Monday, December 28, 2009

A Role Model: Pete Seeger

I just watched a very inspiring DVD, "The Power of Song," about the life and work of Pete Seeger.  He's a very important figure in the folk music revival of the 20th century in the U.S., and a voice that permeated my childhood. It was a treat to revisit his work as an adult.

What I came away with most potently, is a reminder to not get caught up in the money and administrative side of my art-making--to keep coming back to my core love of making performance and sharing it with others.

Of course, in films, we have to remember that we're not seeing every side of a person's life, so I'm sure there were obstacles he faced and continues to face that I'm not aware of. But on the whole, he seems to have committed to his art and activism with a deep sense of joy and truth.

He was willing to pass up commercial, money-making opportunities, that would have made his material life easier. He was willing to stand up for what he believed in, and the truth as he saw it, over and over. And he brings this infectious sense of celebration, even in the face of great difficulty, to everything he does. His voice seems to be a clear, open channel connecting his soul to the world around him. And his art is never about him being any different than he is. His art is inseparable from his "human-ness," and so it asks us to realize ours.

I find this particularly important right now, as so many of us struggling artists and arts organizations are feeling the added effect of our country's economic crisis, on top of our usual struggles to stay afloat financially that just come with the territory. I've found myself, and many of my colleagues, especially obsessed with fundraising, with coming up with new strategies to get donations, with figuring out how we're going to pay for everything we want to do.

And while I believe artists should get paid well for our work, I'm also reminded that the important thing is our work. And yes, we need to take care of our basic material needs in order to have the resources to make art. However, I find that I often get bogged down in a sense of entitlement.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how artists should be supported more in our country, and how hard it is to be an artist, and how I want to pay all our performers much more than the usual amount we pay them (and definitely more than the "nothing" we are able to pay them right now.) And how those artists, and those disciplines "over there" are getting the funding that I want to have. And how it often feels unfair and even insulting. And while some of  these are worthwhile causes to put some energy into, they also can take over my psyche and hold me hostage.

I can easily stagnate for hours on end in the muck of "not enoughness." When actually, I have this amazing ensemble that I work with, that is willing to keep going with our intensive creation and performance work, even without pay. I have a partner, and a job, and a family that all are in favor of the creative work that I do, and provide many of the resources that allow it to happen.

And even when I get rejection letter after rejection letter from funders, and things are canceled, and I'm tired, and people can't come to certain rehearsals, etc., I have the opportunity to continue making art.

And while I want to eventually pay myself and the artists I work with at top-of-the-market pay rates, I also have to accept that this might never happen. In a talk that I heard recently by founders of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, we were cautioned that "There's never enough money to fully realize your visions." No matter how much we get, the imagination can always stretch further. And that's a good thing. It puts our creativity into action in a real and practical, rather than "What if" kind of way.  Counting on money as a source of security is always unstable.

The important thing for me to come back to, and what I'd rather devote a majority of my head space to, is the art at hand. What am I wrestling with in my own life, and how can I bring that into my art? What are the things that are important to my ensemble members, our collaborators, our audiences? How can we make art that addresses all of this, and also elevates it, so challenges can be seen from a larger, deeper, stranger, more lovely perspective? In the words of one of my ensemble members, Mantra Plonsey, how can I, "Show up and Tell the Truth" every time?

The money, the resources, the praise, the successes, will come and go. These things aren't the core support of what I do. The core is much vaster, more mysterious, and much more powerful. How can I keep myself oriented towards bringing forth truth, in all its wild manifestations? How can I keep coming back to the simple in the midst of such complexity that we find ourselves in? How can I re-focus to just this much, just this next step, just this small, but ever so crucial creative moment?

It's so helpful for me to have role models. To have reminders of what is possible. In Buddhism, the Buddha is often talked about as essentially a role model, a demonstration of what is possible for each of us, rather than some supernatural being. Throughout my journey, role models have been key to my development. Many of them are people I've never met, but rather observed from afar. And some I've been lucky enough to interact with intimately. 

Pete Seeger reminds me of integrity, perseverance, joy, simplicity, and inclusion. I thank him for his reminder, and for the loving, yet fierce challenge to bring forth these aspects of myself.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Already Broken

One of our core ensemble members, who I have collaborated with closely for the past 4 years, has just moved home to Japan. It is a great loss for me, and a great loss for our company. Julie Brown gave so much to our work, in countless ways.

