ME: Do you think there’ll be sharks in heaven?
HE: Totally. They’ll be in the moat.
HE: Keeping out Satan’s minions.
ME: Do you think there’ll be sharks in heaven?
HE: Totally. They’ll be in the moat.
HE: Keeping out Satan’s minions.
Here’s an exercise from the book. It’s a very basic exercise on the surface, but I love how she expounds on it. It’s about picking or imagining a new name — something that’s always resonated with me because I really don’t care for my name. It’s never felt like me. (Didn’t help that I was frequently called a boy’s name — actually, a completely different name — as a nickname when I was growing up.) My middle name is slightly better, but still, just kind of eh for me. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I sometimes still fantasize about changing it. Whether you really change your name or just play around with it, I think it’s worth considering. What does your name say about you? What would you like it to say?
Anyway, here’s what she has to say about it. There’s a whole bit here about Mozart’s name that’s fascinating to me.
Pick A New Name
Imagine you could change your name. What would you choose? Would it be a name that sounded good or belonged to someone you admire? Would it make a statement about what you believe or how you want the world to approach you? What would you want it to say about you?
This is not just an exercise in “what if.” It’s about identity — who you are and who you aim to be.
I’ve always thought my creative life began the moment my mother named me Twyla. It’s an unusual name, especially when you combine it with Tharp. (Twyla Smith just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?) My mother had seen the name “Twila” in a clipping about the queen of a hog-calling contest in Indiana, and as she explained it, “I changed the i to a y because I thought it would look better on a marquee.” She had big plans for me. She wanted me to be singular, so she gave me a singular name.
If it’s a parent’s job to make children feel special, then my mother did her job well. To me, the name is fierce, independent, and unassailable. It can’t be shortened to Twy or La, and it doesn’t take a diminutive well. (I have a good friend who always adds an affectionate Yiddish “leh” to names, but Twylaleh is too much even for him.) It’s a good name to have if you want to leave your mark in the world.
More than anything, though, my name is original. It makes me strive for originality — if only to live up to the name.
I am not exaggerating the magic and power invested in our names. Names are often a repository of a kind of genetic memory. Parents, who are the arbiters of all given names, certainly feel the power; that’s why they name their children after ancestors (or themselves). They honor those who came before while connecting their child with his or her past. The hope is that not only will some of our forebears’ genes pass down with the name, but also their courage, their talents, their drive, and their luck.
The essayist Joseph Epstein has noted, “A radical change in one’s name seems in most cases a betrayal — of one’s birthright, of one’s group, of one’s identity.” I don’t agree. In a sense it’s a commitment to a higher personal calling. And it’s not uncommon among creative souls.
The ancient masters of Japanese art were allowed to change their name once in their lifetime. They had to be very selective about the moment in their career when they did so. They would stick with their given name until they felt they had become the artist they aspired to be; at that point, they were allowed to change their name. For the rest of their life, they could work under the new name at the height of their powers. The name change was a sign of artistic maturity.
Mozart played with variations on his name for most of his life. He was baptized Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. His father Leopold referred to him shortly after his birth as Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb. The young Mozart generally referred to himself with the middle name Amade (Gottlieb, Theophilus, and Amadeus being German, Greek, and Latin, respectively, for “lover of God). But he made a significant change at the time of his marriage to Constanze Weber: In all documents related to the marriage (except for the marriage contract itself), his name is given as “Wolfgang Adam Mozart.” By taking the name of the first man, Mozart may have been declaring himself reborn, set free from the past. “Mozart’s constant alterations of his name are his way of experimenting with different identities,” wrote Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon, “trying to tune them to his satisfaction.”
Done wisely and well, a change of name can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Epstein points out, “Eric Blair, Cicily Fairfield, and Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski became, respectively, George Orwell, Rebecca West, and Joseph Conrad — the first to shuck of the social class into which he was born, the second to name herself after a feminist heroine in Ibsen, the last to simplify his name for an English audience. Yet how right those names now seem, how completely their owners have taken possession of them!”
