The second New Dance Horizons showcase is less than a week away from hitting the stage. As a company member with Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company, it’s been over a month since our residency with guest choreographer Uri Sands from TU Dance in Minneapolis. We’ve been rehearsing the piece he created for us and looking forward to his return this Monday for the beginning of tech week where he will see how we’ve done without his watchful eye, check the costumes, lighting, and make any necessary changes. The detail in this normal process that I’m tempted to ignore is the likely factor that he, in his professional and demanding way, will probably run us, or at least me, into the ground before the happy moment of performance.If tech week is anything like the residency, I’m prepared for a strenuous few days. At least I’m prepared this time around.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a little rush out of an audition- it’s the closest thing to combat or competition that I ever hope to have in my life, with all of the adrenaline, pressure, and challenge of each single moment. There was an excited and nervous energy amongst the dancers as Uri arrived. In he walked, a stunning physical presence where you could just tell he was and or is an incredible dancer in his own right. Our artistic director, Jen, went around the circle of dancers, telling him our first names and in my case, ‘This is Jess, she’s our ballet convert’. He kind of pointed at me and said, ‘I know you don’t I?’ which he doesn’t, but I felt for a minute, flattered and hopeful that perhaps I had a ‘look’ that he had liked in dancers before, that might make him pay a little extra attention.
Our piece is sponsored by a pharmaceutical college and they had suggested the life of Henrietta Lacks as a possible topic for Uri’s creation. Before he arrived, we were asked to read the best-selling ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot . For those who haven’t read it or heard of her, Henrietta lacks was a poor African American woman who died in the 1950’s from ovarian cancer. The doctors took tissue samples and found that her cells were amazingly resilient, and were able to withstand tests and processes that kill most isolated cells. Because of this, her cells could be duplicated and used in testing facilities and labs all over the world. These immortal ‘HeLa’ cells are largely responsible for finding a polio cure, and successful treatments for cancer, among many other diseases. They took her samples without even informing, let alone compensating her husband or children. Reading the book is really where the process started.
Before Uri’s arrival, I had nightmares about what the piece would be. I was afraid that it would be all about cancer and because my Grandmother died from ovarian cancer just over a year ago,my father from mesothilioma I was afraid that the rehearsal process would involve a lot of revisiting of those concepts and I was terrified that I might become upset and cry during rehearsal. I didn’t want to embarrass myself or my company nor did I want to think about that al day long. Did you notice that I didn’t even type the word’ died’ after mentioning my Dad? Someone still has a lot of acceptance to work on. It’s one reason I keep going back to dance, where I am most in touch with myself.
We started our dancing process with Uri with very simple improvisation. He gave us an image of moving heavy expansive wings our from our shoulder blades. I would guess almost half an hour was given over to just beginning to inhabit this kind of thought and quality, without music. To me, it felt beautiful and explorative, but also, my shoulders were burning by the time he said, ok now let’s learn this phrase’.
So that’s how it started and I couldn’t even give a detailed account of the next few hours on that first day. To sum it up, we learned about three phrases of roughly 32 counts without music. Uri’s choreography assistant, a dancer in his company named Katelyn, mostly count-sang some beats. While the movement demanded the strength and technical mastery of ballet, it was not like anything that I have done before. There was a lot of falling to the ground, sliding, propping yourself up using arm strength, getting up from the ground without using your hands and going right into some crazy turn, contraction, shaking, and running running running. I would say that anatomically, I was at a big disadvantage with really long legs, stubby weak arms, and not much of an Achilles or a contraction. I think a more compact body would have an easier time with this type of movement. I was also just extremely out of my element. I’m used to being a balletic presence, to floating or hovering- I’m not that good at dancing with an aggressive style, dropped weight, and a lot of the vocabulary was just foreign to me. And I felt like I was the only one.
I can’t think of a time in my life when I’ve left an audition or introduction to a choreographer more downtrodden. I knew that I wasn’t doing a good job. I knew that I was usually the last one to get off the floor, that my shapes weren’t right, that the flaws in my basic technique and lack of real core strength, were showing in a way that I could usually sort-of fake my way through in other choreography. There was no room for faking in these phrases that we were doing over and over and over, that I felt like I was killing myself to get right, and that I was still, the worst one. Gone were the thoughts that I might be noticed as something special, I just didn’t want to be that one that stood out for all the wrong reasons. And I knew that I was. I left knowing that he might not want to use me at all.
It would be easy to say, well this isn’t my style or my thing, but I want to be a versatile dancer. And I want real strength that translates from ballet to contemporary to whatever it is a choreographer asks of me. There were a few specific moves, a roll or a spring from the ground that I dreaded every time we had to do them. I remember saying to myself, ‘it’s just a roll, Jess. Stop being a baby and just do it. Don’t think, just do it’. And I would give all of my might to do it on time, with the right intention, and I still just couldn’t.
