When I travel I work pretty hard. This is a financial necessity. I live by what I earn and covering the costs of a trip usually means squeezing as much work as possible into as short a time as practical. In Melbourne this meant a five day workshop, a two day workshop and another five day (advanced level) workshop without a day off between. This is no big deal, it’s a familiar pattern for me. This twelve day stretch was followed by two days of rehearsal and two performances of ‘Echo Chamber’.
During the advanced level workshop I went to see a doctor and was referred urgently to a specialist on the basis of what the doctor suspected. A specialist. Tests…. The spectrum of possibilities ranged from ‘it might be nothing’ t0 ‘it might be very serious indeed’. The visits to various doctors did not get in the way of me delivering the workshop. Everything went well in the studio and the final performance. Very well. We finished on a Friday night, exhausted and exhilarated. By then, I was awaiting the results of tests.
On Saturday I needed to rehearse ‘Echo Chamber’.
Tiredness mixed with fears I had been holding at arm’s length. The thought of rehearsal, the thought of performing, the thought of even going to a studio, felt unbearable to me.
I met a crisis.
I had the morning free before rehearsal so I decided to spend it paying close attention to understanding what I needed. I was ill, potentially seriously so, and have had a number of annoying health problems in recent years. Partly this is an inevitable result of getting older, especially of getting older in a body that I have driven unreasonably hard for several decades. I needed, I knew, to pay close attention to myself, my needs, the reality of my fears. It was not a good idea, as is my usual habit, simply to put my head down and push through obstructions as if I had not noticed them…..
(In case anyone reading is worried, when the results of the tests came back finally, they were good. I have little to worry about and am deeply grateful that my poor, abused and overworked body has once again served me wondrously well…… However in the gap between tests and results, (where I found myself on this particular day), there are no certainties, only fantasies and fears)
Should I cancel the performances? Should I curtail my trip and fly home early? Should I simply carry on…?
The thought of cancelling a performance appals me. I have a strong (sometimes obsessive) work ethic and believe utterly that one should get on and do ones job unless it’s not possible. Was it, on this day, impossible?
I thought first about the work ethic. Why am I so driven? I come from a precarious middle-class family. My father was a teacher, my mother a nurse. However both of them emerged from deep poverty and were never secure in the lower-middle class social circles they found themselves living. There was not poverty in the house I grew up in, but poverty was the ghost at the back of every cupboard, behind every door. I was taught that I needed to work continually to maintain a precarious existence that might, at any moment, be taken away from me. I was also taught, though God knows my parents would never have wanted to impart this lesson, that I did not belong. They never really felt they belonged in the social class they occupied. Part of my work ethic, certainly, is my attempt to maintain a position, not in the establishment or social structure (I have neither), but among the community of artists, audiences and thinkers whom I respect and spend my time with.
But if I recognise that I am driven by fears inherited from my parents, I do not need to obey those drives. That part of my work ethic can dissolve.
My thinking moved on to money. I worried that I needed the money from ticket sales for the performances, as I would surely have to pay for the venue and rehearsal spaces if I cancelled at this late stage. This is true. I have no access to funding or subsidy and so live on what I earn. But the few hundred dollars I would make from a couple of performances, in the big picture, make no difference. I do not need this particular chunk of money. That element too of the ‘need to perform’ dissolved.
Then I thought about ‘my public’. I had to smile at such pomposity. Certainly bookings for the two performances were good – both nearly sold out – but nobody would be unduly upset if I cancelled. Most of the audience were friends, colleagues, people I had worked with or taught. No one would find their lives without meaning if they had to find something else to do instead.
My thinking brought me to a simple conclusion. There were several good reasons for me not to perform (I felt too tired to perform well, I would perhaps get devastating results from tests in the hours before the show that would make it impossible to concentrate adequately to deliver a show as demanding as ‘Echo Chamber’, perhaps the succession of medical/physical problems I have encountered over the last years were my system giving me vital information that I was an idiot to ignore). Plenty of reasons NOT to perform and no reasons why I MUST perform.
So what did I want?
I decided to go to the rehearsal and listen to my system, to see if I could hear what it was telling me, because my rational, logical, analytical mind had no answer to that simple question. ‘I’ had no idea what ‘I’ wanted.
At rehearsal, working alone in a lovely, sunny dance studio, I warmed up. I felt entirely empty. Weary of body and weary of everything else as well. I was terribly distracted, quite incapable of bringing my attention onto the details of my movement and breath.
