My first time working in Europe was in Germany.
It was 2001 and I was commissioned to make a new work for Stuttgart Ballet. As someone who travels to the rawest of far off lands in my head, the instability of creating something by additionally traveling to such a foreign place was intense. Never in the whole time I was there did it feel like a place. Life was a strange and unsettling dream for weeks: making something for this prestigious company and the pressures and expectations that go along with that, it was a piece that I could barely recognize myself in. My voice felt like a mumble. My first day there, just a short trip for casting, I had some time to kill before my plane left and I sat writing into the evening in one of the dance studios by a window, trying to conjure the ghost of John Cranko. After about an hour, a security guard came in, and without a common language between us, he started yelling at me in German. He finally came out in English with “GET OUT NOOOOW,” in the terror that only a German accent can communicate.
Now, many years later, I am working in Germany a third time for a young dance company in Kiel. When I finally land in Hamburg, after a sleepless flight, I know that things have changed. This immediately feels like a place and it is clearer to see the connections between this place and say, Alabama. The difference in feeling is so drastic that it is clear that I have changed and I can feel why. I am no longer malleable to my environment. Despite the foreignness of this place, the constant is me.
I have no idea what to expect with this company. I had never even heard of Kiel before they contacted me and communications had been difficult, so I was ready for anything. I spent my first few days with a dangerously low amount of sleep so my faculties were made of tissue paper. But the dancers were intensely open to what I had to say to them. First rehearsal with a company, if I am first arriving so close to a performance, is deflating, because the amount of information that I need to communicate is impossible. But slowly, you chip away and prioritize. I generally use the first day to lay out nearly everything I possibly can within the rehearsal hours given. The most information the earliest, then see what sticks and prioritize from there.
The piece they were dancing was A Day in the Life with music by The Beatles. I think it is a deceivingly difficult piece to dance because of its content. We tend to value performers in their bravery for more dramatic roles and picture that kind of communication as the most vulnerable. Look no further than who wins at the Oscars. But I think that it is truly much more risky to share what gives you pleasure. I don’t refer to the toothy, scenery-chewing smile of a Broadway chorus, but the nuanced, human, multicolored experience of an authentic loving. There are so many natural defenses that drive a person to make fun of it, but to do so is also making fun of oneself. Part of my job with this work in particular is to help the dancers feel comfortable enough to embrace this idea to express themSELVES in this way. I think it is perhaps a particular challenge in Germany where so much of the repertory is quite dark. But these dancers rose to the occasion step by step without prejudice. They were able to process new ideas with varying degrees of ability along the way so I wasn’t sure what to expect opening night, but I have to say, within the context of what we had time to focus on, it was a near perfect performance.
What a strange thing to come for such a short time to have such an intimate relationship with strangers. They come from so many different nationalities and cultures and the gaps create many failures, but in that short amount of time, there is a unique friendship and gratitude that can only come from this kind of mutual agreement.
This comes apart for me somewhat at the opening night party. Suddenly that energy of accomplishing something becomes about access and putting people on pedestals and people seem to want a piece of me that I don’t have available to give. The foreign-ness comes into greater focus, not just of our nationalities, but the distance between two humans. Within the long speeches I find myself clapping for things I don’t know what I’m clapping for. The conversations with my collaborators are now about finding a wholly different kind of intimacy and it feels like somewhat of an undermining of our relationship. I think we have the culture to drink booze at parties to obscure the (beautiful) intensity and broad spectrum of feeling in life. We whittle it down to simplify the joy without its complications and all of the other feelings within it. Not where I am tonight.
Off to Berlin…