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!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Success and Failure, Part 2

(The following is continued from last week's post. The issues at hand are sticky enough to require at least two, if not more, written explorations for me to figure out how to move forward.)

In our reality show pilot (filmed 12/21/09 with Rapt Productions,) we created a situation where one person would win and one person would lose, based on the scores given by a panel of judges. We talked about it a lot as an ensemble beforehand, and all decided to go ahead and experiment with this structure. And while we were ready intellectually, I don't think we were at all prepared emotionally.

Without going into detail about the day, I'll just say that it evoked a lot of emotions and pushed a lot of our buttons at a primal level. As an ensemble, we're still processing the fall-out. The impact that this simple, self-created game structure had on all of us, makes me think that we've touched on some juicy material. I want to explore this more. And I also want to be careful.

We're heading into dangerous territory. While this is for me what "Experimental Performance" should be about, I also realize that I don't have a lot of models for how to protect ourselves from major wounding along the way. This will also have to be part of the experiment. Exploring the nature of winning and losing, for me touches into issues around self-esteem, wanting to be liked, wanting to be successful in the public eye, competition for things like grants and publicity, wanting to be a "great" artist, avoiding people's anger or displeasure and much more. It leads me back to much of my core, early wounding, and calls upon all my spiritual and psychological practices to stay centered in the midst of all that arises.

It reminds me of the irony of someone like me traveling a path of experimental art-making. I want to make work that is provocative, transformational, challenging, thought-provoking, and uncomfortable, because I feel that is where powerful growth can happen in my art. And I want people to like me and not be upset with me. So my art has led me into an arena where I'm going to have to face directly my attachment to approval. Provocative, challenging work is going to make people upset. And with me at the helm, as the director, much of that upset will be directed my way.

This speaks to me of how "the Lord works in mysterious ways." If I can, I often will avoid negative feelings being evoked towards me, by any means necessary. Yet, my love of visceral, truth-telling performance leads me over and over again into exactly that territory I hoped to bypass.

Every major project I direct seems to come up against a major conflict, in which people are quite upset, and usually upset at me. I'm slowly learning to embrace this part of the work. Part of this dynamic is how I think "following our truth" plays out. Truth is often upsetting and confrontational. And part of the dynamic is in line with what Edison said, that it's part of how I figure out all the myriad ways that my art "doesn't work."

And so, I aspire to court mistakes, embrace embarrassment, face anger and disapproval, be willing to lose, and seek to bring forth my humanity, and the humanity of all that I encounter with my work, "warts and all!"

One of the ways I approach challenging issues in my work, is to reflect on aspects of Buddhist teachings that might offer some insight. I am inspired here by the Buddha's teaching on the "Eight Wordly Dharmas." He spoke about eight things we can count on facing in some way in our lives, including: praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss, pleasure and pain. This teaching reminds me of how much I strive for the "positive" part of each of these pairs, and how much I hope to avoid the "negative" part. But there's another way to look at them.

Seeing all of these states as ultimately positive, changes the rules of the game significantly. It redefines the very nature of the concept of "positive." In this view, "positive" means true. It means the way things are. So praise and blame are both true aspects of any life--sometimes people will like us and what we are doing, sometimes they won't. That's just how it is. And there's beauty in the way this is set up. Praise and blame depend on each other. When we can see them as inseparable, we have the opportunity to view our experiences from a much larger vantage point, beyond duality.

After our first foray into reality show filming, some of the company members expressed discomfort with the notion of a loser. "Could we just have a winner, and no loser?" But I think that takes away the potency of this experiment. Winning and losing are inseparable, like each of the Buddha's Eight Worldly Dharmas. When we can fully embrace both winning and losing as inevitable for each of us, then we transcend their psychological drama, and are returned to a more essential part of our nature.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Pema Chodron,  reminds us that this particular spiritual path is not one of escaping our foibles and difficulties, but rather one of "rubbing our noses in them." Not as a punishment by any means, but instead as a way to move beyond our fear, grasping and aversion. This is the spirit with which I hope to infuse our investigations into winning and losing, success and failure.

Mantra, one of our ensemble members, likes to remind us of this quote by Samuel Beckett, that I find quite helpful here:

Try again
Fail again

Try again
Fail again
Fail again better

Monday, January 4, 2010

Success and Failure, Part 1

One of my core struggles in art-making (and really life in general) is how to reconcile a fierce commitment to experimentation with a deep fear of failure. The very nature of experimenting is to court failure. The more "failures" I have, the more I learn, and then the more "successful" the whole process is. It sounds good on paper, but embodying this is a whole different story.

I'm reminds of something I read about Edison and (I think) his invention of the lightbulb. His team had made around 2,000 attempts, and they were discouraged by all the times they had "failed." Edison reframed it by telling them (and I paraphrase here,) "Nonsense! We now know 2,000 ways it doesn't work!"

I aspire to have that perspective on my art (and life.) In the meantime, things like mistakes, failures, losses, embarrassments, and weaknesses are terrifying to me. And yet, they seem to be the only path towards finding my true work, my unique contributions to make.

There's the story about the spiritual seeker who finds the master atop a mountain, deep in mystical absorption:
The seeker asks the master, "How do I attain wisdom?"
The master replies, "Through experience."
"And how do I obtain experience?"
"Through making mistakes."

Recently we shot the pilot episode of a reality show that Dandelion is developing with Austin Forbord and his RAPT Productions. We intend it to be a kind of "Project Runway" of experimental performance. It is a huge experiment, with many complex levels of entry, and many things still to be figured out. I thought it was a very successful day, because we learned about many of the ways it won't work, as well as some of the ways that it might.

And it was also extremely provocative for many of us. We were thrown headfirst up against difficult issues, and forced to face parts of ourselves that most of us would rather avoid. For me, the primary issue that was raised was about the nature of winning and losing. I realize that I have a lot of emotional baggage to sort through around this.

So much of my work is about creating environments of inclusivity, where there is no right or wrong. I seek to revision much of contemporary performance to establish a radical embracing of diversity and humanism onstage, and to glory in the beauty of all human beings' essential oddness, imperfection and undefinable-ness. I want to challenge so much of my own training, and so much of the pressure we all receive to fit in, to try to be different than we are, to seek outside validation. And the more I work towards these visions, the more I'm confronted with my own desire to conform and be told that I'm okay by powerful people--the more I see my intense desire to "win" and my intense fear of "losing."

I'm excited, and a little nervous about facing this part of myself. Like all performance projects that are meaningful to me, I'd like this next one to be a vehicle for letting go of habits that are no longer useful, and to uncover and dismantle some of my own obsession with dualities of winning/losing, right/wrong,  good/bad, and success/failure. I'd like to find a playing field for my work that is beneath and beyond these distracting ways of viewing experience. And I look forward to finding ways that wrestling with my own neuroses in this arena, will allow the work to resonate with something common to all of us that are both blessed and cursed with a human mind.

(to be continued...)