Editorial Note: Each August for the past three years, I’ve asked dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Please join us in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human.
BY ERIC KUPERS
I’ve spent way too much time and energy wondering if I’m good enough. Am I a successful artist? Do I measure up to my peers? And ultimately, have I “made it?” Up until now I’ve defined success in many different ways. And I’ve related to my definitions of success like a mule chasing a carrot on a stick. Whether I’ve achieved the success or not has in some ways not made a difference, as there is always a sense that I’m not yet quite right — a voice that says I need to keep striving.
At first this took the form of a desire to dance in a professional company. I never quite took the time to define what “professional” means (which is a slippery concept), but worked hard at my goal nonetheless. Throughout my early training, I was hell-bent on dancing with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company in Los Angeles. They represented all that I thought dance should be. I compared every other dance artist I saw to Bella, and every single one fell short. I trained hard, convinced that someday I would dance with her.
In high school, I spent a couple of years away from dance, trying to see who else I was, but I kept getting drawn back. At UC Santa Cruz I studied with Mel Wong, Silvia Martins and Tandy Beal, in Cunningham, Limon and improvisational techniques. I began to entertain the possibility that Bella wasn’t the only great artist out there.
Meanwhile I had delved deeply into spiritual seeking, leading me from psychedelics to psychotherapy to transcendental meditation to death and dying investigations to Buddhist practice. I majored in comparative religions, and spent time in Bodh Gaya, India. All the while I kept dancing and choreographing. My spiritual practice and my dance practice both felt crucial, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to bring them together.
I saw Joe Goode Performance Group’s Disaster Series in the early nineties. Wow! My whole conceptual framework was blown wide open. Here was work that was technically rigorous, yet told personal stories and seemed to be headed towards some kind of spiritual wholeness. Everyone in the company was equally powerful, and yet rooted in unique personalities. Joe should clearly be a guide for me on the path. After the show I walked backstage and went up to Joe as he was changing to tell him how much I loved his work and wanted to study with him. I was so enraptured that I barely noticed he was standing there in his underwear.
When I graduated college and moved to the Bay Area, I felt groundless and adrift. I remember a particular afternoon where I decided that I just needed to pick a direction. So I picked Joe Goode’s company. I would devote my life to learning from and then eventually dancing with him.
Everything could fall into place now. I knew where I was headed and had a pretty good idea of how to get there. I started to feel the same fervor for Joe that I had previously felt for Bella. His work was now the standard from which all other artists fell short. But it was more than that. Joe’s company was part of a remarkably fertile Bay Area dance community. I wanted a substantial seat at the table in this blossoming experimental ecosystem populated by these raw, courageous, soulful and intimidating artists.
As I began my quest, I kept coming up against what felt like a fundamental conflict. Do I pursue this goal to someday dance in Joe’s company, or do I commit to my Buddhist practice, which advocates letting go? Said another way: Can I become enlightened and continue dancing, or do I need to become a monk? I wrote a letter to my spiritual big sister. She responded she thought it was important to “go for it” in terms of dancing with Joe, and to let myself desire it fiercely, but at the same time to not have any attachments to where this would take me. She told me to use my desire as a compass, and let it change directions as I move along my path. I went to every class, workshop and performance that Joe offered. I studied all the dance techniques that seemed like they would align well with his. I auditioned for as many other companies as I could, to hone my performing skills and my reputation. And I grew.
After a few years of this, something shifted. I had learned so much from Joe. And I was spreading in other directions. I had experienced a taste of being part of a professional company: the Della Davidson Dance Company, which was making work that resonated with me, and paid me something as a dancer, but unfortunately seemed to be falling apart. Bad timing! I then saw Margaret Jenkins’ company perform Fault and I was once again turned upside down. In this work I saw the physical manifestation of all the Buddhist principles I was striving to embody: karmic momentum, the interconnectedness of everything, and the peace that comes from going beyond concepts and relating to all phenomena as a play of energy. I was reminded of my love of Bella’s work—the Zen-like clarity of abstract dance. My compass was pointing me towards Margie’s company. I studied intensively with Jon Weaver and Ellie Klopp, longtime Margie-collaborators. And through hard work and great fortune, I was invited to join the company.
I remember the afternoon that Margie and Ellie invited me in. It felt like the completion of a journey I’d been on since I first saw Bella’s company nearly 20 years before. I had “made it!” I was now officially successful! I was filled with bliss all day. And for a few months, I enjoyed a completely updated identity: I was now one of the professional dancers I had admired so passionately since my early teens!
