A Place Where Trump Isn’t

At times in the last few months, I have felt like a captive audience at a show for which I never bought a ticket.

It is set at a time when both of my countries (the UK is my country of birth; the US is my country of residence) are reeling from recent political upsets, and questions of national and personal identity are hogging the spotlight. I know that I’m watching what someone else wants me to see, and I’m somehow angry, bored, afraid and riveted all at once. Some days, when I get a good idea or a creative urge, I feel more like I’m watching from the wings, in full costume and with a routine of my own ready to go, but waiting for a turn that will never come. The overwhelming number of voices out there and the level of discord among them makes me want to cling to the safety of the shadows while the familiar tunes play out on an interminable loop.

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I’m sure the soundtrack is a little different for each of us unwilling voyeurs, but for me, the loop begins with the discordant headbanger Louder Faster Harder, reminding me that I’m neither working nor caring enough. It’s quickly followed by the waltz Women Can’t Win, which somehow plays as dated despite the edgy modern harmonies. This merges into a poignant if pathetic ballad of self-doubt from the protagonist entitled Can I Will I Should I before her shame sweeps her up into the patter of First World White Girl Problems. Then there’s an ironic kick-line led by Miss America before Donald Trump swings across the fourth wall on a cheap-looking chandelier and sets off the cycle all over again.

Ugh.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of feeling like a victimized audience member in the face of the toxic bullshit on the world stage. There’s already plenty coming at me from the predators in my own head, and the mixture can feel intoxicatingly incapacitating, a modern-day poppy field lulling me into educated inaction. Whether I’m passively watching from my seat in the darkness, or just-as-passively waiting in the just-as-dark wings, I’m tired of consuming a narrative that makes me feel helpless.

And so I’m staging a boycott. I’m walking out, tearing off my old costume, heading back to the studio to figure out how to tell my own stories in my own way.

14721761_10102727526896032_3908998037363369581_nI mean that last part quite literally. My husband and I recently moved to the countryside a few hours north of New York City, to a home that includes my own dance studio (that’s where I am in the picture above). I commute in to New York City for a couple of days each week but the majority of the time you will find me at my house in the Hudson Valley woods. I’m still learning how to drive, so if my husband is traveling, it’s a very solitary life: making dances, doing the obscene amount of work that it takes to get them seen by anyone other than my cat, and coping with the withdrawal from urban life.

This may sound like an isolationist cop-out from the “real world”, but I assure you that the New York Times reads the same here as it does in the city, and the MetroNorth train does not go fast enough to outrun my inner, outer, and chandelier-borne demons. On the contrary, I am beginning to see myself as a kind of activist, engaging with an essential yet often-forgotten aspect of humanity: creativity.

In a relatively recent reversal, humans now consume so much more than we create. Whether it’s food, furniture or truth, somebody is manufacturing it for a profit. Many of us go days, weeks, even years of our lives without ever making something of use or meaning where before there was nothing, and it’s easy to understand why: Creation takes time, has its own unpredictable rhythm. It gets worse before it gets better, messy before it makes sense. So why take the time to cook – and clean up after yourself – when you could order in? Who makes their own clothes any more; what family makes their own entertainment? Whatever we think of the main players on the world stage right now, we can all agree that it is easier to sit back and watch them than to try to scramble up onto the stage ourselves.

13653383_304775506542895_5986214248734961200_o.jpgBut it is precisely because we live in a world where it is not strictly necessary to create that it has become more important than ever. When we do not have a real-life experience of personal authenticity against which to measure what we are being told, the decisions being made on our behalf (with or without our consent) slip under our noses unquestioned. We get so much of our information these days from devices that we spend more time with (and often know us better!) than our families. And there are so many opportunities to personalize, curate and organize our media that it can feel like we have authorship over the information we are fed. But don’t be fooled; You didn’t make any of the music on that playlist you “created”, and half of it was probably recommended to you via an algorithm designed to get your money.

When you consume another person’s version of your story, your agency in the writing of it is inevitably compromised. The sense of being an audience member at my own life stems from a glut of information – not just through the media, but through the breakneck pace at which urban living has taught me I should live every aspect of my life – combined with a deficiency of confidence in my own power, rightness or reputation. This does not seem like a good time to get complacent about the story of me or my planet, but it’s impossible to think my way out of the resulting paralysis, to weigh all the options and outcomes and make decisions grounded in logic. If we want to have a say in our next chapters as individuals and as a society, we need a more efficient procedure. Lucky for us, Mother Nature has been working on this one for… well… since forever.

13923372_304775503209562_1848086959248919103_o.jpgIf you can’t write a song, sing one note; if you can’t make a dance, make a move. Bake a cake, tend a garden, make a music video on your smartphone (check out these iPhone super shorts by choreographer Jonathan Watkins, an inspirational friend who literally finds creative potential in his own shadow). Create something from nothing, and you will develop new confidence in your abilities. Create something personal, and you will develop an inner tuning fork for external bullshit. Create something that you love, and you will instinctively create the motivation you need to protect it. Share something you create, and in the words of the great dancer, choreographer and humanitarian Margie Gillis, you will also create “A place where Trump isn’t”. Not out of fantasy, but out of the very stuff that you are made of.

And thusly empowered, I restart my blog. See you next month.

 

P.S These photos by Amanda Tipton Photography are from my own piece Neruda Songs, which will receive its NY premiere next weekend (Dec 17/18). Come! More info on my website, lauracareless.com

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Nutcracker Madness!

Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge season is in full swing, and the Sugar Plum Fairy is threatening a full life takeover. I’ve been honoured to receive requests for written interviews about my role in the show, but they leave me no opportunity to work on the serious, probing piece I was planning to write on aging, battling cancer and the rituals we use to mark the passage of our mortality. You know, traditional holiday fare.

