In the Middle?

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.


I thought I was too experienced to have a “sophomore slump.”

Two years ago, I wrote about my problem with “making it,” what I considered a mental substitute for something more substantial. Last year, I wrote about the responsibilities of a professional dancer and how I navigated my first experiences in a company.

Now, about to begin my third and final year in the Batsheva Ensemble, I’m a veteran.  I’ve started to teach my own Gaga classes. My passport is almost full, and I actually have frequent flyer miles. Yet, I’m still only in a junior company, and I have to remind myself that in the larger scheme, I am still so young. And I’m still vulnerable to rookie mistakes and the important lessons that follow them.

During a frank conversation last season, one of my bosses explained that he could depend on my diligence in the studio and trust me to be good in every show, but that I rarely surprised him on stage, that my interpretations were sometimes “too polite.” The feedback sent me reeling.  When had I and my consistency become so unremarkable? When had my performance of the work transformed from conscientious to dutiful to irrelevant? Had I inadvertently been sucked into the practice of tiptoeing?

Attention, especially in the dance world, is fickle. We put a premium on youth. We value new inputs, surprises.  In a second company, turnover is built into the system, as is the pressure to prove yourself and stake your claim. I’ve been a professional for two years, yet I’ve already had the creeping sense it’ll all be over soon.

In my efforts to fit myself into a company, to become a great asset, what faded (or what didn’t evolve enough) was my greatest asset and the reason why I was hired in the first place.  Me.

Professional dancing is like any other job. At its most basic, we show up, we work and then we go home. That we fill out a time card and get paid, however, does not have to lessen how much we love to dance. Our passions can be just as fiery, our obsessions just as maddening. Like every artistic practice, dance requires that we bring our full selves to what we do. Partial fractions are not enough; only the full-fat, high resolution versions are worth baring.

The past two years have taught me about the transition from succeeding as a student to succeeding as a professional. Really, there is little difference. The foundation, the baseline, is the same: show up, trust in the work, keep plowing. The biggest change is that the onus is on us to feed ourselves the important questions.  To take more risks.  To explore without prejudice the full range of choices that are at our disposal.

We already learned the rules of grammar.  Now we can use them — and break them — to write poetry. True fluency means infusing any language with ourselves, using it to express what we want to say.

To do this, we have to embrace our agency, to become drunk with our own research and decisions. We have a responsibility to interrogate our work.  We — and our art — only get better by asking more questions.

We must continue to train. Class can’t just be a warm-up; it has to be a physical investment if we want to grow and push boundaries. Serena Williams recently won her 21st Grand Slam title at the age of 33, and she is more physical than ever. We should take note.

We have to stop making excuses for ourselves and each other. “He’s shy”… “She’s insecure”… “I started dancing late” can only apply for so long, and they undermine our best work. I caught myself prefacing my recent return to class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance with, “I haven’t taken ballet in so long.” How lame. Qualifying our work with disclaimers only shrinks our size and potency before we even start moving. They arise from fear and insecurity. But when it comes down to it, what is there to be scared of?

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about stamina. Fatigue exists, and there is no use denying it. We feel tired after a long day, after a long season, after a long career. We must rely on stamina in all of its forms. Most important (for us and for dance), we must exercise the stamina to get over ourselves, our egos, cut through the threat of interruptions and distractions, and continue to produce our best work.

As my close friend and fellow artist Shannon told me, “It’s time for you to be the bucking bronco, with a close-knit style of power and beauty. Get messy, become untamed, ruffle a few feathers and, most importantly, BREAK ALL THE RULES.”

We have the license to run. We shouldn’t look to anyone for permission.

Kelvin Vu - making it 15

Kelvin Vu began dancing while at Yale University and later trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance under the direction of Summer Lee Rhatigan.  In the Bay Area he worked with Project Thrust, Sharp & Fine and Joy Prendergast. For the past two years he has been a member of the Batsheva Ensemble in Tel Aviv, Israel.