Musicality - Flight of Imagination

Tango music is an acquired taste. The first few times I found myself at a milonga I noticed that I could not really tell one song from another, they all sounded the same. The first time I heard the words "OMG I love this song!" from a partner, the question that followed in my mind was "why?" as in, "this music is so uninteresting, what is there to like?" I remember feeling my preference for alternative, pop music when I danced. I felt more free in it, I could understand it better, it was more fun. Over the years though something began to change, and I found myself experiencing unexpected bursts of emotion when certain tangos played. Suddenly I would be transported to a very specific place and time, to a very specific memory and the song would move me as if I myself wrote it.

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My first concrete attempt at understanding tango music happened a couple of years ago when I attended a musicality workshop with Alex Krebs in Portland. I remember many brilliant things about that weekend, but the overpowering feeling that I was left with at the end was something that resembled a combination of bewilderment and confusion. I saw and understood that there was a way of hearing and expressing the music in the dance that illuminated and made visible the individuality and uniqueness of each orchestra, but I had absolutely no idea how... 

Being an educator I am always fascinated by the process of journeying from a place of not knowing to a place of knowing. So in my musical conundrum I saw a perfect opportunity to study myself, my own mind, my own processes of learning. My goal was straightforward - to develop the ability to distinguish between orchestras in order to know what and how my body wants to express the music. I quickly learned what did not work for me. Anything to do with memorizing, making notes, lists, or reading about the songs, reading the lyrics... basically anything language-based did not help me, it only frustrated me. But then I did stumble upon a very simple, very effective, and pleasurable process that has made the study of tango musicality a pure joy. 

The process revealed itself suddenly one night at the start of my 6-month stay in Buenos Aires in 2015. I was having one of those sublime cosmic dances in the darkly lit La Viruta. With my eyes closed I was aware of the blue light shining from the left and the deafeningly loud music blaring from the corner speaker. Suddenly I was transported to a different place and time, I was a glamorous 1930s Jean Harlow type running after my lover (Clark Gable maybe?) through an opulent palace. Everything in my movement was the emotion of the inner drama I felt. The song was a whole lifetime and it was alive through my body. As I opened my eyes after it ended, I was completely disoriented and walked away from my partner in the opposite direction of where we were supposed to go. The process found me - imagination.

I began to approach each song as if it were a soundtrack to a movie I was starring in. I let my imagination take over and I noticed my mind would embellish more and more the drama of the songs I was hearing. These dramas have become more specific and unique. With Fresedo I might be in a sweet silent film with Charlie Chaplain, while in some late DiSarli I am in a 1950s epic hollywood film. My imagination takes me to places of deep, mysterious emotions with Pugliese, reminding me of ancient tragedies. But with Canaro, there is rarely anything but sweetness and nostalgia, like memories of childhood. Sometimes I feel youthful and innocent other times I am full of rage and passion. Now dancing tango for me is not just about choreographing specific steps in a visually pleasing way. There is another dimension where every movement, every gesture arises from the emotional dialogue I have with the orchestra I am hearing. 

The obvious reward of this exploration is the feeling of satisfaction I get when I realize that I now do recognize a lot of the orchestras that I am dancing to. There are few things more satisfying than setting a goal for yourself and then actually achieving it. But what is more interesting to me is the fact that I was able to initiate a learning process of something I did not understand, without any guidance from anyone else, without spending time researching or studying. I learned from my own body, by observing and studying my own mind, constantly coming back to the pleasure of the dance and what I was seeking revealed itself so simply and so gracefully. There was no difficulty, there was no struggle there was no enduring of something for a while before you get the rewards... I simple went from not knowing into a place of knowing and the path of pleasure proved to be the best shortcut.

Interested in learning more about tango music? Join my FREE Musicality talk on September 6th and Weekend Intensive September 9-10. Find more information here.

Resolution #2017: Eat Your Cake And Have It Too

The other day a friend of mine shared her new year's resolution with me and then of course, she asked me what mine was. I couldn't answer. Not because I didn't have one but because I didn't know the words for it. I felt it, I saw examples of it, I could recognize it, but I couldn't really articulate it. 

2016 was a big year for me, pieces of my life began to fall into place, all of the sacrifices, all of the pilgrimages were revealing their lessons. I finally came to feel, as clearly as I feel the movement of my arm, as clearly as I feel someone's embrace around me... 

that

I do,

in fact,

create

my experience.

I learned that I can connect with my body to such an extent as to consciously, fully, heal from injury. I learned that it is possible to experience and consciously, fully, heal from painful emotions and past traumas. I began to experience the flow of my thoughts as something that didn’t just happen automatically, the bursting of emotions not as an accident, but that...

I had the ability to curate the contents of my mind and heart in each moment.

I found the quiet, powerful, beautiful inner core from which I could mold, craft, arrange, and play my life according to the purest, deepest desires.

I understood that desire drives everything and that the more I give into, learn from, experience, explore desire in all of its shapes and sizes the more empowered, effective, and happy, I am as a human being.

In 2016 I transformed the sorrow of loneliness into a deep love of solitude. I began to follow the natural flow of life instead of anxiously working towards an urgent future. I decided to give up and let go of control and let my desires inform my experience. 

So the resolution for which I am having a hard time finding words, has something to do with this...

To choose to enjoy everything a little too much.

In fact, to find out if there is such a thing as enjoying something too much. Can I find even more enjoyment in the beautiful company of my friends? In the quiet walk to my favorite coffee shop? In the smell of cologne? 

What if I smile a little too broadly when I like someone?

What if I lift my arms up a little higher when I dance because it just feels so damn good to move to music?

What if I laugh a little bit louder?

Make even more inappropriate facial expressions when I eat a fat piece of cheesecake? What if I compliment someone too much, just because it feels so good to see someone's face light up?

What if I have deep, intentional appreciation for a really bad sandwich, bad traffic, bad weather, bad politics, bad prices, bad coffee, bad sex...

What if I enjoy being myself too much?

Think too highly of myself, my appearance, my abilities, my performance? What if I fall even in more love with myself... even deeper, even more flamboyantly, more obvious, louder, crazier, the most intense over the top kind of love that we all fantasize about…

for myself!

 I really see no downside to this...

A First Performance

From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached ~Franz Kafka

They say it's important to do things that scare us. I remind myself of that as I watch my body move across the floor towards her, my partner. Dozens of eyes watching me, the air thick with anticipation, I feel myself walking into a complete unknown. Suddenly I feel like I don't know what to do next, but I manage to take the embrace. The first chords of the Canaro, there they are, I know this, I know this, I know this.... I remind myself over and over... far away there is an echo "you have done this thousands of times, you can do this." But it is just an echo and it is obliterated as the whole of my body, every cell and fiber, begin to quake. It is a loud, violent trembling that cannot be stopped. The sound of it reverberating through my bones, my muscles struggling to retain the body's verticality. It is like an earthquake, it is like the all consuming power of water released from a dam, it is like really bad turbulence on a plane. 

