The below reflection was written in response to a follow up question from the
Bodies in Play feature in VoyageLA :
How do you think about risk/What role has taking risks played in your life/career?
Bodies in Play was developed as a platform to create live performance experiences, with bodies as a focal point for creative expression. As with any performing arts production, being in close proximity with other bodies has always been a key element for both the process and presentation of the work. As I write this, in September of 2020, many of the projected projects for Bodies in Play have been placed on hold or sent back to the drawing board. The current health risks associated with bringing bodies together are simply too high to operate or create as originally intended.
Prior to this pandemic, when thinking about risks in the performing arts, we often thought about creative risks in relation to the audience. If we make this choice, will people buy tickets? Will we get a good review? Will people be impacted? All of these are important questions to ask since as performers our relationship to audience is symbiotic, but I’ve always also looked at risk from a more selfish point of view: How will these choices make me a better artist?
Whenever I take on a new project, whether I'm the performer, creator, or producer, there has to be some element of fear involved for the work to feel worthwhile. There has to be some sense that I may not "get it" or achieve the desired result, and in many cases, I’ve failed. As a dancer, this may look like not quite landing that move I've been practicing or not quite hitting the musical timing as desired. As a choreographer it might look like overcomplicating the steps or creating something far too derivative and unoriginal. However it's these failures that produce growth and allow me to take bigger risks in the next project.
So now the question is, in the current climate, what scares me artistically? How do I support Bodies in Play in ways that keep my health and the health of my collaborators and audiences in mind while still stepping beyond my creative comfort zone? So far, the risks associated with the coronavirus have put me in a state of pause and reflection - failure, in this case, is not an opportunity for growth. Failure is simply not an option. Yet in a city and industry where popularity has often been a key factor in relevancy, to pause presents a slew of risks that scare me in ways I haven’t been scared before. Thankfully, if my past projects are any indication, this fear suggests I may find myself becoming a better artist on the other side. And that’s a risk worth taking.
Writing a monthly reflection is a challenge when every week feels like a year. The emotional journey each day brings is vast and expansive, while the physical journey remains confined to the distance between my bed and kitchen. The social climate screams for participatory action as the health and safety climate demands stillness and separation.
Living in this time of extreme contradiction is overwhelming, uncomfortable, and often paralyzing.
As someone in the performing arts, I’m being asked to reinvent what it means to create and express. As someone who works in education, I’m being asked to question what lessons and values are worth sharing. And as someone with a desire to see a better tomorrow, I’m being asked to unlearn historical inaccuracies and indoctrinated biases.
It is this unlearning - and the reflection of past unlearning - that helps quell the overwhelm. I’m much more proud of the unlearning I’ve accomplished throughout my lifetime than I am of the learning. For the most part, to learn I simply had to show up, with a marginal amount of interest, and maybe put in some effort. This nation’s educational system was rigged in my favor, and as a boy in dance, studio owners and teachers went out of their way to present opportunities for me to learn.
It’s the unlearning that requires real work, which is also what makes it the most rewarding.
I’ve had to unlearn internalized homophobia and misogyny to be better to myself.
I’ve had to unlearn heteronormativity to be a better friend and partner.
I’ve had to unlearn aspects of my dance training to be a better artist.
I’ve had to unlearn the American Dream to design a better career.
I’ve had to unlearn white supremacy to be a better educator and citizen.
I’ve had to unlearn the idea that any of this is a destination and recognize that the unlearning will continue throughout my lifetime.
And I’ve had to unlearn the belief that a contradiction is a binary conflict so that my overwhelm can be accompanied by extreme peace, my discomfort can be met with pleasure, and my paralysis can breed innovation and creativity.
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” -- Lao Tzu
To the Women:
To the Women who have taught me to lead from kindness, proving through their actions that power, strength, and genius are not traits that need be linked with cruelty or condescension.
Recently, I was told I earned a teaching position because I have a kind approach to leadership. This was probably the best compliment I could receive given my mission and goals with Bodies in Play, but it’s also something I can’t take full responsibility for. I often wonder how, as a white cis-gendered man, I might move through the world had I not had the great fortune of spending most of my life taught and lead by women. Most of my teachers and dance instructors throughout my life have been women. Every dance company I’ve every performed with has been directed by a woman. Every. Single. One. There’s no way this hasn’t informed my teaching and choreography practice - for the better, I whole-heartedly believe.
