Alternative Acts

I was recently in Houston, TX, working on the choreography for La Traviata at Houston Grand Opera. Eight weeks before the Opening Night Gala, the theatre where the company performs was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I thought there was no way the opera would go ahead. But rather than cancel the season, the company has created its own theatre inside a convention centre. Here’s a before and after from my time in the city:

 

Houston Strong indeed.

My fortnight in Houston, working side by side with people who have chosen to make resilience a daily practice, was the ideal antidote to the powerlessness I’m prone to feeling these days. Transitioning from company life into a freelance career requires me to spend a larger portion of my day on tasks for which I have little skill, most of them revolving around a computer. Email feels like Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault at Gringotts; everything you touch multiplies until you feel utterly buried. On a political note, He may not be My President, but he’s still Out There exercising, squandering and abusing a tremendous amount of power, whether the majority of the population likes it or not. And speaking of Acts of God, hurricanes and forest fires now compete with man-made attacks for the highest death tolls in civilian communities. I find it easy to allow impotence to become not only a feeling, but a way of life, shrinking my choices and hushing my voice.

NPG 5175; Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist

Elizabeth I Coronation Portrait by unknown artist, oil on panel,  circa 1559

Fortunately, I have some great role models for an alternative approach. I’m working on a project about five royal women who not only reigned but also ruled in medieval and Tudor England, at a time when power was inescapably male. A King at this time was by definition a warrior and a judge, and since military life and law were pursuits considered to “exceed a lady’s capacity”, a woman exercising power according to the contemporary definition was considered monstrous, “unnatural”.

Through means scandalous, secretive and subversive, these extraordinarily creative ladies did it anyway. Their resistance is inspiring, to be sure, but even more intriguing to me are the ingenious methods they found to go about it. Being a Queen was not enough; in fact, the etymology of the word itself implies subservience. To become a true female King, it took an artist.

While women are now active in military life and the dispensation of justice (thank goodness), I’m not sure that the definition of power itself has changed all that much. Along with the addition of economics, these two systems remain driving forces in modern life, and for all our social progress towards inclusiveness and multi-cultural understandings of the world, it’s still money, territory and violence that tend to grace the front covers of our newspapers. Even images of suffering are related to our concept of power, as a portrayal of its opposite. Imagine a world in which the Arts section was the front page of the New York Times, or how life would change if the national debt was measured in empathy rather than dollars. It’s absurd, even offensive, to contemplate, because man-made systems and images cannot help but represent, promote and preserve the value systems of the culture that creates them.

On the other hand, if we feel certain values are missing from the conversation, image-making is worth taking seriously. I love these words from Choreographer Adrian Simonet:

“We live in a time when we are inundated by images: pictures, language, videos, stories, music, bodies. 99% of those images are made for one reason: to get you to buy something. We artists are responsible for that tiny sliver of images that can be made for every other possible reason: cultural, spiritual, political, emotional. In an age of image overload, this is a sacred responsibility.”

(Check out the brilliant and freely downloadable guide, Making Your Life As An Artist, at artistsu.org.)

DressingUpIf I accept this responsibility (and oh, I really do, and clearly have done from an early age), the question then becomes: How do I create images of a world I have never seen? If you’ve ever tried to go clothes shopping at a time of intense personal change, you’ll know how challenging it is to figure out how to present an image to the world that you sense but don’t yet know. It’s so much easier to throw on the oldies but goodies rather than to risk the vulnerability of something new, and artists, too, fall easily into the trap of repeating a tried-and-trusted formula.

But if Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella, Margaret and Mary could create a new image for the ruler of a kingdom, we can find new images for power in our own time. I love Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s definition of power as “the ability to effect change”. It seems to me that in order to expand our definition of power, we need to expand our options for change.

In considering what those options might be, I find alchemical principals to be endlessly useful and fascinating. Alchemy codifies seven different processes for transformation, and it was believed that by applying all seven processes to a base metal, it would turn to gold. In more recent times, as physics, philosophy and theology have separated into different areas of study, alchemy has been recognized as equally relevant in our psychological and spiritual lives: these procedures may be applied to the raw material of our own lives and transformation may be observed and encouraged according to the same methods.

These seven processes have become guideposts in my creative life. Some projects simply require five minutes of fermentation; others demand years of cycling through all seven processes. Sometimes life subjects me to them without my consent; in other moments I can instigate transformation through awareness and will. Only one thing is predictable: whenever I become a volatile, vulnerable raw material for transformation, the potential for change opens up. And alchemy is there to explain what is happening and to offer suggestions for the next step in the process.

Here are the seven processes, with a few examples from my life and creative practice. A good deal of my understanding of Alchemy comes from the book On Becoming An Alchemist, by Catherine MacCoun, which I highly recommend. Photographs are from my piece Neruda Songs, with photography by Ken Howard and costumes by Marina Rybak.

Calcination, or thermal decomposition

NerudaKen4Sometimes life has a forceful way of letting you know it’s time to let things burn. I once sprained my ankle very badly during a dance audition, after which I could not dance fully for over four months. It happened after two days of non-stop jumping, fine for the younger dancers in the room but not for my more experienced body. It ushered in the realization that life in a dance company was no longer for me, and forced me to let go of images I had had for my life for as long as I could remember. Since this incident, I’ve tried to practice smaller, daily acts of release, from Alexander Technique to regular closet clear-outs.

