By Katie Faulkner
This morning I had coffee with a dear former student who, having just graduated from college, wanted to talk to me about all the things she should be doing to get a foothold in the San Francisco dance scene. I have been having a lot of these talks lately. It’s startling and humbling to find myself here, dispatching advice. I wish I had the magic equation I could impart to her: the exact ratio of projects to say yes and no to, the people she should seek out and surround herself with, the number of years she can expect to wait tables, the length of time she should stick it out. Oh, how much sturdier all of us would feel if such an algorithm existed. The honest thing to tell her as we sit together, bodies alight with caffeine, is that this road is a very personal one, dotted with signposts wholly unique to us. We all find our way in and make our way through very differently and this can be both lonely and empowering. I encourage her to think of “making it” not as the arrival at a fixed point, but as a question she is continually asking. Having these conversations is good practice for me. Saying these things out loud forces me to keep asking the question myself.
It’s fitting, this term, “making it.” For me, a life in this field is something being made all the time. When I am choreographing, or making anything, I’m always struck by how the internal processes I go through mirror so much the ones I experience in my day-to-day life. I listen to the strange chatter between images, ideas, and instincts going on inside my brain and my body and I make a decision. I make a decision and something happens. Sometimes that one decision brings with it an avalanche of unexpected and joyful returns, as if all of that prickling potential was just waiting to be unleashed. Other times those decisions yield stubborn, resistant, petulant material that cannot be coaxed into working. Maybe it wasn’t the decision that the work needed, so you choose something else. You talk to your work, and it talks to you. It’s a conversation to discover what you value, what you want, what you’re good at, and where you need to stretch. Finding my way in the dance field has been much the same.
Until recently, I have rarely been prone to thinking too far ahead. It’s partly the way I’m wired. It has also been something of a strategy, a way of tending to what is. We all know the dance world is mercurial. Funding dips, swerves, and disappears; communities and ponds swell and contract; fashions come and go; what is deemed relevant and meaningful in one moment can be relegated to obsolescence in the span of a few years. I could not have imagined that I would be working in the ways I work now five years ago. Nor could I have imagined the experience of watching a new generation of dancers and dance makers flood into the city, tilting the creative community off of its previous axis and demanding new questions and re-positioning the old ones. I could not have imagined the ways these shifting realities would make me keep questioning who I am as an artist and teacher, and how valiant and challenging and recurrent this process of self-searching would be. Not unlike my student across the coffee table from me, I’m not quite sure how to launch into the next five years because I so seldom experience the feeling of having landed to begin with. It always feels somewhat tenuous, and perhaps, to be good at what we do, it should. Like good improvisers, our job is to make choices inside the precarious, evolving present, to be alert in our action and our stillness, and to adapt. Increasingly I believe, that the things we know about creating work, about training and learning from our bodies, about integration, embodiment, expression, collaboration, and all of the resourcefulness, discipline and sensitivity these tasks require, are the very things we need to “make it” as artists. I also think this is a very different idea than that of “succeeding.” Success is a collapsible term, hooked often to rigid external pressures and priorities. It can be hard to locate your own satisfaction inside the exacting expectations of others, but it is, perhaps, the most important thing we can do, to strive to create our work and our lives on our own terms.
What “making it” means has changed often for me. For years, (right after graduate school, which is when my dance career effectively began) it just meant surviving, which I did by working at a restaurant, taking any small teaching gigs I could get, dancing for friends, and sometimes selling clothes to have money for things like shampoo and eggs. During this time, I got into AXIS Dance Company, a dizzying stroke of luck. I was dancing professionally, touring the country, and performing the work of choreographers I had idolized. I was in my late 20’s living minimally in a tiny studio apartment. When not on tour, I sometimes drove from Alameda to Oakland, to Santa Clara, to Marin, and back to Alameda to rehearse and teach in a single day. It was extremely demanding but a time of tremendous growth. I had no savings or health insurance, but, much to my shock, I was (almost) supporting myself doing what I loved. I say almost because I was also racking up pretty major credit card debt. I was “making it” enough for some things, but not for everything. Cars break down and need repair. Trips to see family over Christmas need to be paid for. Medical care had to be paid out of pocket. It was a kind of survival, but not a sustainable one.
Over time, my priorities shifted. Once I turned 30, I began to gravitate more and more to the process of making and teaching rather than being on the stage. I started choreographing more regularly on students and on friends. I went to a Bebe Miller performance in 2005 that flipped me on my head. Driving home from Yerba Buena that night, some deep, familiar urge leapt inside of me and I resolved to start taking choreography more seriously. I had no grand ambitions of being great, I just felt like I had to (needed to!) do more of it. I was a different person leaving the theater that night than I was going in. I can’t explain it in any logical way except to say, perhaps, that Bebe helped me see myself. Her artistry gave me courage.
With this I decided to start a “company.” It was a way of formally addressing my desire. It wasn’t because I wanted (or knew how to) run an organization. It was because naming it made my ambitions real. The name I chose for my company reflects everything about who I was and how I felt about myself at the time: little seismic dance company – predicated on the precarious and timid, both in name and in capitalization. The name practically vibrates with fear. I was scared but the thought of not doing it was far worse. (An important barometer it turns out.) I pulled close the people I trusted and admired and I dove in.
As we can sometimes experience in any creative process, that feeling that the work is coming alive and through you, and that you need only get out of its way, this decision in my life had a similar kind of energy. My work was seen. Things happened. Opportunities arose. I have been validated and supported in ways I never could have anticipated. Since making that choice, I feel like everything has been in motion and for the most part, this has felt like the natural order of things: fluid, changing, dynamic. I have reflected often on the Goethe quote I taped to the inside of my journal just before moving to California to go to grad school. The one stating that, “boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” That all kinds of things happen that you could never dream of happening to you, once you truly commit to something. Things have happened that I never could have imagined, in part because I haven’t dared to. I haven’t allowed myself to think too much beyond the work it takes to get into a studio: to plan a class, to lead a rehearsal, to generate ideas, to move. While boldness can mean wildly different things for different people, this is boldness for me. Every day I make the choice to keep making things. I sculpt, and I flail, and I forge, and I collapse, and I get back spasms, and I relate, and I butt heads with ambivalence, and I move, and I watch others move, and I sometimes get inspired, and I think, “Ok, how am I going to make it today?”
That’s really what “making it” feels like to me. Dot by pointillistic dot, my life and creative work have slowly taken on a form I can step back from and see. Like all of us I try, with intermittent success, to balance the demands on my body, my creative well, my time, my relationships, my state of mind, my car. Much as we do when we train or try to be conscious about our work, I try to recognize my habits. Which includes recognizing the large, familiar chasms of despair, the ugly inner critic with bad teeth and halitosis, the impulse to compare myself, the impulse to flee, or to try ANY other career path but this (Graphic designer! Architect! Florist!), and not becoming amnesiac about the things I so love about what I do. I try to challenge myself, to do things that scare and intimidate me, but I also try to let myself be good at things. As I rapidly approach 40, I assume that I will change and that my priorities will also change. So, too, will my aesthetic, my directorial style, my pedagogical stance, my finances, my health, my body, and my creative desire. I have doubts all the time, but I am still most interested in the way dance enables me to experience and engage with the world. At any moment, I could make another choice, but, for now, this is the work that most delights and perplexes me. Incremental and surprising as it is, this dance is still being made.
Photo by Adam Shemper