Oh, honey. Hon. Please. I can’t keep being so uncomfortable watching you. Do you care nothing for meeee? Okay. It boils down to this: Whatever you’re on, you need to share it with me so I can watch you in a similar blissed-out incoherent haze.
Just now, with the Top 5. Two songs each. One hour to do it. They do one round, all five stand on stage for comments at the end of that round, then it’s on to round two. Fine. They’re up against the clock tonight. Randy goes down the line of five, giving quick comments. No problem.
She starts with Jason. She says something like, “Your first song — I loved hearing your lower register … you know …. and then your second song (which he hasn’t sung yet, mind you) was lacking your usual charm …. I think … ave maria … mondo dogface …. peaches ‘n’ herb ….”
No one speaks; she rambles on. Awkward. So awkward.
You can literally hear every sphincter in that room slam shut. I mean, I’m pretty sure that I heard that very thing. Onstage, Ryan’s face is frozen: “Whaaaa???” Everyone is clearly thinking, “What in blessed tarnation is going on here?” I mean, I’m pretty sure I heard some li’l tweener yell that very thing. Finally, mercifully, Simon barks, “Poorla. All right. Which one was your favorite?” Slowly — oh so slowly — it dawns on her they haven’t sung the second song yet.
Out of nowhere, a team from Animal Control swarms and drags her away.
I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw that very thing.
These are rough sketches for some new mixed-media pieces I’ve got in mind. I’ll be transferring the sketches onto the canvas with graphite paper.
So it would seem I am currently in a windy phase. Yep. Apparently, everyone’s hair is blowing all the time in my little corner of the world. Indoors? Your hair is blowing. In the shower? Your hair is blowing. Standing in line for 7 hours at the DMV trying not to slit your wrists from sheer ennui and frustration? At least your hair is blowing and you’ll look hot in your license photo.
Basically, if your hair isn’t windblown, you are dead to me.
So I guess she would be the West Wind
And this would be her sister, the East Wind
I’ll post the actual pieces once they’re finished or once my hair stops blowing, whichever comes first.
(images copyright Tracey/BTP 2008 — do NOT copy!)
So we rented and watched “Sweeney Todd” yesterday. Again. (Believe it or not, renting it wasn’t my idea.) But seeing it again — and in this different way, small screen as opposed to big — gave me a chance to notice other things, take some notes, and, well, share them with you. As if I haven’t talked about it enough. (cough, cough.)
Things I noticed on this in-home examination of “Sweeney Todd”:
~ It’s still hard for me to get used to the instrumental version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” I mean, the music and lyrics there are inseparable to me. Burton does a sly and visually interesting sequence at the beginning (if a little on the nose), but I still miss the lyrics. Oh, how I miss them! Those lyrics at the top of the show are genius.
~ Johnny Depp. Man. This guy is so good. WHEN is he going to get his Oscar? (Not for Sweeney, Trace. That’s over, mmkay? Please move on.) I did a little experiment while watching this again: I closed my eyes and just listened to his singing and I have to be honest: it doesn’t really hold up. His voice has a bit of a strangled sound at times and he frequently uses that sort of pop star slide up to a note. It’s a bit modern sounding, not to mention kind of a cheat. That being said, when I open my eyes and watch him, I just can’t look away. He’s hypnotic. Depp’s magnetism in the role of Sweeney makes you toss aside any objections about technical imperfections. He is so thoroughly Sweeney, so completely inhabits him, that you just don’t care that his singing isn’t perfect. That’s a great performance.
~ The actor playing Anthony is just so pretty. Prettier than most girls. It’s disconcerting. He’s a prettier Claire Danes than Claire Danes.
