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.
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.)
If 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
Sometimes 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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like 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.
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.
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.