Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fermented Art

I'm a big fan of fermented foods and drinks: sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha, rejuvelac, kim chee, wine, beer and more. It's fascinating to me how completely new nutrients and beneficial bacteria develop when we let things settle for awhile. And then how new food and drink is created, not necessarily better than what was originally there, but different and fulfilling other needs.

I'm realizing that I love fermented art too. When a project first appears to complete on closing night, I feel a great sadness at "losing" my connection to something that is immensely nourishing to me. And yes, I am saying goodbye--to a particular lens for experiencing the project, to the material that makes it up and to the magical time with the collaborators.

But as the project ferments--as it sits for awhile--new gifts sprout up from its remains. I'm able to view the piece (through video, memory, reflection) with a greater sense of calm. I'm able to discover new things in it. I'm able to integrate the insights, the shifts and the sheddings that the piece offers up to me.

Today I re-watched one of my excerpt videos from Friend. I was moved in a completely different way than I was moved when performing it, or even than when I first edited the video. But in a way that feels just as important.

I could follow the trajectories of the piece as if listening to a juicy story. I could watch without the same attachments. I could let myself be taken for its rides. My guess is that this will only deepen as the work ferments. When I look at some of my earlier works now, I notice and feel new things in a way that delights me.

Art that is created through intuitive processes always holds more than initially meets the eye. And in order to digest all of its gifts, we must revisit it at different stages of our own life experience. One can't "get" it all in one viewing, or even one month or one year. There are things hidden in each piece that the creators don't even know about while creating. There are mysteries waiting to be investigated, and will wait as long as is necessary.

In a recent post I wrote that I am shifting my view to think of the performances of a work as just the midpoint of the project--that the same time that was taken to create it is needed to integrate it.  However, in some ways, the performances are not the mid-point, but the "beginning" of a project. And then the project ripens, matures, ferments throughout the rest of our lives. It's like when a redwood tree first sprouts out of the ground--that is the performance portion. And then the many centuries of growth of the tree is what happens after the performance as the art expands in our hearts.

Often we take trees for granted, like we take art for granted. It's there, I saw it and I don't need to pay attention anymore. But we miss so much when we do that. There's so much to discover every time it crosses our path, and each discovery is fresh and completely new.

(video from this post is my second set of Friend excerpts:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

As the Light Fades

Transitioning back to ordinary life after a performance run is difficult for me. And this particular transition out of performances of Dandelion's Friend has been particularly difficult.

Ram Dass wrote and spoke about how as he began to get in touch with larger and more beautiful spiritual experiences--as he got "higher" each time--the accompanying falls afterwards became increasingly painful. These performances were especially "high" for me.

I made some big breakthroughs artistically: editing more fiercely, trusting my inner feedback over outer feedback, and delving deeply into musical, lighting and visual art elements. And I made some big breakthroughs spiritually: reclaiming performance as a vehicle for healing, trusting my inner feedback over outer feedback, stirring up and riding a storm of emotional energies and letting go of a lot of worry and doubt.

I had a strong sense over the four performances and the week of tech rehearsals that led up to them, of the sacredness of performance. My intellectual understandings of performance as a spiritual practice and even religious gathering place were transformed into direct experience of something quite palpable. I noted many times during the weekend a sense of finally beginning to "get" what going to church is all about. I felt invited in, embraced and empowered.

I can think of a lot of causes for this string of experiences:
  • I made a conscious choice after my friend Sharon died to direct my art-making more intentionally towards healing, connection, friendship and my own spiritual growth. 
  • I was working in Friend specifically with powerful emotions and energies surrounding grief, loss and deep love. 
  • The residency at CounterPULSE provided me with a great deal of logistical and ideological support, allowing me to focus more than I have in a long time on the art-making itself. 
  • The combination of artists collaborating with me in the Dandelion ensemble brought a maturity, a willingness and a unique collection of personalities and talents all adding up to great artistic chemistry. 
  • I've been working towards many of the realizations I've had during this project through many years of experimentation and hard work. 
  • And then there is the mysterious nature of grace that seems to grant us new levels of insight and integration when we are somehow ready--keeping all of this outside the realm of control and formulas for action.
Because of all this, the energy crash after the performances has felt like finding the "Garden of Eden" and then being cast out. The world that we wove together onstage (and throughout CounterPULSE) was rich, juicy, inspiring, sensitive and beautiful. I felt a great freedom and a great power. I moved up to my edges and beyond them musically, theatrically, visually. I discovered a ritual for "cooling down" after the performance--the playing of live music until I have settled enough to coherently engage with audience members.  I felt a sense of clarity and connection to purpose. And then we had to clean up and go home.

