Monday, December 27, 2010

Sharon's Passing

My dear friend Sharon died on Sunday Dec. 5th. She has been one of my closest friends since high school and so losing her is evoking all sorts of reflections on life, death, spiritual path, friendship and more. I'm devoting this post to processing this transition. I'm writing it mostly as a focus point for my disoriented experience of loss.

This is my first experience of losing someone that had a very central place in my life. I'm not quite sure how to deal with this kind of thing, so am doing my best to just move gradually through each moment, and to write down everything that comes to me. So this is longer than usual post and less organized, as I have a lot to integrate. 

Sharon Mussen had a kind of transcendence about her. I noticed this from the first time I met her on the corner of Center and Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. She had just returned from a year in Israel and had come back to Berkeley High School for what was our junior year. She seemed in culture shock and mostly just observed at first, quietly. But she had a power about her. I associate that power with her very long, very full, classic "hippie" hair. It reached out from her head in all directions, much like the energy that emanated from her at all times. It was an energy of calm, of fairness, of unflinching honesty.

As I got to know Sharon over the course of that year--through countless treks in forests, late night jam-sessions/hang outs and all sorts of other adventures--she became a kind of touchstone for my own integrity and kindness towards myself. Almost everyone who has met her mentions her special presence. I'm still holding reincarnation as a mystery, but Sharon is one of those people that encourages me to believe that our spiritual essences travel through many births, growing with each one--and that Sharon was a particularly "old" soul.

I had a particularly tumultuous year at Berkeley High, and returned to Los Angeles for my senior year. Sharon was the one friend that I maintained close contact with from that time forward. I saw her on each of my trips to the Bay Area, and we each visited each other during our college days. I remember my times with Sharon during my late teens and early twenties as a kind of regular spiritual path check-in. Being with her always reminded me that I'm on some sort of inner journey and that I have fellow travelers to share with along the way. I remember her getting out a guitar each time we reconnected and playing me whatever song she recently wrote or learned. In her music I was always transported to a world existing beyond time and form. She evoked a kind of mythological landscape--ancient, yet totally present and palpable.

Sharon was an artist through and through. I don't know if she ever even considered art as a career path. But she saw the world through the eyes of creativity and wonder. Her music had a kind of purity that cut straight through to my heart. It rang with the vibrations of forests in the rain, long open paths, stories of long ago told around the fire and the longing for deep connection. And she was always sculpting, painting, welding or creating something that brought together the natural elements and strange, discarded objects found around the city. I treasure the small sculptures she made for me. I don't think she distinguished between art and spirituality or art and daily life—it was all one flow.

Sharon moved slowly and mindfully. Not out of some concept of meditative practice, but rather because that seemed to be her nature. Perhaps if one is to have as much integrity and truthfulness as Sharon has, one has to move slowly. Once she got her brain tumor diagnosis and began her series of surgeries, she slowed down even more. This often took me awhile to adjust to when we were together. My life is so speedy that I had to apply the brakes dramatically when we would spend time with each other. Beforehand I would always think that I don't have enough time to spend this much of it on something so basic, but then as we talked or walked or sat together, I would drop into another time zone. I would come back to a part of myself that I lose all too easily. I would reboot.

I treasure the memories of my meanderings with Sharon over the last decade. When I first heard that she had died yesterday, I found myself walking slowly around downtown Berkeley, in the rain for a long time. I felt the warmth of her presence each time I reminded myself to slow down whatever I was doing. I reflected on countless times of walking arm in arm, smiling with the joy of just being together.

I remember Sharon staying by me that night in high school when our group of friends went to the Jimmy Cliff concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. I had fallen off a railing when trying to slide down it earlier that day and was scared to try again. Sharon asked me if I wanted to conquer that fear and I agreed. She patiently walked up and back down with me as I slid the length of one stair, two stairs, three stairs, all the way up to a full staircase. We celebrated together when I could once again slide down a railing with abandon.

I remember a kind of lesson she gave me once at her house on Derby Street. I think I was spending the night, or at least there very late. She shared with me her ritual of pre-sleep snack. It was an improvised combination of things like Amazake, granola, yogurt, kefir, soymilk, etc. It seems to me still to be the perfect dessert to please and calm the body simultaneously.

I remember trekking through the woods behind UC Santa Cruz, in the rain with Sharon and her friend Jennie. We didn't know where we were going, and might have even gotten lost. But with Sharon there was this sense of "nowness" that made getting lost no big deal. We were together and we could trust that. Eventually we'd find our way somewhere helpful.

I remember going to find her in the audience at one of the performances of mine she came to earlier this year. Her speech was already very broken-up and slowed down because of her tumor, and her body had become increasingly frail. But she joined me onstage for the big community dance at the end, with great joy. I am reminded of a significant lack of self-consciousness that she displayed then, and on so many occasions. Whether or not she knew what was going on or was confident about what we were attempting, she was game to give it a go, with seemingly no concern about how she would appear to others watching from the sides.

I remember the warmth of her smile and the genuine bubbling of her laughter. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting by her bedside, as she floated in and out of sleep and unconsciousness. I had my banjo and was attempting to sing songs to her that I thought would bring comfort. My banjo skills are very limited, and I kept playing the wrong chords for the Grateful Dead song "Ripple." For a while I would try to just keep going and ignore the mess-ups, but after awhile I acknowledged that I didn't know what I was doing, laughing self-consciously. And from her otherworldly state, with eyes still closed, she smiled and all the tension was completely lifted.

I remember countless walks with Sharon. Walks around her parents' house in North Berkeley, around her house in Oakland, around the house I bought with my brothers that she lived in for a time and around each place that I've lived as an adult. These were like time outside of time--breaks from my otherwise very hectic schedule. 

I remember the house concert I organized as a benefit for my company, soon after Sharon's first brain surgery. I had asked her to sing a few of her songs, and she got up there with her guitar and then completely blanked out on the chords, the words...everything. And she smiled that smile of hers and let us all know that she wasn't going to be able to sing that afternoon. We talked a lot after that about what that experience was like, and I based my opening monologue for our piece "Drop" on that event. In the monologue I slowly lose my train of thought until I get to a place of complete blankness and then the lights go out. I thought of Sharon each time I did that and she "got it" in a way no one else could.

I remember waiting in the downstairs lobby during her first brain surgery. We were all so nervous. And then going up to see her after it was done, with half of her beautiful head of hair shaved off. It was a shock to see, as that hair had seemed like something that would never go away. And then hearing about the surgery from her, how they woke her up in the middle, with her skull cut open, to find out how close the tumor was to her brain's speaking center. Talking about this kind of thing with Sharon was a kind of research for me into the very nature of consciousness.

And in a way it makes sense to me that Sharon was the first of our group (of spiritual explorers that came together quite powerfully at Berkeley High in 1987) to approach death. She was a quiet leader for us always--keeping us on track when we would get too caught up in one concern or another. I feel so grateful to have spent regular time with her in these last couple of months. Sitting by her bedside, in silence or in song or simple conversation has touched me deeply. Even if I arrived worn out from my week, I felt refreshed by her energy in the room. It was definitely sacred space.

I felt my connection with her stronger than ever once it moved beyond words like that. She would open her eyes every now and then and communicate so much through brief eye contact. I don't know exactly what she has been experiencing during her in-between time--her many weeks in altered consciousness in that hospital bed. And I don't know what she's experiencing now. But I had a strong sense of peace. She gave me the most powerful message about what it means to die during these recent sessions. It's not anything I can really put into words, besides saying that it seems like such a natural and wholesome process. It seems like it will all be okay.

This blog post has become a kind of altar to Sharon for me. I find myself writing a little, then going about the other things I need to do, then coming back and writing a few more lines, then doing something else. It's a container to pour my feelings and questions and memories into.

