In recent passing conversations with fellow dancers, teachers, choreographers and performers there seems to be an agreement that the Bay Area contemporary dance scene is currently experiencing a transition of sorts. While there is often a vague understanding around what it means for something or someone to be in transition, it seems as of late that a lot of dance artists are using transition as a euphemism for difficult and uncertain times. It’s impossible to speak for the entire dance community at large (a community, like any, that is perpetually hard to define). I’m simply saying that I know a lot of contemporary dance artists who are struggling. They are struggling to figure out ways to make dance more financially sustainable and they are feeling underwhelmed at the number of opportunities that excite and engage them.
Perhaps this isn’t anything new. Every generation of dance artists (and artists in general) have come up against their own set of struggles. Regardless, when exterior situations become difficult—when opportunities or funding feel sparse or rejection starts to feel like the norm—it’s all too common for an inner critic to interject, “Why am I even doing this? Is it really worth the struggle?” I’d argue that questioning (even from a place of doubt) can be a form of investigation that often leads to discovery. More importantly though, I’d argue that the moment in which you doubt everything—the moment in which you become fully aware of the potential futility and uncertainty of your endeavors—is the moment in which you are the most free to create. In embracing the struggle—in fully accepting that things may not be in your favor and deciding to continue despite that awareness—you become stronger than the struggle.
I’m not trying to glorify or romanticize hardship. I’m saying that you don’t need to wait for inspiration or external encouragement and validation to make meaningful work. Struggling doesn’t have to be the end. Struggling can be a catalyst. Doubt can be a means of opening up new paths of inquiry. Being lost is OK. I’m a firm believer that undiluted potential lurks in the darkest voids.
Merce Cunningham is famously quoted as saying, “You have to really love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” In that sense, if dancing makes you feel alive, even if only for a second, it’s wildly worthwhile.
In thinking about the struggles dance artists face and the reasons—despite the odds—to keep going, I reached out to a variety of Bay Area dance artists about what inspires them to do what they do. I didn’t set out with a specific stylistic or aesthetic range in mind in terms of the artists I wanted to hear from. The ones I included in the article were simply the ones that wanted to participate.
Below you’ll find their thoughtful responses.
When the odds feel stacked against you or you feel artistically
stuck what keeps you going?
Erik Wagner, Founding Director of Crawl Space, Performer, Teacher: Fear.
Monique Jenkinson, Dancer, Choreographer, Artist: My friends and mentors keep me going. I have a really great network of friends who believe in my work and truly wish me the best, and that is incredibly valuable. Reminding myself that everyone—regardless of how successful they appear – feels stuck sometimes [keeps me going]. My artistic practice keeps me going too: you have to keep going when there is always something else coming up around the corner—although I am currently in a moment of transition in which I am laying groundwork, and that is always a scary place to be, because I really thrive on the instant gratification of an audience. I also have a file in which I have saved all of the kind words I have received in post-show emails, etc. I try to remember to read that when I really feel like I am hitting a wall.
Chinchin Hsu, Dancer with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company: Structure and self-discipline. There have been times that I felt hopeless about dance opportunities and worried about making rent for the next month, factors that can easily shut me down and fade me away from dance. I’ve learned to build my own structure when there’s none given to me, making up a daily schedule that keeps my body and brain active. Through structure, I gain strength, awareness and positive motivation.
Christine Bonansea, Performance Artist, Teacher, Choreographer: While I’m always looking forward to new opportunities to create and perform art, my biggest challenges are often to find the resources to fund new pieces. I’ve written a trilogy -FLOATERS- for about one year that I haven’t been able to complete yet. Thus, I’ve divided the piece and toured the first part as a solo, internationally since 2013…By responding to reality and adapting myself to the conditions at hand, I find new ways to develop my voice.
James Graham, Founding Director of James Graham Dance Theater, Dancer, Choreographer, Teacher: When the odds feel stacked against me, it’s usually me getting in my own way. When I notice my own narrative (the voice in my head) saying something that does not serve me I try to 1) recognize or acknowledge it, 2) realize it does not serve me, is not helping anything, 3) think about things that do serve me…things I want. What do I like about myself, my career, my dancing, my life, etc.? and 4) stay active and social. The more classes, park dates, concerts, plays, shows, I take part in, the less likely I am to feel that anything is stacked against me.