I felt I had nothing. I felt I was nothing. It was like despair, but without an emotional content. I did not ‘feel bad’. I was not ‘sad’. I was nothing and had nothing to give.
After about twenty minutes, I tried to remember some of the physical actions of the show. Nothing. It’s not that I could not remember, the actions were easy to recall but they felt meaningless, pointless. My actions were as empty and void as I, their originator.
There was no pleasure to be found. No meaning. “I” was not in, or of, my body. “I” did not exist.
If I did not exist, I could not perform.
I decided to cancel the shows.
As I had three hours of studio time (that I had paid for) stretching in front of me, I decided to spend just a little time moving, improvising, paying attention to my body to see how it had survived the workshops and the inevitable stresses that emerge from medical procedures. I put on music and, gently, tiredly, started to dance. No thoughts. Just a body in space.
Moments from the show began to emerge. Gestures, the occasional sound. Still working to the soundtrack I had started dancing to (not the soundtrack of the show), quite unintentionally, I began to run the show – not as ‘performance’ but as a series of actions, each one following on inevitably from the one before. I ran the whole show. It felt fine.
I did not think about what had happened. Instead I went downstairs and sat in the shade of the yard at the back of Dancehouse. For ten minutes I listened and did not think. Then, without knowing what I was intending to do, I went back to the studio. Still without having made any conscious decisions, I started playing the soundtrack of the show and I ran the whole thing again. It was fine. I remembered the show and knew, even though not as precise and detailed as the performances in Yorkshire had been in the Autumn, it was really quite good enough. I had forgotten some bits, but new bits had emerged to replace them, and it felt none the worse for that.
After it had finished, I sat on the floor. I did not think. I did not feel as if ‘I’ had done a show, though a show had happened. I knew the performances would go ahead, but did not feel as if that was a decision “I” had made.
I wondered how I felt and realised that the ‘nothing’ I had encountered earlier now had some kind of form. I felt as if ‘I’ existed. In the process of allowing art, I had allowed myself. It was joyful, but just as the ‘despair’ I had encountered earlier had been devoid of an emotional content, so this joy was not an emotional state. It felt like a deep reality. I existed because I did things. The things I did, the shaping of actions into art, are my way of moving from not-existing to existing. Making art is my way of being.
None of these words – ‘joy’, ‘despair’, ‘exist’, ‘things’, ‘I’- are adequate, nor am I a good enough writer to describe what it is that I experienced.
The two performances went ahead and went well. The crisis passed. It was something and nothing. The medical tests talked of something and nothing.
So what do I find in all this? At the start of the day which I decided to dedicate to working out what I ‘should’ do, I wondered what advice I would give to someone who was in the situation I found myself in. It was easy: I would encourage them to be very, very gentle with themselves and to pay rigourous attention to the reality of their experience rather than to ideas about what they ‘ought’ to do or what they thought other people ‘expected’ of them. This is what I tried to do. I am not always good at being gentle with myself. But on that day I was very gentle. I spent the day stripping away illusions about ‘obligations’ and trying, instead, to pay attention to the reality of my tired, frightened and (a little) lonely ‘self’.
I was glad to discover that the advice I would have given to someone else, applied to myself , and in conjunction with the core principles that underpin all of my training, served me well. Those who have worked closely with me know that it is important to me that I try, as much as possible, to apply to myself the principles that underpin my teaching, if only to remind myself how damn hard those seemingly simple ‘bits of advice’ actually are.
There were many other things in the day, some of which are still echoing through my thoughts. Enough for now to notice one more thing. “Should’, ‘ought’, ‘must’, my work ethic, financial pressure, all these and others are drivers that I use to push myself forward. Perhaps I am afraid that if I do not drive myself, I will stop, collapse, disappear. But when I removed those drivers, when I accepted that it really did not matter what I did (faced with the possibility that I might not be around to do anything for much longer), I found that I did not stop. “I” disappeared and a different “I” appeared, slowly, a little timidly. That “I” is driven not from the outside but from within. It was the “I” that made the rehearsal, that did things. He did it because he wanted to, because it made him realise he was alive. He is always there, but so seldom does he get enough attention.
Today I walked through the frozen grounds of a ruined Abbey. Snow was in the air, falling occasionally. It was perfect, as everything always is.