When I first heard the news yesterday that Sharon had died, I felt a kind of warmth--a mixture of joy and relief. Joy that seemed to be a direct connection with Sharon's spirit, and relief that her long struggle with this brain tumor had ended. But as the day went on, and then as the next day came, I found myself moving through all sorts of different emotional landscapes--feeling combinations of gratitude, sadness, emptiness, desolation, fear about my own death, curiosity, the meaninglessness of life, the meaningfulness of life, anxiety and a kind of disconnection with myself.

This death is bringing home to me my own mortality in a way that no other death I've experienced has. Sharon and I are the same age. We've gone through so many important life transitions together. We've been teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults together. As friends we've been through psychedelic trips, emotional crises, relationships starting and ending, marriages, a divorce, a brain tumor, seizures, brain surgeries, loss of speech, internal evolutions, and more. I'm 39 years old. Sharon died at this same age. The fragility of my own life is brought front and center.

And I'm aware of how important creative projects are to me. The only thing I can think of to do to help me through this is write about it. Probably I'll make other kinds of art from this experience as well. I'm struck by how much art for me is about processing all the complexities of living and dying, much more than it is about a finished product of any kind. This writing right now is an outlet for me, a way to plug into my connection with the universe. Whether or not anyone reads it ever, I need to write it. 

And I need to publish it. Somehow just writing for myself isn't enough at this point. I need to put my creations out there--and in many ways I'm unattached to it reaching anyone else directly. The important part of the public sharing for me is the sending it out. It's a kind of acknowledgment and letting go. I say this all the time about performance--that once we put it out into the world we have to let go of it and people will receive it in whatever ways their complex personality structures filter it. But there's another level to this letting go, that's more essential than anyone's reception. It's the intention that goes into creating something to share. That intention is one of my primary connections to the universe around me. Even if I never share something, that intention as a starting place allows my truth to come forward.

Perhaps there'll come a time when I don't need that public sharing part as much. Perhaps I'll eventually be able to feel that deep connection with the universe more steadily, even when things are private. But for now it's a lifeline. I think this is why dance, more than anything else, has rescued me from my darkest traps. It's that moving both outward and inward at the same time, that is I believe one of the most healing parts of art making.

If I wrote all this in a place I was planning on keeping only to myself, I wouldn't care so much about how the words and sentences organized themselves. This care is a kind of attention that forces me to stay present with what I'm sharing. This care keeps me coming back to write and rewrite. This care keeps me on track in a way that I have trouble staying in just a diary.  I'm writing to you, the reader. But more importantly I'm writing to myself, to Sharon, to a mysteriously unfolding universe. All of creation is an audience, all of the time. But it's useful still to have deadlines, show times, curtains rising to reveal this particular art-moment.

I saw the importance of music in a new way by Sharon's bedside. My meager musical skills, which might not be enough to keep a large audience engaged for long, were plenty to connect with my friend in her subconscious retreat. Music felt like the only thing that made sense in those visits. Each time I tried to talk it ended up feeling artificial, or like the words I've heard others say at a deathbed. but when I played my banjo and sang simple folk songs, I arrived fully into that room, and I felt Sharon's presence most.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - And Still More Reflections

This is from collaborating performer Julia Hollas:

Opting Out/Diving In
I hate competition.  There's something about the required and unabashed self-assertiveness in it, the will to prove yourself as "better" than another, that I find constitutionally distasteful.  My parents say that when I was little they taught me not to kill ants and have been watching the ramifications of that lesson ever since, from a declaration of vegetarianism at age nine, to marching in anti-nuclear protests in high school, to the (thus far) final definitive moment when I quit my degree program in college, declared myself an artist, and moved to San Francisco, from then on out to be forever involved in the "process" of art making.  A clear statement: I would not be climbing up the ranks in a high-powered company.

Why didn't I choose New York?  The better known dance mecca of the U.S., that's really the spot for a young dancer who wants to make it big.  Honestly, I went west because the vibe suited me better.  New York felt too polished and defined: a successful dancer in New York evokes an immediate image in my mind, and the process of getting to that image felt like it would be too cut throat.  I didn't want to refine myself based on external criteria of  what it meant to be successful as a dancer, I wanted to find out why it was impossible for me to not dance, and pursue that to the end.  The amorphous Bay Area dance community seemed as if it would support that quest more.

Competition: succeeding in it means both being able to pursue the idea of yourself as better than another and accepting an outsider's point of view of what is and is not valuable. 

So, as we entered in to a project based around competition, I immediately decided not to compete.  I opted out.  I didn't care whether I won or lost, but I was clear that I wanted to create a valuable experience for myself.  To me this meant creating a piece of choreography that had been itching my brain for awhile, diving in to the physicality and emotional content of the material I was given to perform, and using every opportunity I could to find a sense of center and focus.

Then I realized that, by opting out, I was doing exactly what one does in competition.  I was choosing myself. 

From then on I began noticing what came up.  I saw how others played the game.  How some people played by sizing up the other players, what they were making, how they could make their own creation different.  How some played by considering the judges, their aesthetics, what they might like.  Others play indirectly: a show of sportsmanship, while it could just be good sportsmanship, could also be a play to gain points for the behavior.  A complaint against circumstance, while valid, could also be an attempt to bend the rules in one's favor.  Deciding not to compete and just focus on yourself could be just a tactic to refine your own machinery for warfare.  Whether we know it or not, we all play, and we all play differently.

I did come away with an incredibly sense of clarity from the residency.  I spent the time diving in to my own process.  I found more ways than expected of choosing and asserting myself.  I won the creative competition and came up somewhere in the middle in the performer competition, facts which continue to remain relatively meaningless.  (Relatively... I am in fact proud of my win.)  I've found a bit of acceptance in the fact that by asserting myself, I will occasionally be, intentionally or not, nudging myself above others, stepping on some toes, and taking things for myself.  I live and struggle with my all-too-human selfishness.  I trust that the search for balance will be a rich one.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

5771 New Year's Resolution

We just passed through the turning of the Jewish New Year, as well as the Autumnal Equinox. I start the new school year today. Seems to be a good time for setting intentions.

My New Year's resolution for year 5771 is to edit. I'm going to focus my resolution on editing my performance work, but I think it's really a project that will  spread out over all aspects of my life.

Editing is usually not easy for me. I like to say "Yes!" to things, which in some cases is a wonderful approach (if I may say so myself) and in some cases leads to too much stuff, chaos, overwhelm, messiness and a difficulty with letting go. Like most of us, I think my strengths are inseparable from my weaknesses, and it's this particular weakness that I want to challenge this year.

I've worked for many years to strengthen my ability to say "No," to not take on too much,  to throw out what isn't working, to simplify. And I'm making progress on this front, slowly but surely. But I'm up against many years of habit and conditioning and probably even DNA in this struggle. I think that this year  I'm ready for a more dramatic leap.

And this is where my performance practice and my spiritual practice fuse. I'm going to work on what I need to change in my life, through my creative work. I feel more confident about my ability to try out a radical change of approach in my art, than I do with my personality. I'm going to conduct a bold experiment as my New Year's resolution, within the laboratory of the pieces I'm working on this year.

I often find that I access a more "enlightened" part of myself when I'm choreographing and directing. Things that are hard in my ordinary life, come much more easily and intuitively in rehearsal and performance. When I'm making art, I have a much clearer sense of larger perspective, of working towards something that's bigger than just me. I thrive on the crisis mode that is part of putting together any live performance. No matter where we're at in our process, the "show must go on," and so I have to be present. I have to show up. I have to let go.

When I'm in my "day to day" mode, I can easily get wrapped up in insecurity, indecision, or regret. I'm working to hold a larger perspective here too, but it doesn't come as naturally for me yet. Sometimes I've thought of this seeming split in my personality as a problem. Either I'm being disingenuous in one area of my life, or I have some kind of psychological disorder. But more and more I'm seeing it as the different parts of myself teaching each other.

I've noticed that a little clarity, can lead to more clarity. So rather than berating myself for not being able to hold the same states of mind in my art-making and other selves, I can celebrate and take advantage of whatever clarity I do find, anywhere.

