Before we begin making dances there are a couple of questions we need to ask ourselves. Like why bother? Who cares if we make a dance or just dance around in our bathroom? Is it for some public recognition? Is it merely to show off the skills we have learned or to dazzle our friends with our ingenuity? Of course, the ego is all tied up in art making and that is pretty unavoidable, but is there some greater purpose beyond the glory and recognition we can bring to ourselves?
Dancing is pretty simple. I mean, dancing is universally understood to be a good thing. It feels good. It’s sensual and it expresses some childlike part of us that is carefree and uninhibited. So it is easy to understand why we dance. But why would we choose to MAKE a dance? To construct or author something that exists as a formal entity and can be shared with the public? The answer I have come up with is simple. Don’t make a dance you don’t need to make. Don’t make one that doesn’t teach you something or propel you towards some greater understanding of your world.
My dance making finally matured into something juicy and satisfying when I approached it as a survival technique. The only way I could navigate this dizzying swirl of life was to carve out some small space that felt real and honest and over which I had some modicum of control. It wasn’t so much about having something to say, but more about acknowledging what frightened me and how ill equipped I was to handle things like human cruelty or bigotry or even my own sexuality. Much of human existence seemed like a pretty precarious affair. I wanted to put forward real feelings and express, even if only in a small and momentary way, the truth of what I felt about living in this fragile human state. I wasn’t trying to invent a system for art making. Quite the contrary, I was just trying to get through the night.
I saw a Rothko painting recently.
It was all red.
A red square with a border of redder red.
I’ve always hated Rothko, I mean I never got the big deal of it.
But this one really got to me.
I was standing in the museum with tears running down my face.
It was something about the red-
Like it had broken loose from somewhere,
So passionate and so broken, so deeply sad. (Stay Together, 2006)
All I was hoping to do was to unearth my own point of view, to claim some vantage point on what I saw around me. I wanted to scream out- I have feelings about this crazy life! I expected little in return, only the satisfaction of having piped up, but the result was much more profound. I discovered that I was changed by the noise I had made; that by blurting out my immediate feeling I had stumbled onto a revelation. In an unfeeling world, to feel something, indeed, to craft something out of felt materials, could be an act of redemption.
One Artist’s Manifesto-
I believe in what I find.
I believe in the accidents, in those truths I find in the moment.
I don’t believe in beginnings.
The beginning, small or big, is a lie.
It assumes that I can clear away the great, unwashed disarray of my life.
And I can’t do that.
I believe in the messy middle, in turning around three times and landing my finger on a point. And, really looking at that point.
But that is a continuation of something already begun.
(Deeply There, 1999)
I am always drawn to performances that seem to come from a deep and personal place. When the artist has investigated something and, more importantly, delved into something that was prickly or costly in some way, I am more likely to be sympathetic. In other words, if they have felt something in the process of making the work, I can usually sense it. And I think most viewers/participants can do this- they can feel when something has been risked, when something has been uncovered. It is an incredible animal power that we seem to have- we can recognize when the author/maker has gone through something authentic in the making of the material, when it is important to him or her.
Likewise, we can feel when that is not the case.
Hence my advice – Don’t make a performance that you don’t NEED to make. Make art about where you are right now. Maybe you are in a place of indecision, or loss, or exuberance over a new relationship. Any of those places are good places to start. Go into the studio and ask what do I need to learn? What questions are up for me right now? Excavate your life. Live through your work and try to learn about living through your work. Dance as a personal essay. Approach it from a human place. Our human experience is unique. No two humans are doing it the same way. Draw from your experience. It might be events or actual things that happened or it may be from your interior life, your imagination.
Things I need. I need sun, clean water, ground.
I need to wake up in the morning, my forehead on the beloved.
I don’t need more news of polar bears drowning.
It’s like I am also drowning, paddling my way desperately to the iceberg as it melts away. (Traveling Light, 2009)
To make something, to build something, is not just exerting the force of your skill and intelligence upon the world. It is also a process of looking inward, of gaining new perspective, of inhabiting your life in a more deliberate way. This can be powerful and transformative. And when this kind of transformation occurs, it can be easily felt by others. We are not so different. So, make the dance that is personal to you. Don’t worry about it being too naked or too raw. Risk feeling something, and keep an eye on what you can learn from the journey.