Structures with Missing Pieces

NOTE: It’s been awhile since my last post. I think I’ve fallen off the weekly blogging track, and now will be writing whenever I can or whenever something seems to call out to be shared.

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As I journey along my path of artistic and spiritual development, I more and more often have the experience of encountering some idea about art-making that either is no longer relevant for me, or never really was. I have so many outdated ideas about what I’m “supposed” to do as a choreographer/director. Some of these ideas might be very appropriate for others, but I want to let them go if they’re not resonating at a deep level for me.

A major idea that I’m letting go of is that of the choreographer/director as someone who knows where a piece is headed and knows what it should look/sound/feel like. I know many choreographers and directors who are very good at planning, and are able to see fully formed visions of sections of or even complete works. This is not a skill set I have.

I get an intuitive “hit” on a direction we might go in, but it’s usually very blurry and fleeting. What I seem to be interested in and skilled at is creating malleable structures and containers for performers to inhabit that have many holes and missing pieces. And it is in these holes and missing pieces that I encourage the performers to discover some truth to fill in with.

And my experience is that the truths that we find collaboratively, are never fixed in space or time, but rather need to grow and evolve every time they are encountered.

As much as I would like to know what something needs to look/sound/feel like for any particular moment in a piece, I don’t. I only can be as present as possible, and listen to my intuition. I have a felt sense of what “works” and what “doesn’t work.” This is of course completely subjective. But I like to think that the clearer I get in my own sensory systems, the more I am able to intuit performance moments that feel true to more people, more consistently.

No one moment, no matter how grand, seems to work completely every single time it is performed. There’s always an exhilarating risk of each moment falling flat or taking flight. This risk creates a tension that nourishes me as an artist and art witness.

I am unable to answer most of the questions that performers ask me when I’m directing and choreographing. I can only say when a choice they make “feels right” or not. I don’t want performers preoccupying themselves with wondering what I’m gonna think about something. I don’t know any more than they do most of the time. I’d rather performers focus on what feels true, at as deep a level as possible.

And then, we might agree, or we might disagree about any one choice, and then the arguing is part of the clarifying process. None of us in the ensemble hold complete answers. All we can do is grope along in the dark, put our pieces together and discover our way, moment by moment.

I like the image of directing as similar to Zen Buddhist Koan practice. My understanding of Koan practice is that the teacher gives a student a seemingly unanswerable question. The student lives with that questions, mulls it over, chews it up, spits it out, ingests it again, wrestles with it, and then after some time, comes back with a response. There is no right or wrong response to be found, so what the teacher looks for in a student’s “answer” is a sense of authentic engagement. If it feels authentic and alive, the student is allowed to move on to the next one. If it feels thought-out, not embodied or somehow faked, the student is sent back into intimate relationship with that same koan.

I want my pieces to be like koans. I want to offer the performers unanswerable questions and assignments to wrestle with, and then be a sounding board for their responses. I want to discover the truth at the same moment with the performers, and struggle alongside each other when things aren’t revealing themselves.

And then I want us all to offer structures and containers to the audiences that have no inherent answers. I want to create environments for witnesses of performance to fill in the holes and missing pieces with their own truths.

And I want to be able to sense together, with as many people in the room as possible, (audience, performers, tech crew and more) when we hit upon a moment of truth. It’s like we’re mining as a team and suddenly drill into something.

I can never know what exactly that moment of truth will be like. We might have choreography, text, staging, compositions and the like pre-planned. But in order to use them as effective tools for mining, we have to inhabit them every time with our full presence, and our full capacity for not-knowing.

It’s that “Don’t-know-mind” that makes performance a living, breathing, changing vehicle for awakening, embodying and connecting.

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