That was the most frustrating part. Even though I have not personally performed this style, I am a pretty smart girl and I’ve seen a lot of dance. Uri would sometimes give a specifc correction, ‘the arms arrive before the leg’ but mostly it seemed he wanted us to have a cohesive feeling ,’more sweeping!’ that we in our separate states, didn’t have. I think it would be true to say we all faced challenges within this experience. Everyone was giving so much energy, and so much effort but it wasn’t quite lining up. I could understand perfectly what he was after and I could not get my body to do it. I remember leaving that, and many rehearsals, feeling like I was at the limit of my ability, and that maybe I just shouldn’t be a dancer anymore if I wasn’t any good.
This feeling stuck with me for the entire first week, hours and hours of rehearsing phrases withut music, almost no breaks, no marking, and probably the worst cuts my feet have endured since the infected-blisters-turned-blood-poisoning of Lousiville Ballet. This was also the last real hurrah of 95 degree St. Louis weather so the studio was really hot. I’m trying to paint a picture for you here- think physical boot camp- pain, sweating, exhaustion, with the mental game of will, failure, ego, and embarrassment rolling around in your head. I almost wish that the piece was bad so that I could turn up my nose and just say, I don’t’ care for it’ as it that would make it any easier. But I can’t say that. The piece is incredible, I love it, and I wanted so badly to just be deserving of doing it. It was tempting to throw up my hands and say, I’m clearly not good at this so I’m done killing myself for something that I am not capable of doing and that feels like a knife in the heart when I am below standard..
This is pretty much how it felt for the first week. Eventually, I think everyone gets tired of so much internal grief and manages to stumble into a kind of joy and that’s what I was sort of able to do. It was still hot and hard and exhausting but we finally started using music and getting set choreography rather than working on phrases. As a group, we started to feel each other in spacing and energy. The soreness that was almost crippling the third and fourth day eased up and I could start to feel more strength in my muscles than I think I’ve ever felt before. And I just became so tired of feeling bad about myself and how below the bar even my best efforts felt, that I started expecting my best, the most energy and eagerness that I could bring to the work, and a refusal to bring it to the arena of ‘you should be’..and just to be. That is a gift and a lesson more sustainable, more valuable than even the rich new vocabulary that I’m experiencing in this work.
For a long time, I’ve felt like I’ve been on a plateau with my dance technique. It all comes down to the issue of core strength and the use of my placement, particularly in my lumbar spine. I’ve felt like I’ve been able to fake through most of what has been asked of me in the past ten years of dancing, and if I wasn’t able to fake it, someone else got the part or a choreographer changed the step, which is really a lose-lose situation all around. This is the first time that I can think of where I really struggled with the actual dancing and it was not an option to change the steps. The only option was that we would do it. And we would rehearse until it was there, or as Uri loved to say, ‘almost there’.
I have experienced a real physical change since working with Uri in a way that I think has and will benefit the things I already think I’m pretty good at, and those things that I had never tried. On his last day with us, we had a wonderful sit-down as a group where he and Katelyn talked with us about their careers, thoughts on art, and advice for us. The two things that I took most to heart from that talk was Uri’s advice, ‘have less fear’ and the idea that we are constantly learning, and relearning what we thought we knew. Everyone comes in and starts the day with plies. It never really stops, until you just get tired of walking down that same road, looking for the new perspectives and challenges.
It’s funny how backwards something can be; you hope for this amazing experience of being a star and praise and how fulfilling that will be as an artist and for your ego. Instead, I felt doubt and shame but in the process of continuing to go back for more and keep giving my best, I think I’ve grown exponentially more as a person and an artist and have a strange sense of pride from not giving up. I felt like I walked to the edge of what I could mentally and physically take at that time and now I feel like I have a greater threshold for what I’m capable of dancing, of handling as a professional. I would have loved for any guest, but especially someone that I so respect and admire like Uri to arrice, ask some dancing of me, and to have been able to deliver, no questions asked. That unfortunately was not where I was when he first came. I won’t take the time to be angry or put blame on anyone or myself. I won’t give myself any excuses. We all want to be the artist that is capable of doing anything, but if I’m not, at least I’m the person that takes a challenge as an opportunity to get better without letting negativity ruin the experience. Before he left, I thanked Uri and told him how grateful I was for the experience to work so hard at something that I love. He said that he could see me working, and that there was more in there, and not to doubt. Working with him was a bit like being a moth hit by a truck, a artistic, demanding, incredibly professional yet passionate…truck (terrible analogy) getting stuck to the dashboard, where it feels too fast and frightening and you might for awhile want to get off and go back to your comfort zone. But if you stick it you find our footing, enjoy the ride, find you can fly.
I am off the plateau, I’m on the ledge looking down.
I’m going in to this week without fear. It all starts tomorrow. It’s almost here and I think Uri was right about me, I’m almost there.
Thank you for sticking it out with me- through this read, through this ride. Please join me for the fruition of the process in the theatre. Xo-jess