Considering what information I give the audience outside of an actual dance I have made, is a dilemma. My default answer is: nothing. I tend to agree with Roland Barthes’s assertion in The Death of the Author that a work should stand on its own and that details of the creator’s identity should not be important in the understanding of a work. Any kind of myopic anthropology that supports the belief that art is a puzzle of clues for the audience to figure out and get right is undermining to a real human being having a real human experience in this interaction. I think this makes people who may otherwise have the openness of perspective to really be present with a dance, feel stupid and makes academics, feel smart.

model Charles Peck

However, in the course of making a dance company, I spent more energy and thought on engaging with audiences and communities than I did on the work itself. Cultural context for American dance does not exist in a significant way. And one of the best ways I found to provide this context, was information. I admit wholeheartedly that personally, the more information I have about a work, the more I am able to invest myself in it. Not to be told what it is or what to think, just any bits of information that provide context and greater richness of color. A place to start.

So in the presentation of the work that I made about the Summer of Love called Be Here Now, I thought about what information to provide with an intensity. One thing that became very apparent in my research was that that summer meant very different things to different people. It mattered very much where you were and who you were with and what was important to you. So just the slice of audience coming to see this piece who were there, already had very different notions of the time. And then there are generations who were not born yet and probably have very little context. It was important to me to not simply present a nostalgic and sentimental trip through the 60’s, so some knowledge of the time was in fact important for the experience of the piece.

So, I arrived at writing an essay to accompany the work. Not a synopsis, but actually a part of the performance. Something to interact with alongside the dance that hopefully still leaves plenty of room for the viewer to discover and to imprint their own experience.

Here is the essay:

When I was 18, I tore a page from the book Be Here Now (by the spiritual guru Ram Dass) and hung it on my wall. It was an illustration of a chicken with the caption overhead, in big block letters: “THE CHICKEN SEES.” I did it mostly as a joke. My friends and I would mock-hippie the headline to each other “the chicken seeeees, man,” making fun of the grooviness of a time that we had only heard of. The chicken gets it. Chickens were funny. We also liked drugs.

I developed an existential and inconsolable agony over death at a very young age. The finality and unfairness of a dark and unknown ending, where we were separated from all that we knew and loved, made my bones squeeze tight like dry rags and pushed the air from my lungs. It was a way to try and eject this inevitability from out of me.  The core nature of my own reality as I had constructed it was false, and facing this horror sent me into days on end of uncontrollable weeping and loneliness. No adult could or tried to comfort me.

dancer Erica Chipp

One of the things that woke me up to this agony at such a young age was conceptualizing the Cold War and America’s use of nuclear weapons. It is impossible for a child to understand the very adult Jenga of justifications that leads the world to point so much destruction at itself. The mushroom cloud of the atom bomb is a perfect synecdoche: a looming, inescapable dark from overhead. It is our inevitable doom. As moments of time pass, it looms larger. It mushrooms

The blissful utopia that the hippie movement sought was the perfect antidote to the previous era where school children hid under their desks for bomb drills. The goal was love and acceptance of all people. We banded together to fight for the rights of the oppressed and against the restrictive hold of outdated social models. We banded together to end war. Access to LSD offered a fast-track to enlightenment that previously had taken monks their lifetimes to achieve. A whole new way of life was shocking itself open, blooming with the idealism of a flower as it opens.

dancers Jonathan Powell and Benjamin Needham-Wood

As an outsider and an artist, this philosophy and aesthetic of counterculture was tantalizing to me. I didn’t feel comfortable in the social constructs that were passed on to me and I looked to the music and message of this era for guidance of my missile. There was a connection to real meaning in existence that I couldn’t find in the day-to-day experience of how we have shaped our society.

As I’ve grown up, I look at that picture of the chicken differently.

The story goes: an aged spiritual leader calls on two of his disciples with a grave task. He gives each of them a live chicken and instructs them, “Go where no one can see you and kill the chicken.” One of the disciples goes immediately behind the barn and returns with a bloodied, headless chicken. The other disciple wanders for hours and then comes back with the chicken still alive. The spiritual leader asks him, “What happened?” and the disciple responds, “I cannot find a place to kill the chicken where no one can see me, for everywhere I go, the chicken sees.”

dancer Erin Yarbrough with dancers from Smuin Ballet

When we conceptualize God, there is usually this all-knowing set of eyes that judges our behavior and determines our level of goodness. Even Santa Claus is watching and keeping a list. But there is a relinquishing of responsibility and action in this setup. We bargain and hide from God, but in the end, our own eyes will always see. If we betray our own, perfect, God-like essence, if we lie and pretend there is some way to hide from that, then we betray ourselves and all sorts of hell breaks loose; we start pointing weapons at ourselves.

I have spent my own spiritual journey in the years since the beginning of my awakening delving into religions and philosophies and drug experiments and transgressing and making art. And with all pathways, I end up in the same spot. To find peace in this life is to find presence, mindfulness, and love in this moment. To Be Here Now…because our presence in this moment is the only truth possible.

dancer Ben Needham-Wood

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