Staying true to and centered on myself is the best advice. I try not to compare myself to other artists. There is enough to go around. When I feel stuck artistically, I give myself room to think, to breath, to consider, to feel, to converse with other artists or friends. I also tend to gravitate towards other media…I read books, I watch films, I go see a play; by getting out of the dance mindset I actually clarify my choreographic decisions.
Katie Faulkner, Artistic Director of little seismic dance company, Dancer, Choreographer, Teacher: I find that just continuing on, treating choreography or class planning like a craft that needs continual refining, allows things to occur to me because I am elbow deep in the materials themselves, not because some grand internal process (or divine intervention!) has occurred outside the studio that prompts me to enter it in the first place. This means I am often uncomfortable, but the discomfort becomes a familiar barometer in its own way. I take it to mean I am pushing some edge, even if it’s merely the edge of my own frustration or fatigue. I take it to mean that I am really trying. And more often than not, through this trying, testing, practicing, and playing, I discover something I hadn’t quite noticed before. It is arrived at as painstakingly or as thunderously as an archeological dig. It is an unearthing that happens because I am actively digging, not because I am waiting to be told where to break ground.
What inspires you to do what you do?
EW: I process my life through my work, so in essence, my life inspires me. It’s much cheaper than a therapist. As a teacher, it is all about the dancers and sharing valuable information.
MJ: I get inspiration for everything that I do from a multitude of sources. As an artist it is really important to me to be out in the world seeing all kinds of art and culture—not just Dance. Right now I am listening to a lot of podcasts.
CH: Since graduating from college, I have learned the best way to gain knowledge is to talk to people and dance with people. Every person is a living-walking book with stories to share. In this art-oriented city of San Francisco, most people I have met are self-driven with creative minds. Interacting with 1-year-old to 80-year-old human beings from different races and cultures, in my life circle, has been the biggest inspiration for me to continue to dance, to teach, and to think creatively. This always encourages me to keep marching forward and reminds me that life and art are very much intertwined with the everyday.
CB: Artistic collaborations along with the diversity of my experiences within the performing art scene nourish my choreographic work. In addition to my involvement in the dance community, my encounters with the Bay Area music scene have been a fruitful source of inspiration for these past years…Looking at different models for creation reinforces my passion and certitude that I will always keep making creative work. Even though financial support and resources can be sometimes problematic, the essence of my passion and motivation stays intact.
JG: As a dancer, I find inspiration from fellow dancers and from choreographers who take me out of my comfort level. When I was in rehearsal a couple weeks ago I was watching a dancer friend improvising with a sound-based score and had this “meta” awareness…I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this is what I do. I can’t believe I get paid to witness this.” As a teacher, I find inspiration in the people (dancers or not) who find pleasure in moving their bodies, who wake up or remember pathways they had forgotten. As a choreographer, I find inspiration in the study of people. I can spend hours watching the world go by. I’m fascinated by little moments. Odd, strange, bizarre, or normal behaviors that go mostly unnoticed are breathtaking to me. The behaviors, posturing, actions, gestures, quirks, etc. I see in people as they relate to each other are an endless source of fodder for the beginnings of my work. We’re messy, us humans, I want to use that mess.
KF: On rare occasions I have been lucky enough to be inspired. I mean truly, deeply inspired by some wild moving force that lifts me of its own steam and steers me to new (to me) creative horizons. But I have to say, most of the time that is not the case. Much of the time I get faint glimmers of an idea that could come from a photo, or an overheard conversation, or a piece of music, or a bad joke, or a show I saw, or a poem I read. But more often than that, especially as my career stretches on, I don’t even have that. I just have a deadline, or a class I have to teach, or a room full of dancers staring at me, and I just try to get to work. I carry two things with me in these instances: One is Chuck Close who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work” and two, Anne Bogart who instructs aspiring directors reading her book, A Director Prepares, to, even when you have no ideas and your heart is racing with panic, to start walking toward the actors and just start talking, something will come out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that.