performance pressures

How self-absorbed are you?

I grew up a selfish dancer.  Decades later, I remain one.  I loved mastering the dynamics, shape, and timing of my fabulous moves.  I could practice whenever, wherever I wanted, and I took complete advantage of that, be it under my desk at school, in the kitchen over a roast dinner, or in my friend’s yard while attempting a game of spud (best game ever, who’s with me?!).  Still today, spacing and the movement of a particular section as a whole with all the other dancers and with all its working parts, comes as a secondary layer.  Partnering and unique spacial arrangements are always harder for me to master, partially because it requires someone else to practice with me, but also because it requires me to think first about what movements would be ideal for another person, and for a group of dancers as a whole unit.  It requires thought about the bigger picture, not just myself.  And lord knows, I’m concerned with looking and feeling good under my spotlight.  Oh, wait, I’m sharing this down pool?  I had no idea!  Must have been too busy perfecting my battement into my fierce strut…my bad.

 

I recognize this obsession with mastery of my own body in space and time, but yoga this morning brought my tendency forward with a new verve.  Terrence Monte, one of my yogi faves at Pure Yoga, shed light on the necessity of others to achieve “success” or better put, enlightenment, aka peace, bliss, happiness – whatever you opt to call it.  You can’t be right.  You can’t win.  How do you work better thanks to the group?  Can you think of putting the group in front of yourself?  Can the dance take precedence, rather than just yourself within the work?  Or are you preoccupied solely with your dance moves over the vibe of fellow dance mates?  You can’t be in a relationship alone.  Being a good person and dancer, goes much beyond just taking care of yourself and fine tuning your temple.  You need others to get to a higher place, to move forward, to advance.  The advancements of a group are capable of so much more than you can possibly be capable of alone.  Two voices, minds, bodies, are more powerful than one.  

 

How can this translate and change the way you work in the studio and perform on stage?

 

Possibly, instead of adamantly expressing what the purpose of a certain section of a piece is, you take a second to hear what others have to say about it.  And not just let them speak and then shout your peace afterwards, neglecting their words entirely, but hearing them, taking them into honest consideration, and being open to adapt if it is for the best.  It’s not about not having an opinion.  It’s about honoring your opinion amongst others.  

 

What about focusing your energy on the flow of the piece?  Or recognizing the piece is only as good as its weakest link?  And let’s be honest, a piece isn’t going to translate unless every single soul on stage is working toward a common intention.  Maybe you help another dancer, rather than showing off to the choreographer that you have the steps and the person to your right doesn’t.

 

Even if it’s a solo, there’s an audience out there that is a larger part of what you bring forth as an artist.  What would happen if instead of having moments to yourself before you hit the stage, you put yourself in the position of your audience?  I often hit the stage, saying thanks and gratitude: that I have functioning legs, that I have this opportunity to experience these works, that I own these sensations for my own pleasure.  Self, self, and more self.  What does the audience want to see? What might they need to get out of a slump?  What sensations are they fiening for that perhaps they have difficulty reaching alone?  I’ll admit, before Parsons hits the stage, sometimes we dedicate the performance to someone who can’t be there, but after that initial moment of sending them my well-wishes and passionate intentions at our pre-show whoosh (think giant hand circle, that has now encompassed a beautifully silly set of rituals), I seldom find myself thinking of that person once the music gets blaring.  Instead, my thoughts can quickly get preoccupied with the tasks in front of me.  My entrance, my new lift with my new partner, the edit I can’t forget that we made at half hour, my nagging bladder, my costume, my loose bobby pin, my pre-set costume, my tendonitis, my toe split.  Sorry, but Pop-Pop watching down on me, wants to see the sight of selfless, unified perseverance and flight despite anything and everything.  He knows better.  And so does every single audience member.  

 

When you take the focus off of just yourself, and place it on your family in the wings, and your family in the rows of seats, you put dance in its larger frame-work and alleviate pressures off of just yourself.  

