When I entered the Houston Ballet Academy in 1987, I was ready to quit dance. My high school training in at North Carolina School of the Arts had been so joyless and defeating that it was hard for my ego to muster any juice to continue toward dancing. After growing up in Wichita, Kansas, the experience of life on my own with so many creative people in one place was important, but the time I spent in the classroom left me suspicious of adults and most other humans. My friend Jon Swarthout had left NCSA to join the school in Houston the year before, and he convinced me to audition for the summer program instead of quitting. He assured me that this was a different animal and that I could find a new inspiration there (Jon also later was the siren who lured me to Boise, Idaho where I eventually based my company). Houston also had a summer choreographic program that they asked me to participate in and that certainly gave me a renewed excitement.
The school made good on its promise the very first day, in my very first class, my very first tendu combination. Rosemary Miles, the vice-principal at the time, threw herself on the floor and wrapped herself around my feet. “Trey, your tendus are so heeeavy,” she groaned. That was more passionate engagement in that one moment than I could total in two years at NCSA. I was hooked.
Clara Cravey Stanley (who later became the Principal of the academy) was one of my main teachers. She was an explosion of colorfully positive energy. She was disciplined, but taught us to dance from our joy and sense of artistry. We secretly called her Miss Crazy. I always felt believed in by her, even through all of my own challenges and that she always imagined the best for me. If I hadn’t had this experience, I would never have had the amazing life I have led.
Clara (I can barely not call her Miss Cravey) is now the Associate Director at University of Oklahoma School of Dance. She asked me to come this last week and work with her students, both in technique classes, Q and A’s, and making a new work for their fall show.
I like working with students quite a bit. They are at a wonderful place, coming into their abilities and everything is an opening up and a discovering and they have not yet have adapted the ego and distance inherited by a professional dancer. These students were particularly present and motivated. Nervous to be working with me, but not hesitating to give themselves to the experience. I loved talking to them and found a clarity of wisdom that I could share that was much like teaching myself…reminding myself of what is underneath all of this living.
After the first day, I got a text of gratitude from Clara saying that this would be an experience that these dancers would remember for the rest of their lives (she also very sweetly had 2 bottles of wine and some tequila delivered to my hotel hot tub). I knew this to be true because the same thing happened in my experience with her and it became crystal clear to me what a privilege this was. I certainly had a clarity about why I was there before, but in the end, there is still a ballet to make and that takes a certain kind of focus that is only about making the ballet. But what she said helped me feel the depth of my own gratitude for being in a position where I could positively affect someone’s life. I had so much thanks for the lifetime of experience that had brought me to this point.
There are people who have reported near-death experiences who describe the “life flashing before your eyes” moment in a particular way. They describe it as completely non-linear and having access to your entire life all in the same moment. But what struck me in a particular description was that they weren’t experiencing life from their own perspective, but from the perspective of the people they had encountered. They were receiving all of the actions they had put out and felt the pain of the people they hurt and the joy of the people they lifted up. This is such an interesting manifestation of “do unto others.” If this were to be true, literally what you do to others you are eventually (or beyond time, always) doing to yourself. In this view of the afterlife, we are all truly one being and our lifetimes are spent doing things to ourselves. Whether or not this is true, when I think of it, I think of literally doing the things I do to other people as if I am doing them to myself. And in that perspective, to love my enemy is to forgive my own failures. To know fully that those failures have value and to embrace them.
My hotel was about a 30 minute walk from the studio and one of the things I enjoyed most was that walk there every day. There was one day I was doing that and considering this idea and the interconnectedness of all things was becoming clearer and gaining color in my mind. I stopped to look at the pavement because everything, all things seemed to be in the sidewalk. I sat in the grass and stared into it and could feel, deeply that the system of all of it was contained right there in the cement. That I could sit there and unlock deeper and deeper meaning in the mystery, not by zooming out and seeing the dust and the ant and the maple seed, but going in, going into all of it, all at once. Our system felt like a spaghetti squash of connections that makes all things one. The more I understood it, the less I could verbalize. These answers are so vast that they are unknowable using a brain as a tool. And there was even a pain in the longing to be in all of it, know all of it, while at the same time, knowing it was impossible in this life.
My experience with the students continued to expand as I felt more and more deeply that the dancers are me and that I am them. We are all one vast organism playing out an exercise and a construct to approximate the things that free us temporarily from being Earth bound. We approximate flight. We approximate God-like archetypes. We describe as best we can the things that cannot be said.