Now, editing is something that is still a big challenge for me in my art. But I feel heartened by the fact that I at least "sense the possibility" of editing in this area. I can sense the first steps of such a transformation, and feel encouragement from within to take those steps. My intuition tells me, that whatever I learn from my experiments with editing my performance creations, will be vitally relevant to the rest of my life.

So, I begin. My first idea is to share with my performance ensemble my resolution and to let them know I'm going to be taking some big risks with simplifying our creations. I don't want to limit what we do in rehearsal. I still want to do hours upon hours of improvisation, composition, and interdisciplinary experiments of all kinds. The difference for this year, is I want to let go of the compulsion to use all of what we come up with, or even all that I like of what we come up with, in our performances.

I want to attempt to only include the material that feels necessary to be shared. I've seen that there are many different ways of defining "necessary," so I want to limit what we put onstage to what feels necessary for the truth of the piece itself, not the inner processes of the creators/performers. This will not be easy.

I believe deeply in performance being healing and meaningful for everyone involved. This often leads me to leaving parts of my pieces intact that might not serve the full piece aesthetically, but that I feel are important to my collaborators for various reasons.

I'm going to have to continue to challenge my desire to have everyone in my projects be happy and approving of my choices. I'm going to have to challenge my desire to include everything and everyone--to try to represent the diversity I so love, at every turn. I'm going to have to challenge my desire to have every great idea our ensemble brings forth (and there are always tons of them) realized onstage.

For many people, this might seem like a piece o' cake. In some ways, it's part of the "ABC's" of choreography. But my artistic path has been about rejecting as many models laid on from the outside as possible. I've tried to only take on the practices that I've found to be helpful through actually experimenting with them in rehearsal, and to let go of what handed down to me solely because of tradition.

So I've been forging my own path, and experiencing both the positive and negative aspects of having the deeper aspects of my personality define my work. And once again I've come up against a limitation I want to address. I feel good about approaching this from a sense of wanting to find what works most skillfully, rather than try to fit into how I think it's "supposed" to be.

I'm sure it will be quite an interesting wrestling match between this new intention and my current artistic momentum. I'm sure I'll write about it often through this blog.

I wish everyone reading a joyous ad clarifying 5771!

Dandelion at BAC - More Culminating Reflections

As we returned to the grind of daily life back home, reflections on our BAC Residency have been trickling in. Here are a few more:

MICKEY KAY(Collaborating Performer) For me, "Don't Suck" was such a strange and powerful mix of things. New York City - somewhere I've never been and a place that completely overwhelmed and intrigued me. Competition - something I crave and love in certain contexts, but am deathly afraid of in others. Dance - where my inexperience both helps and hinders. All this smashed into two-and-a-half weeks of 8+ hour days, alongside an eclectic mix of very different people, away from my girlfriend for too long each day, in the midst of a 3-month road trip, subsiding on a diet of too much falafel and not enough water. The challenge of the whole project felt immense and exciting, and I've come away from this process very satisfied with what we've created and experienced.

JESS HOOKS (Costume Designer) I strongly feel that this could be one of the more pivotal projects I've worked on in recent years. It gave me an opportunity to revisit working with a movement-based company from the bay area that now I know was formative to my career and practice. Specifically I was able to ask questions and explore what it is to work with a designer in a devised / ensemble format as well as compare notes on making work in New York versus the west coast. I found that the cultures on each coast generated the same sort of problems with devising - both the gaps between the way designers and performers work as well as the challenges of time & money that exist creating in a collaborative way. I expected the performers to have a more relaxed relationship to competition than what I'd expect from a NY based group and what came up was surprising: I feel that the expectations we put on ourselves and how we compare and define our work against each other exists unanimously, regardless of art-making cultures. Its not just a NY thing. Its an art making thing. I also explored the relationship and use of the audience in these projects and was able to really experiment and try new things out on how to engage and understand how performers work with the audience. Being able to create work on the dancers which came out of my intuition and these experiments will hopefully integrate into my practice and I'm psyched to continue on with this. I think a lot will come out of it - and it was fricken awesome that Baryshnikov showed up & stayed for the whole performance.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - The Final Score

On Tuesday, Sept. 7th, we had both our BAC residency culminating showing, and the final event for our NYC 2010 "Don't Suck!" Competition.

It was a thrilling evening. I felt that we transcended the notion of performing "for" people, and instead were able to connect at some other level as a group of people meeting in studio 4B at BAC at that particular moment, having a set of experiences together.

I think the fact that our performance was a structured improvisation (like a sports game) where a winner and loser would be found based on things no one could predict; and the fact that Mikhail Baryshnikov came to the show and stayed the whole time; and because our 2.5 weeks of intensive 8 hour days in that studio had built up a lot of energetic momentum for us--all made the evening a powerful one.

Once again, picking a winner and loser was difficult. Judges before the show said they would be able to score performers easily, and then during the show reported that it was much harder than they had anticipated. Particularly challenging was picking a loser. When looking for winners, I had the audience vote, and most did so. When looking for a loser, only 4 or 5 audience members were willing to raise their hands. It seems like we've discovered some interesting focus points for our future investigations.

But we did have decisions by the judges. Julia Hollas won the creation competition. She had faced off against David Ryther and Mantra Plonsey. Each made a piece, 5 minutes or less, and performed them for the judges and audience. It was a very close race.

Dana DeGuzman won the performer competition--also a close race. Mantra Plonsey came out on the bottom and got to do the loser dance to close the show.

Like our whole time in residency, the culminating performance stirred up a lot of interesting shadow-aspects to explore further. I'm very much looking forward to the next stages of this journey.

Here are some excerpts from the performance. (If you look closely you can pick out Mr. Baryshnikov sitting in the front row. I was very inspired by his humble presence and his support of young, experimental choreographers. Perhaps he will be the subject for a future post...)

Dandelion at BAC - Day 12 and 13 Group Summaries

Now that we've come home from the NYC residency, and are returning to "ordinary life," I'm starting to post the things I would have like to have posted earlier, but was too caught up in all the details and drama of our culminating performance to get to.

Here is the group summary for Day 12:

And here is the summary for day 13 -- just one day before the final competition at BAC:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - Culmination 1

Dandelion Dancetheater has now completed our “Don’t Suck!” residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

We had a public performance/competition Tuesday night, Sept. 7th, and it was a huge success on many levels. It was both a rich evening of interdisciplinary live art, and an experiment yielding very important data. We learned a tremendous amount and have our work cut out for us during the next leg of our journey with this project.

A particular luxury of this residency is that we scheduled the culminating performance a day before we left the center, giving us a day of processing and integration—as well as more relaxed clean-up. I’ll be sorting through all that I have learned for a while to come. Below are parting refletions by some of the ensemble.

I asked everyone to respond to these questions, or else to write anything that felt important to them to share:






DAVID: New York. I wanted to work hard and learn something about myself. I also learned something about rats and how they all work hard to survive. I did work hard and I think I learned how fun that can be and how days off are much more satisfying when you’re working 12 hours a day.  I was surprised at my competitive streak and had a lot of compassion for the millions of people and rats and roaches who work hard everyday to all get along and compete for space and resources. We all had to find a way not to suck and we didn’t. Mr. Baryshnikov stayed for the second half, so there must have been something there.

HEATHER: I wanted to gain further physical strength, modern dance training and discipline for working long hours toward a divine art piece. What was difficult was that I am someone who wears her heart on her sleeve & I had emotions that rose swiftly and intensely during the competition like some kind of inconsiderate tempest. This caused me to struggle through a period of self-doubt/hatred and as usual I wanted to run away . . . but I didn’t. Loving people talked me through it as did the lovely part of myself and I came to a place where things were clearer and thusly felt safe. I believe that all the hard work we each put in made the ultimate performance (in front of Mikhail Baryshnikov himself) a veritable transformational gift to the audience. I am infinitely grateful for the NYC “Don’t Suck” residency experience!