To the Women who have always been there when the men disappoint. Who provided support and literal shelter and never made me feel strange for preferring female companionship.
When I was 5 I was the only boy from school invited to the all girl sleep over party. This was a cause for concern for parents, but a compromise was made where I could participate in all the pre-bedtime games and activities but would be picked up at the end of the night when it was time to go to sleep. While the message this engrained into a young boy’s brain was “you’re different”, this sentiment has never been given any credence by the many women who have loved me throughout my life. There have been countless sleepover parties since.
To the Women who break “the rules,” empowering others and giving permissions to live outside societally accepted norms.
Since 2012 I’ve lived with an image of juxtaposing Alanis Morissette’s Clean Hands with Lady MacBeth’s Out Damned Spot speech. Besides the obvious superficial relation, however, I could never quite justify the connection - not enough for a full piece at least. This all changed in 2016, when I became aware of a certain politician’s media comparison to Lady MacBeth, due to her “thirst for power.” In acknowledging the insidious nature of Misogyny engrained into our culture, I had to wonder: how much blood is on my own hands? From this, the work wrote itself and the use of Ms. Morissette, another Lady M and music’s quintessential Nasty Woman, seemed only fitting for my 1990’s influenced pop art aesthetic. Thus, The Ballad of Lady M was born, and I have been fortunate enough to receive support to develop this work through Dance Resource Center - first as a solo in Rosanna Gamson’s Terra Nova, and more recently as a quartet through the HomeGrown Residency at UCLA/World Arts and Cultures.
To all the women who have inspired me to be a better man.
There was a moment when I thought the solo would be the end. That I had fulfilled my original vision and could move on to the next project. However, it’s this quartet version that has been the most illuminating. To be placed into a position of leadership, directing others what to do and how to use their bodies, has forced me to truly face the reality of unconscious biases when it comes to gender and sexuality. Not to say I’m any closer to unlocking the secret to gender equality, but I do feel more integrated into the societal dialogue. So while the piece won’t answer any questions, I do hope it invites further conversation.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a passion for dance.
I’ve always enjoyed being physical. I respond to challenge and pushing one’s body. I respond to the rigor associated with physical practice. I respond to touch. To physical expression. To moving to music. I respond to many of the things provided by dance.
But am I passionate about it? Eh.
What I am passionate about, is making.
Ever since I could hold a crayon I’ve been drawing pictures. As a child I made paintings, sculptures, clothing, games, and toys. As I got older I began making short stories and living room theater. When I took my first dance class, it was simply for recreation - for physical exercise - but I immediately began making dances at home. As my dance training increased in High School, as did my choreography, but I spent just as much time making home movies with friends as I did in the dance studio.
When it came time to select a major for college, dance was the natural choice. But I only applied to schools that had a Choreography emphasis. I knew I wanted to keep making. In college I made ballet dances, hip hop dances, jazz dances, theater dances. I’ve gone on to make steps for musicals, for music videos, for dance companies, for myself, for dance classes - but I also currently make graphic designs, schedules, spreadsheets, events, performances, websites, newsletters, and more.
My point is, while I have a clear passion for making - for creating - I don’t know if I excel as a maker in any particular category.
I think it comes down to one fundamental concern: I’m too easily satisfied.
I’m so satisfied making things that the product becomes irrelevant. On a scale from “I don’t really give a shit” and “extreme perfectionism,” I lie somewhere in the middle, at “yea, this is good enough.”
This might be fine if my making was a total hobby - just something for me to exercise my creative impulses. However, I am actively seeking engagement and validation for my makings. I sell tickets to my makings. In this case, is “good enough” enough?
At this point, if you’ve been actively engaged in this newsletter, you’re likely thinking:
“So I shouldn’t buy tickets to your upcoming show?”
Well, while I’m not here to tell you what you should or should not do, I would like to share with you that my upcoming production is the first time I’ve truly reinvested in an existing project. Last year, when I first presented the piece in solo form, I had audience members asking when I was going to do it again. My initial response? Oh, no, this show is done. It’s been made. It’s been seen. Moving on.