In homage to the Sweetest Fairy Of Them All I’ve decided to leave that jolly piece of writing until the new year, and content myself with living in the sparkly, holiday-flavoured moment. Here’s a director’s cut of these interviews, a pastiche of thoughts and feelings about my performing life, a screen capture of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s footsteps dancing all over my desktop.

You can find the original version of these interviews on stagebuddy.com, broadwayworld.com, and tfl.com. I’ll post links as they become available.

Happy Holidays!

Rehearsing with my Nutcracker Prince, Todd Hanebrink

Rehearsing with my Nutcracker Prince, Todd Hanebrink

As a child I had a video of The Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker that my grandmother taped from the TV onto VHS. I watched it, usually dancing along, until the tape started to disintegrate.

A few years later, I became obsessed with a documentary that chronicled the life of full-time students at The Royal Ballet School, and one section of it showed them rehearsing to perform in the company’s production of The Nutcracker. My ballet dreams came true and I was accepted to attend the school, except that the opera house was closed for major refurbishment at the time. What with the growing Christmas tree and all, the scenery was too large to take the Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and crew with them on tour during the company’s nomadic years. I performed with the company in Swan Lake and Peter and the Wolf, but The Nutcracker eluded me throughout my party guest-eligible years.

The first time I performed in any version of the show was Company XIV’s decidedly non-traditional Nutcracker Rouge, which had its first performance in 2009. We remounted the production at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York’s West Village last year, and this season’s production runs at our new home theater on Lafayette St through January.

Our new venue is the perfect environment for Director Austin McCormick’s work; easily accessible by public transport, but hidden underground in the basement of Colonnade Row, an historical building with a colourful past; the elegance of a theatre, the intimacy of a lounge. As soon as they walk through the door, audiences are swept off into an XIV-flavoured fantasy. You are immediately surrounded by chandeliers, cocktails, chaises longues, Rococo-style decor and beautiful people – and that’s before the curtain even rises. It is a full experience, not ‘just’ a show.

Every performance has a slightly different feel, dependent upon everyone present in the theatre – audience and performers alike. The work is designed to have that kind of natural variation and daily tailoring. Austin creates movement with the expectation that performers will fill it in with our own imagination, stagecraft, and connection with the audience. His trust in his artists’ talents, skills, ideas, taste and imagination enables him to create layered, atmospheric, multi-disciplinary theatre on the extravagant scale that has become the XIV signature.

Backstage with Jen, XIV's champion dresser

Backstage with Jen, XIV’s champion dresser

All backstage activity is as intricately planned and choreographed as what is happening onstage. We have only a Stage Manager and one dresser; performers take care of everything else: curtains going up and down, setting props, helping out with quick changes, operating spotlights… My anxiety dreams as we get close to opening a new show are often about misplacing a costume piece, or suddenly finding myself in a new theatre where I can’t find my way to the stage, or putting on the wrong costume. On the bright side, though, this approach gives us performers a tremendous level of ownership over the show, and encourages the highest levels of teamwork and camaraderie. I find that really beautiful, and I think the audience feels it too.

In Nutcracker Rouge, I play Marie Claire, the equivalent of Clara in The Nutcracker ballet. In XIV’s adult retelling, Marie Claire’s experiences in the Kingdom of the Sweets inspire and encourage her transformation into the seductive, sexually mature Sugar Plum Fairy. Sexual awakening is often a subtext in fairy tales with female protagonists, and our show focuses upon that area of Marie Claire’s development. It celebrates sexuality as it could be in a dream world where shame has no power, where we would be entirely safe to explore our wildness, and glitter fell from the sky.

Marie Claire, in rehearsal

Marie Claire, in rehearsal

We are so careful to nurture and inspire the imagination of children, yet as adults our fantasies become a source of embarrassment. Nutcracker Rouge celebrates our adult taste for sweetness the way that the Nutcracker ballet does for children. I think it’s a really glorious story to experience at this time of year. Hidden under all of our sweaters and puffy coats, our bodies crave attention and joy and sparkle more than ever.

My favourite moment in the show changes every night, depending on how I am feeling. Sometimes the innocent side of Marie Claire is hard to shed; sometimes I can’t wait to become the Sugar Plum Fairy. Some nights I get the most pleasure from draping myself on a spiral staircase and watching Turkish Delight, a slow and sensual pole duet; other nights I feel impatient to get to the foot-stomping, flamenco-flavored Chocolate section. Some nights I relish my Sugar Plum solo most of all; other times it comes as a huge relief to see my Nutcracker Prince walk toward me afterwards to begin our duet. The pleasure that never changes, yet always takes me by surprise, is my delight in my fellow cast members. They are all phenomenal performers, specialists in what they do, and never perform any section the same way twice.

XIV performances require great presence of mind and spirit as well as body. They require optimal levels of commitment and investment to be at their best. I love this about Austin’s work; it’s one of the things that first drew me to it when we started working together eleven years ago. But the fact that there is no auto-pilot button makes each show energetically expensive. If you are not organized about your priorities, it can feel like you are competing in the Olympics every day of your life! And this is not a sustainable energetic model. If a sprinter was also teaching, and training, and doing her own laundry and maintaining a personal life, you’d never expect her to come in with her best time six times a week. So I have to be very clear about the fact that I am an artist first, not an athlete. Physical feats are valuable to what I do only in so far as they serve my top priority: to use my body to tell a story and to facilitate an experience for the audience. The discipline to be discerning in that way is my greatest challenge. It is easy to get into a cycle of physical exhaustion and despair, and I prefer to create a personal soundtrack for myself that is about storytelling, audience connection and pleasure.

I have become fascinated with dancers who sustain a performance career over many decades. I am on the search for role models in the field who defy the professional expectations and artistic approach I trained with. I love reading interviews with Wendy Whelan, who recently retired from New York City Ballet in her late forties in order to have even more artistic adventures.

I also find inspiration and mentorship in the stories that I love; favorite characters and archetypes can also be great role models and teachers. For example, every night, Marie Claire teaches me that an open mind and heart are essential to dreaming, while the Sugar Plum Fairy reminds me of the satisfaction that comes with the manifestation of those dreams.

