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~ Choose your Battles ~

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The other day, I got a bad review.

I was having a lovely lunch and catch-up with my friend/colleague, when she suddenly looked very serious and leaned in. Instantly my heart pounded harder, though I had no idea what she was about to say.

Apparently, a dancer whom I had “worked with” before (let’s call him Pepper), said that he “didn’t get anything out of that experience.” Ouch.

A few years ago, a dancer (let’s call him Salt), asked me to give him some feedback for a solo he was doing for an audition. Though always flattered to be asked, I find these types of requests tricky, primarily because of the timing. Usually, I work with dance artists throughout their entire creative process, as an advisor to the choreographer and or dancer(s). I try to provide an informed and objective perspective, which ideally encourages more clarity and propels the work forward. There’s much more to it, but that’s the gist.

So, when dancers ask me to come in to see a work that is already created and about to be presented, I need to be clear on what they really want from me. Because I’m not going to address the same things in a one-off rehearsal as I would in a series of rehearsals, over a longer period. So, we chat, and I try to be frank about what I think I can realistically offer, which in this particular 90-minute rehearsal, might be in the way of performing, staging and costume considerations. Salt was game.

At some point before our rehearsal, Salt mentioned that Pepper was also going to the same audition, and would I mind looking at his solo too? Since we already had limited time, I was surprised that Salt was willing to share it (thought that speaks volumes about him), especially considering Salt approached me, booked the rehearsal studio and, as far as I know, was paying for it and for me. But, I agreed.

Long story short, I’m not surprised by Pepper’s assessment, and what a shame that Salt didn’t get all my time and attention. Salt was extremely open, considerate and responsive to my questions and suggestions. This is the reason why I agreed to work with him in the first place. Pepper, on the other hand was, how should I put this, the OPPOSITE. I always encourage dancers to have a voice, to question, even to challenge, not merely for the sake of doing so, but to always be in constructive dialogue with regards to the work. I remember giving Pepper a specific note that I thought was right on the money. He even tried the solo with that suggestion in mind, and I thought it was stronger. Evidently, he didn’t. He wanted my feedback, but came into rehearsal with such a resistant attitude, that I wondered why he even bothered. There are reasons why dancers are resistant, but this was not the appropriate place or time to dissect it. So, Pepper “didn’t get anything out of that experience.” I, on the other hand, learned something about him, and about me, as it turns out.

Back at lunch, I gave my friend this background story and said, “What am I going to do? I’m sure there are other people out there saying things like this about me all the time.”

“No way!” she insisted, “they’re not!” I love her for her belief in me and for her loyalty, but it made me start to think about experiences, perspectives, reputation, rumors, etc. It also made me think about self-assessment, which let’s face it, is tough to do. It’s not easy to hear that someone is saying unpleasant things about me or had a bad impression, or to consider how my actions contributed to their assessment. I’m getting a bit better at not taking it personally or dwelling on it (cut to me now writing about it!). It’s a delicate dance, working with dance artists – negotiating egos, temperaments, inexperience, much experience, sensitive personalities, anxiety, when to push, when to back off, etc. Plus, newsflash: I’M ALSO A DANCE ARTIST!

I always say to choreographers and dancers I work with, “You have to choose your battles.” How much is anything worth in terms of time, attention, money and energy? I’m referring to the creative process, but I also employ this in my life, or at least try to, so I should expect some fallout from it.

I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether to write about this because in the dance world, we’re all sort of friends with our colleagues, we sometimes compete for the same few gigs, we want to have good reputations so that we can get more work, and we’re all sensitive as fuck. But it’s important to remind ourselves that the things we do and say have impact, we’re usually not the only person in the room and sometimes, despite our sincere efforts, we may get bad reviews.

Onward.

~ “Movement never lies.” ~ Martha Graham

Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover … The instant she turned, smiled and waved … she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.

And so begins Milan Kundera’s Immortality. A woman named Agnes and the impact of her gesture. I’ve always loved the word “gesture.” There’s a kind of elegance in the way it sounds and in the way it’s described, like this particularly poignant version: The thing to remember about gesture, whether you’re using it as a verb or a noun, is that not only is it a movement of the hands or body, but it’s also a movement that has some meaning, intention or emotion behind it. When you use gesture, you are entering into a whole history of human communication, because there is no language that exists entirely without gesture. People can’t communicate without gesture. It’s so connected to intention that there is a phrase “empty gesture,” used to mean an action or movement that is without genuine feeling.

My long career as a dance artist has revolved around gesture and intention. The foundation of my training, performing, teaching and directing is based on expressing and recognizing authentic gesture. Are your actions expressing what you want to convey? Are your actions belying what you want to convey?

You don’t need to be a dancer to understand gesture and intention. Over the course of our lives, we’ve learned to trust our instincts, our spidey senses. For the most part, we know when we’re witnessing acts of kindness or assholy-ness, when we’re buying something or calling bullshit. Of course, being wonderfully complex people, our perceptions are coloured by everything that makes us us. Our environment, age, sex, where we have/haven’t been, who we do/don’t interact with etc., all influence how we interpret and absorb gestures and intentions. But I’d like to believe, from a purely people-are-more-good-than-bad standpoint, we’re often on the same page.

Years ago, I saw a video of a young Japanese girl (she was around 3 years-old), trying to cross two concrete steps separated by a gap. Her older brother (around 5 years-old) had already crossed and was reaching out to help her. So afraid was his sister that he lay down, creating a bridge with his body, on which his sister crawled across. And… bawl! Brother, love, protection, sister. This little boy’s spontaneous gesture broke my heart.

Most of us would watch this video and be moved, to varying degrees perhaps, but in my mind, there’s simply no other way to respond. We witness all kinds of gestures each day. And, though they may not be quite as dramatic as this one, I think we learn a lot about people from these seemingly benign gestures, these momentary glimpses into their soul. Alright, now I’m being dramatic. But then again, not really. I mean, sometimes you get a pretty good snapshot of someone from a simple gesture. Like the gal who didn’t hold the elevator door open, knowing you were almost there; the guy who gave you his seat on the bus; the momentary eye contact and smile with a neighbor in the hallway, etc. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been that gal in the elevator before. I’m not proud of it and I certainly don’t make a habit of it, but I’m sure the person I didn’t wait for thought I was an asshole. And I mean who are we kidding? I totally was! I like to think that somewhere in the Karmic universe, my good gestures override my bad. That in the end, I’m more often a good person with good intentions. But I have bad moments, we all do. The good news is, we get plenty of chances to try again, to be better.

One of my favourite quotes, and one I’ve mentioned before in my blog, is by Maya Angelou: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Now, in the case of a negative first impression, I’m usually willing to give a person more than one chance to show me they’re better than that. But if a person continually shows a deficiency in their character, an absence of decency and empathy, then my ongoing engagement with them is just fucking stupid.

It may come as a surprise to some that at age 49, in 2017, in my beloved Toronto Canada, where I was born and raised, I still encounter racism. An ignorant or outright racist remark now and again always comes out of nowhere, like a sucker punch, and lands squarely on my heart. Yes folks, this happens.

Considering the escalating volatility in the world, and unimaginable displays of arrogance, deception and cruelty, I can’t help thinking, “Have we completely lost our fucking minds?! Is this really who we are? Is this really who we want to be?” Like our reaction to the Japanese brother and sister, how can we NOT be on the same page about this shit show?!

Some days, I’m completely  overwhelmed by all the noise and despicable gestures that show humanity at its very worst. It’s caused me to take a good look at myself, how I am in the world, how I want to be. My gestures and intentions matter, and so do yours.

We can all do better.

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