As we all know, theater and dance have their roots in ancient ritual, during a time when the daily spiritual life conjured minotaurs and tricksters and dead giants whose bodies we live on. Ritual, at that time, could actually pull down the favor of the gods. Imagine! Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in such a different, diverse and fragmented place than the days of animistic beliefs and ritual, and a long history of changing and diverging world views have created the present day performing arts world. Consequently, there are numerous fragmented ways (religious services, television, movies, parties, clubs, dances, sporting events, concerts and more) that serve those deeply embedded, ancient spiritual yearnings. At this point in my life, however, I find the performing arts to be, still, the most compelling and satisfying descendants of ritual.
Of course I also find a sense of spirit in heightened experience and would feel incomplete without that in the mix—wild nights of dancing socially, skiing, skating, being in the ocean, crazy passionate love, hiking all day and plunging from a cliff into cold water—all those things can bring me to a transcendent place where the gnawing questions of life stop biting at me. Time seems to expand, and I am allowed to just be in the world, to just be in a place that at least temporarily seems greater than normal existence—a place that many would describe as spiritual. I think what performance does though, if it is good, is to actually dare to mix thought and consciousness in with these compelling full-bodied life experiences, this “spiritual” sensation of the world. And in the case of dance and dance/theater, they often engage the intellect by way of the physical and spiritual. Instead of speaking with very specific words, dance and physical theater communicate with sensations, feelings and imagery that are engaging at a gut level instead of a head level. Broader and more open-ended than words, dance and physical theater engage the mind in a wider, more encompassing and less defined dialogue. I do love my full-bodied nonintellectual life experience, but I also need to have a mental life that can interact and jibe with that world. And dance and theater give me a physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual experience that does not even separate the experience into those four categories.
I personally don’t believe in the likelihood of any kind of afterlife or hidden spiritual world (at least not one that we can fathom), but I do believe in bravely facing the huge question of existence itself. I believe that this frustrating, breathtaking questioning is both the most challenging thing to deal with in life and also the thing that most defines us. No matter how much I am a product of a scientific world, I’m sure that scientific examination is inadequate in the face of this question. There is always a question “why” beyond whatever is scientifically determined. Moreover, sometimes, our striving to understand the world logically is one of the ways the eyehole of our perception grows tighter—and perhaps even pointed in the wrong direction. Science has to start from the point of view that everything is quantifiable and explicable. The performing arts, on the other hand, begins in a place where absolutely everything is worth examining and worth striving to understand. Instead of seeking definitive answers, it gives us a way to hold the world in our perception with all of its mystery and question intact.
A few years back, I settled on a comparison that helped me to create a shorthand for my beliefs about being a human being. In the universe, humans are like dogs at a formal dinner. A dog at a formal dinner can enjoy certain aspects of the dinner: the food, the attention, the pats on the forehead, the aromas. However, the candlelight, the fine china, the conversation, the fact that the recipes might come from Brittany, the whole concept that there is a place called Brittany that has a history and a culture and language of its own, the entire concept of history and culture—all these things are just under the dog’s nose but are completely lost on the dog because of his perceptual limitations.
That comparison works really well for me. In the universe, we look through a very tight lens at a larger picture that we are aware of but unequipped to understand or even approach from the correct vantage point. I don’t expect to fully understand life because that would make me something other than human, but I do love to actually, occasionally, bring myself to that point of being okay with the persistent question of existence. I do this through the performing arts and through experience. In this, I feel we somehow crack through our limitations in a way that trumps the predominantly scientific world view that we moderns all live within.
So, in my life and in theater, my imagination has been one of my most important allies, beloved and more capable of encompassing the contradictions of life than my intellect. I try to live in a world of my own imagination. (As Grandma Moses said, “Life is what you make it. Always has been. Always will be.”) I try to make my life as close to what I imagine is possible. Doing that in life is really tough because of the world’s love affair with black and white certainties and the self-satisfied inertia and destructive reality that lack of subtlety creates. But it is easier to live as we imagine in the theater. In the theater, I can invite others into the world of my imagination, hoping that somehow I myself have found some new realities that the audience didn’t even know existed before seeing my work.
Even as an audience member myself, theater and dance bring me to places that I cannot otherwise go. If, through watching performance, I can share in the wildest imaginings of other people, and experience stories that I wasn’t there to experience, or imagine the future, or feel something that I can’t describe, or visit worlds that do not exist at all, then I have somehow traveled beyond my mortal limits. Then I’ve lived through the experiences and imaginations of all humanity—beyond my own time on earth—and I can at least be a dog at many tables instead of just my own. ❦