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P.S. Tempted to see the Sugar Plum Fairy in action? Buy tickets at http://www.companyxiv.com. Continue reading

Hurricane Sandy, Full Circle

“I had teachers articulate that to me: ‘You have to live with your mind your whole life.’ You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with. Nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me.”

Marilynne Robinson

La Fete promotional photo by Corey Tatarczuk

La Fete promotional photo by Corey Tatarczuk

October 29, 2012. It’s tech rehearsal at 303 Bond Street, the home studio and theatre of Company XIV. And not just any old tech rehearsal – a Company XIV tech rehearsal. Walking into 303 Bond is like walking into an alternate universe. The human-sized chandeliers come as standard. The room is filled with the people that make the magic happen – Director and Choreographer Austin McCormick, dancers, actors, singers, lighting designer, set designer, costume designer, technical director, sound technician, film and projection designer, makeup artist. There is an enormous wheeling table, a king-sized bed in one corner, and an eight-foot-high mirror on wheels. There is a snow machine. There is a live band and singers with voices from another world. There are gunshot sound cues to time, new high heeled shoes for the male dancers to get used to. There are neck ruffs and corsets and thirty second costume changes and fake knives and blinding spotlights; there is confusion over exactly how long I have to strangle Katrina with a glove against a moving mirror. There is a glitter cannon.

Photo Credit: Corey Tatarczuk

Photo Credit: Corey Tatarczuk

Tech rehearsal is the time when the creation you have incubated for months reveals itself as suddenly as buds blossom in spring. It is a time filled with the chaos and emotion of birthing, the feverish anticipation of seeing the face of that new life for the first time. So soon, so soon. I can hardly wait to behold this show, entitled La Fete (The Party). My role in its creation – my role in the creation of any work I have had the honour and pleasure to make with Austin since we began collaborating over a decade ago – has been all-consuming; an intimate and demanding act. He creates movement, and the world within which it lives, out of a desire to convey emotional states and reveal connections between performers. He uses not only your body but also your desires, your weaknesses, your fantasies and your voice as his raw material. Giving yourself over to that process – allowing your body to be a channel for the mystical force we call inspiration – requires discipline, courage and a willingness to be seen in all states of the human condition.

It is utterly absorbing and completely addictive, perfect for a time when I’ve wanted to escape from everything else. In the months leading up to these rehearsals my mother has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and I’ve ended a four year relationship. Company life has been the anchor without which I might have wandered off into an emotional black hole. I have poured everything I’ve got into this world, teaching and coaching and assisting with rehearsals as well as preparing to perform myself.

Phot credit: Corey Tatarczuk

Phot credit: Corey Tatarczuk

All around me I see fellow veterans and new recruits alike falling deeper and deeper under the Company XIV spell. As performers in a world of such saturated fantasy, we are creating a collective lucid dream. By the time we invite an audience to join us there, there must be no trace of hesitation, self-consciousness or self doubt on our part. In order to guide them through our world, we must know it intimately. We must enter the dream ourselves.

During this week of twelve-hour days, I wallow in that world, entirely sheltered from the harshness of reality. I am aware that this is an unusual dependence on fantasy, but excuse it in my eagerness to share it with an audience. They are my earth wire, I tell myself. They will be all the connection to reality that I need. I OWE it to them to immerse myself in this imaginary world.

Rehearsal is over. We finish early because the MTA are shutting down the subways as a precaution against damage from some upcoming windy weather. None of us performers take it too seriously; we’re drugged up on our own fantasies and blinded by the hazy glow of chandeliers. We plan on being back here tomorrow even if the only way we can get here is to jump out of our windows and ride on the wind.

Then Hurricane Sandy happened.

303 Bond Street was flooded by the Gowanus Canal, a highly toxic body of water just two blocks away. The water came in through the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling windows and seeped in through a few weak spots in the walls. It covered the entire floor, by just an inch or so. No costumes or set pieces were ruined. The glitter cannon made it through in one piece. Sandy left our fantasies untouched.

But we lost our floor. Water seeped through the marley, the covering on a dance floor that allows feet to glide effortlessly across it. Then it rotted the wood underneath, ruining the spring that cushions our movement and keeps bodies safe from harm. A few days after the hurricane, the floor was already buckling visibly, and it became clear that the whole thing would have to be torn up and remade from scratch. As a result, the two month performance season, due to open two days after Sandy paid us her unwelcome visit, was cancelled.

This picture of me from this time was taken my Steven Trumon Grey, a fellow dancer at XIV. He used the unexpected time off to work on his photography, and now has a successful double career taking beautiful pictures.

This picture of me from this time was taken my Steven Trumon Grey, a fellow dancer at XIV. He used the unexpected time off to work on his photography, and now has a successful double career taking beautiful pictures.

For the first few weeks after Hurricane Sandy, I woke up each morning with a nauseating feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. For the first time in my life, nobody was waiting for me to be somewhere or expecting me to do something. You know those questions you push to the back of your mind because they’ll only lead to more questions and you don’t have time for all that? Well, they’re exactly the ones that came crashing forward when I expected to be performing a beautiful show for lots of appreciative people but instead there were no trains running, I’d been sitting around in my pyjamas for three days eating potato chips for dinner and I didn’t know when the company I’d dedicated my working life to for six years would be up and running again. The more the days dragged along, the more questions I had and the less I understood my place in the world.

I was astonished at how unskilled I was at creating a fulfilling life for myself, at how dependent I had become on certain, particular circumstances for an affirmation of my worth, an outlet for my creativity, and even for my grasp on reality. I felt like a character trapped in a dream that nobody would ever wake up from.