 

So, next time you dance, what can you do for someone else?  How is the new dancer amongst you feeling?  How can you help your partner?  How can you have compassion and support for your choreographer?  How can you change the mood in the studio?  How can you nourish those watching?  

 

May no dancer be left behind.  I vow to work collectively before I work on myself.  And my greedy, selfish-self is back, go figure;  I’m already grinning at the prospect of getting something rewarding in return.

 

Nerves, aches, and fatigue. Hold it together! Conquering performances like an all-star.

Performances are the heightened, amplified moments your family, friends, colleagues, directors, critics, lovers, and complete strangers get to come see what you work so hard on during rehearsals.  With Parsons Dance, our two weeks at the Joyce Theater is the one time a year I am guaranteed to perform for my New York family.  It’s my moment to show off to the ones who hear I’m supposedly a talented dancer but rudely only give me one shot every 365 days to see what I truly do and of course, have their speculations rightly confirmed.  It serves as my annual marker to see where I’ve come as a performer and as an opportunity to set a fresh intention of what I wish to accomplish out of two weeks of constant performing.

With the weight of significant performances, nerves and performance pressures can lurk, ready to snap precious and peacefully cherished dance moves without consent.  Nerves, not all bad at all, come in endless distracting flavors.  Sometimes the nervous belly pays a visit at half hour to curtain because you want to nail all your dance steps with the utmost artistic finesse.  Sometimes a surge of excitement blesses you from someone new to modern dance coming to watch for the first time because you’ve introduced them to your world.  Sometimes it’s a wave of longing because it’s the last time on stage in a certain work with the same special cast.  And sometimes it’s an absolute dire sensitivity to your aching body you must be mindful of to survive the show without a hitch.  How do you prep the mind for the nerves and focus your energy appropriately to make for the best show for those who come for proof, and more importantly, yourself, regardless of circumstances?  And “regardless of circumstances” is the kicker here because during strenuous and lengthy performance series, you don’t always feel your freshest every day, regardless of how well you wish to feel, and regardless if Baryshnikov decides to make an appearance in the house. (Hi Mikhail.  Yes, please come tomorrow.  I believe my left hamstring will be a bit stronger and I’ll be on my leg for you.  Thanks.  Kisses.)  Physical and mental states vary as your whole being is thrown to master the test of endurance from daily performances.  This means making those seemingly impossible shows, completely possible and even surprisingly enjoyable be it sprained ankles, colds, fevers, tendentious, fatigue, and soreness.  (Game on!)

So now that you’re completely curious for the reveal of my personal goals for this past Joyce, straight from my journal –  may I have the drum roll please?  Ahem…. To be fearless and selfless through generous performances.  To not fear the unknown of live performance, but to relish in it.  To be absent from judgmental thoughts.  To get lost and surrender to the moments deeper than I have previously by giving everything and expecting nothing.

A funny request, considering the chain of fun-filled events that happened within the first few hours of moving into the Joyce.   (Ahh, here come those lovely circumstances!)

