I have just spent the last three weeks teaching and choreographing for summer programs. Much of my early ballet training came from The Cecchetti Council of America and I was honored to spend two weeks with them. My students were eager and together we learned a lot. Their performance was awesome. They gave it everything they had and we were all proud. They trusted the process and it worked. It also helped that the ballet had been done before. It was the theater piece that I did for last year for EMIA, Sweet’s Sweet Suite. The challenge this time was that I was using double the amount of people and they were so much younger than the original cast. Thankfully, it all worked.
I then spent a week with Earl Mosley’s Institute for the Arts (EMIA). I taught some classes and set out to choreograph a continuation of the story in Sweet’s Sweet Suite. This one would be called, Sweet Love and a part from the same characters of it’s precursor, would be completely new. It will eventually be a full 20-25 minute ballet. I wanted to challenge myself to not come with a finished piece. I wanted to use the talent in the room and create something inspired by the new cast. So, I dared to enter the first rehearsal with some phrases of movement and a story in my head. This is what most choreographers do and I was certain that the EMIA students would jump at the chance to create something from scratch.
Well by the end of day one I realized that I might have been too ambitious. Dancers are so used to being told what to do that sometimes when given freedom to fill in the blanks, they can become paralyzed. I also sensed that some of the dancers wanted to just dance and throw their legs around. I was asking for story telling. I was trained by story tellers and wanted to give them a piece of that. I felt the resistance. I remembered George Faison, Tally Beatty, and Louis Johnson, yelling and screaming at me. I didn’t want to go there but I suddenly realized why my teachers yelled. I expected for the dancers to take my ideas and make them better. Some of them did but there were still moments that were painfully empty.
By day three I had a hot mess on my hands.
With two days to go, I knew what was possible. I had been in this position many times before both as choreographer and as performer. In fact, the entire process of learning Lion King was similar to my process at EMIA. We didn’t know until our first audience if we even had a full show. In that case, everyone was completely committed even to the moments that were absolutely ridiculous. At EMIA, I was not getting what would be needed. Without the dancers being absolutely focused and on board there would be nothing. I would fail as choreographer and the dancers would leave even more convinced that it was all about legs and feet.
Wednesday night I considered completely dropping the story and just having them dance. Then I thought, no. I have to be willing to risk a flop. If I was going to teach them to risk stepping out of their comfort zones I would have to be willing to push them there. I was riding that horrible line between the world of great theater and Amateur-ville.
So, I made some very tough decisions, switched around the casting at the last second, made some story adjustments, and plowed ahead having gone too far to turn back.
After the final run through I finally snapped and got real. I wish the cameras had been rolling. There were plenty of lessons delivered in that speech, lessons that even I need to be reminded of. I had finally seen a glimmer of what was possible. I found the dancers inspired and hungry and anxious to do their best. They hadn’t completely trusted the process but something was happening and could feel it. We as a company were on the verge of great learning.
I don’t remember exactly what I said and I wasn’t yelling but I definitely gave them a reality check. Many of us will worship turns and jumps but will never be able to do them at the level necessary to make a living. Besides, the audience is paying to see people, not acrobats. In fact, I said that most of the work that paid as dancers was not going to come from a fabulous leg extension. It would come from the light in their smile.
Saturday finally came and I sat there in the audience almost too nervous to think. Part of the nerves were due to my ego. I wanted the ballet to be good and I knew it could be. Most of the nerves however, were the result of what I wanted for those dancers. I wanted them to learn something that they could learn no other way.
When it was over, I sat there shocked. They were fabulous. The audience cheered and dance prevailed. I once again believed in miracles. Not the miracles from heaven. I never doubt those. I was reminded of the miracles that are those dancers. Those beautiful people who knew that it was time to reinvest in something new, to go beyond their comfort zone, and to trust the tedious and sometimes annoying process of creating art.
We live in a society where the thrill of winning the prize can out way the importance of the journey. I am so proud of those dancers and see great futures for all of them. Their success is completely dependent upon their investment in every moment, even the moments that want to make them quit. Their success will only come to pass if they work as hard as they did last week and give more than their best regardless of whether or not they like the work they are doing.
I am grateful to Earl Mosley for his continued belief in me and thankful for the cast members who stepped up.
Onward my friends. Sweet Love to you!
Now, back to Harlem School of the Arts…