This essay was submitted to NPR’s series “This I believe.”
There’s a tilt in my head. “I’m a duck,” I say, at eight. It’s in a quickness of the eye, a tension around the ribs, a primal alertness in the brain. I like being a duck. I still do. I believe that with our bodies we can be things, strange and specific things. When I personify a watchful duck, or a musical measure, or a man bereft by the loss of his son, there is a symbiosis both with the feeling I’m embodying, and with you. I believe that dance is an embodiment of something so terribly specific that your observer can’t help but feel that there is something I know that you now know too.
I believe art is magic made through scientific inquiry. When I choreograph I choose which movement follows the next through trial and error under hunches wrought by time and practice. Yes, this pause here. No, not for one measure. Two. In countless choices I know which to follow out of algorithms generated from experience. I’m lucky. As a choreographer I create through the endless empirical research of being human.
A friend’s music professor played a recorded instrumental piece to his class with no introduction; at its finish he asked what they had heard. After a few illusions to sadness by other students, James said that while listening he had envisioned a church burning. He didn’t yet know they had heard John Coltrane’s “Alabama” composed in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the KKK. What magic! James’s shared vision with Coltrane touches my artistic hope that empathy can be so magical as to create shared union between sound and vision, writer and reader, dancer and observer.
Yet I don’t strive for empathy with my audience. And I don’t know if Coltrane did. I’m communicating not with you, but with myself and my ability to experience the range of my own humanity through my body. I am an atheist who finds divinity in the drape of my spine, the toss of my leg, and the geometry of my fingers against these pliant keys.
Every day I gather up a group of driftwood sticks on my coffee table and rearrange them to please my sense of chaos, or delicacy, or hope. No one sees it but me. For all my beliefs about research and empathy, in composition and in movement I am alone as my own witness.