.

The longtime reader will also notice that I managed to go for an entire month without choreographing something with Terry Scott Taylor's name on it. In fact, almost every one of the artists represented here were artists I choreographed for the first or maybe second time ever (David Meece and White Heart were the only artists I'd choreographed more than twice already and even White Heart had been a very long time ago). Perhaps that added to the diversity of the choreography itself -- I mean, Daniel Amos' work spans pretty much every genre ever by now, but even all that has the indelible DA style. Lecrae, obviously, does not have the DA style, which means his music and my choreography will interact differently. It forced me to figure out different approaches and plumb depths of my style that a steady diet of DA doesn't necessarily draw out.

In summary: It was good to do this again -- both because it helped me prove to myself that I'm not completely lacking in inspiration, I'm just lacking it in my typical avenues of creativity, and because when you do this much creative work in one genre (tap) in such a short time, you pretty much have no option but to improve. Last time I was able to participate in National Choreography Month (in 2013), I was working in softshoe disciplines (ballet and jazz), but I noticed that after that month the quality of my choreography in general jumped up exponentially -- simply because I did so much of it in such a short time. I learnt very quickly what worked and what didn't; what I liked and what I didn't like. Without giving myself permission to make a lot of potential crap and risk coming with with something workable or even half-decent for thirty days, it would have taken me years of plodding along at a 'normal' pace to gain the same experience that I did in one month. Plus, because during Nachmo you make time to choreograph every single day, not once a week (or whatever), the lessons you learnt yesterday are still fresh in your mind and you're better able to build on them. If it's a week between choreography sessions, you've probably forgotten that one observation you made and will therefore either have to relearn it or at least remember it -- both of which slow down the improvement process.

01 February 2016

Hold On - Courage As A Perfectionist

I'm sitting here stressing out -- again. About my family, about my friends, about my job. Last year was notoriously difficult and while things have leveled out some (the death rate has slowed down if nothing else), there's still plenty to freak out about -- my future. My family's future. The paths my friends are taking. All of those choices that I have to make and that the people around me are making. Now more than ever I understand the sentiment behind Randy Stonehill's classic Stop The World ("stop the world, I want to get off...").

Three years ago -- it seems like this was a completely different person then -- I had a dream and though I knew it would be difficult and I may not succeed, I went after it. The other day I was going through some papers and I found an article I had printed off of the Daniel Amos website because it was so inspiring. Terry Taylor was talking about the high road of artistry, how great art inspires and ennobles... that's who I wanted to be. That's still who I want to be. But now, having faced some of the very worst that the world has to offer (relationally), I despair if I can be that encouragement that I wanted to be. I can't even get myself out of this rut, how in the world can I possibly help anybody else? It's to the point where I'm too afraid to start anything creative. This has stymied all of my artistic output for more or less a year now. And it's the fear of everything -- fear that I won't be able to touch anybody, or be competent in my art, or even be able to pay for my own food and lodging. Probably the only fear that isn't a huge deal is the fear of people not taking me seriously -- I'm used to that, and I've had a while to acquaint myself with the idea that nobody likes an artist as a person.

I can't fix the world. I can't fix the world around me that's falling apart and I hate myself for it.

I'm a perfectionist. I always have been. For years I actually thought it was a good thing -- it was always trumped up as a virtue by the people around me. I nurtured it until I realised it was killing me and then I began to realise (slowly) that there were times I could (and should) loosen my hold on it. And I did -- rather successfully, in fact. Until everybody started dying.

And now it's back. Everything's back. All that self-blame, all the 'what if I had been here instead of there?' 'what if I had done things differently?' 'maybe it's my fault.' They say the greatest art comes from artists who battle the strongest demons of the heart, the mind, and the soul -- I touched on this in Kyrie -- but at what cost? Even the artist in Kyrie committed suicide. I knew the life of an artist was hard, but thought that somehow my love of creating art would pull me through it and help me to process it. Instead, I've become so scared of ruining this life that's already falling apart that I'm avoiding the very thing that, by all accounts, should help me. Isn't this where the greatest art comes from? ...from the depths of despair and anger and fear? Am I missing out on a huge treasure trove of art just beneath the surface?

What courage it must take for the artist to continue to wake up every single morning and commit to creating something even if he feels it will go absolutely nowhere. I know the failed projects are still learning opportunities -- I've experienced this myself. If it wasn't for the gong show that was my tenth NaNoWriMo novel, I wouldn't know what not to do nearly as well as I do now. The novels that came after that novel showed a marked jump up in quality, even for rough drafts. But for the artist to look at the families falling apart around him, to feel the pressure of a life of poverty that isn't always escapable, to see all the darkness consuming those he loves more than his own life, and to still try to capture the glimmer of light that he cannot see but hopes to heaven still exists is perhaps one of the greatest and most Herculean acts of courage a human being can attempt. And right now, I seriously doubt that I have that kind of courage -- the courage that whispers, hold on.

It's not about success. Or even about touching people's souls (yet). It's the courage to wake up every single morning and face a day in which somebody may die. Or leave their spouse. Or get cancer. And still try to create art to encourage people when your own soul despairs of ever being happy again.