As my body follows the lead of my partner, I struggle to feel my feet, they are so far away. In fact, my whole body feels blown up, pieces randomly suspended in space. I feel myself stumble, but I can't do anything about it, I am not really in control. The vocalist releases the melody and I take the lead, intentionally slowing the transition, searching for the ground under my feet, searching for the boundaries of my body, of the embrace. "Walk...." A Gandalf-like voice echoes through my head. My body begins to move, my partner magically follows. Slowly things begin to come into focus and as they do, I come face to face with the thing that I am afraid of. The primal, archetypal, unexplainable, irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud. This is a familiar feeling, it has shown up at every piano recital, art exhibition, lecture, and any other event where I chose to really express something. That fear that I am exposing the fact that I actually have absolutely no idea what I am doing. It feels futile to try to prove anything, useless to try to show that my skill amounts to anything significant, anything worthwhile. 

 

I read somewhere a parable about a child who faces a monster. The monster shows all of his weapons, demonstrates how powerful it is. In response the child requests that the monster show him how he can be beaten. And so the boy conquers the monster. This was used as as a metaphor for facing our fears. The fear reveals the answer, but first one has to really face it...

And so in that moment, that moment when I face the possibility of the worst being possible, I suddenly arrive at another somewhat familiar place, a point of no return... a brief suspension, a slight opening up, a sudden cracking of the eggshell...  "so what? So what if it is true? So what if I don't know anything? So what if I make a fool of myself? What then?" In that moment the fear is nothing but a veil... In that moment I wake up. Suddenly, I feel the wave of the singer's voice carve through my body, I feel the strength of my muscles wrapping around my bones around her, around the space around us, around, around.... the whole world bursting out from some infinite void between us, endless possibilities... "Ah! This is it!" The thought echoes as I feel the music take charge of my body... everything snapping into focus.... and for a minute I am really dancing, traveling through the epic landscape of the Biagi, fused with the singer's voice...

I am being drawn through space, I am a tip of a pen, some powerful force guiding the gesture of the mark. The song draws to its dramatic end and there is a moment of silence before I hear the applause. I hug my partner, hardly believing that I am still there, that the force of that experience left me in one piece. But here I am, walking off the dance floor, being hugged by friends, congratulated. I am the same and I am thoroughly altered.  

How Did I Get "Here"?

"Tell me a story... Any story... the first one that comes to mind..." He looks at me expectantly.

Of course I stall... there are so many stories, so many timelines, so many memories and so many ways to assemble them. I smile. I think of the story of how I actually got to be here. "Here" as in "tango" - a state of mind and lifestyle that revolves around the feverish pursuit of fulfilling a desire that is beyond words, ephemeral, blissful and at times cruel. What are the chances that Argentine tango would become the thing that captured my imagination so strongly that it is all I do, think, write, talk about? Of all the things out there in the world, of all the people I could be connected with, of all the activities I could get into, how is it that I am here? I had been pursuing various forms of artistic expression since high school, but nothing had possessed me to such an extent as this dance. How did it come to this? What was the first pebble that began the avalanche?

My first experiences of Argentine tango were rather unimpressive and boring. I was going through a breakup and I happened to have friends who were trying to cheer me up, and they happened to be into tango. I attended some milongas, took some classes, even a couple of privates with a friend who needed a partner. I wasn't impressed, I couldn't tell what the big deal was. The music struck me as monotone, every song sounded the same, the dance itself looked like glorified shuffling of feet. 

It was a year after I first got introduced to tango that I happened to be at a Valentine's milonga, still unimpressed, still a bit bored with the whole thing. During the final song of the night, I had my coat in hand, about to leave, when I suddenly saw her. I saw them, the couple, but it was she... her movements, her fishnet stockings, her long legs, her sensuality, her grace that arrested me. I had never imagined that one could move like that, look like that, exude such intense sensuality and sexuality, I didn't know this was allowed. Something clicked, some raw, primal intensity was triggered in my consciousness. It was a terrifying experience because in that state of admiration I was also faced with my own paralyzing beliefs that I was not that and did not deserve or was not able to be that. It was another significant reminder of how deeply embedded my self loathing really was and how much I hated my body.

Months later I walked into that couple's beginner class taught on a university campus. I wore a black dress and fishnet stockings. I felt ridiculous, awkward, self-conscious, but I was determined to not buckle under the enormous shitload of self-deprecating rambling going on in my head. I remember struggling to balance on one foot in front of the mirror, attempting to mimic the movement she was showing. She - graceful, glamorous, sensual, admiring her reflection in the mirror, enjoying her body's expression. Me - "a cow on skis..." That is how I described myself at the time to my sister. The distance between what I perceived in her and what I experienced within myself seemed to be as vast as the Grand Canyon. There was not one iota of belief that I might actually ever look or feel like that about myself. But there was one thing that proved to be stronger, more potent, more violent, more turbulent, more daring than the impenetrable, concrete box I was living my life out of. And that simple thing was desire... In response to the ongoing monologue in my head -  "I am not good enough, I don't deserve this, I don't mean much, I can't, I am not allowed..." - came the simple, stubborn, "but I want to..." "I want to feel good about myself, I want to enjoy my body, I want to be confident, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and enjoy what I see, I want to enjoy being myself." It was this desire that set me on the most unexpected journey of transformation, pain, sacrifice, despair, discovery, illumination, and fulfillment.

My obsession with tango is really my obsession with learning to feel good about myself. To me the skill of feeling good about who I am right now is synonymous with being a "good" dancer. The rigorous, unforgiving technical challenges of tango consistently bring me back to that place of humility where I come face to face with my desire to like myself. Whether it is the physical, social, emotional, psychological, or poetic dimensions of tango, each challenging situation teaches me a new way to choose. The ability to decide, in the moment, to appreciate myself, to love my body, to accept my imperfections, to acknowledge my mistakes without judgement no matter what has proved to be the most powerful skill that changed the course of my life and has brought me to this unexpected magical place.

Tango Is A One Way Trip

The first couple of weeks were the hardest, as expected. The peace and quiet, the beauty and nourishment of Portland felt as jarring as the chaos of Buenos Aires felt when I first got there. Somehow it was too quiet, too slow, too clean, it felt fake, pretentious, a facade. My body had been conditioned for survival, for long nights, and little sunlight, for enduring the demands of the city, for eating and sleeping little, for heat and sweat and music that is too loud and streets that are too dirty, and lack of fresh air, lack of fresh food, and always the hypnotic, all encompassing grind of tango culture. It was like I grew extra limbs and organs to thrive in an environment like that. Like a mutant creature I learned to suck energy out of whatever nook and cranny I could find, out of blasts of dulce de leche sugar, out of mate, out of the heart wrenching music, out of the feverish embraces, out of long conversations, out of the ever present mysterious aches in my body, out of my own fears and insecurities, out of desire and sex. And this is the creature that suddenly finds herself in a bed that's too soft, breathing air that is too fresh, surrounded by colors that are too intoxicating and people who are too kind, too friendly, too available, too honest. I don’t trust it, I don’t believe it will last, I don’t believe it is real. I long for the familiar.

Days pass, weeks, new memories, new conversations, new connections and little by little, this world, this reality become more familiar, more home. I am swept away by the beauty of this place; the smells, the colors, the landscape, simple things, things I used to take for granted. Those things are suddenly magical: the roses blooming over my head on the staircase, the fragrant air of the forest, the quiet safety of the city at night, the cleanliness of the grocery store, the cars stopping for me to cross the street. 

And tango… What about tango? How does it compare? Do you miss it? Isn’t it depressing to be back? Those are some of the questions that I have heard over the past few weeks. Same questions I asked in my Buenos Aires delirium before coming back. How would I possibly dance anywhere else? How would I ever recreate this depth, this intensity, this out-of-body experience? How will I survive?! So melodramatic really. 