The next six months became an unexpected and unwanted but nonetheless invaluable opportunity for Company XIV and me personally to regroup. The company has used the time supremely well and is now back with a vengeance, but not before I went almost a year without performing, at the age many in my profession would consider the technical peak of my career. I had no choice but to wrestle with the never-ending questions; it felt as though life had put me in detention until I found my way out of nobody’s dream and into a greater understanding of what it means to be a performing artist for me, today. I had to re-build my own mind, according to my current reality, with all of its ugliness, disappointment and fear.

What I know now, and what I did not know then, is the difference between imagination, born of one’s own creation and desire, and illusion. To support the dance of my wildest fantasies and desires, I must protect my mind from the floods of delusional thinking that could leave it vulnerable to buckling under their weight.

Crazy? Perhaps. Helpful?  Absolutely.

Crazy? Perhaps. Helpful? Absolutely.

I’ve found that the most effective sandbag for psychic home-building is ritual. For example, in those endless days after Hurricane Sandy, my daily journaling practice took on a new value. Mornings were the hardest times, and so at night I would write a cheering letter to myself to read when I woke up. They were full of creative ideas for me to fill my days, and images and archetypes that would give me a positive outlook on my new situation. During a time that I thought of as entirely barren, I sowed the seeds for some of the things that make me happiest to this day. Writing this blog, for instance. Now, no matter how I am feeling, I write three pages every morning. I know my own thoughts and feelings before I hear anybody else’s, before I switch on my phone, before my New York life carries me too far away from home to hear its call.

So thanks, Sandy. I like to think that your methods could have been a little more gentle, but if I’m honest with myself, nothing less than a slap in the face from Mother Nature would have woken me up. Like all my greatest teachers, you seemed like a bitch at the time, but you were unrelenting in your lessons and in retrospect your wisdom was great. To paraphrase a song from XIV’s latest show, you were indeed the flood that wrecked my home, but in so doing you taught me to keep bleeding, and I am, in fact, one of the lucky ones.

Here’s the song in its original version: Youth by Daughter

November, 2014. Mum’s going back to work tomorrow. Last night XIV closed a two month run of our first show in our new Manhattan venue. And the love of my life is close by, in our new apartment – a few blocks away from the Bond Street studio that was (though significantly further uphill from the canal).

I’d call that a full circle.

Cancan from the latest Company XIV show, Rococo Rouge.

Cancan from the latest Company XIV show, Rococo Rouge.

Ariadne’s Thread

Body image.

Are there any two words more emotionally, politically or socially loaded for young women in this place and time? Maybe it’s because I’m a performer in a visual medium, but I can’t think of what they could be. Every time I hear those two words together, it evokes the troublesome tangle of thoughts that followed me wherever I went from the age of 9 or so until a few years ago. I spent so much of my time and energy worrying about how I looked, and about how what I ate affected how I looked. Every meal and every glance in the mirror was a test of my self worth. My perception of my body affected my daily ability to pursue a satisfied and joyful life. I know now that I wasn’t alone. How I wish that I had known it then.Nowadays, the very idea of body image – that I could have a relationship with my flesh as though it were something separate from any other part of my being – is absurd to me. I’m as capable of vanity as anyone, but my personal soundtrack when I look in the mirror these days is more worship than judgment. I desire to be kind to myself, and to approve the existence of my own flesh.

Maggie Segale Photo credit: Taylor Drury

Maggie Segale
Photo credit: Taylor Drury

I had an opportunity recently to acknowledge and celebrate my progress in all these areas, thanks to my friend Maggie Segale. Maggie is a

recent graduate from the Juilliard School dance department, and obtained funding from the Juilliard Entrepreneurship Challenge to begin ArtFull, a project that endeavours to spark conversation, share stories and create community among performers with body image challenges. If you are a performer and exist in a world where this does not feel relevant and timely to you, we have never met.

Maggie contacted me a few months ago to ask for my participation in an interview for the ArtFull website. In her words, “The interview aspect of ArtFull is to highlight interesting, diverse and inspirational members of the dance community, asking honest questions about food and self-image. The aim is not to prescribe any correct lifestyle, but to highlight the beauty of the journey, and the diversity of human beings in the dance world.” Her questions were absorbing, and communicated a real depth of knowledge about her subject matter without pushing any personal agenda. Just taking the time to answer them was an education for me, and led me to link various loose ends of self-knowledge that I had not realised were connected. The website is now up and running, and it’s gorgeous and brilliant and so inviting.

Check it out!: http://www.art-full.org

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Artwork by Maggie Segale.

To celebrate the launch of the website, I sat down with Maggie to ask my own questions. From our emails, I knew that she would be knowledgeable and thoughtful about her work, but what got me really excited about her project is her rare ability to be simultaneously self aware regarding her own experience and curious about the experiences of others. The ArtFull website is just one aspect of a project that combines her personal inquiries with a real desire to build community and conversation around challenging topics. “Acknowledgement without intervention” is the way Maggie describes her approach to such delicate subject matter. She envisions dinner events that ask people to “come to the table”, both literally and expressively, in an approach that echoes the format of the website in its simple yet profound mission of encouraging people to share their stories rather than suffer in silence.

Les Sylphides in repertoire class, age 16.

Les Sylphides in repertoire class, age 16.

From my own experience with mental turmoil around food as a teenager, I know how lonely self-loathing can be. By my final year at ballet boarding school (age 15-16), a huge majority of the girls in my class had very complex, if not diagnosable, eating habits. I know many women – and some men – who have suffered and continue to suffer far more than I. So why did I always feel so alone with these challenges, even as I watched friends become more and more ill?

Maggie and I agreed that the way we as a culture ‘deal’ with these particular ‘issues’ can be counter-productive. The conventional format of individualized therapy may, in cases such as these, do more harm than good by “strengthening the pathways that lead to deviation and anxiety” through over-analysis and over-talking. Confronting painful feelings about the body you live in every day is very different than examining memories, emotions and reactions to external sources. Putting into words a feeling that both lives in and preys upon the body may only serve to reinforce it, and doing this work alone may only serve to exacerbate the feeling of loneliness that contributed to the problem in the first place.