CLEVELAND: When I came to New York I was happy that  I knew it would end. I liked being there but I didn’t like knowing what was waiting for me when I got back.  I had a guide that took me to uninteresting places. I think it was mainly because it was more convenient. My piece turned out very well. Better than it should have. That was pleasing, probably the best part of the trip.  I mean it's not that the dancers are bad , its that i'm not the best choreographer. In fact it wouldn’t have turned out well if it wasn’t for the amazing dancers. Uh ran out of things to say…    Okay I just remembered that
I went to the beach twice and never got in the water. I didn’t even have swim pants on either occasion. The hotel we were in was so fancy and had such a spectacular view that I stood up all night watching the sky change color. That was worth the trip. It was a good trip and now I can say that I went somewhere for summer vacation.

MISCHA: I   had a good time in New York.   Me and my bro’s   piece  were the best  I think.  I spent   most of   my  time  walking  around .  I’m scared  about the  homework to catch up on. But I’m also happy  that I’ll  get  back to my house.  It was fun to  meet  Misha.

The  apartment was nice  there  was a grate view.

DANA: I had always dreamed of moving to New York, so I looked forward to this trip to begin with. Although I wasn’t able to see all the tourist spots around the city, I was perfectly fine with it and actually preferred this. I felt like a real New Yorker, staying in Brooklyn, taking the subway to Manhattan, and working for 8 hours a day for six days a week, just creating and dancing. I must admit that this was the most dancing I had ever done in my life, but loved every moment of it. But its nice to come home.

STACZ: The physical demands were harsh and I wish to train more in endurence. As for strength I was surprised that I have become much stronger. It all had an expected surprise to it, so I don’t know if I can consider it a surprise because I know I will be asked to do something I hate and have to do it anyways. But in the end it will be a dynamic show. I have nothing else. That’s it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Review of David Ryther's "The Untempered Violin," guest-written by Mantra Plonsey

At his concert at The Tank last week, David Ryther made me remember why I love music.

Which is worth stating, because I feel claustrophobically threatened by practically every other composer-performer I know.

I avoid going to see live music, theater, dance, and independent film, and refuse to listen to any recordings made after 1999, or read anything by someone I know, used to know, or anyone who lives within 100 miles of me.

I am selfish, cowardly, self-centered and insecure, that's why, so stop inviting me to things, all right?

Consequently, I don't have the guts to invite anyone to performances I'm in, since I'm such a terrible person who doesn't deserve to have any friends at all, especially radiantly talented ones.

What if they're worse than me?
I'll be bored! And worse, I won't know what to say to them afterward-- oh, dear Performers A, B & C-- your glowing, proud hopeful little faces, sweaty with effort! "Wow," I say, "I haven't seen anything like that for years! Thanks for inviting me! That sure was something!" Big hug, and gotta go now.

Or what if they're BETTER than me?
Then I must tell them so, from the bottom of my heart,
and go home, dank with despair, and spend a bleak, unproductive month or so wondering why I was born-- what is the point of keeping ME around when there is Performer X: to adore, give awards to, and rave about in the New Yorker?

But back to David.

Not only do I know him, I've had the intoxicating honor of sharing the stage with him for years in Dandelion Dancetheater.

My toxic jealousy evaporates in the presence of his talent, which is genuine and modest, and which is one of the outstanding features about a really nice guy who, incidentally, works pretty darned hard to know himself.

The discipline that informs his violin playing is apparent as well in the way he moves in the world--  yes, he dances as well, but I mean the way he relates to people. Maybe when you spend 3-6 hours per day practicing one of the fussiest instruments on earth it has a way of leaking into the rest of your life. Or maybe it's all that yoga.

At the show on August 31st we were audience to the sort of program you usually have to pay seventy dollars a ticket for-- and that's in the cheap seats.

(When I rule the world, David Ryther will be paid one million dollars a year, and the evil businessmen at the Fox network will have to scrape along somehow.)

The program, nearly one and a half hours long:

The New York premiere of David's concerto in a series of etudes.
A storm, a lament, a tragedy, a poem.
It's a masterpiece, and would take at least the length of this review over again.

A solo violin piece, composed by Ryther, played during  a duet with the modern and classically trained Julia Hollas, also with Dandelion Dancetheater. Ms. Hollas, a thrilling and incandescent mover with a sinuous, powerful style, takes emotional and physical risks which excite and engage the viewer. She teaches ballet in San Francisco when not on tour.

(Did I mention that David, also a fluid improvisor, plays while dancing? We were treated to the rare spectacle of a man wielding 15,000 bucks worth of wood and horsehair while balancing his partner on his back, while turning, on the floor, and in the air...)

Also heard were a number of rare miniatures, performed solo by Ryther and joined also by his colleague, violinist Deborah Katz. These impressionistic works from the era of Luciano Berio and other experimental composers showcased David's facility with extended technique.

Whereas one can frequently find Stockhausen and Berg, etc., performed by new music ensembles monthly in New York, San Francisco, Berlin and so on, we don't always have the good fortune to see new (read: "difficult") music performed live with inspiration and expression. (And, just for good measure, with good old-fashioned bearded, Bohemian, wild-haired fervor.) Too often, it's just damned dry-- perfect technique, zero fire: a dismal advertisement for classical music, let alone the outer limits of composition. 

It is a centuries-old form of praise to declare that an artist is "divine", that he channels some rarefied light outside of him; for me, Ryther proves that the eternal genius of art originates within, and that each of us contains that flame.

--Mantra Plonsey

A clip from "The Untempered Violin"

Dandelion at BAC - Entering the Final Stretch

We've had quite a ride with the ups and downs of our residency this past week. I feel thoroughly challenged and tested by the weather, broken air-conditioning, the difficulty of navigating and guiding a group through emotionally-charged material and trying to acknowledge and integrate all the feelings and images and memories that have been trickling up from my subconscious as we probe into competition dynamics.

We have one more day of rehearsal, and then we're at performance day. I think it's all gonna accelerate really quickly now towards our sharing with the public--and our culminating competitions.

The few days before performance are almost always exhilarating and terrifying for me. There's this palpable sense of hurling towards an explosive end.

I question at this point why I ever thought art-making was a good idea, and especially what I was smoking when I decided to plan this particular performance. Everything comes into doubt, nothing seems ready, and there's never enough time to prepare. We're at the top of a roller coaster summit about to plunge into rickety depths that are hidden in darkness, and there's no way to stop it.

We did a very rough run of all our material yesterday, and as always, I'm completely surprised that it seems to flow and actually be the sketch of a complete piece. But of course, there's a ton of work still to be done.

Now is the time for me to call upon great courage. And great courage can only manifest when there is great fear. Performance seems to be courage cultivation practice for me--and the fear never seems to go away. There's always so much at stake in performance, and I think that is a key factor in my love for this path. It wakes me up and stops me in my tracks, over and over and over.

Here's our ensemble at work. This is Mickey helping our guest choreographers Mischa and Cleveland Plonsey with their ideas for a piece they co-created with us:

And then here's the report from our four judges for Day 12:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - A "Don't Suck!" Residency Overview

For anyone who wants a little more explanation of what we're working on in this creation residency that I've been blogging about recently:

Dandelion at BAC - Day Eight Judge Summary (Stacz)

Dandelion at BAC - Day Seven Judge Summary (Mickey)

Dandelion at BAC - Inviting Challenges

Our residency at the BAC has gotten intense. We're all weary, the air-conditioning is broken in the building, we've moved more and more into intimate emotional places with each other, and we're delving into our shadow-sides. I find myself often at a breaking point--raw and unsure and anxious. This alternates with feeling a sense of "rightness"--like I'm on the path I'm supposed to be on and things are unfolding in a powerful way. At my most difficult and groundless moments (which are more and more familiar to me now as part of the process of experimental creation) I am working with reminding myself that this is a necessary part of creative discovery. I found myself saying this to the choreographer/composer contestants who felt stuck preparing for the competitions this week, and now I have to walk my talk. Here's some thoughts from Day 8 of the "Don't Suck!" residency, by yours truly:

Dandelion at BAC - A slice of lunch break

Dandelion at BAC - A moment with Mantra

Dandlion at BAC: Elimination #1 (posted a week late)

Today we have our first showing of the individual pieces each ensemble member has been working on, and the first elimination. Two of the pieces will be voted out of the competition for what is performed in our culminating show.

