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You call that ballet?

Last year I was asked to give a brief onstage introduction to one of my choreographies. Afterwards I walked down into the audience in full view and took my seat as the lights dimmed. Seven minutes or so into my piece (at about the moment pictured here) , a man sitting right behind me exclaimed in outrage,“You call that ballet?”.

My face got hot and I worried for the rest of the piece that he’d have more to say. He didn’t, but the experience stuck with me because I was surprised by how much I had wanted to please. To please everyone.

It made me think about the relationship between artist and audience. Is it pandering if I hope people relate to my work? Many wonderful artists have been unappreciated in their lifetimes, but I don’t consider it a badge of honor to make work that annoys or offends. Nor do I want my efforts to be ignored.Who would, honestly?

In contemporary dance terms like “accessible” and “mainstream” are usually insults. But while it’s possible to work outside the mainstream as a choreographer, the need for space and dancers mean that, unless you’re independently wealthy, you need someone to take notice….audiences, dance companies, academic institutions, foundations, government bodies, people who give you dollar bills for busking... somebody.

Writers, however, can and do keep working when nobody cares about their work; so they have plenty to say on the subject.

I’ve listened recently to several “Live from the NYPL” podcasts by authors I like, and while they all emphasize the importance of the work itself over external markers of success, I’m interested in the subtle differences in their remarks.

Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, and a number of other well-received books describes an epiphany she had in her mid-twenties:

"I had this moment, this feverish moment, and I thought, “If you are a waitress for the rest of your life, and no one ever publishes you, and no one ever wants to read what you write, is that OK?” And I thought, “Absolutely, that’s OK. That’s not why you do it. You write the book you want to read.” "

I like the part about writing the book you want to read, because the only dance I know how to make is the one I want to see. When I’m working, my one true guide is my intuition, the feeling of excitement when ideas, dancers and music get rolling together, and the whole starts becoming more than sum of its parts. In the best of times, I get to sit in the audience and feel moved or surprised by a work I’ve created, without concern for its flaws.

On the other hand, here’s Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Committed”:

"I don’t love anything as much as I love this, and so there’s not a choice of quitting….. I made a very firm commitment to myself when I was 19 years old, that I would not quit trying to get published until I was dead."

The love is primary, but determination and ambition have their roles too; and specific goals like getting published or commissioned are important. They give us momentum and confidence and maybe the financial freedom to keep doing the work and getting better at it.

And lastly here’s Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild” and “Tiny, Beautiful, Things”,

"I've spent my whole, I mean my whole adult life, really working on this thing: becoming a writer, becoming the sort of writer who would find an audience. And so... I never set my sights on fame or being on the bestseller list or any of those things, because all of you in the room who are writers or artists of any sort know that that sort of external recognition is not the measure by which artists can measure their success. The way we measure success, and often for artists what looks like failure is often success, and that it takes a long time to develop that craft and to do anything as simple as write a really bad book, you know. I mean truly, it's really hard even to write a really bad book. Trust me, I know. But I think that this fame thing, it feels in some ways, thankfully, very much separate from the work I've been doing all these years as a writer. My job was to write the best book I could ever write at that moment of my life, and that's what I've done with each of my three books, and then the thing that happens to it in the world is really outside of me."

Though Strayed doesn’t go into the distinction between the two, I believe “finding an audience” is different from being a bestselling author. It’s why many of us make art: to communicate. My favorite works of art share a worldview. They allow me to see through someone else’s lens for twenty minutes, 200 pages, the length of a feature film. Of course design, craft and process interest me too, but only to the extent that they bring about better and better forms communication.

I like to imagine digging a channel through which ideas can flow (both my own ideas and those of my collaborators). And where are those ideas going? They’re not just leaving me, though that is important. They’re flowing into the world and maybe finding a few people who want to receive them.

And sometimes the flow can go the other direction. Conversations with audience members after a show are very rewarding. I love hearing from people who relate to my work and want to tell me about something they saw in it. Those conversations tell me that something has gotten through, even if not in exactly the form I had expected. (And sometimes, as with that man sitting behind me, they tell me that something didn’t get through).

And if nobody ever wanted to watch my work, if it didn’t ever resonate with anyone, would I keep making it? I don’t know.

"Live from the NYPL", Cheryl Strayed in conversation with Paul Holdengraber.

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