A creative, communal outlet of expression may prove to be more effective. As Maggie points out, “When you improvise, you can’t be anxious. They are two different states”. Creativity is flow, a forward-moving force, and from within an incomprehensible labyrinth of monstrous thoughts it has the power of Ariadne’s thread to lead us away from the Minotaur, out into the light of day. ArtFull is Maggie’s way of using her frustration with her difficulties to forge new pathways rather than repeatedly circling the same roundabout of anxieties, fears and doubts, a way to “take ownership and proudly proclaim that I am myself”.

Yuriko Kimura in Martha Graham's Errand Into The Maze, based on the Greek legend of the Minotaur

Yuriko Kimura in Martha Graham’s Errand Into The Maze, based on the Greek legend of the Minotaur

Of course, creative ownership comes with its own fears and doubts. Newly graduated and auditioning for dance jobs, Maggie is grappling with the question of whether to telegraph her project to prospective employers. As common as eating disorders are in the dance world, nobody is comfortable talking about them, and she is afraid that ArtFull will be seen as a summation of her creative life rather than one exciting and erudite pocket of it. I empathize with her confusion over how much of herself to “give away”; in a creative profession, sharing personal information can be a part of the job, but the line between intense collaborative contribution and inappropriate behaviour can be hazy. It is all too easy to feel that you are ‘too much’, and the next minute that you are ‘not giving enough’. It is small wonder that performers often have a shaky sense of self value. And when that value is low, says Maggie, “It matters less if you treat yourself poorly”. Yikes.

Performers in dance rarely take creative ownership of their work. We are so quick to reduce our art form to a collection of athletic feats, or to view ourselves as dumb tools for the expression of somebody else’s vision. We allow the power of movement as self-expression to slip away from us every time we move without sensation, without phrasing, without feeling. Rather than face whatever demons lie between us and our own creative abilities – by choreographing ourselves, or by using the structure choreography as an opportunity for self-expression, or by pursuing artistic endeavours outside of dance – we outsource both our creative life and our anxieties to an external authority. Our self value often depends on the approval of a choreographer, a teacher, a critic, an audience.

In an effort to impress these authorities (whose opinions we will never really know), Maggie points out that we may “resort to the extremes of total conformism or hyper individuation. But whether we try desperately to fit into a mold or to escape it, we can only measure our success through comparison with the mold itself, and other people around us.” Either way, the hunger for perfection will lead us back to the mirror, and further from ourselves.

Because that mold – which you perceive as an external standard based on objective reality – is in fact a product of your own fantasy. It is a mold cast in the shape of whatever parts of your development have become arrested andpetrified – for fear, for guilt or for shame. Is it a coincidence that the highest rates of eating disorders are found among teenage girls, as they make the transition into the body that has marked them as second class citizens for the last few millennia? I think not. The issues are huge and ancient, cultural and political. But the journey for each of us is personal. The labyrinth that houses such monstrous fantasies is self-created; we are the only ones who can find the way in, kill the Minotaur, and get out again alive.

Terese Capucilli

Terese Capucilli

Help is out there. Maggie is a modern Ariadne; her desire to share stories of trying times is a wonderful contemporary example of an ancient tradition that has always helped humans through their errands into the maze. We have always passed down the benefits of our experience through storytelling, and it is through my work with characters and archetypes that I have been able to forge a vision for myself that has nothing to do with the way other people see me, or even the way I see myself, from the outside. I like to think of it as muse-building: today I choose a bit of Femme Fatale here, a bit of Avalon Priestess there, a splash of Hermione Granger, a dash of Eartha Kitt and just a pinch of Lady Macbeth, all shouldered by a base that still remembers how to walk on four legs. These images are much more useful to me – and a hell of a lot more fun – than the girl I’d see in the mirror when I would pull back the flesh from the sides of my thighs to imagine how I’d look if only I could drop down to 800 calories a day.

I asked Maggie what the driving force has been for her to translate her confusion and anxiety into such a brilliant project. “I suppose the elation of dancing is an undertone to everything I do. It’s a big advantage that I have, that I know what that feels like”. When she says this, it occurs to me that our culture is entirely lacking in positive female archetypes for physical elation. But the tone in her voice and the sparkle that flickers in her eyes as she says it is enough; my body responds and fills in all the details of the story she begins with that sentence. I am reminded of the moments on stage or in the studio when it was just me, the music and the dance, nothing else. I become the muse for my own life, because I know what it feels like for my senses to truly feast, and there is no end to my appetite.

Artwork by Maggie Segale

Artwork by Maggie Segale

 

Traveling Light

This month, I am moving into not one, but two new homes:

The opening number of our latest show, Rococo Rouge.

The opening number of our latest show, Rococo Rouge. Check us out! http://www.companyxiv.com.

Company XIV, to which I have dedicated the majority of my creative life over the past decade, opened its new Manhattan venue last week! We will be performing there six nights a week, for at least a year.

My partner Ryan and I are moving in together! Our lease began on September 1, I am packing up my current apartment in between paragraphs and will be all moved in within the next few days.

For the record, I do not recommend starting a new job and moving home within the same week. But these are both once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and so worth the chase. I’ve been away from home enough to know what coming back feels like, and these new ventures represent the culmination and continuation of many years’ quest. On paper, I am committed to living with Company XIV and with Ryan for a full year; In my heart, I am committed to each of them for a good deal longer. The consistency that these four (eight!) walls will offer me enables sustainable investment in my greatest passions. The Domestic Goddess and the Artisan in me are happier than they’ve ever been.

But they are rightfully afraid of the Nomad in my soul. She doesn’t differentiate between artificial walls and self-created, helpful boundaries, and so she is starting to hiss and spit like a wild animal in a cage. She hasn’t yet learned that abandonment in the sense of perfect freedom, and abandoning oneself, are two different things; she wants only to run on, run wild, run uninhibited, no matter what the cost.