Once again, what we all came up with together as a structure, and what we saw as a skillful means towards accessing our feelings about competition, has turned into a high-stakes contest. I guess that means our plan is working. But we always seem to forget how scary this aspect of competition can be.

Ensemble members started reporting feeling anxiety about the upcoming elimination, feeling stuck in their creative process, worry about whether they'd be able to make their pieces into something, and more.

I view these kind of emotional obstacles as necessary steps along a creative path. Of course it's a little different each time, but it seems to me that creativity is born out of being stuck in some way. Creativity is an enlivening response to a limitation or block. Without something to push up against, or through, or around, or in the opposite direction of, our creativity isn't as important. And I believe that creativity is one of the most important things there is.

Many people say, "I'm not really creative." Or, "That person is so creative." I think this is based on an illusion. Creativity is our birthright. It's a meeting of our authentic self and everything else around us. What we wear each day, how we drive moment to moment, every word we say, every action we do is a creative act. It's not that some people are more creative than others, it's that we are all creative, and we all have a unique path to follow to access greater and greater amounts of that creativity.

I'm so curious to see what creative breakthroughs might occur today in the crucible of competition. Each ensemble member has had 3 sessions to work on their individual pieces. And each ensemble member is in three other pieces. They all get a final 30 minutes this morning, and then we perform them for each other, in whatever shape they're in and vote. We'll vote off two of the eight pieces. Monday we vote off two more. Tuesday we vote off a final one, and then we are left with the three pieces that will compete against each other in the first half of our residency performance, judged by our celebrity judge panel.

The stakes are rising.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - A moment with Julia

Julia and Mickey talk about a dilemna I'm wrestling with: whether or not to be an official contestant AND direct the whole project. I like the idea of me being pushed to face my issues around competition through going through similar things as the rest of the performers. At the same time, I feel that the stakes are really high for me every time I direct a piece, and that I might not be able to guide it as clearly if I'm in the throes of fears about losing and fears about winning...

Dandelion at BAC - Day Six Judge Summary (Mantra)

A summary of day 6 of "Don't Suck!" at the BAC in NYC, by the judge of the day, Mantra.

Dandelion at BAC - Day Five Judge Summary (Keith)

A summary of day 5 of the Dandelion residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center, by the judge of the day, Keith.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - Day Four Judge Summary (Julia)

A summary of Day 4 in the "Don't Suck!" competition by judge of the day, Julia:

Competitive ZING POW BOING

We first learned the game ZING POW BOING from Leese Walker of Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble. In the game we pass energy (and build energy) around the circle through a network of nonsensical voice/body gestures.

It's a great way to strengthen an ensemble and generate rehearsal or performance energy.

We decided to subvert the structure as another way to play with competition. Instead of focusing on our connection as a group, we're pitting ourselves against each other. It's interesting that this has then proved to be one of the most ensemble-harmonizing exercises we've experience in the residency.

 The game is evolving. Here's our latest version:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Creating a Container for Shadow-Play

I learned very directly the power of play from one of my most important mentors, choreographer Della Davidson. In her rehearsal processes we would do long improvisations, that often started out feeling artificial and forced, but then eventually, if we could just hang in there, would lead us to deep, dark places in our psyche--and allow for some kind of transformation of what we found there.

I felt in those improvisations that I was able to access parts of myself that rarely come out even a little bit in my public persona. Violence, perversity, extreme silliness, manipulation, terror, domination, effusive sexuality, absurdity, and ecstatic pleasure. The space that Della created with her simple structures and  her somehow magical quality of witnessing were very healing for me.

I found myself doing a lot of "shadow-work" in these worlds that she would open for us. I was able to own so many parts of myself that never see the light of day otherwise.

I feel so fortunate to have experienced this with Della, and then to have been able to carry my own version of this type of exploration into my work with Dandelion.

Lately we've been doing 20 - 50 minute improvisations every Dandelion rehearsal. Things can get very bacchanalian sometimes, diffused and unfocused at others, and then there are those moments where it seems like something cracks open and undeniable truths leak out. The whole energy of the room shifts at these moments. Time seems to slow down, or disappear altogether, and my whole being comes alive, quivering in response to whatever is being revealed.

These are often then the moments that I want to bring forward into a performance piece. Sometimes they are born fully formed, and sometimes they are just the seeds of ideas. But I sense power in them and feel that my next step is to allow that material to teach me how to shape it. I have to listen with all my creative facilities to hear what is important in this image or movement or collision of elements, and how can I facilitate its development into a communicative performance moment onstage.

Here are a few moments that felt particularly alive to me so far in our residency. In some of these it is a particular image with a particular person that grabbed me, and in some it was the whole collage...

Improv Images #1

Improv Images #2

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - Day Three Judge Summary (Heather)

Dandelion at BAC - A Tour of the Costume Department

BAC Residency - Day One Judge

We have to figure out how to score each of the participants in our competition. And we have to figure out how to do this in a way that pushes us to face our feelings about winning and losing, but also supports us to not feel overly self-critical.

I'm tremendously inspired by the Harry Potter books. I just finished my 8th or 9th re-read of all the books this summer. I mention this because the scoring system used in the competition between houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a very loose template that we're following in our scoring system development.

Just like at Hogwarts, how each house can get points for all sorts of things (Quidditch wins, service to the school, intelligent class responses and more,) our contestants will get scored for all sorts of things by all sorts of people.

We're definitely figuring it out as we go, but one system we've put into action is that we will have a "judge" for each working day of the residency, who will score all other ensemble members for their work that day on a scale of 1 - 10. These scores will put each ensemble member ahead or behind going into the performance on Sept. 7th.

The "judge" will also give a summation of the events of the day, from her/his perspective.

Day One's judge was Dana DeGuzman. And here is his evaluation:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - Day Two Judge Summary (David)

A summary of day two of our residency at BAC, by Tuesday's judge, David...and guest.

BAC Residency Day Two

During our residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center Dandelion Dancetheater will be creating the first draft of a piece titled "Don't Suck!" as part of our larger look at the inner workings of competition.

We had a fertile day of creation and play today. There was lots of physical aggression in our improvisations, we pushed the risk factor for many of our group in our Contact Improvisation training session, each of the ensemble members (contestants) began work on their composition/choreography assignments to be included (and evaluated by a panel of judges) during our performance, and we had a good deal of fun--as evidenced by the following video, which was shot just after we all got first access to a vibrant pool of costume materials. It's amazing what happens when performers get into a costume.

This is our first attempt at introducing each of the competing ensemble members. We will likely try different ways of doing this again throughout the week.

First, the introducing of the assignment:

And then the introduction to our introductions:

We intend to use the reality TV format as a "Trojan Horse" of access onto the radar for folks who aren't usually interested in experimental dance. Where mainstream reality TV tends to use high-drama interpersonal tension as their "hook" to attract viewers, I am more interested in other methods to widen the scope of dance audiences. Humor, vulnerability, absurdity, underbelly explorations, new understandings of virtuosity and the power of community collaboration are what draw me in. Perhaps these elements could be what we use to compete with mainstream TV.