~ The song “Pretty Women” with Depp and Rickman is wonderful. They’re great together. It’s such an interesting number. Musically, the actors are doing a duet. Emotionally, they’re lost in their separate little worlds. Sweeney’s swept up in the fulfillment of his revenge. It’s right as his fingertips, literally. The Judge is swept away by lust for Johanna, his fantasies of her. I love that dichotomy. They’re together, but they couldn’t be further apart. As the song reaches its climax and they’re singing — together — “pretty women, pretty women,” and Sweeney’s raising his razor, preparing for the kill, I was covering my eyes. I did this in the theater, too. A kind of “uh-oh, here it comes, here it comes.” Which of course, it doesn’t, and I know that. But that shows just how good Depp is here. I KNOW he doesn’t kill the judge right then, but he is so menacing, so crazed, so convincing, I start to believe the story will suddenly change, that he WILL kill him then and there, and I just have to cover my eyes in the face of it.
~ Right after that, Anthony comes rushing in, interrupting the killing of Judge Turpin. Lovett rushes in then, too, and Sweeney yells at her: “Get out! OUT! OUT!” or something like that. I have to confess I miss the line from the stage version that ends with: OUT I SAY OUUUUUUUUT!!!” I love everything that “ouuuuuuuut!” means. I have no idea why they changed it. Lost a little something there, for me.
~ This viewing, I focused a lot on the kid playing Toby. I think I virtually ignored him in my other review(s) and that’s unfair. No, it’s just wrong. It’s one of my favorite roles in the show. He’s like a little flower struggling to push through the cobblestones and the muck. There has to be some bright spot, some vestige of innocence, and that’s Toby/Tobias. In most stage versions of this — including the one I was in — Toby is traditionally played by a young man, maybe in his early twenties. You know, someone who can stay up past 9:00 and doesn’t bring any parental baggage with him. Just easier in that way. He’s usually played as somewhat mentally disabled, simple-minded. I mean, the guy who played Toby in our show was somewhere between 25 and 30, as I recall, but he was small. (Oh, and so talented. I stood in the wings every night to watch him sing “Not While I’m Around.” Tear-jerker.) Anyhoo. Every Toby I’ve ever seen has been played by an older actor and every Toby has seemed mentally challenged in some way. The part reads like a young boy, so perhaps when you have an older actor playing him, he naturally seems more simple-minded. There becomes an age-behavior discrepancy in the character with an older Toby. Beyond that, the actor has to have some real chops vocally. The role just demands a lot in that capacity and that’s another thing an older actor brings. You’ll likely get someone a bit more experienced.
Watching this yesterday, though, I have to say it’s really refreshing to see a kid in the role. This actor is probably, what, 12? 13? This Toby is a street urchin, a foundling. There’s none of the mentally disabled angle going on here. He’s streetwise. Savvy. He’s been abused and cowed, but he’s able to see things the way they are. Much more than Mrs. Lovett, who has her fantasies about Sweeney, her blindness about Sweeney, Toby sees the truth of what Sweeney has become. He’s frightened of him. And rightly so. He’s frightened for Mrs. Lovett. And rightly so. I love how he’s that boy on the cusp of manhood. How, one moment, I can look at his face and see a little boy and the very next moment, I can see the man he will become. A great face on this kid. And that kind of face in transition works so well in “Not While I’m Around.” Sometimes he seems like a little boy worried about his mother. Sometimes he seems like a man protecting the woman he loves. There’s that shift back and forth. It’s written in the song, the lyrics, but this kid’s face shifts seamlessly and poignantly between those two roles. This actor brings something to it that an older actor just couldn’t: He brings a face that hasn’t arrived yet. A young boy-man a bit confused about which one he really is. He desperately wants to be a man, but he’s limited by a body and size that still suggest a boy. I don’t know where they found this kid, but he’s really great.
