Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Injury as Teacher

I'm often able to tell other people when they are injured how much every injury can be a teacher. When it's not me having to hold back from moving with physical abandon, I see the benefit of learning about our limitations and our vulnerability through our injuries. When I have an injury, my vision is a lot murkier and I have to wade through a lot of resistance before I come to some kind of acceptance of what happened and a curiosity about what I could learn in the new situation. So it helps me to have concrete instances to remember when I'm having a hard time getting the "message" in an injury or obstacle.

Yesterday we had our first showing as part of my CounterPULSE residency. Even though it's supposed to be a low pressure event, I nonetheless found myself wanting to impress whoever was there in the hopes of receiving a lot of validation about where I am in my process. (Art-making can be such an uncertain path sometimes, and one fraught with insecurity. It's interesting for me to notice how much I seek affirmation from outside--and how soon after I get such affirmation I'm already "jonesing" for more.)

We had a few things to show, some farther along than others. One that I was especially excited about is a duet I created collaboratively with performers Mickey Kay and Anne-Lise Reusswig. We had made it on the very first day of the residency. It is an exciting duet, with lots of falls, catches, turns, sweeps through space and risky partnering moments. Mickey let me know before the showing that his shoulder was still really bothering him so he shouldn't move much. I was disappointed by that, but figured if I gave them the assignment to re-craft the duet so that it felt okay with Mickey's shoulder, but retained as much of the original energy as possible, that probably they'd end up being able to do most of it.

I underestimated Mickey's injury. Moving athletically was completely off the table for him, and he was thinking that he shouldn't really dance at all.  So I told Mickey and Anne to just do what was easy for them, and to think of it as a duet in which not much could happen. I thought we'd return to the more full-bodied version of the duet as soon as Mickey was ready.

Then it hit me that a big goal of mine for this next phase is to edit my choreography way down--to create things with lots of space, stillness and silence in them. Perhaps this was an arena to experiment with that. And I love what they came up with. Yes, I love the high-powered partnering and momentum of the first version as well, but it was something that is more familiar to me. In having to minimalize their movement, Mickey and Anne found a partnering relationship that drew me in. Rather than blowing me away, it whispered softly and invited me to lean close and witness something much more vulnerable.

Mickey's injury guided me to a place as a director that I could not have found on my own. There was lots of stillness and understated movements. The physical form of the duet became quite minimal, and that seemed to encourage these dynamic performers to reach out with their energy.

I love the new form this duet has taken, and feel that it's given me a foothold for the entire work. I can trust spaciousness in choreography, not just theoretically, but from a place of lived experience. I've just seen it at work and been touched by it. I was reminded by this duet how presence is really what I'm interested in from performers, and that sometimes we can access presence more powerfully by "doing" less.

Without this injury we probably would have done the duet yesterday as we had first choreographed it. And I'm sure it would have been wonderful, but not nearly as much as it ended up being by holding back. I don't want Mickey to have his injury, or anyone for that matter. But I am grateful for this lesson, and the many more that I'm sure lie ahead.

Here is a video of some brief excerpts from our showing, followed by the duet I wrote about in this post.
(Note: If the video seems narrower than it's supposed to be, it might be cut off by the blog's formatting. You can just click on the video and it will take you to the YouTube site's version, which should be full size.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Public Showings

We have our first work-in-progress showing for my CounterPULSE residency this coming Saturday, Jan. 15th. Even though we're still at the beginnings of our creation process, I'm very glad we have this showing to work towards.

There are many reasons that I find public showings of performance works in progress useful. These include:

--forcing us as artists to make some decisions about what we want to show

--giving a deadline to a particular segment of our creation process

--encouraging everyone in the cast to show up at a certain time (Many performers might miss rehearsals due to scheduling conflicts or illness, but few will miss a "performance" of any kind.)

--clarifying what is working or not working in the piece by trying it all full out --receiving feedback from audience members' experiences while witnessing the work and then getting to integrate that feedback into our process

--deepening connection between ensemble members by going through something scary together

--getting to know the space we're working in through a different perspective

--opportunities for bringing friends and loved ones along for our artistic journey

--a chance for all of us to get a better sense of the material we may or may not have already witnessed in rehearsal (Different people come to different rehearsals, so this is one of the few times we're all together.)

--and many more...

There is a particular benefit of showings that I want to explore this time. This is a more personal, intimate benefit. Our showing this Saturday is giving me the opportunity to practice staying mindful while in the middle of the stress and chaos of performances.

One of my personal goals is to merge my spiritual practices with my art making. Some of this is inherent in art making, and some needs to be consciously brought in. In particular I'd like to feel more calm, groundedness, confidence and equanimity on performance days.

I'm good at "making it work." I can handle a large amount of chaos, distress and unexpected obstacles with some amount of grace. My adrenaline rushes and I enter a hyper-focused and highly energetic state. That's all fine and good, but it leaves me feeling very drained afterwards. Also, I find that I become reactive and sometimes even defensive in this super-charged state. While I do get a lot done, sometimes it's a productivity that is disconnected from the deeper parts of my heart.