But then, almost as if possessed by an Andrew I didn’t recognize, I found myself meeting with people to get feedback. Taking notes on their critical responses and internalizing possible edits. I found myself applying to residencies to further develop the work. I suddenly had a new cast and new members of the creative team. I was learning to become unsatisfied.
More than anything, I was learning to fall in love with re-making.
Only time can tell if this remake will have a remake or if my scale will continue to inch further from “good enough” toward its way to great or fantastic or excellent.
Regardless, whether I’m making or remaking - dances or crayon art - I think each work informs the next and each project aims to be just a little bit better than the last.
Maybe I’m less satisfied than I thought.
I’ve recently started developing a new project which has me doing a lot more writing than moving. At first this felt wrong, like I was somehow not allowed to be a writer. My training is in choreography and I have identified myself as a choreographer for most of my life. I can’t just wake up one day and be a writer. I recognize the irony in this statement given that this is a written reflection, but I’m specifically referring to creative theatrical writing. The kind of writing that is a primary artistic expression for some. For instance, if a writer decided out of the blue to begin making dances, I’m sure I’d at best be skeptical, and at worst be judgmental.
I worked through a similar insecurity when I incorporated Celine Dion and lip syncing into my previous works: This isn’t how you make concert dance! The conflict reminded me of a meeting I had several years ago with one of my choreography mentors. I was sharing a new project I was interested in developing and she asked me “why does this story need to be told through dance?” I was confused. “Why not an essay, or a painting, or a film?” she specified. “But - we’re dancers,” I thought. As dancers we make dances, not write essays. It wasn’t until years later I understood: as creatives, it’s not the formwe’re serving, but the impulse. The impulse to express an idea in a way no one else possibly could. Once I gave myself permission to follow my creative instinct to write, allowing words to drive my next work, I realized writing has been a part of my creative practice for just as long as choreography. Before I began dancing, I would write short stories and fill journals with fantasy novels. Of course, I was between the ages of five and ten, so these were simply amateur hobbies. They couldn’t possibly have been real works of art. Could they? Regardless, while I’m quite comfortable behind a computer screen and crafting words to impart my ideas, I have no formal training - could I possibly be a writer?
Culturally, we’re made to believe that we should follow our (one) passion. Choose a vocation and become an expert. We’re led to believe anything outside of our chosen vocation is a hobby. You can’t possibly conflate your hobby with your profession. But I think there’s also a danger in conflating your day’s work with your life’s work. Throughout my career I’ve had a number of jobs (some related to dance, some not) that have allowed me to survive, day to day, in the infrastructure of today’s world. Sometimes these jobs have allowed me to survive more than day to day, providing some savings and security for the future. But ultimately, these jobs come and go, changing as the weather does with each new sunrise. My life’s work, on the other hand - my pursuit to better understand myself and others through creative practice - that’s the work that has remained in constant evolution.
Currently, that’s manifesting as words on a page. Understanding this provides the permissions needed to indulge the impulse. While this doesn’t quell the insecurity about the new work - the start of any creative process is always daunting - it does quell the inner conflict.
I wonder how this word play will influence my body's play.
What does the body need in order to move?
A seemingly simple question that can be difficult to answer simply. I broached this to my dance classes last week and got a handful of great but complex answers which can all ultimately be categorized into two fundamentals: Space and Energy. Without Space, movement is blocked. Without Energy, we remain stagnant. Both of these needs can be met either internally or externally. The Energy of someone else’s push can send us into movement, but only if there is Space around us. Likewise, movement generated by our own body requires us to both exert Energy as well as access Space within our joints. I like to use the mechanics of a door as imagery for this, as a door hinge functions similarly to the hinges of our joints. So, if we look at the hinge side of a door, for example, and we were to fill cement into the Space that exists between the door and the door frame, the door would be unable to move. No matter how much Energy we push into that door, it would remain still until the cement or door cracked to create Space. Likewise, without the Energy of our push, no matter how much Space we allow, the door goes nowhere (exceptions made for magic Alice in Wonderland-type doors with talking handles).
