Dawn Scannell was my very first muse. Her near militant force of presence in the dance studio made me feel like what we could do together would be critically important. It helped me believe that my perfectionist viewpoint would be possible to manifest, always, because here it was, in front of me and available to me.
She has transitioned into, amongst other things, a brilliant dance repetiteur. That same complete caring for the form has morphed into an exacting communication of a dance. She inspires dancers in the way she inspired me as a choreographer. Her eyes unfailingly lock with yours in total presence. “Give me the best of yourself,” they are calling to you.
Dawn staged Peter Pan for me at Houston Ballet this year. I was creating a new section for the ballet so she was in the studio as I was making it.
She said to me one day, “You always know with exact certainty just what to do to make something more perfect. You know just what to say to a dancer to make something change instantly.”
I thought about what she said, to see if I could feel what that meant to me or how I experience what she observes. I wondered what was happening inside when those shifts happen that seem at once so nothing and also vast. With the same certainty that she spoke of, it was clear to me what happens in this process: I see what is not true and change it to something that is true.
The same thing happens when she coaches dancers with ease and certainty. It isn’t simply that she has memorized the geometries of the human body, comparing the flaws in front of her to the textbook of her mind; she looks at what is in front of her and recognizes that which is not “true”.
Of course, as we progress over time, we collect information and expertise. The notion of honesty becomes refined. Our understanding of a medium becomes more solid as gravity and liquid collaborate to fill in the cracks. But even more importantly, with maturity, we are able to release our own interior dishonesties and stop projecting them outwardly. We release the rules we learned by rote. We understand and dissolve our prejudices, tame our egos, un-cloud the window we are looking through. Excellence in any form, over time, is achieved through killing our Expert and freeing our Understanding.
All of this is on a continuum. Any audience member can tell if something onstage is true or not. Any audience member who can also release the shoulds and pedigrees and posturing and just be a human being in a place watching a thing. They can see if there is truth onstage. This is something often described as “good” or “bad” but those qualifiers are incredibly subjective so as to be virtually meaningless.
I just rewatched the “Gotta Get a Gimmick” scene from the movie-musical Gypsy. The burlesque strippers slice through the song with an ax, screeching with the vocal clarity of crows. The singing is objectively bad. But it is also so completely perfect. They are the talentless who have found their way to shine and do so with such vulnerable humanity that I experience it as something that is true. And because it is true, I can see myself in it and I smile.
This of course isn’t just about art. When I’m speaking with someone, I can know whether or not what they say is true. Not necessarily in the facts, but it is clear if they are speaking from a place of truth. And it requires the very same discipline of removing my own expertise about them…my judgments, my prejudice. This may be a part of, or is at least adjacent to what we call intuition. It’s our least developed of the senses, but I am coming to think cultivating it is like cleaning your glasses or getting over a cold. It involves clearing what’s in the way to allow a natural process to come into being.