BY MALINDA LAVELLE
I am plagued by the phrase “I don’t know.” In a world where any given piece of advice has a separate and equally valid piece of counter advice, I find the more questions I ask, the fewer answers I have and the more decisions I hesitate to make. “Be independent, but find love,” “be spontaneous, but have a plan,” “relax, take a break, but do as much as you can,” “stand out, get what you want, but be humble, put others first,” “take risks, but be practical,” “don’t stress out, but fix your problems,” “listen to advice, but forge your own path”… the list is truly infinite. Opposing forces are everywhere. The tension they create bombards us with conflicting perspectives, making the details of what we experience recognizable. We know happiness only because we know sadness. We cry in hilarity as we laugh in profound sorrow. Opposites are the culprits for irony as well as the platforms for hundreds of contradictions found in and around us.
Within the context of dance-making and performance, they’re bountiful providers of juicy subject matter, pressing questions and hilariously disturbing truths about our frail yet powerful existence. Amidst the confusion from these battles between “this or that?” and the struggle to navigate the gap between what we think and what we do, I’ve stumbled upon a most beautiful and simple lesson. I have dancing to thank for it. If you listen with care, dance is always gently whispering a little reminder underneath its bossy muscles and fervent angst. Tirelessly, it repeats in my ear, “Let go.”
For me, dance has been the one and only teacher of letting go. But why? For once, I have a solid answer: because it’s a disappearing act. There is no trash. There is nothing to throw away; dance throws itself away. You destroy it as soon as it begins. You can’t hang it on the wall, you can’t touch it, you can’t keep it on a shelf, you can’t treasure it, you can’t mass produce it, you can’t learn it from a piece of paper, you can’t press replay, pause or rewind. Dancing is the ultimate real-time experience, and thus, a constant practice in letting go. I have nothing to show after a performance. There’s no souvenir, no tangible evidence. Perhaps there is a messy stage, littered with props and drops of sweat, but it’s all mopped away like nothing ever happened. The audience and I are left with a ghost, a memory, an effect, and a small death. My attempts at holding on to dance have been desperate, proud, exhausting and futile, like trying to stop time. I’ve learned that, really, there is nothing to prove. The tighter you hold on to an ice cube, the faster it melts. Dance always knows its exit strategy, and I am much happier when I accept the escape.
For those who study in it, train in it, and share in it, dance acts as a mirror for life, where everything we own and feel is only borrowed for the very brief time we are alive. The crafting of dance performance is thus a brilliant tool for human expression, and those who witness it gain insight into what it means to release control and surrender to the unknown. The absolute nature of dance is ephemeral, as is our condition as people. Its strength lies in its ability to echo our every ungraspable moment, our every fumble, our every taint. Our bodies are sculpted, riddled even, with what they have been subjected to in our lives. We are kaleidoscopes, quilted together by countless ballet classes in front of the mirror, by messy encounters of love, by falling out of a tree and breaking a bone, by bullying and being bullied, by telling lies, by keeping secrets, by being too drunk to remember, by falling apart from grief. It’s hard to imagine the meaning of “letting go” when all we seem to do is accumulate. Yet, over and over again, dance mysteriously invades the crevices of our souls, sets them on fire, and cuts loose (toodaloo!). It teaches us not to dwell, but rather to notice, consider and (scoot, scoot!) move right along.
When archaeologists study ancient ruins, they don’t find a piece of dance buried. They find a piece of bone, a piece of pottery or the remnants of a house. Dance is only inside of its people where it is passed on, forging strong bonds in life and vanishing in death. Today, of course, I can watch hours of performance online, but the screen is laughing at me. Dance knows that it hasn’t been captured. I can’t smell the room it was performed in, I can’t feel what time of day it was, I can’t feel how I waited for it to begin or how I waited for it to end, I can’t feel the person that sat next to me in the audience, I can’t hear the noise of the performers’ flesh, I can’t hear the breathing or see the sweat, I can’t be swept into the world they created for me; I’m looking at a pale ghost, I’m disturbing something that should be resting.
This month, I find myself extraordinarily preoccupied with thoughts of “letting go” as I prepare to make a big, carefully considered move away from San Francisco to a small town in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. I’ve been struggling to let go of the perception of what I have spent years here “building,” struggling to let go of what I “should” do, struggling to let go of expectations and struggling to believe dance can be practiced with rigor outside of its typically city-centric dependent arena. In my worry, dance always manages to rudely interrupt and slap me in the face with its slippery form, “I can’t be stagnant! I can’t be contained! I can’t be forced!” And it’s right. We’ve all seen what happens when we attempt to make a fool out of dance. We try to catch and hold on to it for too long, chaining it to a business model that asks for applause, quantity, productivity and output. But in the end, our knuckles slowly start to ache until they turn white, and (plop!) down we fall.
While I don’t have many answers, I do know that dance isn’t a groomed ladder that leads to the top of some mountain where money, relief, success and security await. No! It’s a labyrinth. Dance knows the way out, but you never will! We are already on the journey, not searching for it. As I take off to this new place, I’m beginning to realize that I’m caught in a beautiful trap—if you can’t find the exit from the maze, then there is no right or wrong way or place to practice while you’re inside. It’s freedom. It’s permission. It’s letting go. The form longs for voices to take on the responsibility and the challenge of carving out the tired, obsolete models that are holding on, in order to perhaps embark on new ways that align how we live with how we practice dance. If it’s an unnecessary struggle to live, it’s an unnecessary struggle to create. And it shows. Dance is a marriage of work and reflection, of repetition and novelty, and of technical prowess and spicy (jalapeño!) creative spirit.
I suggest if we allow dance to flee and come back, as it loves to do, a natural unfolding can reveal the different ways it makes sense to each of us. No matter how we interact with it, dance is totally complete inside every one of us from our first breath, and it isn’t dependent on any one person, thing, or place—because (poof!) just like that, it’s already gone.