A few weeks ago, a Lawrence Arts Center School of Dance staff member popped into my office to say hello. A few minutes into it, I realized her real reason for stopping in: they needed someone to be a walk-on in the fall production of Madeleine put on by our pre-professional company, Lawrence Ballet Theatre. They’d exhausted all other options. They were clearly desperate. On the table was a very minor role, “Parisian Mother with Purse” — a small but key part that sets the scene for important dance sequences in an early scene. Assured that it was simply a walk-on, with no dance experience required, I said yes. Sure, I am a visual artist with really no performance experience … but how hard could it be? I can floss, do the spaghetti AND a mean running man. Parisian Mother? Yes please, for the leopard accessory potential alone. And really, I’m just walking on. I’ve got this.
That first rehearsal? Let’s just say this: I felt like I was losing a real-life game of Frogger. With ballerinas instead of cars. It was nearly impossible for me to get from the stage entrance to my mark without tripping or causing injury. Oh, and by the way: it wasn’t just a walk -on. I had to “step-brush” four times. Four. Times. To music. I have never felt so clumsy, slow, and incompetent in my life. I was more than a fish out of water. I was a fish in outer space. Embarrassed, I slumped offstage avoiding eye contact, and snuck out of rehearsal.
Unprepared, I had stumbled, quite literally, upon what comes from commitment and practice. These young dancers spend 5-6 days a week in class, in concentrated training for years, to make an extremely difficult art form look not just beautiful, but completely natural. They make dance look effortless, like anyone could do it. At this point, I couldn’t match their training, but I certainly could find it within myself to try to match their commitment. It wouldn’t be a trained performance, but I certainly could be the best that I possibly could. With this humbling realization, I promised to stick with it.
The next evening, I sheepishly slipped into our next rehearsal full of apologies: to the ballerina I almost hamstrung, to the junior stage techs that had to reset the stage twice for me, and the duet whose sequence I stumbled into the middle of. Expecting to be met with frustration and annoyance, I found exactly the opposite: offers to give me special cues and signals, carefully written notes mapping my path onstage, jokes backstage, kind and encouraging comments. These highly trained, extremely talented, near-professional young people simply accepted what happened at rehearsal. They treated me as they treat each other: as members of the same team working towards the same goal. As such, I received the same care they extend each other regularly: encouraging words, costume and make-up assistance, backstage jokes to break the nerves, sometimes very real and actual physical support. While I didn’t think I was deserving of this kind of support after my first rehearsal, they just simply trusted that I was working on being the best I could be for the show, just as they were, and included me in this very special circle of trust.
Soaking up applause for a job well done after our final performance, something important occurred to me. In the performing arts, rehearsals offer a space to practice being ourselves. This practice is a microcosm of the world. Rehearsals create the space to face challenges, have disagreements, and learn from failures. Rehearsals are stops on the road leading to a sense of accomplishment and greater feeling of connection with others. Being seasoned performers, it was clear the 35+ young cast and crew had developed a habit of mind in this rehearsal space that I had not: it is not about what one person can do; it is about what we can all do together. In a divided time, this experience with our young emerging artists gave me a sense of optimism for the future.
It is an easy habit to see the world, and the space you occupy in it, as your own. The arts offer us a chance to reach beyond ourselves, to see the world as the collective it really is. Practicing art, we gain experience with the skills and habits that lead us to transcend tough times and make the world whole. Tolerance. Trust. Acceptance. Commitment. Shared purpose. Resilience. And, in the end, hope.