It’s causing havoc within my psyche. The Domestic Goddess and the Artisan have waited so long for these opportunities, and are not about to cede territory. Plus, they know how much they need the Nomad. In her wild, roaming state, she gathers tales of the great wide world to inspire them, and gives muscle and inspiration to their creative powers. Without her, the parts of me that love consistency will quickly choke on their own monotony. The Nomad needs to be unleashed, but on a mission. And fast, before she seethes her way to such strength as will tear their carefully constructed walls apart. But what kind of a seat do you give a tiger at a tea party?

From The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr

From The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr

 

I found my answer inside a wardrobe.

The other weekend, Ryan and I began shopping for furniture, and wandered into an antiques store run by a highly talkative gentleman who knew the backstory to every item over which he presided. He noticed us admiring a most handsome oak wardrobe. When he told us it had been built for transportation via covered wagon we were skeptical; it was such a large, elegant and sturdy piece of workmanship, about as far from IKEA as you can get. Then he opened it up and pointed out the collapsible panels and the hooks that undo to fold the whole thing small enough to fit in a flat pack box. We were amazed.

This wardrobe was built at a time when furniture was the ultimate symbol of commitment – commitment to home, to land, to an investment of money and labour and time – yet it had been constructed with mobility in mind. I love the idea that its original owner(s) were equally concerned with home-making, aesthetics and the ability to pick up and go whenever the time was right; the wardrobe was built to satisfy a domestic goddess, an artisan AND a nomad. Their home didn’t have to dissolve every time that their circumstances changed, but was portable enough to serve them through every stage of their lives.

We tend to think of dance as a visual art form but, like that wardrobe, its full function is more than meets the eye. The way you feel when you experience great dance cannot be captured through photographs or video. At its best, it is body-to-body communication. I desire for my dancing to be portable, something that an audience experiences through all their senses and sensations, something they can carry with them.

I am beginning to understand that the accomplishment of this desire requires exceptional purity in intent and execution. Like the carpenter sanding oak until it is perfectly smooth, my task is to strip away anything that is non-essential.

Cupid, Company XIV's Rococo Rouge

Cupid, Company XIV’s Rococo Rouge

This is not to be confused with minimalism. In the current XIV production, I perform a solo stuffed full of period details: baroque ornamentation in the port de bras (arm movements) and footwork; some of the most technically complex choreography I have ever come across; a costume covered in more rhinestones than I can count. Also, wings and glitter-throwing. But none of this is excess. It is the nature of the dance’s form, a pure expression of the choreographer’s Rococo vision.

Artificiality is not to be found in the intricacy of the steps, or the mental challenge of phrasing them, or even in All That Glitter. But the addition of one self-doubting thought, or an excess of physical tension can be smothering. Such personal artifice renders my dance too bulky for an audience to take home with them. Their eyes may feast, they may enjoy great delight and entertainment, but the wandering parts of their soul will remain unsatisfied.

Everyone has a Nomad, a part of them that is filled with wanderlust and curiosity about life and the human condition. It looks inward as well as outward, roams our psyche and knows all the creatures that hide out there; snaking jealousy, panther-like lust, elephantine regret and the silent roars of unexpressed frustration. It knows all because it sees all, and so it can be a tortured and restless part of the human soul.

I believe that is why people find peace in art and storytelling. We all know how treacherous we humans can be, how deceitful, how ravenous, how ugly. A good performance provides rest for the Nomad of the soul, because it provides a space where we can all bear witness to what we know of the human condition. We feel with our bodies that we are experiencing the same thing, and become company for one another. It is the soulful equivalent of lone wanderers sharing a campfire, sheltering in the safety of numbers for a night before heading off into the sunrise for another day of personal questing.

While my nomadic expertise is not currently required for the discovery of new geographical locations, I’m applying it to the exploration a new, inner, frontier: desire. As I pack up my home, and throw out all the clutter I don’t need and don’t want in the next phase of my life, my Nomad is burying inward, applying the same process on the inside. She is sticking her claws in to all the excuses I’ve ever had for why I can’t have exactly what I want, and making adjustments to every beautiful piece of psychic furniture I’ve got in my house. She is adding panels and hooks and making my greatest parts portable so they can come with me on my wagon through life. The Domestic Goddess and the Artisan are driving, but the Great Lover is sashaying up with her freshly washed hair, and the Dreamer is bloody well getting on too, even if she needs a good kick in the backside to get up there. The Creatrix has finally been located in the attic and the Business Woman is reluctantly coming out of retirement. There’s only so much room, and it’s time to get serious about who and what I’m willing to drag across my inner landscape from one year to another. Anything non-essential, anything dusty from neglect (the Nice Girl) or falling apart from overuse (the Good Student) or just plain useless (the Perfect Girlfriend) gets left behind.

That way, when the Domestic Goddess finds a spot that she love and starts unpacking, she’s in love with everything and everyone around her. When the Artisan begins her work, she doesn’t have to spend hours wading through piles of self-doubt to get to the tools she really needs.

And the Nomad? She pulls the wagon. It just won’t go anywhere without her. In exchange for her labours, she requires a place at the head of the table. She’ll guzzle her soup like the Beast in front of Belle, she’ll give a bossy lecture on how my home life needs more creativity and my work requires more courage, and then she’ll leap out of the window for another quick adventure before teatime.

They’re all going to become such good friends.

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Opus Imperfect

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou

imageThe history of alchemy is also a great legend of transformation. For centuries, practitioners believed that it was possible to change base metals, such as lead, into gold. They applied magical forces in hopes of achieving a process that modern chemistry deems impossible: both lead and gold are elemental metals, and cannot be broken down or rearranged. Alchemists also believed in the potential existence of a Philosopher’s Stone, which would power this process and eventually result in immortality. Alchemy has now been shelved as a metaphor to identify transformation of any kind that cannot be explained by a simple rearrangement of pre-existing raw material.