Roughly three hours before curtain, as we were about to start our press call for opening night, I rolled over my already-slightly-bummed left ankle which was sprained a few weeks earlier.  Bravo, Christina.  I hobbled off stage, gracefully let out a few select curse words, iced my ankle, and let a tear or two stream down my cheek due not as much from sadness but from the utter rage of this hideous timing.  I was furious.  And when I’m angry (or tired, hungry, abundantly happy, you name it…), I cry.  I had so much to look forward to with these shows and had extensively prepared my mind and body for this hefty work load – the pieces were well-rehearsed, I had sufficient sleep, my home life was organized and armed with epsom salt, stretching toys, candles, and vitamin drinks to accommodate crazy performance life.  Yet It simply didn’t matter how prepared I was, because, pardon my french, shit happens.  I wanted to whine like a baby, and I gave myself about 5 minutes to whimper and feel bad for myself in the dressing room until I held it together and took the thankfully pitiful-sized injury and turned it into a blessing.  There was a lesson to be learned if I could quiet my temper tantrum and listen.  Justin Flores, a healing God here on earth, came to save the day and graced me with my first session of acupuncture and did some additional body work to get the minimal swelling that creeped in, down as much as possible; he had my ankle moving at more or less full capacity before showtime.  This forced me into hyper-conscious mode.  This opening night show could not be about blowing it out and pushing beyond my means.  I had no choice but to be completely thoughtful with each step, each descent from a lift, each relevé.  I hadn’t thought about my ankle much since I over-stretched the ligament initially, and this sudden and gratefully only minor glitch reminded me how fragile bodies are, how much proper strengthening of weaknesses are completely mandatory, and how completely lucky I am able to move as freely as I do.  I headed into this first show, with any opening night jitters knocked cold right out of me, and an unwavering focus protecting my body.  It was absolutely imperative to concentrate my attention, not just a task I casually handpicked for a fresh perspective, because I had to guarantee myself and my dance family a minimum of two weeks of performances.

Oddly enough, I relished in the restriction.  Taking the performance stride by stride opened a world of time and calmness.

Between moves and counts lie opportunities to make choices.  Music and movement may be swift, but there is a quiet place in the mind that can allow for space between those notes to breathe, pace yourself, and make artistic choices.  Nerves are sequestered under intense focus of a task (one way to calm down, check!).  Furthermore, any fear of screwing up a dance step dissipates when you give yourself the permission to make a mess (not striving for perfection, check!).  A successful performance for me on opening night with a sprained ankle, was simply getting through the show without having to play gimpy in desperation for a wing.

And just as one ailment heals, ankle feeling stronger, another one strikes.  Week two brought a battle with a fever and an unfortunate cold that I wearily won.  Lesson I learned here?  Whenever you are having the most significant performances, your body is put under intense rigors and inevitably unravels.  What makes you special is when you deliver a brilliant performance regardless of the circumstances, because those circumstances will be there.  How can you preserve and deliver your best when you may feel your most compromised?  How many dancers grin and bear it through tendentious, tears, foot splits, and colds?  Regardless of what you got, we all got something.  The unfortunate happens, but it also happens for a reason. It’s not unfortunate at all.  It is a gift; a blessing to pay attention on a deeper level and allow mental focus to resonate beautifully through your physical being.

And while attempting to get a grip on nerves and remain cool, calm, and collected under daunting circumstances, it also helps to redefine performances, put them in perspective, and decide what makes them glorious;  something I love to remind myself of in the quiet of the wings before showtime.

First off, no one in the world can do the pieces you are about to perform (thank you Liz Koeppen!); not critics, other dancers, and thank-god, not your brother or boyfriend.  The perspective as an audience member includes positive thoughts.  (Not once have I sat in the theatre, hoping the performers would fall flat on their face or tumble from a lift with a partner.) All the outside can see is the final product.  Not what you should be doing or could have done, but what you are presently doing, and they are on your team each step of the way.  They came to have fun and be entertained, so p.s., kick back and have a good time out there!

Next, no two performances will ever be alike so there is no point in doing the comparison from night to night or agonizing over a misstep here or a wobble there.  Fretting doesn’t happen nearly as readily in the studio, where the liberty to make mistakes, laugh them off, and carry on care-free reigns.  The stage can be known as the place where the hard work gets hidden, and ideally the elating product gets displayed without a drag.  Why that pressure?  Performances are another place you get to experiment and try something new.  All performances, studio and stage the same, are just another influencing experience.  When you reflect upon your career, you will not remember the details of specific moments as much as you will remember how you felt doing it, and those moments regardless of where they took place, when you felt particularly transformed, moved.  The beauty in dance is its replication of life.  LIfe is full of mistakes, and boy do people love to see someone win a struggle.  Who doesn’t get a thrill watching that “perfect” prima ballerina fight for that extra turn with a sparkle in her eye of sheer will and determination?  On the other hand, there is nothing worse than the eye of defeat in the spirit who lets the pressures get the best of them and lets one mishap run them into the ground for the remainder of the show.   When dance bloopers happen you should be in a state light-hearted enough to drop it, rather than wallow and crumble in its replay in your mind.

