A Beautiful Container

Apr 23, 2020

These days you might be experiencing much the same as so many of us, and finding yourself cleaning drawers, pulling shoeboxes out from under the bed,  pouring over old photographs, or, like me right now, reading over old journals and notes from teaching and writing.  Forgive me for using this space as a place to organize thoughts, or to try things out. Here is something I found after returning from Japan in 2015 after performing in the anniversary festival in Toga Mura with the SCOT Company.

It begins: I had a revelation. 

The revelation, in my case, was just suddenly feeling something that one could say one already knew. There is that feeling, Yes, that’s right, but I really already knew that. I didn’t think it, but I knew it. You can know, or the body can know something that hadn’t yet been thought of. Thinking is something that follows. Thinking is in the past. Thinking of something is certainly not a revelation wouldn’t you agree? How long did I know that, one wonders? 

This all might sound high-falutin’ as they say, but it does pertain to what follows. 

When I really think about it, and about the actors/performers I’ve known and admired, or not known but still admired, I realize there is something about them that they seem to have in common. These extraordinary artists, at the peak of their game have, or contain, or are aware of their own deep sadness. At the same time, they are in an absolute state of joy. What can I mean by such a contradiction? What is this sadness? What it is not is a despair inherited from an unhappy childhood, or an abusive relationship. This sadness is an acceptance and understanding – maybe better to say, seeing what life is and how it works. This is a recognition (possibly a better word) that Time is passing. Deborah Hay, who continues to deeply inspire me since working together many years ago,  found out late in her choreographic game, and began to add to her instruction to the performer as they were working that, “If we are honest, we have to acknowledge that Time is passing.” It sounds so simple and ordinary. Of course Time is passing. But in terms of a performance (and in life), taking into account that Time is passing is an enormously emotional event. It is a recognition of what is really happening to everyone in the room. It is the recognition that in each moment one has to let the moment go in order to get on to the next moment. You cannot hold on. But also recognizing that in order to let a moment go, one must actually have the moment first in order to be able to let it go. That is a profound insight – for me it was a revelation – and one that also inspires compassion and empathy.

Now, one – those who have never seen a live performance nor walked into an art gallery or attended a live music event – could dismiss this notion of sadness as a cliche about artists being sad and having to suffer for their art etc. – those tired old tropes about self obsessed artists who are just narcissistic. No. This is a sadness born of dissatisfaction. In fact, this dissatisfaction is necessary in art practice. This is the choreographer Martha Graham’s consoling admonition to Agnes de Mille that No artist is pleased, and that, there is “no satisfaction whatever at any time.  There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction. A blessed unrest that keeps us marching ….” Or as my friend Anne likes to say, a “healthy mistrust ” of what one is doing. There is a rigor in this. There is a taking of responsibility at every moment, and a recognition that “Time is passing.” It is not dark, nor is it nihilistic. It is a realistic knowing that each moment arises, changes, and is gone. There is release and relief in this knowing. One is free to actually have the moment, and then free to let it go. 

And then there is a second thing that sits beside the sadness. There is an absolute joy – or thrill in the doing. There is a joy in building precisely the moment one imagines – a body to contain the sadness or dissatisfaction. There is a rigor, a precision, a responsibility to be as articulate as one can  be in every moment. This is the craftsman’s precision. One can see or feel in the moment of watching that one can see the thinking in the body of the performer. One can see or feel the intent, the thinking, the attitude toward the doing, and the ownership in the moment, then to watch her let that moment go and show you the next. The thinking is clear and precise and filled with intention. This is the attitude of working as Deborah Hay guides a dancer with the prompt, “ready, fire, aim.” This is the intention of working in a way that SITI company members often remind each other, especially when one is feeling blocked, which is to “go before you’re ready.” And then one sculpts the moment as it is happening in order to let it go and start again. 

I remember having a similar feeling of revelation in 2015 while working with Tadashi Suzuki in his production of Lear. He reminded actors both in rehearsal and in the training that what is often missing in an actors’ performance  (especially in the naturalistic forms in the west) is the thrill of being in performance. It is an acknowledgement that even as one is playing a Lear, or a Regan, or any tragic or flawed or vulnerable character, and building the container for all the situations arising for the text, what is also true is that there is an actor thrilling personally to the act of the performance. This way of working gives a kind of freedom to the actor, an honesty in the moment acknowledging that Time is passing – for the performer and for the audience – and providing  thereby a more three-dimensional depth to the experience altogether.

I think too of Mary Overlie as she writes about the viewpoint of Time. She suggests that Time is most closely related to the nervous system. It is therefore very fast, and requires a depth of presence and rigor and concentration, and as such is most emotional for her. Acknowledging Time requires sure, stable feet and a lightness of touch. There is no momentum pulling the past into the present. There is nothing to hold on to. And there is no time to linger. 

And so both qualities are present at the same time. The recognition that Time is passing and the existential “sadness” that brings; and the absolute joy of finding the right container for it – the exact movement of a finger, or tilt of the head, or quality of stillness. I might add, especially the quality of stillness. 

This essay is slightly disappointing from my point of view. I feel unable to articulate exactly what I have in mind – what I feel in my body. It is this dissatisfaction that keeps the typing going. It is this dissatisfaction that might turn into a joke to buy some time to get the thing right, or to digress, or some other such thing. I think of an actor speaking on stage. Why are they speaking? Or, why do they continue to speak? Because it isn’t working, right? She  has to keep going to the end of the play. Because it isn’t working! It is an attempt to be clear, to be known. It is, as Martha Graham said, what keeps us marching.

As I, like so many of you, sit in quarantined seclusion, these notes seem so immediate to the present circumstance. This recognition that Time is passing, and that so many of my teachers have pointed in that direction for so long. And that artists can recognize that Time is passing which has an enormous impact on what they do, when, and how they do it. They recognize this simple ingredient – a “divine dissatisfaction,” a beautiful sadness, an acknowledgement of what is really happening that fuels their joy. And then to find a beautiful container for it.