Monthly Archives: August 2009

Harvard vs. the Unknown

IMG_0602When I was about eight or nine, my dance teacher at the time, Miss Joan, looked at me hard and asked me if I wanted to be a dancer. Looking down, afraid to meet the intensity of her gaze, I meekly shook my head yes. I had never uttered the words, “I want to be a dancer” out loud. Some things are too close to be spoken.

For a long time I thought everyone was like this. Everyone knew the blueprint of their becoming. I recognized my dancerness early on as a mere fact of my birth like my sex and the color of my eyes. Miss Joan’s question surprised me.  I didn’t think I had a choice.

In my single-minded pursuit of  dancing, I quit high school at seventeen, got a GED, and joined a company. At that time, I didn’t give much thought to going to college. Now, at 39, I have what amounts to roughly three years of college credits that I acquired from three different universities in a higgliddy-piggliddy sort of fashion, going to school here and there during lay-offs or periods of injury when I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I always managed to learn something that brought me to greater self-understanding, although it was an expensive way to learn about oneself. This year, I finally paid off my student loans, bringing my credit score back up to positive numbers. Thank god for the two universities that actually employ me!  I will probably finish my degree at some point because I hate to leave loose ends. It messes with my need for simplicity.

But I don’t want to get into the positives and negatives of today’s colleges. That’s a worthy topic for another blog. What I do want to talk about is what to do if you’re a dancer who has to choose between college and joining a company.

First of all, let me say that it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are many programs now that will allow you to work gradually towards a degree at night, on-line, or whatever. But ballet, more than modern or other dance forms, emphasizes youth. Especially important is the time between ages seventeen to about twenty one when you are expected to join a company.

Many parents of prospective freshman approach me to ask what I think is the best route. They are torn between the seeming security of a college diploma and the uncertainty of dancing for one’s dinner. They want to lay out a clearly cut path for their children that leads to a safe and beautiful place. They are afraid that their child will fail.

But failure, I mean the crying-on-the-bathroom-floor kind, is an inevitable part of any life. So is risk. What terrifies me more than failure is that someone will not fulfill their talent, their blueprint. That someone will have to face death not having delivered their light into the world. We will all die, but will we dance our dance? On some days, it’s because I have a garbage can full of failures that I dance.

My advice to the parent is that they allow their child to follow their own heart, at which point  the parent usually says, yes, but shouldn’t they get their degree first? Now, I am a sort of put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket-kamikaze-kind-of-girl, so I say, well, that might make you feel better (to the parent) but, in ballet, as I’ve said, time is of the essence. The having-something-to-fall-back-on approach won’t necessarily help your child in this situation. I emphasize that  it’s important for the young artist to spend several years focusing on their art and to realize that each person’s path is unique. Just because it is not well trod doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it yours and yours alone.

For some, college after high school is best. For others, it is not, and if you or your child falls into the latter group, know that you are not alone. Believe me, Harvard will be there, and if it isn’t, then the world will probably have changed drastically to one in which Harvard and the like will have been rendered unnecessary.

I like college. I just don’t think it’s the promised land. I don’t believe in a promised land at all, which is just another way of saying that nothing is guaranteed. I do believe that there is a wisdom inside each heart that is far superior to any external authority, and that we should spend more time teaching our children to put faith in that.


The Drudgery of Mastery

Often I find my students, artists young and old, and myself in deluded moments, to be obsessed about our futures. We wonder if we will ever “make it” and spin elaborate fantasies about what that will entail while realIMG_0585ity television taunts us, like the devil, to sell our souls for a shit show.

Perhaps fantasies have their place. They may inspire us to action and there is something to be said for the positive energy they launch into the universe. However, they also trip us up when we return to earth and face the reality of the daily grind.

For this reason, years ago, I stopped warming up to music before class. I used to get myself all revved up, listening to Radiohead through my headphones. I would get lost in some other reality only to have it abrasively interrupted by the teacher’s entrance into the studio followed by the all too familiar strains of ballet music that signified the start of class. It felt like I was being torn from a dream, like I had to suffer waking up all over again. I found myself disassociated from the other people and that tended to set a precedent for the rest of the day. I started to suspect that this was not helping my work, for dancing has to do with relating to others, after all, duh, so I took the headphones off and went cold-turkey into the present moment.

For me, surrendering the music video in my head for the present moment was one small step in becoming more aware. What I would like to encourage in my students (and reinforce in myself) is to, in the same way,  replace the fantasy of “making it” with the very real possibility of mastery.

I have a refrigerator magnet that  says “All know the way. Few actually walk it.” The way may mean different things for different people, but we could apply it to artistic mastery. Yeah, few actually walk it. Why? Because it’s hard and often tedious. We are confronted with every emotional, physical, mental and spiritual limitation within ourselves. We are besieged by temptations on all sides and there is not a camera crew standing by to film our drama. The great cellist, Pablo Casals, used to fantasize that he’d be hit by a bus so that he wouldn’t have to practice. (Yes, I am strangely comforted by this.)

Ultimately, what it boils down to is saying yes. Consistently. Spend less time worrying about the future and just say yes right now, to this moment: Will I take a dance class today? Yes. Will I paint today? Yes. Write, photograph, design today? Yes, yes, yes. Even though I feel like crap? Yes. Even though I’m bored? Yes. Even though I-hate-that-teacher-my-boyfriend-broke-up-with-me-everyone-else-is-going-to-the-beach-instead? Uh huh.

In certain Asian traditions, one is not considered a master until they’ve been consistently practicing something for 30 years. 30 years of the yeses outweighing the nos. Sobering, ain’t it. And then, maybe you’ll find that it was just a tool all along. The ballet, or painting, or whatever. Just a tool. For the ultimate in mastery which is, of course, to master oneself.

The Game that Never Ends

Tai with student Midori Fujioka

Tai with student Midori Fujioka

Someone recently told me that a mutual colleague said I was “artistically unfulfilled.” The comment was made as a plain observation, without judgement, and came from someone I deeply admire both personally and artistically. The truth landed as the truth always does, painfully, like a foot falling on my heart.

In the two years since I’ve left Boston Ballet, I’ve worked at teaching and choreographing. Although I’ve done my best to give my all to my students, a gnawing feeling remains. I still long to have the creative flow course through me directly, as its instrument, without being interpreted by others. Perhaps I thought the love I felt for my students would replace my own need to dance. It has not and I hope they do not feel betrayed by this admission. I have loved being in their service and will continue to be.

But, artistic fulfillment…is it even possible? I have my doubts. Everywhere, I am surrounded by painters, writers, film-makers, fashion designers and the rest, struggling to find their voices and to have them heard. It is said that, at the end of his life, Leonard Bernstein felt like a failure. I find that strangely comforting.

However, the implausibility of artistic fulfillment does not get that stupid art-monkey off our backs. The urge to create, to have the mojo flow, may only be temporarily appeased, at best. Semantic arguments aside, my colleague’s comment spurred me on to at least get back into the game. And so, for the first time since my supposed retirement, I went back into the studio to take class.

Ultimately, I have to go, because it’s my prayer, and in the expression of that prayer, in all its love and longing and divine struggling, the question itself dissolves. There is nothing to gain, nowhere to go, only the pleasure of burning oneself completely. The game never ends. It is never won. And if approached sincerely, cannot be lost.

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