What makes for a stunning performance is the one not necessarily flawless, but gutsy and honest.  The dancer fearful of making a mistake is not going to be interesting or worthwhile to watch.  The dancer fearful to make a mistake is the only one who will be sure to fail.  You cannot fail at dance (or anything really), so get the fear of screwing up a lousy dance step out of your head.  It’s a dance move for crying out loud, not brain surgery.  And what about all those millions of steps you do right that you conveniently forget about as you grieve over your sickled disaster of a foot in one arabesque?  Once you put that fear aside, there is a whole other layer of dancing to reach and master. (But it wouldn’t kill you to put a little effort into that biscuit you called a foot the night prior, before you give it a second go-round!)

Lastly, performing doesn’t mean you throw every ounce of your energy into every step.  Every ounce of your thought and focus, yes.  However, when we vomit sheer force and fire over everything all the time it can over-power and make for jagged steps and frenetic connections.  Breathe.  Take a second.  Look at your partner.  No, really look.  See.  And above all listen.  Listen so you can learn.  If you are doing all the talking in your mind with busy thoughts, you cannot listen to the music or your partner, or the group’s connection, or your sensations.  So make a vow to listen so you can learn and adapt to each circumstance live performances throws your way.  I guarantee it will throw you a ton of fun ones.


I’ll leave you with the majority of mantras I used while at the Joyce.  I must always take a few moments to myself on the stage to check in and see where my energy is at, calm myself down, be grateful I can do what I do with a functional and able body, and focus on what I want to gain from the performance ahead, filling my thoughts with words that bring me peace and make me feel I don’t have the world to lift on my shoulders.  Here it goes!

“Surrender everything” -Me

“Save 7% for yourselves.” -Kate Skarpetowska

“Engage, Embrace, Enjoy.” -Dove, yes that would be some brilliant chocolate!

“Those who bring sunshine to others cannot help but keep it from themselves.” -Dove

“You don’t have the luxury of negative thought.” -Christina Applegate

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” -Franklin Roosevelt

“Failure seldom stops you.  What stops you is the fear of failure.” -Jack Lemmon

“Fear nothing, cherish everything.” -Me

“Take no prisoners.” -Me

“Be thoughtful. Be beautiful.” -Kate Skarepetowska

“Doing this for love.” -PD company

“I’m so grateful.” -Me

“One step at a time.” -Kate Skarpetowska

“Be generous.” -Me

“Give everything and expect nothing.” -Me

Growing through Injuries. Being smart and not a sissy.

It’s unfortunate but true; it sometimes takes a series of brutally depressing, disappointing, disturbing, heartbreaking, twisted, gruesome (is this going to far??  …point made?) events to find the beauty in those things we take for granted in our daily grind.  Hopefully, we don’t have to get as far as gruesome to come to this realization, but better late than never.   In this past summer, I’ve had three of my dearest friends – Evan Copland, Elena D’amario, and Sarah Braverman – out of commission from dancing due to major injuries.  Just to give some of their contextual backstory, this was the longest break they’ve had from dance ever in their lives.  Not only are these dancers not able to move their bodies in the extreme ways our profession demands, but they are also unable to walk around and enjoy the mobility of “normal people,” something we all forget is a luxury.