The same concept applies for our body. If I want to move my coffee cup from my hand to my mouth, I must both initiate Energy in my arm as well as have Space in my elbow to allow my forearm to travel. The thing I find most interesting about this relationship is, counterintuitively, the location in my body that requires Space must not be the location where I send Energy. If I were to engage the muscles in and around my elbow joint, my arm would lock and I would remain regrettably uncaffeinated. With our door example, it’s the difference between pushing Energy into the handle side of the door versus the hinge side of the door. A gentle push on the handle side swings the door into the frame. Inversely, a push at the hinge side will at best keep leave the door unmoved, and at worst leave us with broken or bloody fingers as I force Energy where it doesn’t belong.
In reflecting on this simple lesson on body mechanics, I realized it’s not just our physical movement that works on this principle, but also our emotional movement. Let’s take a common Los Angeles occurrence: someone just cut us off on the freeway. This is likely to illicit an unpleasant emotional response which we would want to move past. If movement is the combination of Energy and Space, we have a few options to work through this moment. We could change our external Space, sending our Energy toward changing lanes or exiting the freeway. Or, we could Energetically create an internal Space for a new emotional response like compassion (who knows what this driver is going through today) or gratitude (thankfully no one got hurt). However, if our Energy goes toward the Space that feels angered or frightened by the near collision, the displeasing emotion is likely to remain, or worse, amplify. In other words, like the body, if Space and Energy access the same point of origin, movement is either suspended or damaging.
This idea lead me to another musing: If we accept that movement is the result of Space and Energy working together but apart, could we then apply this to the movement of our life’s trajectory? For example, if an individual wants a promotion at work, they would need the Space in their life and mind to grow into the new position along with the Energy that goes into making themselves qualified, noticed, and deserving. If both Energy and Space go into his or her personal life or stay trapped in his or her own mind, the work won’t get done. If both Energy and Space go into the work, the movement into the new position will be stalled or uncomfortable. Another example could be someone who wants to see movement in their love life. If our Space and Energy coincide in the establishing of a life in which a lover could exist, the lover remains hypothetical. If our Space and Energy coincide in the revolving around a new lover, well, I think most of us have witnessed (or experienced) this result before. But if we have Space in our life and give Energy to our love, or a Space for love and Energy toward meeting people, now we’ve found balance.
When I run into challenge in a dance class or choreography, I pause to ask myself Where do I want to send Energy? Where do I need Space? Two separate questions with two separate answers. What if we were to apply this approach to our lives? Maybe, the next time we notice an opening of Space in our life, rather than rushing to fill that Space, we can ask ourselves where else our Energy might be best utilized. Maybe, the next time we’re feeling stuck, rather than sending Energy into this blockage, we could ask ourselves where our life seeks more Space.
In reflecting on my one night only performance event presented last week, the most concise summation of the evening is that it was a success. There were of course things that could have gone better. Details that slipped through the cracks or ideas that were axed due to the nature of time. Yet if I were to bullet point my main goals for the production, every one was met, and some exceeded expectation. I reflect on this not as a “humble brag” or “tooting of my own horn,” but to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with having the power and means to achieve ambitious goals.
I cannot take full credit for this success. So many hands and minds touched the work on its path toward presentation. The support I’ve been fortunate to receive financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually is not lost on me. I understand to have the freedom to pursue creative goals, with full abandon, and to have those goals be met with nothing but support is an immense and uncommon privilege. I also understand that I now have a strong track record of setting an intention and seeing it through to fruition. It’s exciting and energizing, but also daunting.
How do I take this knowledge, along with my long check list of privileges, to best serve? What’s the balance between service to my community and service to myself? Where do my abilities, experience and knowledge intersect with an expression the world needs? Though lofty and potentially unanswerable, these are some of the questions that fuel my current artistic investigations. While I’m sure at times I will miss the mark, or even offensively misbalance the values I claim to uphold, I believe to not integrate these questions wholeheartedly into my pursuits would be hugely and unforgivably irresponsible.