~ Oh, and Helena Bonham Carter at the end of “Not While I’m Around.” (I wanted to rewind this, but didn’t. Drat. I should have. Now I have to work from my memory of it.) At one point Toby sings to her:
Not to worry, not to worry
I may not be smart but I ain’t dumb
I can do it, put me to it
Show me something I can overcome
Not to worry, Mum
Being close and being clever
Ain’t like being true
I don’t need to,
I would never hide a thing from you,
I love her face as the song goes on. Her dawning realization that Toby understands too much, perhaps more than she ever imagined. She’s been trying to placate him as she would a boy, but it hasn’t been working. He persists. The whole song is Toby’s persistence of vision. Of truth. He sees the truth where no one else does. Or is willing to. Mrs. Lovett does have a kind of maternal affection for Toby, but it’s nothing compared to her obsessive love for Sweeney. Slowly, slowly, over the course of this song, she realizes she’s underestimated Toby. He’s not JUST a boy. He can’t easily be fooled. He wants her to want him to save her. He longs to be her hero, to show her he’s the better man. But his desires threaten Lovett’s foolish fantasies of Sweeney and so, as the song comes to an end, we watch it float across her face: Her choice. Her decision. Toby loves her, maybe in a couple of confusing ways, but Lovett loves Sweeney. While she cares for Toby, she simply can’t be true to him, as he is to her. It’s the worst betrayal in the movie, I think. Her choice ruins Toby. And Bonham Carter’s face as she moves toward that decision. Brilliant. Possibly the best number in the movie.
~ Okay. There’s this thing about Sweeney’s barber chair. I noticed this in the theater and it’s still weird to me. The chair has to be rigged, obviously, for a body to slide out of it and down to the basement where the oven is. Any version I’ve ever seen of Sweeney’s chair has been a chair that flattens, front and down, if that makes sense. The seat and footrest flatten into a natural slide. The actor/body slides feet first into his meat pie future. The falling motion of the body logically follows the way a chair is built. Or follows the natural flow of gravity, is a better way to say it. The movie chair, on the other hand, rises up from the feet and tilts the body backward so it falls head first into the chute, hole, whatever it is. Makes for a gratuitously gruesome head splat, in my opinion. Sweeney slitting the throat of an innocent man just wanting a nice smooth shave is horrific enough, thank you. I don’t need to see his head explode when it hits the basement floor. (I can’t believe I’m going on about the barber chair here, oh well.) Mechanically, the whole thing didn’t make much sense to me and I’d bet money it was done solely for the money shot — that head splat. I can’t imagine any stage version ever doing it this way because the audience would only see the back of the chair as it’s rising up and completely lose the view of the actor sliding into oblivion. From a practical standpoint, too, it makes for a much more complicated chair. I mean, if I’m a maniacal barber on a vengeful killing spree, do I really want a chair that has to do all that just to get the meat from the chair to the oven? Aren’t I asking more of my chair than is necessary? Too much could go wrong. Think of the possible repairs required. Not to mention the fact that the head splat makes for a messier cleanup and — if you think about it from a pie maker’s perspective — means that all those delicious brains are, well, ruined now.
Clearly, I have hit upon a deep and unforgivable flaw in this film. Let’s just move on.
~ There’s this hard swallow Depp takes during “By the Sea” when he’s asked “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” It kills me. It’s just a passing moment, but I love it. That whole sequence is hysterical to me. At one point, he sits there glumly in his striped Victorian swimsuit with his shoes and socks. HA. He is possessed and miserable and hilarious in this number.
~ Alan Rickman’s codpiece is truly breathtaking.
~ I found myself wanting to draw eyebrows on Johanna. This is totally random.
~ I miss the lush harmonies of “The Letter,” sung by a mixed quintet in the stage version. “Most Honorable Judge Turpiiin …. I venture thus to write you this … urgent … note to warn you ….” In the movie, Sweeney just hands Toby a letter to lure the judge to his “tonsorial parlor.”
~ All right. The ending. On this second viewing, I have to say … it’s a problem. Wow. Is it bleak. Pretty gross, Peaches. That final shot cannot be easily be erased. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. Again, it’s that loss of the Greek chorus device that I talked about in earlier reviews. If you’re familiar with it, you feel its absence most keenly at the beginning and the end of the movie. The ending particularly. The chorus — actually, the entire company — coming back onstage, back to life in some cases, delivering the moral with a wink, really serves to disengage the audience from the bloodbath before them. It’s doing you a favor, the way it breaks that fourth wall. It’s offering you a break, a breather. It’s okay. This is a play, a story. When it’s not there, you’re basically left bereft and sick. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing to mitigate all the damages. Harsh, man. It’s pretty harsh.