In my own development, the book “Women Who Run With The Wolves” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is the Philosopher’s Stone of the moment. Dr. Estes uses folk tales, legends and other ancient stories as a portal to understanding the essential, enduring wild nature of the human female. Given the not-so-great attitude over the last three millennia towards what women have to offer the world, they have often been forced to assume the appearance of base metals. Much that is precious within them has been carefully stored away where it is safe, within Red Riding Hood or Baba Yaga, and handed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation. Using her background in Jungian psychology, the author unlocks the secret codes of their stories to bring this underground knowledge back to the surface in an era when women are learning to shimmer once more.

imageMy obsession began on page nine of the introduction. This entire page is filled with a virtuosic list of “symptoms of a disrupted relationship with the wildish force in the psyche”. These include such painfully familiar states as “Feeling chronically doubtful”, “Not insistent on one’s tempo”, “Becoming conciliatory or nice too easily”, “To be drawn far into domesticity, intellectualism, work or inertia because that is the safest place for one who has lost her instincts”, and “repeatedly counting to three and not beginning”. And most importantly for me: “Fear to set out one’s imperfect work before it is an opus”.

I knew I didn’t like living in the ways this list brought to my attention, but I didn’t realise it was an option to be without them. Once I was aware of all the compromises I was making, I couldn’t un-see them. The long-held Truths holding together my raw materials got blown to pieces. As old bonds were unlocked, new potential was released.

Very serious, even then.

Very serious, even then.

Take, for example, my attitude toward my creative life. For years I had been showing up with the raw materials of curiosity, good education, intense dance training and extreme dedication. I applied all this with diligence and pleasure to pre-existing structures, even contributing to the creation of choreography, but only when there was no risk of my name being associated with it. I considered myself an interpreter only, with no instinct for creation. For years people had described me as a perfectionist, and had encouraged me to relax, to do less, to let go. But saying all this to somebody whose identity is tied up in addiction to an unattainable ideal is like opening the door for a butterfly that’s killing itself trying to get out of a closed window. You’re so busy hitting your head against the wall that you just can’t see another way.

The transportive power of story gave me a glimpse of what I was missing in the world outside the door. The princesses I grew up with remained happily in their castles, and I had been happy to imitate them. But now I was in the grasp of a master alchemist, seducing me with her storytelling superpowers. Here were ancient tales of heroines running ferrel, singing life into bones, coaxing a bear out of its cave, discovering rooms full of skeletons, striding through the town with a flaming head on a stick…and coming home again. Through every sentence ran a golden seam, glimmering tantalizingly before hiding itself underneath the words once again.

These stories tapped an unknown current of passion and desire in me. Passion bypasses logic; it has no use and no need for understanding. Its flame requires our raw materials – flesh, blood, bone, hair, sweat, desire, curiosity, sensation, imagination, ambition, intuition, truth, memory. Once you’ve surrendered to it, it’s impossible to stop until the magic’s had its way with you.

Waiting. Alaska, July 2014

Waiting. Alaska, July 2014

Surrendering to passion does not guarantee a Happily Ever After. It is a new beginning in the endless process of self-determination, aka Becoming A Grown-Up. I find that there can be a wait, sometimes painfully long, between feeling oneself to be free in some way, and being able to do something creative or constructive with that freedom. With every flap of its wings, working as hard as it can to overcome an immovable obstacle, the trapped butterfly loses faith in its instincts. Some instincts may have been flailing about, broken down, without direction, for many generations. It can take some time to rebuild or grow new instincts, and even longer to gain confidence in them.

In the past year, since I first read that introduction, I have had a flexible schedule and many ideas for creative projects. But I’ve “counted to three and not begun” over and over again, dismissing my ideas as not worth my own energy, or waiting for the entirely free week that never comes, or for, I don’t know, giant sparkling IT’S TIME letters to appear in the sky. This week, I begin a new rehearsal and performance schedule, which will absorb me six days a week for a year. Two weeks ago, the need to create something of my own became urgent. It wasn’t exactly great timing, but I don’t think it would have happened any other way. Magical forces come in many forms, and sometimes the only thing that stops a person hitting their head against a wall is to light a fire under their butt.

The view from outside my studio. Allenheads Contemporary Arts. For more information about residencies here, visit www.acart.org.uk

The view from outside my studio. Allenheads Contemporary Arts. For more information about residencies here, visit http://www.acart.org.uk

And so, last week, I found myself in The Middle of Nowhere, England, where a comfortable bed and unlimited studio space could be had at a bargain price. For four days, I spoke to no-one and immersed myself in an idea I’d had for months. I’d spend three hours by myself in a studio, almost collapse from the fatigue of physical exertion and loneliness, sleep a few hours, eat, and then go back for more. The act of giving birth to these untold stories brought me immense satisfaction and relief. I don’t know what I will do with my creation. It is certainly not an opus, but it is a Thing that I love.

New instincts will be learned – broken-down bonds will eventually get re-formed – but not merely as a re-ordering of what was there before. This is no high school chemistry lesson. It’s life, baby, and that fire is hotter than a bunsen burner. You’ve been broken down into the smallest pieces you’ve got, and the flame is still at work, melting and morphing and changing your very essence. Change you don’t understand and won’t understand until you’ve lived with it for a while has arrived. I am now a Woman Who Creates. This identity is not comfortable for me. I wonder how much of my familiar raw material I will have to discard in order to live with it. But it does make me feel like a better, brighter version of myself.

Worshiping a miracle at Storm King Sculpture Park, July 2014

Worshiping a miracle at Storm King Sculpture Park, July 2014

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, it appeals to our culture to explain away miracles. We distrust drastic transformation and feel most comfortable when we can back up a decision with the logic of mathematics or physics. But when gold has been hidden deep and long, no amount of rational thinking will uncover it. It will take the magical powers of vision, passion, instinct and patience to return it to its most precious form.