This shift has triggered some reflections on impermanence for me, particularly in relationship to my goal of developing a long-term ensemble. I am very interested in what is possible when a group of artists stays together for many years,  project after project. Like any committed relationship, such a collaboration will have tremendous challenges, and hopefully, tremendous rewards. The overlapping Dandelion Dancetheater ensembles I have been developing for the last 5 years inspire me to no end. And I'm thrilled with the intimacy we've established and how that translates into our performance work.

While I know intellectually that all things are impermanent and even long-term ensembles come together and break apart many times, it is still somehow a shock when an ensemble member moves on. I'm sure Julie will continue to be a part of Dandelion projects in various ways, and I've found that sometimes performers get more consistently involved once they have moved away. (We've been working with Jacques Poulin-Denis every year since he moved back to Montreal in 2003.) Yet, I am grieving the loss of her weekly presence, her body and ideas in the studio at rehearsal. I have become attached to her in my work, and am having trouble letting go.

How can we reconcile investing deeply in long-term relationships with collaborators, knowing that they will end, often much sooner than we'd like? How do we commit to going deeply with our ensembles, knowing they will eventually scatter to the wind? How can I create a "safe" container for ongoing, risky, artistic exploration, when it will keep breaking apart?

I'm reminded of what one of my teachers, Stephen Levine said repeatedly about relationships. He would encourage us to dive fully into love, knowing that we'd have our hearts broken over and over. He would remind us that it is a much richer path to feel the joy of coming together completely, which always includes the pain of breaking apart. He would speak of his teacher, Ajaan Chah, and recount the story about Ajaan Chah explaining to a student that he loved the crystal glass on his table--loved to drink from it and admire it. A beloved student had given him the glass. He loved the glass because he knew it was already broken. So when one day he accidentally knocked it over and it crashed into a thousand pieces on the floor, he would not be surprised, and could instead appreciate it in its new 10,000 forms.

Maybe the trick in building a long-term, committed ensemble of artists is knowing that it is already broken. It has already dissolved. And that way, as it shifts each time someone leaves, and someone new comes in, I can fully appreciate it in its new forms.

I aspire to open my heart completely to all my collaborators. And to allow my heart to break each time one of them leaves. It seems when we allow our hearts to break in this work, it allows something vital to continue, from one phase of the work to the next. The cracks in the hearts become a canyon for a river of creativity to flow through. Without the cracks, the river is dammed and the art remains out of reach.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In the Spirit of the Maccabees

It is the third night of Hanukah (or the fourth, by the time I finish this post,) and I'm taking comfort in the Hanukah story in relation to my art-making.

I see the main points of Hanukah centering around the experience of "miracles." And what I love about the Hanukah miracles, is that they're not other-wordly. They're very down-to-earth. But still miracles. The two primary miracles in the Hanukah story are that the Maccabees, the Jewish under-dogs fighting oppression, were able to win a battle against an army that vastly outnumbered them and had much more powerful weapons--and that when the Jews returned to their destroyed temple, with just enough oil to keep the lights on for one night, that the lights miraculously stayed on for eight nights, giving them enough time to make more lamp oil and rebuild their temple.

We premiered a dance/theater/music piece on the first night of Hanukah this year. "Ring the Bells for Peace" is a holiday show geared towards children, created and performed by the Cal State East Bay University Department of Theatre and Dance. I co-directed the production, choreographed it, wrote half the story and accompanied it with live music onstage. Performers from Dandelion Dancetheater joined the CSUEB students and community members to create and perform it. It was a huge cast of about 30, with some seasoned veteran performers, and some performing for the first time. It was a hotbed of chaos. And it was a miracle that we pulled it off.

This production has been stretching me in many ways. It's my first "childrens' theater" piece, my first piece co-directing with A. Fajilan, my first piece at CSUEB in a number of years without close collaboration with Dandelions Anne-Lise Reusswig and Julie Brown and my first time working with many of the people onstage. A. Fajilan and I had been working separately for the past two months, and really just brought our groups together this past week. While we share a lot of principles and beliefs about inclusive performance, and we both operate well in the midst of chaos, we also discovered many ways that we do things differently--and when we each brought with us a large, unruly company of performers, our differences multiplied.

