Portrait of the Artist as a Young Whippersnapper

Courtesy of merchant circle.com

Courtesy of merchant circle.com

Leah Cox is watchable: in the Clark Theatre of Lincoln Center stages, way farther uptown than I usually go, she shepherds wunderkind to and fro with a grace that shrieks “Yes, I was a lead dancer in a world-famous modern company for many years.” I get a huge kick out of watching dancers do the mundane, the things we mere mortals do. You can always tell. It’s in a person’s carriage, their wrists, the way they move their heads. Bill T. Jones, for instance, may as well be a Rodin sculpture. He cuts a Heraclean-impressive figure and has about a rock’s capacity for stillness and gravity. Some people’s art is their entire body, can you imagine? Their entire entire life.

So why am I here? I’m technically at work. Where is here, again? The Lincoln Center stage space that is home to the Bill T. Jones Dance Company, of which Bill T. and Leah C. are founding part. “Work” is being a Resident Advisor to the youngArts New York program. The youngArts New York program is an annual week-long festival celebrating about thirty seventeen year old artists who have proven to someone that they have a preternatural gift in music, art, writing, acting or dancing. Because of their preternatural gifts, they are granted the opportunity to make collaborative performances from the ground-up with the likes of Bill T., or Mikhail Baryshnikov (that’s the other group). They take Master Class from Kathleen Turner. They have gallery shows at the MOMA. Some of them may be more shocked to be in elite company than others; there is usually a slight hierarchy of egos at work here. It is a celebration and a subtle competition both. And I think from my perch a whole weave of things: for one, I am jealous. I’m jealous of all this un-checked optimism and confidence that I know I once knew but have in some ways transcended since the practical parts of being an independent adult have come to interrupt art goals for fame and recognition. I am also a little scoff-escending; they don’t know what this art life will suck from their marrow yet…I am also – and primarily, I think – rejuvenated. Because they are so good, they are good enough to work with these masters in these venues that mean they have made it. And I’ve gotten that ‘go ahead’ before. I am, after all, not so much older than they are.

This week reminds me of that dreadful weekend six January’s ago that I spent schlepping around a then very new New York in the rain, being seventeen, fumbling through monologues in cold studio spaces, wishing and wishing a vague “they” would like me. I deliberately brought all of my belongings into the city in an electric guitar case because I’d just seen Rent for the first time and it had left some astronomic impression on the way I thought my life should be. And guess what, world? All of my clothes were ruined in a downpour, and ‘they’ did like me! All of the them did! And since that day I’ve had auditions where a more fixed ‘they’ have liked me, and I’ve gotten roles, and I’ve been published. Proportionally, these things happen a lot less frequently than the callous rejection letters or the parts I don’t get…still. I am trying. I work with my theatre company, Rescue Agreement. We are building a collaborative show from the ground up, we are learning the language of push and pull and ruthless edit. At Lincoln Center, I watch two seventeen-year old ballerinas work with two lead members of the Jones company. The man asks the girls to stop counting with numbers and scat instead, he asks them to stand off center, he actually uses the words “wavy gravy.” One ballerina cannot hide her stricken face. But to keep the flow smooth she swallows her stress and says ‘yes.’

I learned in school that being “good enough” is maybe half of a percent of a success, bar none, no matter how brilliant you may be. Everyone deserves to be heard and understood. Every beautiful thing deserves an audience. But the math is on no artist’s side, and some of the most electrifying cellists and sculptors and performance artists in this city are nine times out of ten still worried about breaking even; as a result they feel they cannot shine the way they were meant to. It’s a damaging cycle especially because it fosters a lot of feeling-sorry-for-ourselves, but recall: if there’s ever a moment when no one’s waiting for your next big thing, it has to be because you haven’t made them wait. We work. We work so hard, or we we don’t work hard enough and that’s all there is to say about that. And we compromise, and we return to the universe that original ‘Yes’ in the form of shades of sacrifice. That is what I am learning. This is a religion. It is not something that can be done alone. It is about as glamorous in toto as Jonathan Larson meant to tell me in 2007; I just sort of misunderstood Rent.

YoungArts Week is a little like summer camp: a lot of passionate and well-meant pledges are made here and not all of them will last, not everyone does return letters (or follow their seventeen year old star, for that matter). Since my own original jaunt here I have tried to keep in touch with the names and faces that inspired me so – a lot of those guys are doing excellent work. I hear about shows at Joe’s Pub, or any number of jazz clubs in the Village. I read their names in The Baffler and The Berkeley Review. YoungArts Week is a little like art college, only compressed; one tries to reconcile glamour-hunting ego with self-defeating habit with being wildly unique with everyone else out here on the planet attempting the same project, all while one is very scared and ridiculous-feeling…

It’s the corniest of possible boil-downs, but I think the solace to take at all times – perhaps especially for we the sometimes- dubious, who need reminders of why we do whatever crazy thing we’re compelled to do – is Michael Jackson. Is E.M Forster. If you’re worried, only connect. You are not alone. It takes a village, plus all kinds to make a world. And even if what you’re doing right now is not a cosmic “right” (though what would that mean, you friggin hippie?) or to you the most noble of pursuits, stand off center, keep agreeing until you really don’t want to anymore. There are a lot of us around should you tumble. Somewhere in the ether is even your seventeen-year-old self, either goading you forward or pleased as punch.

Okay, mike drop. She looks up from her navel and goes out to make some art, or something.

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