~ My Beloved made an interesting point when it was over. We were talking about whether we’d want to buy the DVD, have it as part of our personal viewing library, and I said no, actually. Much as I think it’s a really good — almost great — movie version of the play, I don’t need to own it. I have huge respect for the direction, for many of the performances, and I love the music, but I don’t think I’d repeatedly view it, which is why we have most of the movies we have in our library. What you’re left with in the end is so very bleak and gruesome. It’s hard to take. Hard to shake. MB said, “Yeah. It’s like you wouldn’t really want it in your personal space. In your face like that.” I think there’s really something to that. A TV is a much smaller screen, of course, but it’s your personal screen in your personal space and there’s no escaping that. When you see something so unrelenting and dark on your own TV, it feels like it seeps into the walls and hangs from the curtains of your home. I’m content to be a fan of this from a distance. I’ll always listen to the original Broadway soundtrack. That’s in my blood. That’s part of me. With the movie, I’m happy to applaud loudly, say, “Oh, well done!” and try to go on my merry way once the credits roll.
More from “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp. A questionnaire to help you unearth Your Creative Autobiography. I’m putting this out there for you to work on personally, privately. Feel free to share your answers to any questions in the comments section, if you’d like — I’d be happy to read them and would certainly commend your bravery — but I think this is mostly personal private work that will take time and require soul-searching.
I realize this kind of stuff may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m into it, so I’m putting it out there for you to have a look at. Even if you think it’s not your thing, give it a try. If the entire questionnaire seems too daunting, try answering a few questions for now. Who knows what might reveal itself? Mind-blowing epiphanies may await you!
All righty. The questions, 33 in all, on Your Creative Autobiography:
1. What is the first creative moment you remember?
2. Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
3. What is the best idea you’ve ever had?
4. What made it great in your mind?
5. What is the dumbest idea?
6. What made it stupid?
7. Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea? (She doesn’t specify if she’s talking about the great idea or the dumb one, so pick one — or do both.)
8. What is your creative ambition?
9. What are the obstacles to this ambition?
10. What are the vital stops to achieving this ambition?
11. How do you begin your day?
12. What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?
13. Describe your first successful creative act.
14. Describe your second successful creative act.
15. Compare them.
16. What are your attitudes toward money, power, praise, rivals, work, play?
17. Which artists do you admire most?
18. Why are they your role models?
19. What do you and your role models have in common?
20. Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?
21. Who is your muse?
22. Define muse.
23. When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
24. When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?
25. When faced with impending success or the threat of failure, how do you respond?
26. When you work, do you love the process or the result?
27. At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
28. What is your ideal creative activity?
29. What is your greatest fear?
30. What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?
31. Which of your answers would you most like to change?
32. What is your idea of mastery?
33. What is your greatest dream?
The shark attack here happened at SolanA Beach, not SolanO. (So-LAH-na.) I’ve heard this repeatedly now. I do realize I’m being nitpicky and anal and ridiculous, but it bugs me. Please remedy so I can stop being nitpicky and anal and ridiculous. At least about this.
As you were. (Except for fixing that.)
Huh, at least.
This is horrible news. Happened this morning. Very near where my brother surfs regularly. This stuff terrifies me. I’m fighting the impulse to make a hysterical sister phone call to my brother which would mostly sound like this:
“EEEEEEEEeeeeeeeEEEEEEeeee!” That usually doesn’t work on him.
But I’ve been freaked out all day basically.
The latest update is that it WAS a Great White shark, approximately 12-17 feet in size. Ugh. I’m sick about this. So sorry about this man.
You know, there’s an issue here that may very well be a contributing factor. Something that I’ve heard local people talking about today. Nearby where this attack happened, in La Jolla actually, there’s a cement block wall that curves out into the ocean in a crescent shape. The wall has a walkway on top for sightseers, etc. But the original purpose of this wall was to create a children’s pool area. A shallow place for them to play, wade around. People who wanted to nurture this children’s pool area favored a net, a mesh divider, something, to protect the little beach from seals and predators. As I recall it anyway. This goes back a number of years here. Environmentalists howled about that. So as time went on, the area became overrun with seals — to the point where people are no longer allowed to go down to this beach, much less kids. It is now a seal beach. A loud smelly shark bait beach.