Over the course of the past month, I have attended an intensive workshop with theater-makers from all over the country; I have attended the annual DanceUSA Conference to discuss the state of dance in our nation with professionals on both the artistic and business side of dance; and I have participated in an international dance festival with performers from over 15 countries, representing nearly every continent. It would be impossible to distill these experiences into one a page-long reflection, however a few common questions continually surfaced: How do we view dance? How do we get others to view dance? And, how do we increase dance viewership in general?
On my last night in Poland, this conversation sparked an even more fundamental query:
Is the viewing of dance important?
[Important, noun, of great significance or value, likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.]
Based on this definition, I could potentially find arguments for the value of entertainment (in regard to particular styles of dance such as Broadway or music video) or for the witnessing of physical virtuosity and pushing the limits of the human body (as with Ballet or breakdancing), so for the sake of this reflection I’d like to specifically consider the importance of spectatorship when it comes to contemporary concert dance.
For me, as a maker of dance, seeing the work of others is absolutely crucial to determine where my own work falls within the context of today’s artistic landscape and to be inspired (or repelled) by the practices of like-minded artists. More so, one could argue, it is the contemporary choreographers that are actively researching and propelling the art form forward and the sharing of this evolution should be of value and interest, especially to those closely linked with the dance community. However, dancers making dances for other dancers is not a very sustainable model and completely disregards the role of dance within a larger ecosystem. So, again, is it important for contemporary dance to be seen by a broad audience?
For my fellow creators, let’s go through a little thought experiment by asking ourselves honestly: Why do people need to see my work? If the answer is “because it’s enjoyable!” we risk the criticism of academics, cultural elites, and other dance “gate-keepers” who potentially have the power to end our careers before they’ve even started. If the answer is “because it will make audiences feel something or think something new” we must then follow up by asking: is dance the only possible way to share these perspectives? (Writing a blog would sure as hell be way less time and money). If the answer is “because without an audience the dance doesn’t exist” well, then, should it?
As I am now in the process of developing a new show (and will very shortly begin the push for ticket sales), going through this thought experiment myself was a hard pill to swallow. But there’s one other definition of “important” that I’ve come across, specifically in regard to an artistic work:
[Important, noun, significantly original or influential.]
As with artwork itself, this is a much more subjective definition. What does it mean to influence and who are we trying to influence? It is these questions that will start to give us the framework with which to assess our work, and the future of our work. I think if we interrogate our choreography with a desire to create influential work of significance for a specified audience (which ideally extends beyond just our colleagues) we’re more likely to produce richer, more thoughtful contributions to the contemporary dance landscape (and maybe not have to work so hard to get butts in the seats). Of course, this “solution” takes no consideration for problems surrounding accessibility (whether that be financial or locational), so I don’t intend to suggest it’s as simple as "just define your audience". What I am suggesting, however, is that the formula for a symbiotic audience-to-artist relationship might start with identifying the meeting point of two respective definitions of “important”: That of the artist, and that of the hearts, minds, and souls of a population in need.
I feel like I'm in creative purgatory. I have just fully realized the fruits of my last choreographic labor by being presented by a theater in another city. It was fulfilling, enlightening, exhausting, rewarding, frustrating, fun, and challenging all at the same time. Now, my mind fills with new ideas for even more expansive works, both energizing and daunting. I'm at a point where I want to continue producing, continue finding that high of showcasing the birth of a new creation, yet have a very real understanding of what that will take. I feel the urgency of remaining "relevant" paired with the need to crawl into a hole until the next work tells me it's ready to see the sun. I feel the persistent scratching of my creative impulses against a paralysis stemming from a desire for comfort and ease. The kind of comfort and ease directly challenged by the creative process. Even writing this reflection today feels like a burden.
Which is exactly why I've forced myself to sit down and do it. Part of me feels this unnecessary or inadequate as I don't have much to say or reflect on in the moment. But I recognize the power of diligence and I've witnessed the benefits of this kind of fortitude, so I write this as a promise to myself to keep doing the work. The work of getting into the studio, even when the bed is so much more appealing. The work of prioritizing creation, even amongst the balancing of bills and relationships and other adulting. The work of remembering and recognizing while relaxation and recharging are an important part of the balance, for me, there is no greater self-care than that of making art.
So even if my next piece is years in the making, today I celebrate the success of simply showing up.