 

So now, 6 weeks being back in Portland, now that I spend hours dancing, now that I am teaching tango almost every day, now that I have my own dance space to practice, now that I help to host a weekly milonga, now that I dance every tanda with beautiful friends, with laughter, with that intimacy that tango allows for, now I can say with confidence and surprise that it is the same. Really. Same fulfillment, same joy, same beautiful juicy connection, same passion, same love of the music, same sensuality, same tango. It only takes a few seconds of the opening phrase of that song, that waltz that I have danced to a few hundred times… Whether it is on the dance floor in somebody’s arms, at home in the morning, at a coffee shop, riding my bike at 2am, or on a train at sunset on my way to class, suddenly blinded by the fiery light through the window… I only have to close my eyes... that waltz... I am grinning, tears on my cheeks, I am “there.” That place... that feeling, sensing, listening, loving, throbbing place inside myself. A place where fantasy and memory take over the steering wheel taking me on an ecstatic ride… I am locked in an embrace, my body part of a machine accurately measuring out the heartbeat of the music. All the gears, well oiled, spin around each other, the whole mechanism spiraling through the dark cosmos of La Viruta…  The song ends, I open my eyes, I am still grinning. I am at a milonga at Norse Hall in Portland, my partner and I reluctantly let go of the embrace. As we walk off the dance floor he says, “Tango is a one way trip…”

And so it is that I don’t really feel I have returned, the trip continues, and the tango that I found in Buenos Aires is not something site specific, temporary, limited, but something that is inside myself, timeless, without limits, without definition. That same tango continues to draw me through space and time now, through the bodies that I get to embrace, through the iconic music that I have come to appreciate so deeply, through the deep cellular memories of all my previous dances and the fantasies of future ones. 

Photos, courtesy of Bassel Hamieh

Paradigm Shift

I stand in line at the passport control, sleep deprived, emotionally drained, eyes swollen, feet aching, hungry, numb. I don't quite believe the reality of this moment, the actual end of this experience which I had been anticipating but not really believing. I look around, are there others who are having a similar experience? Anyone else struggling with the finality of this? I suddenly acknowledge that they are playing a tango song on the airport speakers. My heart tightens a little more, I smile, I begin humming along, I feel my body dancing this song, I am transported momentarily back into the darkened space of the milonga, back into the embrace, back, back, back, back... Oh how I try to recall, to recreate, to reinvent the experience of that song, of that embrace. But of course, I am left empty-handed, on my way out, stepping on the path that will take me back "home."

It is my turn to go to the booth. As I step up, I find myself wishing that the clerk would ask me about my experience, about what I was doing here, "what was the purpose of your trip to Buenos Aires?" I think about what I would tell her. Would she appreciate the magnitude of what I feel? Would she believe me? I suddenly hear a voice rise above the white noise of all the standard airport procedures. It belongs to a young man a few booths down. In his deep and quite operatic voice he sings the lyrics of the song playing overhead. For a moment I feel I am acting in a movie and this is the moment when the camera zooms in on my face. Carefully illuminated, my mouth breaks into a broad smile. On cue, the singing clerk locks eyes with me, and, a little embarrassed but with a lot of recognition, he grins. The whole exchange is less than 15 seconds long but I know the significance of this scene. I can tell how it will fit into the narrative of the film and what it will symbolize. Nowhere else in the world is this particular scene possible. I think of this as I take my passport and make my way to the gate. As if to underscore the truth of the moment, I am suddenly bombarded with the overly sweet rhythms of an American pop song playing in one of the duty free shops. This is my journey in a nutshell, I think to myself. Leaving behind the dirty, crumbling streets, the pollution, the chaos, the mutilated history and culture and returning to the shiny, the new, the organized, the clean and vibrant, the self-conscious, the politically correct. I feel and examine the weight and texture of both places, how they occupy my body, how they insist on their validity, like carrying two hearts within one chest, each demanding more life.  As I find my seat on the plane, one more time, I allow myself to cry, to think of all of the loves I am leaving behind, to give into the melodrama of the moment, like a true tango song. I really cannot imagine not being in Buenos Aires...

 

Another First Milonga

Another Friday night and I find myself walking down the street, past the lively restaurants, past the crowded ice cream shops, past the large groups of people gathered on corners laughing, smoking, drinking. I walk with purpose, with anticipation, with the usual butterflies in my stomach. As I turn the corner I begin to hear the familiar melodies wafting through the air, drawing me in towards the source. "A moth to a flame." Even though I have been doing this almost every night for the past six months, even though I have danced over 500 hours since I arrived in Buenos Aires, I still feel the same excitement/fear/anticipation/nervousness every time I head to a milonga. Some nights are magical, others are a complete disaster, and sometimes I oscillate between bliss and torment throughout the night. Whole lifetimes pass through me in a single night, molding me, testing me, punishing and rewarding me. 

As I approach the door, I am greeted warmly with a big hug and the familiar kiss on the cheek. I look out on the dance floor, and take it all in once again - the bodies moving in unison, the long legs, the short skirts, the low cut dressed, the furrowed brows, the firm embraces. It is like stepping into another dimension or being plugged into a virtual reality of some kind (I am thinking here of Neo being plugged into the Matrix for the first time). And in this moment, all of the past nights of dancing do not count, no other milonga exists, to me it feels like this is the first time. I am in awe at how this dance is even possible. It is as if I have never danced it and as I watch I am convinced that I really can't do what the people in front of me are doing. I stroll to the back, I kiss the familiar faces, and hug the familiar bodies. I sit down, I put on my shoes, I asses, I wait. And then it happens, a subtle nod of the head, and I am walking onto the dance floor to join the others and part of me is absolutely terrified, "there is no way I can do this." Thousands of thoughts begin to push through my mind, wrestling for my attention - "don't collapse the hip, use your center, relax your shoulder, but don't drop the arm...." With my heart racing, and my body trembling with adrenalin, I guide myself to take a deep breath and bring myself into focus. 

As I turn my attention and trust to my body, everything unnecessary dissolves and what rises to the surface are the few guiding insights I have gathered over the past six months of studying with teachers who have really become mentors. I see the smiling face of Mariana Dragone saying "When I move, I don't move my body, I move the world around me." As my partner embraces me, I imagine this and I feel my body grow powerful, rooting itself into the ground. I begin to receive the guidance of the lead, pushing against the world, stepping with confidence. The rhythmic beats give way to the melody, and I am invited to pivot and turn, my axis spiraling around my friend's. The calm voice of Eugenia Parilla echoes through my mind, "Let. Let free the leg, let free the arm, let free the joints." I let go of the fear of losing my balance, of not following perfectly, of misreading the lead. I tune into the essential physics and follow my body's natural momentum. The tiny fluctuations of tone throughout are like plucked strings on a guitar, delivering a perfect harmony to my partner's melody. We pulse, we sway, we spin and I experience that mysterious state where the boundaries of my physical form dissolve and it is the music itself that is moving through space. The feeling is so overwhelming that I suddenly doubt that I am really capable of experiencing it. Surely it can't be this perfect, surely my technique is not good enough yet, my experience not sufficient yet. But before that thought can even fully form in my mind, I meet the eyes of Oscar Cassas as he says to me, "Look, in the end, you must dance yourself, you cannot dance anyone else." So I continue to dare to feel this bliss, to feel good about myself, to accept my imperfect pivots, my faulty footwork, I dare to fully enjoy, to fully experience pleasure, to completely devour every moment, to really dance. The song ends and we linger in the embrace for a few more moments. As we separate, we look at each other without saying anything, just smiling, knowingly, anticipating the chords of the next song. I embrace my partner again, tuning into his body, listening, breathing. I can't help but smile as I remember another parting gift from Oscar Cassas in our last lesson. When I asked him how I could bring more form to my dance, he paused and then said, "I want you to imagine that you are a tiger..." 