Right now, I’m reading “The Creative Habit” by dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp. Tearing through it, actually, would be more accurate. Gobbling it like a pig. So much so that I’ve forced myself to slow down, start over. I’ve become a little obsessed lately with this kind of thing. The creative process. Mine. Others’. Anyone’s. The whole gamut. Picking up this book was totally knee-jerk on my part. I have huge respect for Twyla Tharp’s work, but I think it was the title that did it and, again, because I’m gobbling up anything about this topic right now. Suu-EEE!!
So I’ve started the book over, as I said, and there’s so much I’d like to share from it. If you’re interested in the creative process, where it comes from, how to access it, call it forth, whatever, I think you’ll like what I post from the book. Some of it will be straight excerpts. Some of it will be exercises or quizzes. Which sounds lame, I know, but they’re fascinating to me. Beyond that, I just really like the way she writes, the way she analyzes the process, how she cuts through to the heart of things. She’s a smart dame, she is. She approaches the creative process with an almost clinical eye and I’m just really INTO her whole groove right now.
So the context for this first excerpt: In this particular chapter, she’s been talking about people’s creative DNA as she calls it. How each person is hard-wired for their art, their creative process, differently. She talks, for instance, about how some artists see the world through a wide lens — say, someone like Ansel Adams who uses this grand, sweeping scope. Others use a kind of mid-lens, a middle distance. She uses the example of choreographer Jerome Robbins and talks about how his point of view was right there on the stage, observational. In West Side Story, for example. Sharks watch Jets. Jets watch Sharks. Boys watch girls. Girls watch boys. That’s how the dances are choreographed, with that observational middle distance. Other artists see the world in close-up. The tight shot. Someone like Raymond Chandler with his razor-sharp detail that basically crams us into his character’s skulls, as in the opening from The Big Sleep:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. It was everything the well-dressed detective ought to be. I was calling on four million bucks.
So the whole wide lens/mid lens/tight lens metaphor is just one of the ways she describes this concept of creative DNA. She goes on to apply this whole idea to the way she works and so here’s the excerpt — finally:
If one set of polarities defines my creative DNA, it is the way I find myself pulled between involvement and detachment. I shuttle back and forth from one extreme to the other, with no rest in between. And I apply it to everything.
With my dancers, for example. I have an annoying need for proof of their allegiance to me and my projects. So I’m always running through a mental checklist to see if their work habits are as exacting as mine, searching with forensic intensity for evidence of their commitment. Do they show up on time for rehearsal? Are they warmed up? Does their energy flag when rehearsals break down or are they committed to pushing forward? Are they bringing ideas to the party or waiting for me to provide everything? These are my personal pop quizzes to gauge other people’s investment. I don’t want them merely involved. I’m looking for insane commitment.
I’m no less strict with myself. I’m always taking temperature readings of my commitment to a project and pushing myself to be more committed than anyone else. At its extreme, I put myself at the center of a piece, even as a dancer, trying on the roles.
When I’ve learned all I can at the core of a piece, I pull back and become the Queen of Detachment. I move so far back that I become a surrogate for the audience. I see the work the way they will see it. New, fresh, objectively. In the theater, I frequently go to the back and watch the dancers rehearse. If I could watch from farther away, from outside the theater in the street, I would. That’s how much detachment I need from my work in order to understand it.
For the longest time, I thought this dichotomy of involvement versus detachment was merely a template for my work habits. Immerse yourself in the details of the work. Commit yourself to mastering every aspect. At the same time, step back to see if the work scans, if it’s intelligible to an unwashed audience. Don’t get so involved that you lose what you’re trying to say. This was the yin and yang of my work life: Dive in. Step back. Dive in. Step back.
