Earlier this week, I went to see Dancer Crush at The-Venue-Formerly-Known-As-Dance-Theater-Workshop. (Erm, I mean: New York Live Arts.) The performance was a series of solos – or near solos – spotlighting some of the most intriguing contemporary dance artists currently working in New York City. The aim here was to shift the usual focus given to a choreographer/creator onto the crucial, though generally less celebrated, contributions of individual performers.
At the pre-show talk, co-curators for the evening Carla Peterson (Artistic Director of NYLA) and Annie-B Parson (Choreographer and Co-Director of Big Dance Theater) discussed their desire to highlight performers who exhibit a sort of mastery that is unlinked to any specific, definable technique – a subtle genius that is difficult to pin down, something unrelated to the height of one’s leg, the angle of one’s pointed foot, or the air time sustained in a jump.
What is this something?
I think, in many cases, it’s an ability to resonate deeply with the humanity of an audience. Or, to put it more simply: I think they’re clowns.
It is unfortunate that this concept often carries a trivializing connotation, because I mean it as a deep compliment. Clowning has an ancient tradition, and, at its best, is utterly timeless. It is sheer honesty, vulnerability and humanity on stage. It is at once the pinnacle of possibility and the pit of despair – our most genuine hopes and our most devastating losses. Clowning, for all its traditional make-up, is humanity unmasked.
This is why these performers stand out.
We notice them because they are unmasked. We notice them because we see ourselves in them. Our true selves. Our deep selves. The selves we ignore most of the time. The selves we hide from each other, even from the mirror. We notice these performers because they dare honesty in a world of anything-but. Each is a friend, an example, a relief. They provide us with a priceless gift, what Emmett Kelly described as “a spiritual second wind for going back into the battles of life.”
Red nose or not, clowns are important. Seriously. And I am grateful to those on stage at New York Live Arts this week for my spiritual second wind.