 

 

 

In Hindsight...

I want to tell you about a dream I had in which I was an artist having an art opening in Buenos Aires. Oh wait... that actually happened. In my mind, however, as I look back and reflect, the memory of that night feels a lot more like a dream than reality. This dream begins with that unmistakable experience of being naked in a crowded room, fearfully awaiting the moment when everyone around you recognizes your shameful situation. The emotion of this particular imagery is completely unique. A strange mixture of vulnerability, terror, embarrassment, shame, inevitability, insecurity, total exposure. Every time I have an art opening I live this dream.

This time is supposed to be different. The day before I feel accomplished, at peace with the work. Nothing to add, no loose ends to tie up. The day of the opening I wake up with the intention of spending the day relaxing and celebrating myself, my work. And that's how it begins. But as the evening approaches, I find myself a terrified wreck, curled up in my room crying, feeling sorry for myself, alone and abandoned. I am certain of my utter failure. Then it is finally time, people are arriving, going through the gallery, reading the text, looking at the paintings. Then they are going upstairs and sitting down to watch the videos. My panic escalates and I find myself wishing the earth would open up and swallow me, or I want to at least find some hole to crawl into.  This is that dream - I am naked and at any moment the people around me will realize this.

In this storm of panic, doubt, and self loathing, there is a sudden ray of light that pierces through the clouds. This ray of light comes in the form of a friend of mine who shows up with containers of food, a bottle of champagne, and a big hug. And suddenly I am back in my body, back on the ground. I realize that I am generating the judgement that I so fear and the validation and acceptance that I seek. I realize I am now in another dream, one of those lucid dreams where you realize that you are the author of your experience. The biggest challenge with this kind of dream is to actually follow through with accepting what it is I am wanting to create. The nagging doubt, the slight disbelief, that quiet ridiculing voice stand in the way of fully having, fully being present, fully receiving. As I shift my focus it dawns on me that I am exactly where I was hoping, planning, anticipating to be - surrounded by friends. New friends whom I have met in the past 6 months, friends who have shared this journey with me, who have listened to me grapple with my ideas and fears, friends who shared insights and contributed feedback about my work, friends who have embraced me warmly on the dance floor and without knowing it, soothed me in my darkest moments.  The storm passes, the clouds clear, and everything is illuminated by my own acceptance of what I have been wanting. The evening flows, I find myself discussing my work, answering questions that I hoped people would be asking, accepting comments I was hoping to hear. And suddenly I find myself on the floor in a pile of beautiful people, laughing and cheering, infinitely grateful for the infinite complexity and beauty of this journey


DANCEDRAW Live

This week I began experimenting with live broadcasts as I work on a large scale drawing which will be included in the exhibition opening on Saturday. It has been a very interesting process of discovering and studying new dimensions of the creative process. Today I completed the third broadcast out of 5. You may view the broadcast for the next 24 hours by clicking here. There will be two more over the next couple of days which you can watch live on Periscope or I will be posting links afterwards here in the updates.

Some interesting questions and thoughts have arisen through this process. At first there is chaos. I am aware of my own insecurities, fears, and doubts. I admit to myself the possibility of failure, the not knowing whether I will be able to pull out of the chaos, to transform it, to sublimate it. I am attempting to both create a path and then walk on it. On one side is the pure visual quality of the surface where the body disappears from my awareness and I am only concerned with producing an aesthetically pleasing image. On the other side is the complete engagement with the movement of the body where the formal quality of the dance is the primary focus and the visual is accidental. Is it possible to synthesize the two to create another possibility where the creative/aesthetic path includes both? Would it even be interesting? Why does that even matter?

As I begin, I am aware that I am being watched. There is a desire to make something entertaining/interesting. I am aware of being judged. But then I am aware of the honesty of my own body, my own experience. I perceive my body dancing as I focus on the sensations of my feet pressing into the ground, sending lines of force through my bones. The force meets the wall, the surface of the drawing, a line appears. I am aware of the hands holding charcoal, marking the surface. The wall offers resistance, providing a container, defining the edges of possibilities. As I press into the vertical plane, new lines of force are channeled through my body back to the feet. The cycle continues, articulating the dialogue between various dimensions of my consciousness. When I am done, there are two presences left: the marked surface of the drawing and the digital document of my body performing this act. It is the space between these two bookends that I am trying to articulate.

Drawing Near To The End

I remember sitting with a friend a year ago, talking about my upcoming residency in Buenos Aires. I remember the particular feeling of excitement and dread as I said that I really didn't know who I was going to be by the end of of this experience. At that point looking ahead into the future felt like staring into utter darkness. I did not and could not have any expectations. Here I am now, nearing the end of this adventure. With my exhibition less than two weeks away, I am overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and wonder. Living in this city has been grueling physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is impossible to be fully comfortable, there is always something in the way. I don't sleep well or enough, I don't eat enough, it is too hot or too humid, the water tastes like chlorine, sometimes the food I buy is rotten, the air is polluted, smelling of exhaust, urine, dog shit, the bus has no air conditioning, the cars don't stop for pedestrians... And yet, I have been able to strike upon something within myself that survives all of this. I have never felt so liberated, creative, confident. I have had the most amazing inner experiences, have met amazing people, have transformed physically. I have been reshaped, remolded into someone I don't recognize, but somehow still familiar. The mysterious metamorphosis is reflected in my paintings and video which will be shown in the exhibition opening on March 5th. Here I am sharing one of the videos, of which I feel I am not really the author, but a witness of a complex, non-linear, co-creative process.


Painting/Poetry

Sometimes it so happens that my inner process as an artist is strongly influenced by what I am reading. My most recent literary drug was Tom Robbins' dense, opulent, and even gaudy expression in his book Jitterbug Perfume. His poetic language animated and sensualized my mind as I traveled through the various levels of my imagery. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the evolution of my latest painting alongside some of the sensual fragments from his book. 

I've a mind to lay you down and split you like a rack of mutton. What would you say to that?
You know very well what I would say. I would say those half-formed, half-crazed words the she-panther speaks when in the delirium of her seasonal heat she is mounted by her mate.
Upon those travelers who make their way without maps or guides, there breaks a wave of exhilaration with each unexpected change of plans. This exhilaration is not a whore who can be bought with money nor a neighborhood beauty who may be wooed. She (to persist in personifying the sensation as female) is a wild and sea-eyes undine, the darling daughter of adventure, the sister of risk, and it is for her rare and always ephemeral embrace, the temporary pressure she exerts on the membrane of ecstasy, that many men leave home.
 
...blasts of sugar
 
...existence can be rearranged
...nocturnal warmth enveloped her brain, washing her in star waters, translucent cherub sperms, and the midnight blue syrups that tropical moths lick.
 