It was how I saw the world — like being nearsighted rather than having 20/20 vision. I was stuck with it.
I’m a total cow to interrupt here, but I love this next bit. Mooo.
And then one day, reading Carl Kerenyi’s Dionysos, I discovered a broader context for these divisions. Involvement and detachment explained how I worked, but they didn’t explain why I produced the work I did. It had always irked me that my dances shied away from telling a story, and when I tried my hand at a narrative-driven dance, the result was weak or unfocused. Why was that? Why was I better at one than the other. And answer came from the ancient Greeks, who had two words, zoe and bios, to distinguish the two competing natures I felt within myself.
Zoe and bios both mean life in Greek, but they are not synonymous. Zoe, wrote Kerenyi, refers to ‘life in general, without characterization.’ Bios characterizes a specific life, the outlines that distinguish one living thing from another. Bios is the Greek root for biography, zoe for zoology.
I cannot overstate what a profound distinction this was. Suddenly, two states of experience were made plain to me.
Zoe is like seeing Earth from space. You get the sense of life on the rotating globe, but without a sense of the individual lives being lived on the planet. Bios involves swooping down from space from the perch of a high-powered spy satellite, closing in on the scene, and seeing the details. Bios distinguishes between one life and another. Zoe refers to the aggregate.
Bios accommodates the notion of death, that each life has a beginning, middle and end, that each life contains a story. Zoe, wrote, Kerenyi, ‘does not admit of the experience of its own destruction: it is experienced without end, as infinite life.’
I realize that these are just words. But they articulated a distinction that made my entire creative output clearer. Applying it to two of my choreographic heroes, Robbins and George Balanchine, I could appreciate in a new way the difference between these two men.
Balanchine was the essence of zoe. Most of his ballets are beautiful plotless structures that mirror the music rather than interpret it. They do not need language to explain themselves, nor do they try to tell a story. Their content is the essence of life, not the details of living. Balanchine’s steps and gestures are not specific — for example, a man miming the act of pulling out an imaginary chair for a woman or, more tritely, putting hands to heart to express love. People think his dances are abstract at first — where’s the story? what’s the plot? But their zoe qualities reveal themselves with powerful results. Balanchine’s gestures and steps pluck chords in us that we cannot easily name. Yet they resonate. They seem familiar. That’s the genius of Balanchine. In his movement he created a grammar that expressed congruencies between the natural world and our emotional world. Three women unbundle their long hair at the end of Serenade and we feel something, without attaching a name to it, because there is a common structure between the dancers’ gestures and some gesture we remember that moved us.
Robbins, on the other hand, was pure bios — and brilliant at it. When he created a dance, he was always accumulating details about the roles — from what the characters would wear to whom they were sleeping with –and out of these details of life he would construct an engaging narrative. This is why he had such a crowd-pleasing career in the theater. (This is a giant gift. Mike Nichols tells a story about getting the musical Annie ready for Broadway. A scene that was supposed to be funny was failing to get a laugh, no matter what Nichols tried. He asked Robbins to watch the scene with his practiced eye. Afterward, Nichols asked him how to fix the scene. Robbins surveyed the stage and pointed to a white towel hanging at the back of the set. ‘That towel should be yellow,’ he said. ‘That’s it?’ thought Nichols. ‘That makes the scene work?’ But he made the change and the scene got a laugh every night thereafter.)
As a man of bios, a master of details, he could tell a story that had, as a subtext, what Balanchine made a text of — namely, life.
One approach was not more valid than the other. The two men simply entered their work through different doors.
But I could see that everything I did was a duel between the warring impulses of bios and zoe in me. On the one hand, there was my ability to create dances about a life force. On the other, there was my occasional urge to break away from this and create dances that tell a specific story. The first kind of dances came naturally to me, the latter required more of an effort. In my heart I am a woman more of zoe than bios.
I suspect many people never get a handle on their creative identity this way. They take their urges, their biases, their work habits for granted. But a little self-knowledge goes a long way. If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work. You begin to see the ‘story’ that you’re trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak; how you see the world and function in it.
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