Editorial Note: Each August for the past five years, I’ve asked dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Please join us this month in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human.
BY DAISY PHILLIPS
The trouble with “making it,” in my opinion, is the “it.” What is it, who said so, and why?
There’s a photograph that was taken at my fourth birthday party, held at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. I am dressed in a superhero cape/skirt combo that I insisted on wearing over any and every outfit at the time (my favorite activity being running at top speed down supermarket aisles so that the cape flew out behind me). My mother is holding up a present that I’ve just unwrapped, from my best friend Ian. It’s a real, satiny, pink, besequinned tutu… and it was absolutely the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my four long years. A few months later I started ballet classes at my preschool (we had the option of ballet instead of naptime twice a week, and I was of the strong opinion that naptime was for suckers), and the ballet teacher’s carmine lipstick, false eyelashes, dyed black hair and cigarette smoking (with a cigarette holder) (yes, during class) seemed to me the epitome of elegance.
In short, I was hooked early.
I continued with ballet for the next two decades, though I added gymnastics and, later, modern dance to the mix. While I wouldn’t exactly say that I always wanted to be a dancer… I definitely didn’t ever NOT want to be a dancer. I just liked a lot of other things too. (I grew up in 1980s California, we were constantly told we could be anything we wanted to be, so why limit myself? Architect/Activist/Author/Actress/Painter/2nd Grade Teacher/Inventor/Dancer/Dentist/Magical Fairy Queen? Sure, why not?) Still, I was in love with dance, and you can’t deny true love. Looking at this photo and the many others, taken in the years that followed, of myself in various costumed and leotarded states, one could certainly infer a sort of continuity: She always wanted to do that, and look at her, she did it.
However, my life now is unlike anything I could have imagined as a just-turned-four-year-old. Or as a 16-year-old, or a 22-year-old, or even six or seven years ago (I’m 34 now). And while I will always be happy for someone who achieves a lifelong goal, I also think that there’s a serious problem with the glorification of single-mindedness that the concept of “making it” evokes. I’m so glad that I’m not following the dictates of my four-, sixteen-, twenty-two-, or even twenty-eight-year-old self. As I see it, my life’s current trajectory should no more be defined by my tastes or desires of a few years ago than by my toddler-self’s lust for pink satin.
If my “it” is changing, it means that my perspective is getting wider, my worldview more informed, I’m discovering new possibilities… in some cases the possibilities themselves are even multiplying. Working as one member of a global artistic community means that, as others innovate or rethink performance, my own sense of what my art is expands. Living as one member of a global human community means that, as I travel and meet people from all over the world, as I devour books and news articles and listen to others speak, as I have unexpected encounters and as I deepen my relationships with the people I love, my own sense of what my humanity is expands.
Success might be amorphous but failure is easy to name. I’ve had so many instances of failure in my dance career – I was too fat, too shy, too flexible (in the wrong way), too weak, too muscly, too weird, too boring, too dorky, I sprained my ligaments and broke my bones, I could never do a proper pirouette… dozens of failed auditions are the tip of the iceberg. And all that awkward, that disappointing, that embarrassing failure has led me to a life that I adore, far beyond any of my expectations, or any of my younger self’s dreams.
A glimpse (also useful as an update for my mom):
Right now I’m on the southwest coast of Ireland, with 20 other dancers from all over the world and three musicians from Ireland, doing a week of research for a possible project next year, inspired by the poetry of William Blake.
Last week I was in the south of Italy, seeing a new opera written and directed by a dear friend and collaborator of mine, before visiting another opera festival where we made a work together last year (and may return for a new creation next summer – fingers crossed).
Most of this current summer I spent in Berlin, working with a bonkers and beautiful company of dancers, actors, musicians and performance artists on a 4.5 hour site-specific work exploring photography and memory.
Next week I’m on vacation at home in Madrid… And in two weeks I’ll go to Hamburg to learn a piece in which I’ll replace a dancer later this fall, directed by a choreographer from Burkina Faso and inspired by the music and politics of Fela Kuti.
From the end of the month I’ll be working in the Palais Garnier in Paris, teaching to the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet a duo that I created with a Belgian choreographer in 2009, which I’ve performed almost 100 times on four continents, and now am passing on to new dancers at not only the P.O.B., but also the Ballet of Bordeaux, the Ballet of Flanders, Tanzcompagnie Konzert Theater Bern, and Acosta Danza in Cuba.
I have to take a few days off in the middle of teaching the dancers in Paris, though, to go to Milan and perform a piece created a few years ago in Belgium and Italy with a collective of actors.
The end of the year I might spend in South Africa working with the director from Berlin… but if the funding doesn’t come through I might go to New York to work with the director from Italy…
2018’s calendar, by contrast, is immaculately empty – a few pencil scratches but nothing set in ink, let alone stone. It’s a state of affairs that in another moment may have filled me with anxiety, but at this moment feels fertile and exciting.
I could, of course, try to imagine what my ideal year would be – make a list of intentions and ambitions – and sure, sometimes it’s fun to have goals. But whatever I think of today might not be as interesting as the reality that will present itself, so what’s the point?
In fact, I often think that my favorite thing about being a freelance dancer is not knowing what my future looks like – the sense that next year or next month or next Thursday could bring a discovery or encounter that will change the course of my experience.
Really, who am I to say what my future self should do? She’s so much smarter than me! All I can say now is that “making it” would have been way less cool than this… I know that for many my lifestyle would be perplexing, one could feel rootless or overwhelmed. For me, however, it’s just right.
I’d much rather twist it (taste it, stretch it, refine it, dive into it, nurture it, sabotage it, feed it, blow it up, squeeze it out, flow with it, mold it, morph it) than make it.
Daisy Phillips studied dance in her hometown of Berkeley, and in San Francisco, London and Geneva. She began her career in 2005 with the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, before returning to San Francisco, where she worked primarily with Erika Tsimbrovsky. Since 2007, she has collaborated extensively with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Antwerp). She now regularly represents him as a rehearsal director and coach. In 2011-12 she joined Alain Platel (les ballets c de la b, Ghent) for the creation of C(h)oeurs. That same season she took part in the founding of the theater/movement collective IfHuman. Later in 2012 she was a guest artist with the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo. In 2013, Quan Bui Ngoc (les ballets c de la b), created a solo for her. In 2014, Daisy began working with Constanza Macras / Dorky Park in Berlin. During 2016, she was a member of the Göteborgs Operan Danskompani in Sweden. She also has an ongoing collaboration Cecilia Ligorio, acting as choreographer and dancer for productions in Valencia, Puglia and New York City.