...devouring delicacy
...night after night they dissolved their rope burns and fatigue in the salty flux and radiant slime of the glad-hearted fuck.
... he could not help but watch wide-eyed as this turbulent culture of flesh fought to gain control over its barbaric frontiers (bouncing breasts, swinging buttocks) and consolidate into an integrated empire as it slipped and slid down the hillside.
...mindless animal happiness
... the woman in clear communion with the booming bells of her meat...
...an organism steeped in pleasure is an organism disposed to continue...
If you lack the iron and the fizz to take control of your own life, if you insist on leaving your fate to the gods, then the gods will repay your weakness by having a grin or two at your expense. Should you fail to pilot your own ship, don't be surprised at what inappropriate port you find yourself docked. The dull and prosaic will be granted adventures that will dice their nervous systems like an onion, romantic dreamers will end up in the rope yard... The price of self-destiny is never cheap, and in certain situations it is unthinkable. But to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.

A Typical 21st-Century-Buenos-Aires Experience

Four months into my artist residency in Buenos Aires I finally accept an invitation to attend a gallery opening. Why did it take so long? Perhaps it is the language barrier, perhaps it is still the fatigue from all the past nights of gallery hopping, small talking, “networking.” Or maybe it is because I have grown accustomed to spending my nights not standing in front of bewildering works of art, wondering if I am missing something, not attempting to connect with others through talking, not analyzing, judging, predicting, documenting. Every night I look to bypass the rituals of the usual social interaction. I look for the shortcut to that direct one-on-one intimate experience with another body through dance. Even as I write this, I am aware how romanticized and melodramatic this might sound, but that is the only way I can talk about tango these days. It is in tango, over the past months, that I have begun to understand the disparate pieces of myself as an unusual, non-linear, constantly changing whole. It is within this frustrating, maddening, elusive, sublime tradition that I am sensing other possibilities of experiencing myself as a body. In this way, it is tango that has been a guiding light for my daily questioning of how and why I am here at all, and what it is I am attempting in my dance/video/painting/performance/collaborative project. 

So it is with some reluctance that I agree to accompany a group of artists on a Friday night to an opening at a very new contemporary gallery. As I approach the growing crowd of people congregating in front of the gallery I feel that familiar twinge of discomfort in my belly. It is amplified by my anxiety about having to converse in Spanish. After saying hola to a few familiar faces and politely saying no to cervesa I enter the gallery and head to a wall of photographs. I have an expectation about my experience: I will spend an appropriate amount of time considering the work, it will be interesting, maybe even clever. I will make up my mind about the work’s meaning, I will place it within a particular art historical context, I will then file it away, appropriately classified in my “art” folder, and having accomplished that, I will move on to the next. Instead, the experience unfolds in a completely different way. The modest photographs slowly begin to enchant me as they reveal their complexity and I am enamored and excited. Excited about the work and excited that I am having such an unfamiliar, refreshing, emotionally rich experience at a gallery opening. As I stand there in awe, visually traveling in multiple directions at once, I overhear a man next to me quietly comment about the wonder of these images. He says it so quietly that he and I are both surprised when, without intending it, I comment back to him in Spanish, agreeing with him. And suddenly I am engaging in a deep conversation about the complexity of the layering, the architectural nature, the play of color within the photographs. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that I sound like five year old chiquita, clumsily stringing unfamiliar words together in an attempt to express something important. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know anyone, that I feel like an outsider, I feel alone, I feel insecure. All of this doesn’t matter as I just allow myself to be carried by this singular moment of joy where I get to experience my body, myself, in a new but also familiar context. 

After the lively conversation with the stranger I see the rest of the show and having found nothing else that peeked my interest in quite the same way as that first group of photographs, I walk outside. The group of people has swollen and there is a lot of exclaiming, gesturing, laughing, smoking, drinking, articulating. For a brief while I stand alone observing. The realization gradually dawns on me that this scene, this group of people, these conversations, these gestures are really the same as everywhere else. Whether it is in Dallas, Portland, New York, art openings feel the same everywhere. That might sound depressing but to me it feels encouraging because that means that I don’t need to be anybody different, I can be the same as well. I can be me, no more, no less. It is liberating. It means that I know what I am doing, I don’t have to strive, I don’t have to impress, I don’t have to judge. 

I don’t have much time to ponder this because another stranger approaches me and begins to converse. Soon there is a whole group of people around me and the lively exchange flows rapidly from subject to subject, ranging from the making of kombucha and raw foodism to importance of experiencing vulnerability for personal growth and evolution of one’s art. Another idea gradually overtakes me and it takes a while for me to admit it to myself. People actually like me! It is an innocent thought, but radical nonetheless, as I see within myself all that unnecessary effort over the years of wanting to impress others, wanting to prove to everyone else that I am deserving of love, always working hard, always achieving. In this moment I suddenly realize I don’t have to do anything beyond being myself and everyone is on board with that. I can be awkward, I can make mistakes, I can misunderstand, I can not know things, I can be too loud, I can laugh too hard, I can be quiet, I can be shy, all of it is not only allowed, it seems to be encouraged! The only obstacle appears to this seems to be my own judgement.

 

So then I am in a car with three other people heading to another gallery and then a dinner. I am continually surprised at myself. At this point I should be scheming my escape into another dark milonga where I decided I now belong. But this feels so good! I follow my instinct and here I am, with three new friends listening to American songs from the early 90s. I am relishing in every moment as we all sing along with Jon Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” We laugh, we joke about accents. It is curious to me that I, a Russian immigrant, am teaching Argentinians the “correct way” of pronouncing “cowboy.” One of the guys begins to tell me about a band he enjoys. The name sounds like Eggs and Crosses, which after a few minutes of confused explanation, I realize is Guns and Roses. The next moment I exclaim, full of nostalgia, as the familiar voice of Brian Adams takes over, followed by Rod Stewart and Sting in the unforgettable and rather kitchy song “All For Love.” In my broken Spanish I explain to my companions the significance of this song, that I remember singing it before I really knew English, when I was an awkward teenager in a newly non-Soviet Russia, at a time when MTV and VH1 first aired on television and the glamour and promise of “The West” filled everyone with hope. That song reminds me of my rather odd journey thus far and curiously, retelling it in Spanish makes my life appear even more odd, even more unlikely. The song builds towards a crescendo as we arrive at our destination. But the driver waits to kill the engine as we all sing at the top of our lungs the final verses of the song. There is an air of triumph in our little group, as if we really are “all for one, and all for love.” Once we complete the final note we break out into spontaneous applause before leaving the stage. Exhilarated, we exit the car only to realize that we are at the wrong location and have to walk a few blocks in the opposite direction. I laugh at the appropriateness of this as my friend knowingly comments “Yes, a typical Argentinian moment.”

A Peek Inside

Ideas take a long time to develop. Most of them don't survive, they get swept away before they have a chance to take root. But once some do take root, they have to survive a lengthy gestation process, filled with inner conflict, doubt, and fear. To actually follow through on the original idea, to trust it to grow and evolve, to be flexible and open to change in response to the idea's development is a rigorous process that takes a long time to figure out. Since I have been In Buenos Aires, my inner space has been occupied with this one task in which it feels like my very being is at stake. In this entry I decided to share, in a somewhat chronological fashion, the various loose ends which are slowly beginning to tie themselves together into a more legible whole. My various thoughts and fragments of thoughts written across a number of journals, sketchbooks, and devices are accompanied by images of one of my paintings which I began in September and just finished this week.