After our first run-through, four nights before our premiere, I was trying to prepare myself that this might just be an unrealized experiment. While usually the thought of a project I direct not being an artistic success is terrifying to me, somehow I was able to hold this thought with a good deal of acceptance. I wanted to make it work, and saw the potential for great beauty in the piece, but with how much work it would take to bring it all together, I had a lot of doubts. Nonetheless, I pushed on through.

We worked as hard and fast as we could. We pushed the performers in every way we could think of, and we challenged everyone involved to take responsibility for the success of the whole show, not just their own parts. It was exhausting, anxiety-producing and one of the most intense weeks I've had in a long time. I didn't sleep well and had a headache each  night. We weren't only putting together a collaborative, interdisciplinary piece of performance, but we were teaching a large percentage of the cast what it means to be in a performance, what behavior brings the whole production down, and what they could do to contribute.

And somehow, when we got to opening night, we had a piece! A complete piece! Yes, there were issues that could be clarified, places to refine and tighten up. But I was not only relieved that we had made it through, but actually quite proud of the result. As a company of performers from many different walks of life, we were able to come together and create many focused and ecstatic moments together, bringing the audiences along with us.

This experience reminded me of the miracle of all performance. It's amazing to me that with the amount of things that could go wrong, somehow the show does go on. And in experiences like this one, the "miracleness" is even more apparent. There's something in the pressure of the opening night deadline that kicks us into gear--brings out great courage, willpower, and beauty.  We're forced to work together and to tune into the ways we are connected, in spite of our differences, and to bring those connections forward. The "miracleness" seems directly tied to the fact that we are all bringing as much presence as we can muster, as much attention and intention, to the same objective--creating a successful performance. And while success might be defined differently by the different participants, the process is the same. We all have to show up. We all have to do our best. We all have to engage.

And maybe that's what happened with the Maccabees, and the lamp oil in the temple.

We on the performance path are continually seeking and creating miracles. When I take the time to really look at what we do, it is amazing. There are so many reasons why performances that lift up the human spirit wouldn't happen, even couldn't happen. But we are always somehow able to find the reasons that it does.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Welcome to Dandelion Dancetheater's first blog!
(For more info about the company, see

I will be writing here about experimental performance as spiritual practice, which is one of my favorite topics to investigate and reflect upon. It is a focus that has been at the heart of my work with Dandelion Dancetheater over the past decade. I plan on using this blog as a forum for developing, clarifying and experimenting, with ideas, perspectives and approaches.

To start with, I figure I should at least attempt to define my terms. I am using "experimental performance" to refer to performance involving some combination of movement, sound, theater, image, and/or installation that prioritizes new ways of seeing and understanding. It is performance that is continually questioning itself. It is performance that challenges conformity, tradition, rules, and any kind of "should."

My sense of "spiritual practice" is a little trickier to define.  At the most basic level, I see spiritual practice as a vehicle for deepening whatever one's experience of spirituality is. In this sense, spiritual practice is whatever one engages in and calls "spiritual practice."

More specifically, I see spiritual practice as a method or collection of methods used to connect with a larger sense of reality. I see it as an activity that we regularly turn to for aligning with some sense of universal wholeness--whether we call that wholeness by a name like God, Goddess or Buddha-Nature, or whether we identify it as Truth, Peace, Love, Nature, Oneness, Nothingness, etc.

I have had a spiritual practice drawn from Buddhist Meditation techniques for about 20 years. I meditate daily, complemented by an eclectic blend of Tai Chi, Yoga and Chi Gong. I have had an art practice (primarily dance-based) for 25 years. I have trained in folk dance, ballet, modern dance, visual art, choreography, music, interdisciplinary performance, and more. My art and spirituality have at times felt like separate pursuits, but more and more feel integrated. It has been a challenging struggle over many years for me to figure out how to bring together these two major streams of my life's work. I feel great joy when I reflect on how my passion for experimental performance and love of spiritual practice have come together. And I also see how much more there is to learn in this area.

This blog is a way for me to illuminate some of the next steps on my journey. May it be of benefit to you as well.