This I Believe


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.






  1. Genessa

    It’s so easy to sit back and consume performance art as entertainment alone. The way you describe your creative process always reminds me that dance and movement is a form of communication. I’m grateful for this important reminder! It leads to a much richer, more interactive way to engage in your art. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  2. Jasmin

    I love the story about your friend seeing a church burning listening to Coltrane’s song; what an example of the telepathic magic of art. Art/music/dance can express such deeply human emotions in a way that other forms of communication simply cannot. As you say, not only do we communicate with others through art, but the dialogue happens between you and yourself, or you and your own body. I think that is where art starts, with the self. In creating art, I find that the more I connect with my own authentic self, the more strongly the product “speaks” to other people’s experiences. Perhaps artists such as Coltrane are masters at this and that is why when we listen to his music, we feel what he is feeling, or perhaps even see the same Baptist church burning in our mind.

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