So straight from the horse’s mouth.  Here’s the scoop on Evan’s, Elena’s, and Sara’s injuries and their words of wisdom from their altered perspectives us healthy and able-bodied folks just can’t embody:

Evan – 27 and one of the most versatile and nasty dancers (nasty’s not the first word that pops out of my mouth when describing damn good dancing, but believe it would slip out of his and serves as a perfect description) with the purest of hearts I know.  He was on tour with Sean Curran in Karkol in the Kyrgyz Republic, dancing in the last piece of the final show of a month long tour; he did two little runs on stage followed by a precipitaté that did not end as sweetly as inclined.  Heard offstage, something snapped loudly.  That was just his entrance.  He proceeded to finish his duet and even attempted to go back on stage for the final section in the true committed animal he is, but he couldn’t stand.  Evan broke his fifth metatarsal just below the joint, in a place where there is no blood flow which means an agonizingly slow healing process.  What always impresses me about Evan is his complete level-headedness about his injury (shout out to Dharma Punks and his Buddhist approach to life).  He’s not one to waste his energy being unnecessarily upset or stressed about a situation he simply cannot change.  His initial concern was letting down his dance family.  He primarily dances for Shen Wei Dance Arts and working with Sean was a project that conveniently slipped into his schedule during time off.  Shen Wei was just about to start rehearsals and a series of touring, now sans Evan.  As much as we dance for the love of the art, we do it endlessly for those beside us – who we sweat with, go on these performative journeys with, who we partner and support.  This support was graciously reciprocated back in his time of need and leaving Evan feeling blessed and positive.

A major challenge to Evan’s inner zen came with his doctor visits and unmet expectations (hard not to have ’em but damn unnecessary expectations…).  He would be expecting his recovery to be more advanced; wanting to be told to get off the crutches, or remove his oh-so-fashion forward sleek boot sooner than allowed.  With some patience and fatiguing dedication to PT work, his first day of sneakers, August 10th, eventually came.  The same day he shaved his head.  Fresh start.  This time off made him evaluate his life choices; does he want to focus on performing or teaching?  How does he want to direct this next chapter in his life and career?  He has come back with a broadened perspective.  He is not just a Shen Wei dancer but is passionate about outreach and moving in an endless number of ways.  And now, talking with Evan is as contagious as ever.  He’s amped up to start dancing again and dive head first into classes; not too shabby of a place to be.  The injury was a blessing in disguise; he was forced to address what he wanted and head back to his passion with this new experience under his belt.

Elena – 21 year old stunning Italian beauty on and off stage was dancing with a meniscus tear for 9 months (amazing how the body can function when the surrounding muscles are there to support – thank you training!).  Yes, that means it was torn all throughout our Joyce season and full 6-week, non-stop Italian tour until it actually flipped over during swift, consecutive sauté de basque turns during the Parsons Summer Intensive.  Her thoughts?  It’s more psychological work over physical.  While not able to dance, something she has clearly done her whole life, the internal struggle comes to identity.  “Who am I?  Am I interesting still?”  We tend to identify ourselves as dancers, and this gift elevates our self worth; the reason others find me attractive and likable is because of my relationship with dance.  How unfortunately comprehensible, but utterly untrue.  Elena piggybacked this personal conundrum with filling her life with other activities she typically doesn’t have time for and started taking pride in the other things she loves to do beyond dance.  There are innumerable facets of our personality that make us beautifully individual and we are so much more than what we do (how much I can hate that as a first question when meeting someone fresh….).  Also, she now has a new found perspective on how fortunate us dancers are to do what we love, which puts complaining on the petty minutiae of the daily grind completely out of the question.

Another (completely unwarranted) fear?  “Everyone is going to be in rehearsal without me.”  Being removed from the group and loosing touch with the dynamics of the tight family unit and missing out on the progress on the fresh season was a concern.  My vantage point?  I blinked my eyes and Elena was back in the studio working.  To be exact, the summer intensive was at the end of June and she is back in rehearsals now at the end of August.  Nothing was lost.  She could never lose the beautiful connection we have as a group, and in terms of physical material developed, it is nothing she couldn’t pick up and learn in a heartbeat.  Her healing process and how much every day she can see the the growth of her muscles and diminished swelling serves as a constant inspiration and her new found perspective brings vigor to her dancing.

