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.

Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation at the NYPL>

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.