In a culture that prizes possessions, volunteering to live with less of any material thing feels like a revolutionary act, and has the potential to bring us closer to the core of who we are.

Dissolution

Neruda Ken5

Whether it’s the path of a football player or an army, we are quick to recognize the power of a straight line through obstacles. The ability to yield to an unstoppable force is less easily appreciated. But there are times when the fastest route may not be the most beautiful or when being right is not as important as being present.

In these moments, I am grateful to have practiced gracious surrender through movement – a softening of the chest, a circular pathway for the sake of beauty or expression where a direct one would have been faster or easier, and the ability to choose slow as my default. The great Canadian dancer Margie Gillis is masterful at embodying these principals in her dances, and it’s no coincidence that she also specializes in conflict transformation.

Separation

NerudaKen8This process always feels very familiar to me; we all love to put things in categories and divide our days into activities on a to-do list. When I wish to employ this process more deliberately, I try changing the categories. I love this trick from Adrian Simonet: separating one’s goals into Personal, Professional, and Artistic, and writing down as many as you can of each of these. When I first tried this, my Artistic page was blank, and I realized that my active professional career had been covering up creative bankruptcy.

 

 

 

Conjunction

Yoga classes often focus on “opening the heart”. While this can be a great antidote to the amount of time we all spend at a computer, I think the emphasis on virtuosic back-bending can overpower the quieter, constant functions of this part of the body. Our pulse and our breath may continue whether we notice them or not, but we would be in big trouble if they stopped doing their job. So it is with the work of conjunction, or bringing elements together.

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The heart and lungs synchronize what is inside us and what is outside of us to create life and health, and they are surrounded by the sheltering embrace of the ribcage, its fingers holding them with just enough space to allow for optimal expansion while shielding them from harm.

Likewise, creating a framework for softness to exist is the often unsung task of bringing people – and ourselves – together. We keep breathing. We keep on keeping on. We offer shelter to those who need it, including ourselves.

Fermentation

If you’ve ever made fermented food, you’ll know that the main task is waiting. You put the right ingredients in a jar under the right conditions, and then you wait.

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This is my least favorite part of a creative process. You know that the right ideas, the right people, the right skills are in the room, but for now it looks… unappetizing. All you want to do is change something for the sake of changing it. But fermentation teaches us that, if the ingredients are right, all will come out as it should. Don’t fiddle, don’t fuss. Don’t open the jar before the sauerkraut has had time to … sauer.

Distillation

NerudaKen6Like lifting the baby up out of the bathwater, this is the process of choosing one’s treasure. In creative projects, it’s the editing portion of the process which, as a recovering perfectionist, I love, because I can finally trim off all the things I don’t like about what I’ve made. When it comes to other areas of my life, though, distillation is more challenging, because I don’t have the same desire for destruction around content that has been created by others! It’s not helped by online layouts that seem to make every story, every email, every post, of equal and urgent importance. Prioritization is an important new skill for this age, and when I’m able to do it, it’s the single most transformative process in my life.

Radiation

MacCoun compares the sensation of radiation to the centre of the sun: the sun itself is not hot, and has no sense of its life-giving light. Similarly, we do not know, and really have no control over, when we will emit energy or experiences that are transformative for others. But if we hold hopes of channeling inspiration, we are wise to create circumstances which may be appealing to it. I know that inspiration comes to me through my body first. It may only be with me a small portion of the total time I spend moving, but that’s still a lot more than the 0% chance I have if I’m not moving at all. My relationship with dance at this point in my life is a complicated one, but it is also one that, if I hope to create the images I wish to see in the world, must continue.

NerudaKen1

When La Traviata opened, critics were divided between those who took the special circumstances of its creation into account, and those who did not. While many publications chose to view the imperfect acoustics and technical challenges facing the performers as factors in a wonderful story of triumph against adversity, others wrote reviews that, by their own admission, felt like “kicking a puppy” with titles such as “Must The Show Go On?”. I felt lucky to have been involved in the full story, to meet people in the artistic and wider community for whom HGO’s act of resilience meant more than a single night at the theatre. I met a Guild member who had lost her home and was desperate for opening night to renew her sense of purpose and passion for her life. I worked with young artists so very grateful for a year of work where an empty line on a resume would have been had Harvey got his way. I spoke with fellow volunteers at a local food distribution centre who were not opera fans but radiated such pride in hearing a stirring story about a local institution that represented their vision for their city. It taught me that power is a snowball effect made up of small, mostly unnoticed actions which accumulate to create change in the world.

While it took thousands of years to reach the age of Elizabeth I and “Gloriana”, her success was built on the creativity of may others. I would like to be one of those “others” for the next icon I can sense, but cannot yet see.

P.S. If you’d like to explore some of these ideas with me in person, join me at The Witching Hour in NYC on November 17th. For more details, click here.

If you can’t make it in person, check out this free sample of my Body Story movement meditation series, now available on iTunes and Amazon.

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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

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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