If something is truly precious, somebody will remember it, somebody will dig it up, somebody will give it form and polish, somebody will give it display. It may not be our task to complete all of these stages; we may have to leave our opus imperfect. But if it glimmers even a little, it is worth everything.

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Spring Fever!

“In a natural cycle, there is restlessness and impatience, perhaps, but there is never a sense that the wild soul is dying. We can tell the difference by assessing our anticipation: even when our creative energy is involved in a long incubation, we still look forward to the outcome, we feel the pops and surges of that new life turning and humming within us.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With The Wolves

When I think of spring at other times of the year, it appears in my imagination as a very sweet and pleasant season. I think of daffodils and lambs and the smell of lilacs. In the depths of winter, I crave that particular shade of green that appears only on young leaves emerging shriveled from the bud, opening to the sun in the way of a baby’s first smile. When summer hits New York with all its concrete-flavoured heat, I yearn for the flirtatious weather of a perfect spring day, sunlight teasing me through clouds and then sprinkling me with cool, sweet rain. And then there is autumn, which remembers those early days of the year with all of the nostalgia and gentle melancholy of an old man remembering his youth. Spring is a time of hope and excitement, a time to rejoice in the sprouting of new shoots, a green time, a fun time, a young time.

Well, it turns out that spring can be a bitch.

Yes, that’s right. This year, summer is late and sweet spring has outstayed its welcome. New York and its people are ready to be warmed up, sweetened up, eaten up. But instead, we have had cold weather, grey weather, wet weather, made all the more depressing by the occasional and tantalizing sunny day. Outdoor movies are being cancelled, summer dresses remain unworn in closets, and where-oh-where are the summer vegetables at the farmers market?

For me, complaining about weather is like complaining about money – when I get closer to the bottom of what’s bothering me, it’s always about something else. So much of this past month has been a lesson in waiting, and last week it became excruciating: Waiting for pay checks to come through, waiting for news about my upcoming performance season, waiting for an emotional muddle to distil itself into a sense of purpose – even waiting for my period to start. By the full moon in the middle of last week, this wild and desperate anticipation had whipped itself into a throbbing spring fever, and I felt like I was about to burst.

20140617-001313-793690.jpgWhen I was a child, my Dad taught me to grow radishes. This particular plant was selected for its bright pink hue (very popular with this particular eight-year-old) and for its speedy growth (neither my father nor I are known for our patience). It was fun to weed a patch of earth, plant the seeds, and water them the first time. But then came the wait while the seeds grew up underneath the earth’s surface. And then came another wait, for the little green shoots to grow into leaves big enough that a fat fuchsia root might be attached. At every moment, I wanted to dig up the earth to make sure that something was happening, that my efforts were going to be rewarded. But however hard I tried to will those radishes into existence, they would not grow on my schedule. In my impatience, I would sometimes dig up a plant too soon, and then lament over the wasted potential of the sad little pea-sized radish I had plucked from its cosy bed.

Mother Nature has her own rhythm, and sometimes she favours an adagio: so slow as to be able to feel the beats between the beats. Having grown up in a culture that generally works to an industrial timetable, I have to re-learn that tempo every time it tickles Her fancy to expose me to it. My first response is usually a rebellion – a search for action and activity. When spring fever hits, my first instinct is to run through the streets naked and yelling. A fear of being outrageous doesn’t generally stop me for long, so the fact that I have never done this suggests that there is a more appropriate response. Might there be some value in the restraint?

I once asked an actor friend to help me with a scene in Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge. In this scene I play Marie Claire, a young woman on the brink of sexual awakening, wandering through the crowds at a party. I remember feeling unsure as to how to portray her readiness for this great transition, without her appearing stunted or damaged. I explained this to my friend, and he talked me through the kinds of questions that an actor would ask when approaching a scene. I loved them for their simplicity and directness: Who? Where? When? And, crucially, What? What is it that you are doing? What is the action of the character? And then – Why?

I responded that Marie Claire’s action in this scene is the act of waiting. My friend pressed me on this, explaining that, for an actor, this would not be a useful answer; that the intended action must be active, not static or passive, in order for a performer to commit to it. He suggested various other intentions, such as looking for a friend, or dreaming of a lover, or anticipating a certain guest. None of them felt quite right, and so I stuck with my answer, trusting that my body would figure out how to hold this emotional state without a rational explanation. I never did come up with an answer to the question of Why? Why does she wait?

Marie Claire. Nutcracker Rouge, Company XIV

Marie Claire. Nutcracker Rouge, Company XIV

After this week, I have it, and here it is: She waits, because there is nothing else that she can do. She is about to awaken into a reality beyond her wildest dreams, and there is no further preparation to be made. All that is left is to wait, and to have faith that the season will change when the time is right.

Once I understood waiting to be an active, not a passive state, it seemed to me to be activity enough to share with an audience. Everybody with a beating heart knows what it is to desire something new – a change of season, a birth, a big event or transformation of any kind – and to have to wait for it. This incubation period can be hugely challenging, because the growth that is happening is underground, invisible and silent, entirely outside of our conscious control. It is hard to trust what you cannot see, and it is so tempting to dig up the seeds before they have reached their full potential; to throw out an idea too soon because it does not appear to be growing, or to give up tending to a project while it is still in its infancy.

Feverish anticipation, even aggravated frustration, can be a good sign that something really big and exciting is incredibly close. It took a while for my fever to break (and there was a good amount of pillow-thumping in the meantime), but once I began to surrender to the Mother’s Great Adagio, everything became easier. No sooner had I made a practice of allowing every task the full amount of time that it took, no matter how slow, than the pace began to pick up again. It felt like I had been standing up to my neck in the ocean, yearning towards the shore and watching the waves roll past me. All I had to do to get where I wanted to go was pick up my feet, float for a moment, and trust that a wave would pick me up and carry me in. In the last few days, I’ve seen a lot more sun, and I’ve received some very exciting news. But you’ll have to wait to hear about it, of course.

Happy Father’s Day, and Happy Solstice. May your days be long and slow.