But then, after a tour or two with Margie’s company, the feeling began to fade. What happened after this project? Would my role in the company continue? No one knew. Maybe I hadn’t quite made it? Okay, time to reboot my striving. I was on constant alert for any dance job that I could make a living at, in case my role in Margie’s company disappeared.
In 2002, I reconnected with Della Davidson and she invited me to come dance with her newly refurbished company and get my MFA at UC Davis. Cool! This happened around the time I had a falling out with Margie, and Della’s work offered me an environment to dance professionally while nurturing my emerging “outsider” choreographic visions.
And then my compass shifted again. I was continually inspired by Della’s work, and yet I found myself more and more drawn to my own work with Dandelion Dancetheater. “Making it” was starting to mean getting my own grants for my own choreography with my own wild ensemble.
In 2005, I stopped performing in other choreographers’ work (including Della’s) in order to devote all available energy to my own. Success now meant getting my own company to the point where we all could make at least a half time living from rehearsing and performing. But this was going to take a long time—decades even, and I needed to support myself until then. Teaching at universities was exciting at first. But after awhile, the 10 weeks here, 10 weeks there, and constant uncertainty about whether I’d have rent money next month was wearing on me. Compass shift: I need a tenure-track teaching position. Then I’ll be able to relax. Then I’ll really have made it. And I’ll have health insurance to prove it!
Months and months of applying, interviewing, waiting, and then a miracle happened. I was offered a tenure-track position at CSU East Bay, where I had been a lecturer off and on for years. The day I got the call felt similar to the day I was invited into Margie’s company. Bliss. A sense of deep security. A feeling of having succeeded against all odds in a field that I love. I remember calling my partner, my close friends and my parents to proclaim the news. It seemed like everything would be taken care of from here on out.
And then starting the tenure track teaching, and soon I was striving again. This time it was to create a new internationally recognized program in inclusive performance, and to make sure at every point that I was doing enough to pad my “dossier” that I turn in to apply for tenure. No longer was having the tenure-track job “making it;” it was the tenure itself, the latest carrot dangling in front of me. In addition, I felt that I could only really relax if I also became known globally as an important artist/professor/visionary triple-threat! This gave me the promise of unlimited future striving. Whoopee!
And when I finally did receive tenure at CSU East Bay a couple of years ago, a major shift happened. Something in me relaxed—something I had been carrying around for decades. I felt safe deeper down than I had felt safety before. I had as much security as I could hope for as a dance artist. I didn’t really need another confirmation of my success. I could perhaps take all that energy projected into the future and use it for the art itself, right now. I was pleased to see that I wasn’t all that interested in the carrot that appeared before me right after I finished celebrating tenure—the application for “full professorship.” I would cross that bridge when I came to it and let my work speak for itself. My desire for recognition from outside seemed to be finally fading, leading me again back to the creative tasks at hand.
And while old habits die hard, and continual striving seems to just be part of my nature, it does feel different now. I see the pattern more clearly than ever before. From the time I first fell in love with dance, there was an idea of what “making it” meant, and it was always outside of me and in the future. And that deep desire to reach my evolving goals led me on a winding, challenging, delicious journey that has made my life rich with feeling, friends, spiritual growth, learning and wonder.
Yet now I’m striving for something different. If there is such a thing as “success” then I’m going to assume I’ve reached it, so I can move on already. Now I long to become more and more myself. I long to make work that is coming from deeper and deeper truths inside me. I long to make a contribution to dance, to my communities, to the world. I long to help others find healing. I’m finally able to enjoy regular bites of the carrot as it leads me forward.
And the compass direction that runs through all of this is an unshakable commitment to having art at the center of what I do on a daily basis. Each time I’ve gotten lost, compared myself to others, or wondered if I was on the “right” path, I would remind myself that ultimately I knew what my success looked like: making art with people I love. And what companies I’ve danced with, and what my job is, and how much money and attention my work is getting, and all of that, are really only as important as passing clouds. The real questions are: Am I creatively engaged? Am I collaborating meaningfully? Am I growing? Am I loving what I do? Am I walking my own path?
Eric Kupers co-founded Dandelion Dancetheater in 1996 with Kimiko Guthrie. He’s the director of Bandelion, his core research ensemble within Dandelion, launched in 2006. He is an associate professor of dance at Cal State University East Bay, and directs the CSUEB Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble.