Intensity of feeling cuts in every direction. People have referred to me as intense my whole life and I only just now have any idea what that means. I don’t understand what it means, but I have a description courtesy of the friends who know me very well. I don’t understand what it means because it is the only way I have experienced life and I do not have a different experience to compare it to. I’ve always had the sense that the implication was a criticism, but I might as well be criticized for breathing.

This capacity to feel acutely the barbs of perspicacity and be dragged to the extreme volume points on the dial helps me speak with authority when I am making art. It’s not a volume I can turn up and down at will and it takes some great care to not let it destroy my life.

This is the archetype of the tortured artist.

I used to think that stereotype was about self-indulgence and narcissism, but I have come to know and accept over time in myself that this is an incredible, necessary, and inescapable tool…one that has to be cared for with great thoughtfulness. The graveyard is full of incredible talents who let this wild demon thrash them against life until they could not stay awake for a battle.

There are actually tools that help modulate the volume and those tools are drugs and alcohol. They are of the few, at least most direct and easiest ways to cut through a screaming mind. I recognized the force and danger of this tool when I was in my early 20’s and chose to stop drinking altogether and didn’t drink one bit for over 15 years. And then I started a dance company. And then there was no longer an in and out of projects; life became one singular project that never ended…not on a weekend, a vacation, nor while I was sleeping. And then, a friend poured me a glass of wine at a dinner party and I had a few brilliant moments away from the weight and I couldn’t understand what the big deal had been to not drink.

And so I went on a decade long odyssey of trying to break through to the other side. Alcohol became for me a spirit voyage that felt like, if I could push it far enough, I would meet God. And there were moments where I did. The journey I went on was real, alive, a valuable experience where I pushed the boundaries of my life to their limits. I have tremendous gratitude that I was held lovingly in this by the hand of God. I never once in that decade got behind the wheel of a car while I was under the influence. Somehow I always tiptoed on the edge of the canyon to eventually wake up disheveled in my own bed. There was a purpose in the exercise that let me flail through the void and still end up safe.

What eventually ended it for me was to realize that the gifts and lessons of this were mostly self-contained. I got a vision of grace, only to be dumped back onto this Earth to begin again and build from scratch. I was not growing. And so stopping binge drinking was not a matter of willpower or denial, it came from seeing it for what it was: temporary and disconnected from the rest of my life. As much as it was an absolute vacation from anxiety and the snaking highways of adult thinking, as much I could not feel puppeted by my past, as much as I could cut right to some of the best parts of myself, I would still wake up the next day, having to build myself all over again, inhibited by a week of depression. I could eventually have that perspective at the beginning of an evening and I knew that I was done with it.

This still leaves me with the question of “what then?” When I come back home the day after an intensive period of making choreography, where I am asked to function at a high level, day after sequential day for a prescribed number of hours, stepping away follows with a massive pendulum swing into depression. This is a process I am still figuring out day by day. One help has been to accept this as a necessary part of the process. I want to see it as a bad thing to conquer but instead if I hold it in my hand and adore this unique color of my life, the conversation changes.

A rational person might use this time to relax, but that feels like a theoretical to me. I am comforted by the creative process. That is a peaceful place in and of itself for me. But it is not an act of relaxing. I have been accused of being a workaholic, but this is not an addiction, I simply am made happy by it. This is perhaps why I am so driven to explore new mediums and ones that I can continue out of the studio. That is why I have a photoshoot this afternoon that I will share with you next week. That is why I am writing you today.


photos of Austin dancer Leo McGrath