--I'd like to draw in some of the principles I practice in Tai Chi and mindfulness meditation.

--I'd like to trust the natural unfolding of each performance day.

--I'd like to see everything that arises as momentary expressions of the process, rather than treasures or obstacles that I need to cling to or push through.

--I'd like to stay more in touch with the flow of energy leading up to and during performances.

--I'd like to experiment with trusting a larger sense of identity, and see if things happen when I relax that might even be more interesting than what I could come up with in my striving.

These are not easy tasks for me. A gift of mine is great determination and a strong will. When I want to make something happen, I usually can. However, this limits my experience to include only the things I can think of myself, or that I know I want. That remains a somewhat bland and overly familiar category of experience.

Relaxing into the process further requires a deeper faith in uncertainty. It requires a recognition that I can't control everything. Again, not my natural inclination. Many people report that they think of me as a particularly calm, open and relaxed person. I think that I do have some skills in this area, but most of those come from continual practice. I'm always working towards being calm, open and relaxed--but rarely feeling so. A lot of the time I am able to embody the forms this would take, but my mind rages against the walls inside of that form. I think that performance days are excellent arenas to try to sync up my intentions and my experience.

And an actual "performance" comes with so much baggage that I am usually swept along helplessly with the anxiety and ecstasy. A showing on the other hand is something I can experiment with more freely. The stakes aren't as high and so there is room to make more mistakes.

--What would it be like to stay in touch with my breathing and bodily sensations throughout the whole day, even when a myriad of details are flashing before my eyes?

--What would it be like to trust the process of the preparation, showing and feedback sessions so much so that I don't have to improve them at all?

--What would it be like to allow myself and my ensemble to truly experience whatever arises, familiar and unfamiliar?

--What would it be like to think of the work that we show as not mine, or ours even, but as a creation of the universe manifesting specifically in this moment?

--What would it be like to not take feedback (positive or negative) personally?

I'm not sure, but I'm interested to find out.

...And here is our third interview webisode with Cristina Carrasquillo, right after her first rehearsal with the group and 5 days away from our first showing...
(If the video gets cut off on the sides while watching it on the blog site, you can click on the video and it will take you to the YouTube version of it, which should be complete.)

Friday, January 7, 2011


One of my favorite things about the creative process is synchronicity. I follow intuition above all else in my art making and find myself continually rewarded by the ways that relationships I never could have dreamed up appear all of a sudden.

Until recently I was planning on making a piece called Don't Suck! Cycle II as part of a four month residency at CounterPULSE in San Francisco. The recent deaths of my close friend Sharon and my grandmother moved me to reflect on and reorganize all aspects of my life. I've shifted my creation plans to making a work inspired by my friendship with Sharon, called Friend.

In the original plans with Don't Suck!, one of the things we were going to be exploring was working with interactive metal sculptures designed and created by ensemble member Mickey Kay. These were going to be things that each of the contestants in our mock reality TV show would compete on--seeing who could interact with the sculptures in the most innovative and compelling ways.

When we shifted the plans for the piece to work with what I'm learning from the loss of this very important friendship, I realized that the metal sculptures made more sense than ever. Sharon was always a creative and artistic soul, picking up interesting found objects on the trails she walked, and creating paintings, collages and all sorts of artworks throughout her life. In the last 10 years of her life, she had become very involved with welding and metal sculpture. She spent a good deal of time at the Crucible, an Oakland metal-work community, and was committed to developing her welding skills as much as she could.

When her brain tumor related symptoms became too intense a few years ago, she had to stop welding completely, and then her love of metal-work led her to making small wire sculptures. Mickey's welding projects (and some experiments I'm doing with using thin wire to make small objects we'll use in performance) seem to be riding on Sharon's spirit and artistic visions.

This kind of unplanned confluence gives me great faith in the artistic process, and immediate confidence in the direction we're moving in with this project.

The Best Laid Plans…

A particularly challenging and fertile aspect of being a creator of experimental performance is that I often have to describe a project in detail many months or even years before I start on it.  When working with 10 or more ensemble members and needing to plan out schedules and spaces that are accessible for dancing, instruments, wheelchairs, props, sets and more, I have to do a lot of advance planning. I joke often with my husband about how I have things planned for specific weekends three years ahead of time, while he’s often not wanting to make any set plans for three days from now.

The foundational priority for me in art making is staying connected to my sense of truth as it unfolds. And in order to make sure I have the time and resources to do that work, I have to make a lot of guesses as to what my truths will look like in the future.

