The other night I was in a dance studio at my college. A friend of mine within the performing arts department had kindly agreed to teach me some basic dance lessons. I knew she was an excellent dancer, which was one thing, but the fact that we get along so well and sometimes see the world through shared eyes was an added bonus. We were meeting for the dance lesson quite late because she had rehearsals immediately before that. As I have told her, “Actors are lazy, dancers cannot be.”
I had done about 30 minutes of stretching before entering the dance studio, but continued with additional warm-ups when she arrived. I have minimal dance experience and training, certainly not in a traditional setting, and my coordination has not always been where I want it to be in the past. I grew up a clumsy and awkward child. I had unusually long legs, even for someone as tall as me, and a very small upper body. I was hopelessly bad at almost every sport, but I had always prided myself on being faster than almost all the other kids I knew at sprinting. By the time I was a junior in high school and had developed an interest in acting (and at the advice of one of my closest mentors), I took up weightlifting in an attempt to not only increase my confidence but also my physique. It did wonders. By now, 4 years on, I am still 6′ 2″ but rather than being 160 lbs, I am 190 lbs and far more confident in my figure (although at times, years of bad body image still manage to trick me into seeing something different in the mirror than what is really there). I also take pride in stretching and flexibility, endeavoring to be limber as well as strong and defined.
Thanks to my training in Suzuki and Viewpoints with the SITI Company this summer, I found a new elegance in my movement that perhaps had always been there, I just had not realized. I had unlocked it, somehow, like Michelangelo freeing David from the marble, but now I needed to continue to refine it. To train. I needed technique, I needed training, I needed diligence and patience and commitment, but most of all I needed to destroy any fear of failure, because fear of failure is what prevents an actor from sharing the truth of the moment on stage. I needed to be fearless.
Tadashi Suzuki’s rigorous training method gave me the discipline of mind and body I needed, Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints gave me the playfulness and capacity to work with the ensemble, Ellen Lauren gave my voice and breath the groundedness to find truth which came from my body and not my overactive nerve endings, but it was Barney O’Hanlon who gave me fearlessness. Barney’s movement class terrified me. I felt out of place, like a clumsy dodo trying to be an elegant swallow. My left foot wanted to go where my right foot should be. And then Barney said something to us that struck a revelation in me (that is a bit unfair, because he said MANY things that had this effect): “Dance is simply conscious movement.” Suddenly, instead of worrying about how pretty I was, whether or not I looked ridiculous (which at times, I am sure I did), I just dove into his class with every ounce of my creative being. And I reaped the rewards. By the end of the training program, Barney told me personally: “You have come a long way since the first week. You have found the connectedness in your body. You’ve loosened up. It shows.”
So in that dance lesson with my friend, after we had warmed up and she had gone through some basics with me, I danced. Nothing in particular, nothing written down in any codified book on Ballet or Modern or Jazz or Tap. I simply danced. At first I held back. I realized this after about 5 minutes. I told her. I began again. And when I finally forgot she was in the room, to the point where I was barely conscious where my foot or arm or neck would move next in space or time, it was then that I became fully conscious. I became fearless. My dance was for me, it was for the expression of me and my place in this universe, my pains and sorrows and frustrations and joys and discoveries and bliss. It was a living, breathing experience of experimentation that was never sure where one moment ended and another began. It was uncertain, and it was exciting! I was having fun, and I wasn’t letting anything stop me.
At the end of the dance, I slowly, slowly lowered myself to the ground as if laying myself down in a holy bow to the gods of dance and theatre. They didn’t need to respond. No one did. I was simply finding my way back down to the earth, down to where life was created, the nurturing mother that absorbed all the fear that been lingering for so many years in my trembling bones. It was liberating and it was invigorating. I breathed deep heavy sighs. I knew I had been no Baryshnikov, but I FELT like Baryshnikov.
My friend was silent for a long time, as was I. Finally, she said this to me: “You were completely fearless in your dancing. Many dancers with far more technique than you can’t do that.” And I took that as one of the greatest compliments I have received in regards to my art. Because no performer can hold onto himself on the stage. I do not mean he should throw himself at the audience either – he should share himself with the audience and with the stage like a man shares his lunch with a friend or a stranger in need. He should not withhold his spirit, nor should he hurl his spirit indiscriminately into the audience. He should breathe each breath with honesty, and move each muscle with the intent of sharing the realization of life.
I knew that night that technique did not matter. It is a necessary and useful thing, which requires many years of diligent, brutal focus and labor. But this can be acquired through effort. Fearlessness cannot be acquired in such a way. It can only be received by letting go. I am learning to let go. And the rest shall fall into place.