We can't out-glitz Bravo or Lifetime or NBC, but we can find ways to use the TV medium for truth-telling, shit-stirring and perspective-expanding. It's gonna be a long road for us to travel to sort out where our anarchic, inclusive approach to performance intersects with the TV phenomena, but it feels like a worthy journey to undertake.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day One of BAC Residency

Well, as these things tend to go for me, I planned to do way more than I'm able to actualize. I had wanted to edit short videos every day to go with these blogs during our Baryshnikov Arts Center residency. But with everything else going on while we're here, I'll be lucky to just get out two or three videos in our whole 2.5 weeks at the center.

But I still intend to write at least a little each day.

We had an inspiring first day of orientation to the space, regrouping as an ensemble and beginning to experiment.  I was jet-lagged, overwhelmed and in a mind-haze for the first couple of hours. And as usual when I'm feeling blue, I can't imagine a time when it could ever end. So I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I would be slightly depressed for our whole residency, when we got into dancing and extended group improvisations.

Immediately as I made contact with my moving body, and felt myself arrive physically and psychically through colliding with this wild group of artists, I felt better. And not only better, but slightly ecstatic.

I'm reminded for the millionth time it seems, what a good friend dance is. In little ways and in huge life-changing ways, dance has been what gets me through stuck places, dark corners and times of despair. I always seem to forget that it has this power, but somehow-call it grace or fate or just plain luck-I find myself dancing again, and this dancing saves me.

It doesn't make anything go away. Rather it embraces whatever is present in my experience, and transforms it into fertilizer for something large and powerful to blossom.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Introduction to the Competition

Our upcoming exploration of competition at the Baryshnikov Arts Center will take up where this previous experiment left off. We staged a one day artistic competition in December of 2009 that was intended as a whimsical mockumentary, but turned into an emotional explosion of issues relating to winning and losing.

Austin Forbord and his RAPT productions made this short preview video for the larger project, drawing from our first disorienting venture...


There was a winner and loser, high-tension drama, and lots of hurt feelings. Juicy stuff, but dangerous--so we approach our next attempts with courage, caution and a trust of the artistic process.

It's Not Whether You Win or Lose...Maybe

Greetings All,

If all goes according to plan (or at least somewhere close to plan) then I will be posting much more frequently over the next few weeks.

I'm about to embark with the Dandelion Dancetheater interdisciplinary ensemble that I direct on a 2.5 week residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. I'm very excited and a little fearful.

We're going to be exploring the nature of competition, winning/losing and success/failure. And while I would like to say that I live by the old quip "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game," in reality I am a slave to the drama of winning and losing.

In my experience, competition can be a very healthy and inspiring fuel for powerful action. However, I find myself wrestling with deeply ingrained habits of unhealthy competition--of judging and comparison and feeling somehow unworthy. Usually competition is painful for me.

When I'm clear and grounded, I see artistic practice as something that is far beyond the binaries of comparison. Art is open and free and ultimately a non-dualistic vehicle for truth-seeking.

But I compete in my mind over grant awards, festival invites, popularity, attention, integrity, ability to not seem competitive and more--with all the artists that ironically also make-up my closest and most important community of support.

Why do I look outside myself for validation? Why does one person's success so often seem like my failure? Why am I so hungry for positive feedback, awards, recognition, praise? Why do I get so focused on "winning?" And why, when I do seem to "win," does it end up feeling empty so quickly?

Somehow my beliefs and deep-held values are in direct conflict with many of the unconscious workings of my mind and my sense of self. And I don't seem to be alone on this. In Buddhist practice there are four Brahma Viharas, which are seen as highly skillful qualities to develop. One of these is Mudita,  or "Sympathetic Joy." This joy in the happiness of others almost always eludes me. I'd like to feel it. I believe in it. But I'm usually so focused on my own gain and protection, that I have very little space inside for true happiness for the good fortune of others.

H.H. The Dalai Lama says (and I paraphrase here,) "If I am happy for the happiness of others, that means there is a six billion to one chance that I'll be happy. I like those odds." And he calls this kind of view something like "Skillful Selfishness." One of my teachers, Sharon Salzberg told me that the main way to work towards Sympathetic Joy is to fully experience my own joy. Of course, these things are easier said than done.

The closest I've been able to come to "Skillful Selfishness" is to include people around me in a group I identify with, rather than another opposing group--and so making their gains my own. For instance, when a San Francisco artist that I secretly compete with receives a big honor, I think of myself as a San Francisco Artist, and so a member of the group receiving the honor, rather than a New York Artist or a London Artist. And then if a U.S. Artist becomes famous for an innovative discovery, I think of myself as a U.S. artist, and so a member of the group that made the discovery--rather than a European Artist or an Asian Artist. This feels like a step in the right direction, but still very dualistic and competitive.

I've struggled with these issues throughout my life. I'd like to transform my relationship to them. And so I turn to my most trusted of transformation devices, artistic exploration. I can already see that this is going to be a long and grueling journey, with many pitfalls along the way. But it is a journey I feel ready to undertake. And I'm so grateful to have such a fabulous group of Dandelion artists to accompany me.

These explorations are part of a Dandelion project that is currently titled "America's Next Dance Maverick." In collaboration with filmmaker Austin Forbord, we hope to create a reality TV show that emerges out of the world of experimental dance. In December of 2009 we did our first experiment with such competition structures, and it was terrifying to see how quickly we each switched from a sense of making fun of competition, to being completely caught up in it.

This residency at the BAC is our next step. Through the creation of the first draft of a performance piece (titled "Don't Suck!") we will be pushing ourselves to face all of our hidden and not so hidden relationships with competition.

I see this step as a descent into our shadows, both individually and collectively. We'll be doing lots of improvisation, discussions, inquiries and group-processing. But we'll also be involved in a competition. Based on a complex point system (modeled after the point system at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) we'll be competing against each other throughout the residency, to eventually name a winner and loser. And then this will be part of a larger competition held throughout Dandelion's activities for the whole year, that will culminate in a grand prize winner (and a complete loser) at our CounterPULSE Residency performances at the beginning of April 2011.

All of our egos are threatened, and our defense systems are popping up all over. And we're using this as an opportunity to dismantle these systems, so that eventually competition isn't as painful for us.

Please join us as we delve into this sticky swamp of emotional baggage, uncovering long-held insecurities and surprising treasures of the psyche.

We'll be attempting to post a written and video entry on each day of the residency. We intend for this to be interactive, so please stay tuned, and write responses, and even vote on who you think should be winning and losing our various competitions. We want all parts of this process to be both profoundly investigative on the part of our ensemble members, and transparently accessible to friends and colleagues. While we're not yet crafting the final version of the reality TV program, we are beginning to make research-based simulations of high-pressure competitions that will lead us towards some larger and more widely shared performance/video project. We welcome your feedback and ideas.

On our marks, get set, GO!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Structures with Missing Pieces

NOTE: It’s been awhile since my last post. I think I’ve fallen off the weekly blogging track, and now will be writing whenever I can or whenever something seems to call out to be shared.


As I journey along my path of artistic and spiritual development, I more and more often have the experience of encountering some idea about art-making that either is no longer relevant for me, or never really was. I have so many outdated ideas about what I’m “supposed” to do as a choreographer/director. Some of these ideas might be very appropriate for others, but I want to let them go if they’re not resonating at a deep level for me.

A major idea that I’m letting go of is that of the choreographer/director as someone who knows where a piece is headed and knows what it should look/sound/feel like. I know many choreographers and directors who are very good at planning, and are able to see fully formed visions of sections of or even complete works. This is not a skill set I have.

I get an intuitive “hit” on a direction we might go in, but it’s usually very blurry and fleeting. What I seem to be interested in and skilled at is creating malleable structures and containers for performers to inhabit that have many holes and missing pieces. And it is in these holes and missing pieces that I encourage the performers to discover some truth to fill in with.

And my experience is that the truths that we find collaboratively, are never fixed in space or time, but rather need to grow and evolve every time they are encountered.