9/8/2015

Not sure which way is up anymore. Don’t know what is right, what is sure, where the ground is. Don’t know whether to feel sad or angry, don’t know if I am going to survive this, don’t know how to care. Nothing makes sense. I wonder what is going to happen and what is going to carry me through it.

10/18/2015

  • Being a channel for experiencing consciousness
  • Consciousness is not an isolated event/experience, it occurs through contact, through relating to another
  • I want to expand consciousness in order to occupy multiple dimensions
  • Consciousness is embodied and being embodied is a multi-dimensional experience
  • Body becoming conscious
  • Studying the process of embodiment; the body recognizing itself
  • Embodiment is a multi-dimensional event and I usually occupy one dimension at a time. Physical contact, dance, sex, creativity are processes that require me to occupy multiple dimensions. It is not that the mind has to multitask, it is more that what I call “I” comes from a different place in the brain. The rules are completely different in this space and to the regular state of mind it is baffling.
  • There is an event happening inside of me and then there is a movement, there is a mark, then there is observation of the mark, a registering of the event. All of this happening simultaneously.
  • Identity is spread out, it reaches far, encompassing everything

 

10/25/2015

Why consciousness? Why be conscious, what’ the purpose? Everything is going to go on with or without it, I don’t actually have to be aware. It is about the pleasure of being the source of something, to experience creating, being the source of creation.

 

11/15/2015

Folds of skin/fat

Limbs

Landscape

Topography

Activation/Penetration

 

12/5/2015

Tracking the stages of body awakening to itself.

Intention: To learn about the self, the body, the biological drive to be here, to understand what is already here; to approach the body like something unknown and to approach another body as something unknown, miraculous.

12/19/2015

  • Earth/Body/Root/Matter.
  • my body - tectonic plates
  • I move like the earth. Joints, bones, all mimicking the restlessness of the earth, the constant churning within. Constant motion under the surface. One only has to put the ear to the surface to hear, to feel the throbbing.
  • To move and be moved, to reflect on consciousness, on the ability to think, to reason with (utilizing) the body
  • The body as an instrument of/for consciousness
  • Consciousness is the body, does not exist separate from the body; the very process of thinking is my biology moving under the surface, cells, neurons, everything vibrating with activity, awakening, reading. As the cells become conscious, so do I become more aware.
  • When I feel good it is because my cells feel good. When I don’t feel energetic, it is because my cells are lacking in energy. Such a simple concept, but there are all these small ways that I deny my own physicality. These insights right now are my brain firing in a particular way, pathways, new grooves forming and the final result of that process are these words.

12/24/2015

  • body/landscape/earth/organismness
  • organism digesting experiences
  • boundaries of experience
  • I help others by becoming stronger within myself, coming into focus, affirming internally
  • What is the boundary that I feel is limiting me?
  • Gender
  • I want to re-connect to, re-member, myself as an organism and observe/learn about/understand my behavior, desire, and repulsion as characteristics of being a biological being
  • Translating culture into biology
  • Organism: biological/cellular/parasitic/animalistic/technological
  • Body as a mediation site; body’s language and mode of communication is movement
  • Argentine tango is the playing field where the most dynamic aspects of biology and culture play themselves out. It is both liberating ad restrictive, empowering and submissive. I choose to see it as an opportunity to shape shift my identity. Tango allows me to see my identity as malleable. Even though it is very restrictive, I am able to define and feel the boundaries between different dimensions of my identity and how my body wants to express itself.

 

12/25/2015

  • movement as the process of evolution; the body articulating itself in order to adapt
  • organism - movement - gender - language

12/26/2015

  • Studying the organism
  • I imagine myself waking up for the first time in my body. Feeling the skin like a glove. Feeling the world on the other side of the glove as well as the inside surface of the glove.

1/2/2016

  • Every body is a landscape. By dancing with another’s body I get to experience a new topography. I record with my body, engraving, imprinting, and then I translate into drawing/painting/video/etc.


Detour

This entry was supposed to be about something else. I had prepared a different draft, much more organized, well thought out, even witty. And then as I sat down to write it I decided to first send a letter to a friend. A casual note turned into a deeper dialogue within myself and for whatever reason this felt more relevant and more honest to share in this moment. So here is a bit of a detour, which makes me nervous and yet certain at the same time.

Life in Buenos Aires has been intense, to say the least. And time is flying by! Days are not really days, but segments of time occupied by sleeping, navigating the city, dancing, thinking. Feels like I am living in an inner world that has a different measurement of time altogether. I miss Portland. I miss the green, fresh, cool. I am sometimes fantasizing about the weirdest things that didn't used to really interest me that much, like planting something, teaching, volunteering my time, getting involved with charitable organizations, writing. This place has stretched me to the limit so many times and somehow, to my surprise, I am still here, still pursuing what I cam to pursue. I don't know how really. Sometimes the only thing I am aware of is my lack - lack of confidence, lack of ability, lack of creativity, lack of balls. And then I look at my drawings, I watch my videos, I read my journal, I look through the pictures on my phone, and I wonder, where did this all come from? In spite of, against all that lack, somehow something comes to the surface, stubbornly emerges, leaving me dumbfounded. I keep looking for a way to make this creative process intentional, making it available whenever I want, so that I can amplify it, improve it. But it seems to slip through my fingers. As I try to capture it, to "figure it out," to domesticate it, I fall into a void, quiet, dense, where I come back to that reality of "lack." Even now as I am writing this, I am surprised at my own words, my own insights, I even like it. But I don't understand where it is coming from. And of course, the lesson perhaps is, in fact, that it is impossible to grasp this, to let go of it, to just allow things to happen as they do. And that is wise for sure. So what am I striving for? I guess there is a part of me that wants to identify itself as the creative entity, that can say "I created this, this came from me, it is valuable, it is unique." And sometimes I do say that to myself, I try it on like an outfit. But the outfit always has to come off. And I am back with this feeling of being totally lost. Like I return to an infinite space of a desert or ocean, where I look in all direction and see the horizon, and face the vastness and strangeness of everything. As if I am myself for the first time and I don't understand anything about what I am seeing.


I had this interesting sensation the other night. I suddenly realized that when I tune into my body, I do not feel the symmetry of it, I don't feel the two arms, the two legs, torso. It's like the thingness of my physical form evaporates, the edges spread and what I experience inside is more of a landscape. And it is not that I am inside this landscape, looking around. I, myself, am the landscape. My right side is a heavy, dense, mountain and my left is a valley with a broad sky, and my legs are a river with various currents, and my arms are limbs of a tree... It was a peculiar experience, rich in mystery. I try to make sense of it, to make it something concrete so that I don't feel so threatened, but it is useless. I feel baffled every time by the enormity of the task of knowing something.



A Realization

A few years ago I stumbled upon Bracha Ettinger's Matrixial Trans-Subjectivity Theory. The premise of her theory is that the self emerges through connection with other (a process she calls "co-emergence" and "co-creation") where the relationship is not between "I" and "you" but between "I" and "non-I." She uses the experience of being in the womb as an example where the fetus and the mother are not one, but are not separate either. They are two entities, and yet they are also one. The state of being connected while remaining individual is the creative space where the self begins to articulate. 