Next up – Sarah- 26 year old talent to behold onstage and stunner in person, tore her lateral meniscus, needed to get an ACL reconstruction with a hamstring autograft (yes, they snipped part of her hamstring and braided it to become her ACL.  Amazing huh??), and have the frayed tissue covering her kneecap shaved down.  A more severe injury, resulting in a 9 to 12 month recovery.  Sarah’s meniscus had also been torn throughout the season, but her ACL snapped on-site.  For better or worse, Sarah was at an audition, asked to jump hurdles, when she full gusto, swan lake-style jetéd (how’s that for proper French!) and landed all her weight down on her front leg, fearful of allowing her back leg to drop and (god-forbid, in our dancer mindset!) knock over the hurdle.  Apparently, she “was not Flo-jo,” and instead her foot remained turned out as her knee decided to shoot forward instead, just for fun.  Her hide sight? Know your limitations.  The audition was actually something she repeatedly declined until she gradually succumbed to the request.  “Know your limits.  You will get other jobs. We are trained to say yes.”   And some advice she now notices?  While dancing, we have an amazing capacity thanks to body knowledge to meander through movement artfully even when we land from jumps without perfect technique.  Know your body and it’s imperfect technical tendencies, and work on correcting them.  In physical therapy, there is no cheating from doing exercises properly; in dance we get to emote out of a jump that doesn’t go exactly as planned without anyone else noticing, and fooling even ourselves.

The dancer mentality is truly a double edged sword.  Most of us are not one’s to complain, and we accept minor wear and tear as part of the occupation.   We time and time again sacrifice the health of our bodies in the name of the work and those in the wings with us.  We act as if pieces of tape on our toes and torn muscles are enough to get through a performance and the adrenaline rush of the stage conveniently helps us forget these pains.  Where’s the line between quietly managing through expected minor setbacks and taking personal authority over our bodies which may mean a (gasp!) much needed break?  Sometimes it is better to sit one out and be able to come back full throttle rather than turning a minor injury into something that unnecessarily grows to become a larger problem.  In the moment it can seems like it is an absolute must to perform a piece full out, be it for a show, in front of a director, or for an audition.  We always have a choice, no matter how high the stakes of the performance.  Our bodies must come first, and at the end of the day, we know our bodies best.  Everyone has a different threshold for pain, but we need to be smart about pushing ourselves and know when it is going too far.

How can I take better care of my body?  I am definitely guilty of turning a blind eye to minor injuries and muscular sorriness.  There are nights when I pass out, exhausted from my day – not icing, not bathing in epsom salts, not getting a massage, and grossly enough, sometimes not even cleaning out cuts on the bottom of my feet before my head collapses on my pillow.  (I like to think I’ve built up my immune system??)  I am now reminded these small acts of tlc for ourselves are our insurance plan for the long run.  It just takes minutes to prevent injuries from further advancing.  Writing this is serving as a vow to myself to take the time.  Once the wake of these loved ones’ injuries are long settled, it will be easy to slip into old ways and feel the need to take a few more moments in my bed rather than tending to the needs of my instrument.  Dancing isn’t forever.   Nothing is.  My ability to dance at this level of intensity is finite.  It is an extreme blessing to be capable of moving my body, especially in the high demands dance insists upon.  Every day I wake up, I receive the opportunity to dance and reap the joy it brings.  This is not a guarantee.  But life has its roadblocks and time away from dancing doesn’t have to be disastrous; it just means more time devoted to other things you love and enjoy but never seem to have the time to accomplish.

Gratefully, Evan, Elena, and Sarah are on their way to a full recovery and are around those who love and support them in order to help keep their spirits high.  As dancers, let’s keep our bodies mobile and happy and henceforth, our hearts the same.  (Ahhh, so sappy!!)  Let’s be smart with our bodies, take care of what we have to the best we can, and still manage to not turn into whining sissies in the meantime.