As much as I would like to know what something needs to look/sound/feel like for any particular moment in a piece, I don’t. I only can be as present as possible, and listen to my intuition. I have a felt sense of what “works” and what “doesn’t work.” This is of course completely subjective. But I like to think that the clearer I get in my own sensory systems, the more I am able to intuit performance moments that feel true to more people, more consistently.

No one moment, no matter how grand, seems to work completely every single time it is performed. There’s always an exhilarating risk of each moment falling flat or taking flight. This risk creates a tension that nourishes me as an artist and art witness.

I am unable to answer most of the questions that performers ask me when I’m directing and choreographing. I can only say when a choice they make “feels right” or not. I don’t want performers preoccupying themselves with wondering what I’m gonna think about something. I don’t know any more than they do most of the time. I’d rather performers focus on what feels true, at as deep a level as possible.

And then, we might agree, or we might disagree about any one choice, and then the arguing is part of the clarifying process. None of us in the ensemble hold complete answers. All we can do is grope along in the dark, put our pieces together and discover our way, moment by moment.

I like the image of directing as similar to Zen Buddhist Koan practice. My understanding of Koan practice is that the teacher gives a student a seemingly unanswerable question. The student lives with that questions, mulls it over, chews it up, spits it out, ingests it again, wrestles with it, and then after some time, comes back with a response. There is no right or wrong response to be found, so what the teacher looks for in a student’s “answer” is a sense of authentic engagement. If it feels authentic and alive, the student is allowed to move on to the next one. If it feels thought-out, not embodied or somehow faked, the student is sent back into intimate relationship with that same koan.

I want my pieces to be like koans. I want to offer the performers unanswerable questions and assignments to wrestle with, and then be a sounding board for their responses. I want to discover the truth at the same moment with the performers, and struggle alongside each other when things aren’t revealing themselves.

And then I want us all to offer structures and containers to the audiences that have no inherent answers. I want to create environments for witnesses of performance to fill in the holes and missing pieces with their own truths. And I want to be able to sense together, with as many people in the room as possible, (audience, performers, tech crew and more) when we hit upon a moment of truth. It’s like we’re mining as a team and suddenly drill into something.

I can never know what exactly that moment of truth will be like. We might have choreography, text, staging, compositions and the like pre-planned. But in order to use them as effective tools for mining, we have to inhabit them every time with our full presence, and our full capacity for not-knowing.

It’s that “Don’t-know-mind” that makes performance a living, breathing, changing vehicle for awakening, embodying and connecting.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Teaching Myself

Stephen Levine, one of my core spiritual teachers, would often tell us that we had to "teach ourselves the Dharma." By "Dharma," I understood him to mean "the Truth" as it manifests in our own lives.

I love this teaching.

I have spent (and still spend) countless hours listening to spiritual teachers talk, reading books on meditation, going to workshops, etc. I'd say that 80% of what I hear resonates with me and helps me a lot in my development. The remaining 20% however, pushes my buttons. It might be that it has a tone of judgement, or "should," in it, or it references religious terms or concepts that I don't identify with, or it sounds exclusive or hierarchical. Or it just makes me feel bad.

Sometimes I'm able to just let those teachings that don't feel right slide on by. But often I get stuck in them, mulling them over, obsessing about how I must be missing something or doing something wrong. This is when teaching myself the Dharma is really handy. And this is also why I've found it hard to subscribe to any one particular path of spiritual development completely.

And because I've had to forge my own way spiritually, I've needed to do a lot of translating of various teachings into my own ways of understanding. And because I live a life as a Queer artist that is often very far outside the mainstream, and very hard to find models for, the translating is sometimes complex.

Writing, like I'm doing in this blog, is especially helpful in this area. While I would like to be able to call myself a spiritual teacher (since many of my heroes are in that line of work,) I feel too much of a spiritual mess to claim any kind of authority on the matter. I spend too much time in doubt, fear, and anxiety to feel confident about sharing my wisdom. I'm too unsure of myself to sit up on that cushion in front of hundreds of people and tell them about the nature of reality. So in some ways, writing a blog like this feels improper. Who am I to lay out my philosophies for anyone to come across and project some kind of wisdom onto? Who am I to say I know what's going on here?

But I find as I write, that I tap into some kind of intuitive wisdom, that I maybe am not always able to put into practice yet, but that is still in here somehow. I haven't been able to find a model to follow, someone who practices art in the way that I do, that also combines it with spiritual practice in a way I relate to. And so, I'm attempting to be my own model. I'm attempting to call upon whatever wisdom I have accumulated so far, to teach myself how to be more mindful, more spacious, more accepting, more connected.

In some ways I'm playing the "character" of a wise-person when I write. So far, it is helping. I'm referring back to the things I wrote about when I encounter real-life conflicts and trouble-spots. I'm using my own teachings as reminders in my life. Maybe a lot of spiritual teachers do just this. Maybe not. But it is how I've found my way as an artist, and it seems to be how I'll find my way as a meditator.  In a sense, I've got nowhere else to turn.

The other day I was feeling particularly down and unmotivated about going to teach a dance class. So I sat in my car for a half hour and wrote an essay on how to bring everything, including the unpleasant, into the studio for rehearsals, classes, performances. I wrote about the aspect of art-making that I find so powerful--the fact that everything I feel, think and do becomes compost for rich art. After writing about this for a half hour, I followed my own advice, and brought my "bad mood" into the studio with me. And it immediately transformed. The feelings didn't go away, but I wasn't fighting them, so I felt much more energized and much more at peace. Staying with the truth of my experience in that moment allowed me to use it as fuel for what was next.

I'm glad I have this blog now as a container for that very process. And thinking that some people might be reading it as I write it, or come across it later, gives that much more support to my teaching of myself--that much more urgency (like performing does) to whatever it is I'm working with at the moment. If I just wrote all of this in my journal, I wouldn't be investing it with the same hunger for clarity. I wouldn't try so hard to express my intuitions accurately. It's an interesting cycle: I write this to teach myself, and the fact that I have to craft it for others to read, makes me teach myself all the more clearly, and then that hopefully can be of that much more benefit to others.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Regarding Practice

I like the term "practice" for describing art-making. It reminds me that there is a larger perspective from which to view my creative process, and that a finished piece or a performance, is just one small part of what is going on.

"Practice" implies that I'm getting better, or seeking to get better, and that probably there is no final destination. "Practice" gives me room to experiment, make mistakes, fumble in the dark as I work on my art; and through my art, work on myself; and through working on myself and working on my art, work to transform the world.

The practice part of experimental performance doesn't necessarily have a form. I see my experimental performance practice as doing my best to follow a calling to make work. Sometimes the call comes through loud and clear, sometimes it's a teeny voice across a great distance. In the following of it, I encounter everything I need to encounter, to work on in myself.

It's very much like meditation--focusing on the object of meditation (for me it's usually the breath,) I become aware of all the things that get in the way of that kind of concentration. I notice the thoughts, the feelings, distractions, impulses, and I get carried away by each of these in different ways. And then, I return again to my object of meditation and start over. And I start over again. And again. And again. And it's a "practice" to keep returning like that. And slowly, over the years, I've gotten so I can return quicker, and more deeply, and with less effort.

In creating experimental performance, my "object of meditation" is the desire to bring forth something true and mysterious and healing and unexpected. And I get distracted from this focal point over and over. I get lost in thoughts, fears, plans, obsession with success, obsession with failure, other people's feedback and ideas, competition, comparison, and so much more. Sometimes it takes me a long time to come back to my intention to bring forth something true, and sometimes I notice right away when I have strayed.

This desire, or intention, or calling is like a path that I travel, and along the path are all sorts of obstacles. I keep going, and the farther I go, the more the obstacles come from deeper places in me: old wounds, long-term holdings, core personality conflicts. And it is returning to my desire that guides me consciously through these obstacles. As I move through them I learn a little more, let go a little more, and deepen my courage as an artist.

