Editorial Note: For the past eight years, Stance on Dance has asked a variety of 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 MADELYN BIVEN
It was my final semester in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program when a ballet teacher at the end of class one day asked what my plans were upon graduation. When I said I didn’t know (no dance jobs were lined up, no contract was signed), she looked at me for a moment and seemed puzzled. Then with fondness she said, “There is somewhere out there for you.”
I was struck in a funny way. My future dance career felt certain yet ambiguous. I believed her.
There are many social moments we have as dancers—someone gives us a pretty compliment, the audience is in awe, a mother (not your own) cries from watching your performance—that attribute to our public identity. For me, pursuing the identity of being this kind of dancer made me feel utterly lost and left behind. I dipped into freelance work when I lived in the Bay Area and signed contracts for project-based work. But it was never my job to be in the studio all day all year long. The motivation to achieve this goal kept me training, but I always felt I was never in class enough. I felt I needed to be on stage more. I was insatiable. I began to think this is what it meant to be an artist; to be forever insatiable. A beautiful starve. A complex algorithm of desire I cannot decode about my very own self. A mystery breathing endlessly.
During my time pursuing a dance career in the continental US, the identity of the place I was born, Hawai’i, sat in the deepest folds of my heart. I was always homesick. I lived with a divide inside myself. I felt as though I was two halves that didn’t touch. Two full moons in one sky. I was lusciously seeking western forms of dance in my body, contemporary styles based off ballet and the anarchy of ballet, but I knew of no dance companies in Hawai’i. Hula seemed too low impact and simple bodied for my fire. I wanted to be a beast. I wanted high legs and silky floor work. I wanted to eat the space alive. And I didn’t want to give up ballet. But my physical body felt best at home on the islands. The humidity soothes my skin and opens my joints. The sea water puts waves and shapes into my hair. I feel as though my internal organs relax when I am at home and my nervous system detoxes from city noise. If I were to listen to my body, it would say, “Be in Hawai’i.”
Living and working on the continent, I longed for Hawaiian earth, but when I visited Hawai’i, I felt anxious like I was slacking off as a dancer. I was never whole.
Photo courtesy Contact Hawai’i
I decided to leave the Bay Area and return to O’ahu six years ago. But I didn’t stay. I have also lived in Los Angeles, Charlotte and Boston these six years. I was chasing love. I was running away from and toward it at the same time. There are not specific landmarks I recall which rerouted my path as a dancer, but I know that in moving to new places without an immediate connection to a dance community, I had to keep my dance alive on my own. The last thing I could do is not be a dancer, and not because it was my outward identity, but because it was how I made sense of the contradictions in this world.
Now in 2020 (and in my 30s), I feel no need to escape my body from the anxiety that I am not doing enough. Upon returning to Hawai’i, I have been invited to perform in both small and large-scale art shows, gallery spaces, and improvisational happenings. Most of my performance practice is currently improv-based, which is never something I sought out in pre-professional training. I am usually asked to “do whatever you want” when it comes to sharing solo dance work in a collaborative space. People who want to work with me as a dancer trust me as an artist. And I finally trust myself.
The division I felt inside for years has become a deep crevasse and now possibilities coexist rather than separate me. I think artists live constantly between dualities; thus, art makes its way to us through the cracks of our world. It is the nurture of nature which grows an artist, not an everlasting starvation. The notion of “making it” kind of floats away from me. I cannot grasp it. I would say I have made it out of something in my mind and into something else. And if I find myself to be idealess at times, I listen to that, as ideas also need the space to rest and breathe.
Photo courtesy Contact Hawai’i
Madelyn Biven performs, teaches, and researches movement-based work. Upon moving home to Hawai’i in 2017, she has been a dancer in the Honolulu Biennial, O’ahu Fringe (as a guest with electroViolet), Peiling Kao Dances Home Season, Maui Dance Festival, and Contact Hawai’i, an annual exhibition exploring the notion of foreign contact as it relates to the Hawaiian Islands. Madelyn developed and performed work for Hawai’i-based collectives Paradise Cove and Aupuni Space. She currently teaches ballet in Kailua on the island of O’ahu.