Going from a creature of habit to an ever-evolving artist has revitalized my career

Many years ago I had an experience at the Museum of Modern Art that shook me to my core. At a Willem de Kooning retrospective, there was a timeline of his career that detailed his stylistic changes. He works among other things as a house painter, muralist, abstract expressionist, sculptor, then in figurative landscapes before returning to abstraction. I had an epiphany: of course, he worked on different things as he was interested in different ideas or exposed to different influences. He evolved as a human. Why shouldn’t his art reflect that?

At the time, I was at the start of my transition from ballet to contemporary dance. I knew how to be a ballet dancer, I knew how to lead this daily life. It wasn’t easy, but it was familiar. And if the discovery of the postmodern contemporary scene was invigorating, it was also disorienting. I had moved away from aesthetics, from routine and from the people I had known.

Our field requires commitment, and for those who don’t want to disappoint, breaking – with a director, a company, a show, a genre – can be a challenge. As dancers, we lovingly invest in relationships and repetition, but that can also make us creatures of habit who are especially reluctant to do things differently.

I hadn’t realized it when I was in the thick of it, but my knowledge of the dance world was myopic then. Even though I had left one chapter to start the next, I always looked back more than I could look forward. I kept comparing myself to the dancer I had once been, in part because other people kept pointing out how ballerina-like I looked when performing contemporary works. I’ve done myself a disservice by getting stuck in the labels I let others put on me and the labels I put on myself.

Sometimes, when we work exclusively in the name of a singular idea of ​​“righteousness,” one way can easily become the only way. Devotion can be a void. We become so focused on the laser that we shut out the possibility of options, and we might find ourselves stuck, whether in a particular style or in a certain work situation. But when you don’t or can’t allow room for change, you hinder your growth as an artist. Even when we say we want to “improve”, we often forget that this in itself is a form of change!

Meredith Fages. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of Fages

“While change is most often seen as reactive, it can also be proactive.” Meredith Fage

With an expansive mindset, change doesn’t have to be so rushed or dizzying. Allowing ourselves to be insatiably curious can help decompress narrow notions of success and identity, softening our perceptions of what’s at stake in a career transition. The words “pivot” and “resilience” have gotten a lot of airtime during the pandemic, but their definitions are invaluable. In this era of the Great Resignation, many dancers are rethinking their professional career. It’s easy to forget that while change is most often seen as reactive, it can also be proactive. What if moving forward was less about denying past experiences and more about peeling the layers of an onion? It’s all part of a whole.

I took my first improvisation workshop when I was 27. The opening idea was to move in response to the elements of the richly decorated room. Instructor, Todd Williams, offered an example demonstration, in which he gave the smallest parts of the body, like his little toe, the same expressive power as the more obvious parts. In just 15 seconds, I experienced a radical paradigm shift that helped dislodge a mental block that was holding me back. I had never thought that my own body could be a spontaneous, generative force, or that I had the agency to invent a movement that still celebrated the clarity of line that I spent so many years perfecting in ballet.

When I ventured into a ballet class after five years away, it was with a newfound peace. At this point in my contemporary work, I was no longer adamant about severing or hiding my past. I let it carry me forward and my artistry deepened. As de Kooning once said, “After a while, all kinds of paintings become painting for you, abstract or otherwise.”

What artistic adventures will be found on the chronology of your retrospective?

Make growth manageable

With micromovements, you can start small and invite fluidity into your daily life.
Postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay is known for sounding her alarm clock in straightforward language: “Turn your [expletive] lead!” If that doesn’t resonate, consider these concrete, achievable steps to feel more comfortable with change:

  1. Train your brain. Investigate something you know nothing about.
  2. Reinvest in action verbs. Be purposeful in how you taste, touch, harvest, cook, share.
  3. Reconnect with wonder. Be moved by the beauty found in unexpected people, places and things