Ettinger's ideas resonated deeply with me because they put into words something that I had been experiencing but was struggling to articulate. It gave me a perspective from which I could begin to understand my passion for partner dancing, and in particular Argentine tango. I realized that the experience of connecting and harmonizing with another body was helping me define myself and become more conscious. It is in that "I" and "non-I" state that I get to experience the co-creation of self. This creative space is magical and it exists within other partner dances, or disciplines where we tune into another body, become fully present, listening, moving as if being moved by some other force. The consequence of being in that space with someone is an altered perspective of the self, the world, of what is possible. I see the other person and myself differently. Usually, to be intimate with someone on that level requires weeks or months of talking and getting to know each other, etc. But in dance, we have access within minutes. Suddenly I see the other person with full acceptance and compassion, without knowing really anything about her/him. 

These are the ideas I came to explore in Buenos Aires. What is communication? How do we construct meaning? How do we define ourselves in relation to another? Physical touch, dance, seems to communicate so much with such minimal effort and in such a short time. My ambition was to invite people into my space and experiment with physical touch as a vehicle for communication and experience of the self. But it's a pretty broad concept and that's what has been paralyzing me. How do I do it? What structure should this take? How do I organize it? I don't know what I am doing. There was a piece missing.

 

And then.... Something dawned on me with incredible force, something that was really in front of me all along, even before Buenos Aires, before these ideas were articulated. I was having coffee with an incredible, passionate woman who described herself as a nomad. She was on a quest for self knowledge, healing, learning to be more giving. Searching, seeking, embracing the unknown despite the fear. The next night I ran into another woman whom I had met a couple of weeks prior. And she informed me that her plane left 4 days ago and she was not on it. She felt that she needed to stay here and do something important, but she didn't know what or why. I asked her to dance and as I danced, suddenly I felt like someone turned on the light and I could see the things around me I had only been able to blindly feel before. I was in a room full of women like myself, all asking and questing, risking, women whom I have connected with over the past few years, strong, stubborn, powerful. All these women spread out, moving around in the world. As I was dancing, I was in that creative space of "I" and "non-I," individual, autonomous, and yet completely merged with another. And as we danced, I felt that it was the connection between us that was doing the dance. It was spontaneous, free, playful, joyful, simple. And it was with a woman, a woman similar to myself, and similar to so many other amazing women with whom I have connected over the past few years. Women who have opened themselves up to life with full abandon, questioning, seeking, searching, daring. I realized that the foundation of my project is my connection with the women that I am encountering here in Buenos Aires as we are all asking the same questions. I am having difficulty articulating what the questions might be but here are some that keep coming up. Why? What are we after? What is it that drives us to make the decisions that we are making? What is wanting to be expressed?

The Creative Experience

My first memory of a creative experience is of me applying water to an image and the paper magically turning a bright green. It is the most amazing experience and I am responsible for it! Suddenly I am aware that I am a source of change, and transformation. The feeling of exhilaration and excitement. It is very important to paint within the lines according to the teacher, who uses me as an example to others. I pride myself on being the only person who can actually do that. As I look around I see the messy surfaces of other kids' pages and I feel superior. This is what makes me special, different, I can do something that others can't. Suddenly my initial moment of awe and inspiration transforms into an identity crisis. Since I am so good at this, now I must get others to acknowledge it, otherwise it doesn't count. I try to show other kids how capable I am at painting within the lines. I want to teach them how to do it. It's not working. Surprisingly they don't actually care! They are completely content watching ugly blobs consume the original image of a beautiful princess. And they don't even seem to notice that everything is wrong and they are destroying something that could be so wonderful. So I keep trying, becoming even better at painting within the lines, proving to myself over and over again that this is what it is all about, this ability that others don't have. Eventually though, my resolve weakens as I become bored and soon forget all about this. Until I remember, until I spontaneously become aware of being the source of something, experience a creative act. My first piano lesson, my first choir practice, my first dance lesson - memories of creative bursts, each accompanied by a feeling of disillusionment later. 

I pursued art against my parents' wishes and I frequently complain about not having the support and encouragement as a child to develop more as an artist. If only they had seen how talented I was and did something about that, if only they put me in ballet school, if only they paid for painting lessons. However, as I am writing this, I am slowly realizing that the problem wasn't what my parents did or did not do. The main obstacle lies in that stubborn, feverish attachment to prove something to others - parents, professors, gallerists, art critics. This has really been my biggest demon and the biggest obstacle to making work that inspires me as much as it inspires others.

As I pick up the brush once again, I dip it in gesso and begin to mark the surface of the paper. The moment the brush touches the surface, my stomach turns in that very familiar way, my insides clench, and I begin yet another inner battle. Every mark needs to be perfect, has to belong, has to be justified - it has to "stay within the lines." I recognize my struggle, I don't like it, this should be easier. I lament having lost that innocence, that naive excitement, that sense of awe when I first discovered the magic of holding a brush, striking a key, moving to the music. And then the whole thing unravels in my mind's eye as I realize that I am the one choosing. That initial spark, that first insight, that first moment of magic, is still there in my body, in my cellular memory. I can choose to experience that or I can choose to focus on proving, justifying, defending something about myself. The insight is so simple. I dip the brush again, I consciously say "yes" as I begin to mark the surface. At first it feels "wrong," artificial, and then suddenly I see something I didn't see before, something beautiful, something profound, something that was behind a closed door. I feel a burst of excitement, joy, recognition. And this time, I choose to feel this is enough, nobody else has to see it, nobody has to know, this is mine.

Remembering My Creative Self

I was never actually taught how to paint. One day in my high school art class, which was more of a loose "let's hang out and do something other than math" time, I noticed there were a bunch of oil paint tubes in the closet and decided to use them. My first painting was a copy of an impressionist work I saw in an art book. The memory of those first moments of working with oil for the first time is very distinct. The texture of it, the smell, the way it gripped the surface of the canvas board. I was a big fan of using the palette knife to layer paint in thick globs like icing and then moving it around on the canvas. The way the pigments would mix to create new colors was mesmerizing. Ah that distinct smell of turpentine and oil paint... I loved it. I was hooked. I ended up taking the oil paint home and stayed up late night after night painting. My subjects were all from magazines and books of things that I thought were beautiful: sexy Calvin Klein models, National Geographic photographs of beaches, Prince William. Painting was so easy. It wasn't something I needed to learn how to do, it was something I remembered. Other people noticed. Teachers and other students were impressed, they called me "talented." It seemed logical that I would decide then to pursue art as a career. 

I wonder now whether I would have made that decision if I knew what it entailed. I think fondly of those first few years of making art in high school because once I entered college, everything changed. Painting was not something that I knew anymore. I remembered wrong. I actually didn't know anything and every decision I made was evaluated according to a system I did not understand. So I made it my mission to "figure it out." I thought if I got to the bottom of what it meant to make good art, I would finally feel comfortable within myself, I would feel safe. Making art became a struggle as I was second guessing every decision, analyzing my choices, trying to make and critique what I was making at the same time. With every work of art I felt I had to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, anticipating the questions and criticisms. I made more work than most other students, I spoke up more in critique, I befriended my professors, I pursued a second degree in art history in addition to the fine arts degree, I went to art openings and lectures, I watched art films. I was in a constant state of anxiety, always afraid of falling behind, of being embarrassed, judged, disregarded. 