Common obstacles for me are:
--Thinking the performers in my ensemble are bored or don't like what I'm having us do.
--Comparing myself to others, particularly when something great happens for other artists around me, but not me.
--Wanting everyone to like my work.
--Wanting everyone to like me.
--Thinking I should be somehow different than I am.
--Being afraid to ask for help.
--Focusing on outward symbols of success.
--Focusing on opinions about my work, rather than the felt sense from within the work.
--Trying to hard and forgetting to trust the process

All of these are made much less of a problem when I can somehow embody my deeper intentions in art-making. And just like in meditation, over the years, I've gotten better at knowing when I've strayed from my path, and better at returning.

My teacher, Stephen Levine, encouraged us to regard our neuroses, compulsions, fears, and unwanted mind-states by saying "Big surprise!" Big surprise, here's some fear. Big surprise, here's shame. Big surprise, here's (whatever's up at the moment.) For me the idea is to not get so freaked out when my "michigas" (craziness) comes up, but to welcome it and move on. So much of what gets in the way of our progress is our resistance, rather than any particular quality or mental state or situation.

Reminding myself that this is a practice helps me to not take it so seriously, and at the same time, to engage with it in a much more meaningful way. I recently heard Alonzo King speak about his practice and it inspired me immensely. He was featured on the KQED Arts Program, "Spark," and said:

"Dance is what I've chosen as a profession and as a career. But what I'm really working on is me. As wonderful as dance is, it's almost the subplot, because, whatever discipline you're choosing, it's gonna be the same process--of development, of difficulty, of revelation, of dry spells...You know, we're working on ourselves. And so, regardless of what we say is our profession, what we're involved in is self-reform. The profession, if that stopped for any reason, the real work would continue. You know, that's what's really happening."

That just about sums it all up for me!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Art-Making and Friendship

I listened to a talk today by a Buddhist meditation teacher, Gil Fronsdal. He was talking about Spiritual Friendship and mentioned Kalyana Mitta, which is a Pali phrase that refers to a spiritual teacher. The phrase is translated as "good friend" or "beautiful friend." This seems quite profound to me.
Rather than a spiritual teacher being separate from (and somehow above) our personal lives, that person can be a genuine friend--and our friends can be our spiritual teachers.

He also spoke about the many ways that Buddhist sutras (scriptures) quote the Buddha as talking about having good friends as a crucial part of the spiritual path. I understand these teachings as pointing to the reality that spiritual practice is extremely difficult at times, and that having a community of people around us that are also dedicated to practice can help us keep going, can help us see things that we might be ignorant of otherwise, and can help us by being models and mirrors for our own growth.

Gil spoke about monasteries and spiritual communities being places that are not necessarily peaceful and inspiring all the time, but rather are places where we can practice together, and help each other along. Sometimes that help is through conscious assistance, sometimes it is through conflict and disagreement within a conscious container of community. Always it is a vehicle for experimenting with relationships as part of our practice. And the commitment that all of these "friends" share to a path of truth-seeking, acts as a structure for these experiments, making spiritual community a powerful learning environment.

So much of Buddhist and other spiritual teachings focus on what we can do as individuals to work on ourselves--how to meditate, how to eat consciously, how to behave, how to work with thoughts and emotions. And while this is very useful for me, I am also a social being, and so having my friendship-life reframed within a context of spiritual practice, is very helpful for me


We've had a big gap in funding for our Dandelion Dancetheater this year, which interrupted the steadily increasing artist fees we've been able to pay since 2002.  And while I don't think any of us were spending hours in rehearsal exclusively for the modest fees we could pay, I know it did make a difference. It's been very important to me to pay all the artists working with me and so this gap has been unsettling. It's pushed me to reflect on why we do what we do. Creating and performing experimental art is grueling, and takes an immense amount of dedication.

In my ensembles, we often talk about how we ultimately do what we do as a labor of love. This is definitely true for me. I've never found anything that I love as much as traveling this path of creation, discovery and truth-sharing.

And there is also another huge piece of the puzzle for me. I do what I do--rehearsals, planning, grantwriting, performing, cleaning-up, emotional processing, and all of it--because of friendship. My closest and most consistent friends have for many years been the artists I work with.

For a long time I have judged myself about this, thinking that I'm supposed to have an extensive friend network outside of my work. I'm not quite sure where I developed this idea. I've assumed that a healthy social life can't be based on something like a dance/theater company, especially if I'm the director. The relationships that I have with my company members have so many complex layers to them, that include power dynamics, economics, critical feedback, career issues, business management and more. And then many of my friendships with people who aren't in my work but play a big part in my artistic growth, are complicated by competition, envy, comparison, etc. I figured that because of this, I'm supposed to have friends with whom I do no business at all and have no professional ties to.

But lately I've realized that all relationships, perhaps especially our closest ones, are very complicated and involve all sorts of conflicting desires. Every relationship has a context and things that each person wants from each other. No relationship is clear-cut. My relationships with my company members and collaborating artists give me great joy, growth and sustenance...Exactly what I want out of my friends. Here the Buddhist teachings on friendship are providing me with a potent new perspective.

If one of the most beautiful friendships can be between a spiritual teacher and student, then it seems to me that the same is true of the relationship between director and ensemble member. One of my grad school mentors told me to never direct my friends--to always have casts of performers that maintain a clear separation between social and professional dynamics. This didn't sound so good to me. One of the main reasons I have continued so long in this field is because I can do it with my friends.

Later, one of my meditation teachers told me it would help my practice to meditate regularly with a "sangha" (community of practitioners.) When I told him that I didn't have time to go to a meditation group because of my rehearsal schedule, he suggested that my company is my "sangha" and that I should meditate with them. I've done precisely that for the past 3 years and it has been wonderful--deepening our work together, deepening our intimacy, deepening my practice.

Money is a lightning rod for conflict, and since I want the performers I work with to be paid (and me too of course,) I've assumed that such a situation, infused with financial dynamics, could never produce "pure" friendships. Additionally, my close artist friends (who have their own companies, concerts, rehearsal schedules and such) are always in competition with me at some level for who will get certain grants, presentations, good reviews, popular support--which all is intrinsic to securing money that supports further work. How could I call these people my friends? Aren't we always going to be working with confusing feelings in regards to each other's artistic well-being?

But my closest friendship, the one with my husband and partner, is saturated with financial issues: bills, mortgage payments, house supplies, pet food, groceries--not to mention conflicts about shared time and space. And while it can be difficult to sort through these issues together, I see it is as a necessary part of our continually deepening relationship. Buying a house together--intensifying our financial relationship--has been one of the most relationship-strengthening moves we've made in the past 9 years. Committing to spending our lives together is powerful because of, not in spite of, the complicated financial and logistical issues we'll face.

And over the past 19 years of working together with Kimiko Guthrie, the co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater, we've had to navigate incredibly difficult issues about resources, money, competition and the like. We've found a perspective that works very well for us. We acknowledge that both of us want money for our projects, fair use of the company's name and resources, and fair ways of compensating the amount of work we do for the company. We don't take it personally when one of us wants to figure out a system for dividing something up so that it reflects the particular effort each of us made. We even pay each other sometimes for particular tasks we need help with. None of this seems to taint our friendship at all. Rather, it is enveloped into a friendship that is so large it can contain almost anything, no matter how awkward or strange. We come back again and again to a belief that what's important is that things feel good to both of us, not that we reflect some standard from outside about how a relationship is supposed to be. This can apply to the smallest and largest of trouble spots.

So, I am grateful for the wonderful friendships that I have with the Dandelion Dancetheater company members, with my fellow dance/theater artists, with artists in other fields, and even with presenters and producers. Each one is unique, and each one feeds me in a different, very important way.

I'm not closed off to friendships with people outside of my artistic path at all. I'm just acknowledging and celebrating the fact that most of my friendship life happens within the realm of art-making. I'm challenging my internal judgments about that fact, and inviting these friendships to blossom and thrive.

Yay Friends! Yay Art! Yay Art-Friends!