For the past 6 months I have had a very clear picture of what my four month residency at CounterPULSE would look like. While I knew that many of the individual moments and images I explored with my ensemble would change, I knew that we were making a piece that both satirized and drew from reality TV contests to investigate the dynamics of competition in each of our lives. I knew we were continuing the work we started in “Don’t Suck! Cycle I” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center this past summer. I knew that we were going to set up every week of rehearsal and the final performances as actual competitions, where we would be forced to confront our hopes and fears around winning and losing in front of audiences and for an online community.  I was excited about facing the difficulties such a project would evoke and excited to attempt to transcend some of my personal competition hang-ups.

And then, two days before our first CounterPULSE rehearsal, one of my best friends died. This changed everything. Even though it wasn’t a sudden death in the usual sense of the word--she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor 10 years before—I am in a state of shock. Death is bizarre. I’ve never lost anyone this intimately connected to my life before. It feels sudden.

I talk about death a lot. Most of the performance pieces I make are in some way addressing the nature of impermanence. I’ve lost a number of people from various parts of my life. At first when Sharon died, I felt a kind of calm joy. I had this sense of her moving into some state of freedom that was in total contrast to the constriction of her body and voice as she existed in a near-coma for the past couple of months. I felt sadness and loss, but also relief. I thought that I had prepared myself for this and was just going to be able to move through the experience of loss organically. I spent my first few days in the studio at CounterPULSE making short pieces in honor of my friendship with Sharon, and friendship in general. I thought I would return to the competition material in the new year.

My grandmother died the next week. It was much the same as with Sharon. Grandma died in her bed in her home, on a Sunday morning, with some loved ones nearby. I felt a similar warmth of freedom at first when I thought of Grandma after death.  Her body and mind had offered her mostly pain for the past few years, and at her burial last month it felt like her spirit expanded immensely above us—clearing the clouds away and giving us a powerful rainbow, before allowing the rainstorms to return.

And like with Sharon, I was at first more conscious of our continued sense of connection than of my loss of this person in my life. It was about 3 days after the second death that I crashed internally. Since then I’ve been feeling alternating waves of grief and acceptance, sadness and courage, exhaustion and inspiration.

It’s become clear to me that I need to shift my artistic gears. My original ideas for the residency were provocative, extroverted, spectacle-inducing, dizzying and terrifying. In general I love this sort of challenge in a performance project. But there’s no way I can generate the kind of energy that project calls for at this time. These deaths have triggered a great deal of reflection and priority rearranging for me.

The most potent method I know of for integrating and transforming the troubling parts of life is art making. I feel a powerful call to make art that addresses all that has been evoked by these losses. Sometimes it’s a sense of interest or curiosity that drives a line of artistic inquiry. But this feels more like acknowledging unavoidable emotional/spiritual gravity. There doesn’t seem to me to be any way to move forward except for addressing these losses in my work.

I’m going to try and face one of these deaths at a time, even though I know that art making exists beyond any attempt at categorization and separation. I’m sure both deaths will figure prominently in my residency project. But I am starting with an exploration of my friendship with Sharon Mussen. I met her in high school-the one year that I lived in the Bay Area, in between the rest of my growing up in Los Angeles. We came together as part of a group of friends all drawn to exploring issues of consciousness, spirituality, death, art and sexuality. It was a powerful convergence of freaks and free spirits and we delved together into all sorts of mysterious areas of our own beings and our connections with each other. Sharon was the only person from this group of friends that I stayed in touch with consistently for the past 20-plus years. She remained one of my closest friends.

Her death on Dec. 5th, and the illness directly leading up to it brought a bunch of us from that group of friends back together again. We’ve all grown up in some ways, and in some ways are falling right back into the dynamics of our high school adventures.

Sharon was also one of the only close friends I have that is not directly connected to my creative and professional life. Most of my social life and intimate friendships happen within the context of the ensemble I direct with Dandelion Dancetheater. It’s wonderful to be able to be with my friends in a creative setting—as art making feels like my central life path. But I’m realizing it was also wonderful to have friends that are slightly more removed from this area I focus so intensely on.

Losing Sharon has disoriented me. And reestablishing ties with this larger group of friends feels serendipitous. I sense the possibility that some of these folks can become friends of mine outside of my “work,” in a similar way that Sharon was. But developing friendships in this way is something I’ve forgotten how to do. I did so in high school, and even college. But after that my quest for intimate relationships was almost always funneled through my art.

So my new work to be created in these precious months at CounterPULSE will explore my friendship with Sharon, through the larger vehicle of an investigation of friendship in general. How does each of the ensemble members hold friendship in our lives? How have friendships developed for us? What role do our friends play now? Do we actively seek new friendships? What friends have we lost and how did we process those losses?

Over the last few years I've made increasingly large and anarchistic ensemble performance works. I've played with multiple layers of community diversity, chaos versus control, busting the format for performance wide open, and courting wildness in as many ways as I could. It seems suddenly very appropriate to me that I'm now on the other side of such a cycle. I feel myself called to turn inward and to seek intimate, tender and hidden truths.

The work will be called simply “Friend.” It is a comfort to me to be looking for Sharon somewhere in this creative project, and to think that I might connect with her spirit in a whole new way.