I like the term “practice” for describing art-making. It reminds me that there is a larger perspective from which to view my creative process, and that a finished piece or a performance, is just one small part of what is going on.
“Practice” implies that I’m getting better, or seeking to get better, and that probably there is no final destination. “Practice” gives me room to experiment, make mistakes, fumble in the dark as I work on my art; and through my art, work on myself; and through working on myself and working on my art, work to transform the world.
The practice part of experimental performance doesn’t necessarily have a form. I see my experimental performance practice as doing my best to follow a calling to make work. Sometimes the call comes through loud and clear, sometimes it’s a teeny voice across a great distance. In the following of it, I encounter everything I need to encounter, to work on in myself.
It’s very much like meditation–focusing on the object of meditation (for me it’s usually the breath,) I become aware of all the things that get in the way of that kind of concentration. I notice the thoughts, the feelings, distractions, impulses, and I get carried away by each of these in different ways. And then, I return again to my object of meditation and start over. And I start over again. And again. And again. And it’s a “practice” to keep returning like that. And slowly, over the years, I’ve gotten so I can return quicker, and more deeply, and with less effort.
In creating experimental performance, my “object of meditation” is the desire to bring forth something true and mysterious and healing and unexpected. And I get distracted from this focal point over and over. I get lost in thoughts, fears, plans, obsession with success, obsession with failure, other people’s feedback and ideas, competition, comparison, and so much more. Sometimes it takes me a long time to come back to my intention to bring forth something true, and sometimes I notice right away when I have strayed.
This desire, or intention, or calling is like a path that I travel, and along the path are all sorts of obstacles. I keep going, and the farther I go, the more the obstacles come from deeper places in me: old wounds, long-term holdings, core personality conflicts. And it is returning to my desire that guides me consciously through these obstacles. As I move through them I learn a little more, let go a little more, and deepen my courage as an artist.
Common obstacles for me are:
–Thinking the performers in my ensemble are bored or don’t like what I’m having us do.
–Comparing myself to others, particularly when something great happens for other artists around me, but not me.
–Wanting everyone to like my work.
–Wanting everyone to like me.
–Thinking I should be somehow different than I am.
–Being afraid to ask for help.
–Focusing on outward symbols of success.
–Focusing on opinions about my work, rather than the felt sense from within the work.
–Trying to hard and forgetting to trust the process
All of these are made much less of a problem when I can somehow embody my deeper intentions in art-making. And just like in meditation, over the years, I’ve gotten better at knowing when I’ve strayed from my path, and better at returning.
My teacher, Stephen Levine, encouraged us to regard our neuroses, compulsions, fears, and unwanted mind-states by saying “Big surprise!” Big surprise, here’s some fear. Big surprise, here’s shame. Big surprise, here’s (whatever’s up at the moment.) For me the idea is to not get so freaked out when my “michigas” (craziness) comes up, but to welcome it and move on. So much of what gets in the way of our progress is our resistance, rather than any particular quality or mental state or situation.
Reminding myself that this is a practice helps me to not take it so seriously, and at the same time, to engage with it in a much more meaningful way. I recently heard Alonzo King speak about his practice and it inspired me immensely. He was featured on the KQED Arts Program, “Spark,” and said:
“Dance is what I’ve chosen as a profession
and as a career. But what I’m really working on is me. As
wonderful as dance is, it’s almost the subplot, because, whatever discipline
you’re choosing, it’s gonna be the same process–of development, of difficulty,
of revelation, of dry spells…You know, we’re working on ourselves. And so,
regardless of what we say is our profession, what we’re involved in is
self-reform. The profession, if that stopped for any reason, the real work
would continue. You know, that’s what’s really happening.”
That just about sums it all up for me!