It was last year when I moved to Portland, OR, fatigued by the process of overhauling my life, that I began to recognize my discontent and my inability to "keep up." I was planning on plugging into the new art scene, meet the gallerists, get to know my colleagues at PNCA where I was hired to teach, attend lectures, go to museums. I went to the museum twice, I attended no lectures, I visited the galleries once, I looked for every excuse not to be in the studio. Instead, most of my time was spent dancing, thinking about dance, talking about dance, watching dance videos. I did not think of myself as a dancer and did not even think that I could dance, but I realize now that what I was experiencing was similar to my first encounter with painting. I was remembering something that I already knew, I was recognizing myself in a new way. There were no expectations, there were no definitions, there were no rules... yet. 

The insight that I am arriving at now, perhaps, is that the pursuit of art, of creating, of expressing, is the desire to skillfully embrace the unknown and recognize oneself within it. The actual facing of the unknown is a scary process because it always entails plunging into the darkness within yourself without knowing what lies on the other side. The learning of actual techniques for crafting something, deconstructing, analyzing, philosophizing, are all practices in preparation for that moment when we step into the new frontier within ourselves. Here I come back to the metaphor of diving. I spent a lot of my time pacing back and forth on the edge of a cliff, learning about what it meant to free fall, best techniques for falling, what other people thought and have written about falling, discussed the benefits of falling, taught others how to fall. My discontent and fatigue that I experienced last year was really a realization that it was time to stop preparing and actually dive. It was time to let go of the practice and face the next dimension of the unknown within myself. I have not figured anything out, I still don't know what it takes to make a good work of art, I don't know if anyone does. What I am learning is that being creative is an inward journey and the most important successes and rewards can only be experienced within. The visible work that comes is a result, an echo of that process. 

An Artist’s Questions

Whenever I get asked the question about my profession, I get to tell people that I am an artist. The reaction is always positive followed by either stories about a family member who also paints, questions about the exact nature of my work, and/or self-deprecating comments about their own lack of creativity. That is usually accompanied by “I don’t know how you do it! How are you so creative? You are living the dream!”

Until recently I thought that people were either just trying to be nice or their standards for life were too low. I had a very stern, pessimistic, fatalistic, and somewhat whiny voice inside my head monologuing… "After all, do they know what it actually takes to be an artist? Do they know what it feels like to sit in the studio, staring into space for hours not knowing what to do? And when you actually start doing, there is harsh inner criticism and doubt that won’t leave you alone. And the whole process feels like cruel and unusual punishment. And then there is this thing called an exhibition opening where people look at what you have been doing and saying many nice things, or not saying anything, but for the most part congratulating on the accomplishment of something important, something worthwhile. And all you want to do is get it over with so that you can return to this really important activity called “being an artist.” My inner cynicism, criticism, and complaining about the difficulty of being an artist were endless.

But eventually, I stumbled upon questions that disrupted this whole whining cycle and put the soundtrack on pause. Why? Why continue? Why make art? Why spend hours in the studio? Why have exhibitions? If this is not fun, if the process is not enjoyable, why continue to work? These questions have occupied my mind for the past several years, even as I continued to make work, to have shows, to teach. The questions remained unanswered as I went through various possible solutions to my inner crisis. The accolades, recognition, and sales were promising goals but upon achieving them I still returned to that hollowness inside. I was still lost, I felt like my life lacked a trajectory. I could do any number of things, and do them well, and get paid well, but somehow I wasn’t getting the fulfillment I sought. Something was missing.

At this point you might expect me to tell you that I eventually realized the answer and figured out the higher purpose of being an artist and now my life has meaning. That’s what I was expecting anyway. I really thought that I would eventually figure it out.

But…. instead of finding the answers I realized that all along I had been asking the wrong questions! I have been asking the least important questions! The main questions are not the “whys” but the “whats."

What is creativity?

This, I feel, is the most important question for all those who are interested in creatively expressing themselves… meaning everyone. What is the definition of a creative person or an artist? What is the creative process? What is creative “work”? This line of questioning made me realize that the only person who can and has the pleasure of answering is oneself. This is equally thrilling as it is terrifying. It means both that I can define for myself what it means to be an artist and choose to enjoy my experience as well as that I actually have to do it. I can’t play victim, I can’t indulge in complaining, I actually have to create something. So over the next few weeks I will attempt to address these “what” questions with the intention of changing the broken record in my mind and hopefully engage in a discussion with others of you who are exploring similar themes. Perhaps you would like to offer your perspective on the subject?

5 Things I Learned About Life From Dancing With Strangers

I remember my first Argentine tango class six years ago. I dressed up: fishnet stockings, black dress, makeup... because that’s what you are supposed to do, I thought. Within minutes of entering the class I wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere. I felt exposed, awkward, intimidated, clumsy. You know that feeling that you are the only weird person in the room and everyone is staring at you? That feeling. I remember watching the gorgeous teacher gracefully moving in front of the mirror as I was trying to hide my disgust at my own reflection. And then there was another person in front of me, holding my arms as he tried to figure out how to move my body in a particular pattern. This was the beginning of my transformative, painful, and rewarding journey into dance. My curiosity over time guiding me to experiment with different partner dances and gradually making dance a significant part of my process as an artist.

 

As many dancers will agree, dance is a metaphor for life. Especially within the context of partner dancing, life’s dramas get played out in the microcosm of the dance floor. Every form of insecurity, doubt, fear, pleasure, desire, heartbreak, and bliss gets expressed at some point, starting with that very first baffling experience of having to move together with another body and questioning the rightness of every action, facing the inner critic. Now I take it for granted that I come to a foreign country and without question I go out onto the dance floor with a complete stranger, confident in my ability to connect with his/her body and eager to experience the music. As I reflect on my journey thus far, here are some important insights that I came to through dancing with strangers (and friends):

  1. We are all bodies with particular abilities and limitations. Last week I wrote about the idea of embodiment (being a body) which is the first simple and yet shocking realization I experienced as I had to come to grips with my physical form, the shape of my movements, my limitations, and my image in comparison to other bodies.

  2. We all want to be attractive. We spend enormous amounts of energy on clothes/shoes/dance classes/festivals/marathons/etc. Why? Because we all want to experience pleasure, to be objectified, to be sexy, to be appreciated, admired, complimented, respected. This drives us to act in the most beautiful and/or clumsy ways.

  3. We are all searching for connection. Every social dancer is after that mysterious out of body, dreamlike, timeless experience with another person when the bodies move in perfect harmony with the music. This is because our bodies are driven by the desire to connect with other bodies, to be touched in meaningful ways.

  4. We are all responsible for our experience. The best thing we can offer each other is genuine acceptance and appreciation of the self and other. To me this is the most difficult and important skill to cultivate. It doesn’t matter whether my partner has less experience than me, smells bad, too short, too tall, too experienced which might make me nervous, too drunk (that did happen once). However unpleasant the experience, however nervous I am, however bad I feel about my body, however tired, genuine acceptance and appreciation of the connection with my partner is the only choice that brings about positive change.

  5. We are all trying to heal through relationship. Each dance is a mini relationship, and as such, it makes us tap into the memories and inner voices of past hurts, experiences of failure, fears, doubts, and judgments. And as in a relationship, moving with another body confronts us with the challenge of finding a balance between listening and talking, expressing and witnessing. The small, seemingly insignificant achievements that I accumulated over the years in dancing with other people have directly impacted my life by allowing more humility and empowerment. 

There are many more lessons and insights to share. They all revolve around the same themes though. The same unifying principles organize any creative, collaborative, life endeavor: acceptance of who we are, curiosity about what else we can be, and celebrating the process of becoming... together.