My past experiences are right here with me and yet somehow I never quite find things exactly where I left them.
I lived in Portland for seven years. It’s the place I turned thirty, it’s the first place my heart was ever broken, it’s where I bought my first house (which, if I still owned it, I would be a zillionaire. I want to be a zillionaire).
I traveled there this week to work with the students of The Portland Ballet. Walking around town, the feeling is no different than living here. Save for the fact that there are a lot more people now and you can buy weed legally, it felt like I could walk right back into my house and live. The memories don’t seem distant. Maybe this comes from living life on the road and never quite putting roots down anywhere. Home is a nervous and foreign concept. Time and history can blur interchangeably. I’ve experienced life as chapters of cities and countries and it is hard to conceive them in a linear fashion.
Anne Mueller, one of the founders of my former dance company is the recently appointed Artistic Director of The Portland Ballet school (home of the Wolf Pack!) and she invited me to work with her students on sections of my ballet Mercury Half-Life. It was a refreshing break to be working with eager and talented young people, not yet refined in their artistic sensibilities. Strange and wonderful moments occurred in their dancing. It was like watching nature.
As a group, they had just suffered an unspeakable tragedy in the loss of someone close to many of them. The kind of thing that you want to do nothing but shield a child from…not let them know that this is a part of life. And still they show up eager to learn and eager to BE a part of life. I think the timing of my trip was the right thing…at least a right thing…for them, and for me. To have art, your art to focus on and pour yourself into is a remarkable gift. It is the main way I know of to connect to something higher than the day to day.
On September 11th, 2001, I was in Memphis, Tennessee where I worked as Resident Choreographer for Ballet Memphis. I woke up to the clock radio at the Residence Inn in mid-rant. The synthetic comforter floated onto the floor in a flat plane, unnaturally ignoring the contours of my body and folding into an orderly shape, repelled like an opposite magnet, indignant to the job of fulfilling the name “comforter”. The announcer was denying reports that one of the towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed. My half-awake brain was piecing together a tiny version of the horror that ultimately unfolded. Something based on what I knew from possibility. There was a fire somewhere…maybe there were hostages. It was a tragedy, yes, but of course a tragedy I had known before, not the unimaginable. I turned on the television and watched in silent disbelief with thousands of other Americans and people around the world as the second tower collapsed into a pile of dust. I got dressed for rehearsal and went into the studio because I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to be around other people and know that what was happening was real.
After some initial conversations and being able to say nothing but what we had heard, there came the decision of what we were going to do right in this moment. Did we take a break from the day? There was almost no consideration before we arrived at the point that we would work. We would live this life and pour ourselves to the miraculous gift that we had in front of us to start sifting through and making sense from the cruelty of life. I was working on an autobiographical piece called High Lonesome, set to the music of Beck. I was opening my memories of childhood and already trying to make sense of incredibly murky and confusing waters. I think we all felt the gift of in any way having something to focus on. Something to keep us from circling in the impossible justification of tragedy. For me personally, that ended up being a defining work that changed all of the dance that I made after it. The entire experience helped me access and feel confident in my search for deeper meaning and stretching the possibilities of what can be discovered through dance, and then eventually all art.
While I was in Portland, I connected with OBT dancer Avery Reiners to work on some photography. He and I shared a foxhole of sorts at one point. We first met as he was being thrown in to a leading role in my ballet Robust American Love, set to the music of The Fleet Foxes. He had both just started with the company had just barely learned the steps when I showed up. And he was only a few days away from performing this leading role at the 4000 seat Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. He was scared and probably had good reason to be, so I knew my main job was to help him be calm and give him the confidence to be his best self. I had to put aside my own meticulous practice and focused on the essentials that would help Avery perform well. He came a huge distance in the two days I had with him before he got on a plane to Washington, DC. It was impossible for him to feel fully confident, but he left in a much better place. I didn’t go with them to Wolf Trap, so I relied on backstage play by play from my good friend Barbara Parker who was Director of Operations and Artistic Initiatives at the theater. He nailed the piece and came offstage and collapsed into a pile of tears.
I noticed a similarity in the process with him of taking photos. I tend to work with people who, like Avery, have never done anything like this before. There is a magic and a beauty in stepping into the authority and vulnerability of your own naked body. Discovering your notions and prejudices that you may or may not have been conscious of and letting them go. This is somehow vital to these photographs. I feel this enormous protectiveness. I want collaborators to grow and feel empowered by being in these photos. I would never want anyone to regret it.
Our location was the recently renovated Society Hotel (stay there in PDX if you get a chance). They were allowing us to use one of their rooms in the window between check out and check in and we would play it by ear as things opened up. We ended up waiting for about an hour in the lobby café and had a chance to get to know each other that we hadn’t had before. I couldn’t tell if the time was making Avery more or less nervous.
When the incredibly sweet and generous staff got us to one of the rooms, there was such relief in getting to the peace of making art. As soon as we were considering creating something new, nudity became almost incidental in its clichéd inferences, yet essential in its connection to presence and openness. The room was its own meditation. Hushed grey light created soft rectangles that sounded like “o’s” and “h’s”. It was the pensively kind jazz record of Gus van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy.
The non-verbal relationship in making photos like this is like nothing else. Me acting as witness and celebrator of the fact that they have become a gravity hero and challenged themselves to act as great as they actually are. Being present for and recording the unfolding of a person realizing that every part of themselves is beautiful and valuable. Sharing in the belief that no matter how strongly our memories of public shaming tempt us out of ourselves, it is one’s Self that determines what is right. Two artists being present in the moment – the moment that transcends all that came before and all that will come.