I've realized that I need at least a week of no plans after performances like this--to decompress, integrate and rejuvenate. As it was, I had a day. And then it was off to errands, meetings, deadlines and the return to teaching.

The week leading up to our performances was the first week of Spring Quarter at Cal State East Bay. This is always a crazy time, but compounded with the stress around this production it feels insane. And adding to this, I have had a leaky tire on my car because of a screw stuck in it for over a week now; The piles of emails, mail, papers, "to-do's" and miscellaneous stuff on my desk have become daunting; I'm choreographing an opera for the Cal State Spring Dance Production that opens in one month; I have over one hundred students this quarter; I'm directing a major collaborative project with Dandelion and AXIS Dance Company that starts up rehearsals again tomorrow. I can barely find room to walk in my office because of all the props, sets and lighting equipment from Friend that I now have to find spaces for; I need to find time to practice my mandolin to get ready for some upcoming musical gigs; I haven't had my car washed in a long time; I can't find my "To Do list;" and to top it off, I need new socks. It's a lot to pick back up again when I'm feeling this raw, depleted and emotionally spent.

Everything seemed so much clearer last weekend. My job was simply to show up as fully as possible and give myself to the art. I'm grieving the loss of that energetic space, and wishing I had a lot of time to sit with this grief rather than run around trying to get caught up. My colleague Nina Haft remarked at one of our work-in-progress showings that she experiences loss like the tearing off of a scab so that all the past grief-wounds come pouring up once again to mix with the present one. This is the clearest description I've found of the grieving process over my friend Sharon's death, and it is proving true of my grieving over the loss of the Friend project.

I've seemed to be fine this week when I'm at home, feeling safe and having time to rest, snuggled up against my partner and/or our dogs. As soon as I have to go out into the world to take care of business, I feel a weight descend on my whole insides. I get tearful over the smallest things and feel a mounting sense of anxiety the farther I get from the house. Everything seems overwhelming. Somewhere inside I know I can handle all the details, especially when I think of them one at a time, but the contrast between this post-show struggle and the immersion in grace during the show is poignant.

I realize that a big part of my suffering this week is rooted in my wishing things were different--wishing I was back in performance mode with my ensemble or at least that I didn't have to do much of anything as I transition. I seem to be wishing my time away, instead of settling into how things actually are right now, amidst the exhaustion and overwhelm and grief.

There are a few things that seem to help and so I've been turning to these as much as possible:
1. Organizing and putting away props, costumes, instruments, lights and other paraphenalia from the performances keeps me connected to the experiences I had while also physically moving me forward into my life.
2. Editing video of the performances reminds me of the experiences, gives me new perspectives on what we created and re-engages my creativity.
3. Cleaning and organizing the non-show items in my life grounds me and seems to refresh my environment. I'm reminded of Jack Kornfield's teachings from "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry."
4. Writing and talking about what I'm going through with friends, my partner, and this blog cuts down on the alienation and the stagnation of my thinking.

And most importantly, a specific shift in my perspective on all this has been getting me through and reconnecting me to the power of the processes I've been engaged in. I've heard Buddhist teachers say that it takes about as long to integrate a meditation retreat as it takes to do the retreat. So a two-month retreat will take at least two months to transition back into ordinary life from. A three-year retreat will take at least three-years to transition back from. I have found this to be a very helpful way of looking at performance projects I direct. Friend took four months of pretty intensive rehearsals to create. So I think it will take at least four months of active reflection to integrate its insights, gifts and emotional reverberations into the rest of my life. This means that the closing night of performances is not the end of the project, but the mid-point.

Each time I view my present experiences from this perspective I relax and feel great relief. I'm still doing the necessary work of the project as best I can. I plan to continue sharing post-show reflections as they come to me as part of this next stage of Friend.

Here is my first draft of video edits from Friend, taken from footage shot by friends throughout the weekend. I love watching this for new perspectives on the work, especially since up til now I've only seen it from inside:

 ( Video can be seen directly at: )