A letter to my senior ballet class, a rather-more-complex-than-necessary answer to the question, “What does this song say?”, and a long-winded glimpse at a creative process:
Last week, we all had a laugh because you were dancing to music that no one could figure out the lyrics for, and everyone had their own interpretations. It was yet another funny moment in what has been an amazing seven years with some of you people. Some of those memories get buried in the sheer multitude, some stand out and stick with me. They have become part of me just as I know they are part of you, these moments of your fleeting childhood.
When I realized that you didn’t understand what you were dancing to, words and sounds you could hear but not decipher, I also realized that there was no way for you to understand the parts that I never told you. After telling you where we were going, I never explained the steps I had to take alone to get us there. I had to laugh to myself too, because I’ve been doing a one-word challenge this year and chose the word “Listen.” And there you were, not quite hearing this message I have spent the whole year filling with meaning for you. So let me tell you now.
I began in January by telling you that I was excited about a “space” spring concert until I realized I’d have to be part of it. Ever since I was a fifth-grader and watched the space shuttle Challenger, carrying a teacher from my home state, explode live on television, I have had an ugly disdain for the space program. It’s inherently risky. It’s so expensive. We could be feeding people. Why do we need this? I have had a solid wall around that stance for as long as I can remember.
So I focused instead on what I found beautiful and interesting, and hoped I could salvage an inspiration and create something from that. Soon I found there was more room in my heart for the universe than I realized.
I had a little boy once, less little these days, who was fascinated with space, for whom I set aside my reservations about it and allowed to bask in the wonder of science. Perhaps it was he who cracked the wall. For a while, he claimed to be named for Neil Armstrong, though that was wishful thinking on his part, and I took him to the Museum of Science to sit in the lunar capsule, and to the Smithsonian Air and Space many times, to touch the moon rock, to witness the legacy and bravery of the astronauts, to see how they go to the bathroom in space because these are things little boys need to know, and to wonder with all his heart why we need missiles. He was sure he’d be the first person on Mars, and he asked to have Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star sung to him every night for far more years than I could have ever hoped, sometimes twice. We camped out and watched the Perseid meteors together until we fell asleep last summer.
There is wonder and awe in all of it. In the infinite space that we gaze out into. In the shifting space between us as people. And, in the spaces inside us that we don’t look into until we have to.
So as I wondered what you could be – you, my other stars – I wanted to make a piece about constellations for you. Each of you is different. You shine in your own ways. Connected together, you tell a story, or stand for something, or become meaning out of chaos.
A constellation ballet, however, is not what happened, not exactly. The constellation moments are a remnant, but the piece is not about stars, or myths, as much as I wanted to convey their timeless humanity. I kept returning to Max Ehrmann’s poem, Desiderata, given to me in my high school graduation year, which reads in part:
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars.
You have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
I listened to the voice that reminded me of that thought, about being where you are right now, and let it, like the stars, guide me. We are all right where we are supposed to be. In spite of all the times I doubted myself then, or doubt myself still today, I am doing what I am here for. And you are too, and will be. I have known some of you through times when you believed you were insignificant. But that was never true. I knew that a million tiny successes were waiting inside each of you, and it’s one of the reasons I know the universe put us in the same room.
I listened to so much music, some of it many times, trying to hear deeper into the meaning in it, before I found what I needed your piece to be. I was struck when I heard the voice of Joni Mitchell, who I discovered in high school. She wrote music in the 1960’s of peace at a time of war, singing with a haunting voice that conveyed both innocence and heartbreak. Something about her particular gifts resonated with me, although her music was 25 years old at the time I was discovering it. (Sometimes I have wondered if I was born in the wrong decade. But no, we are where we are supposed to be.) I heard the “stardust” vocals, and – Bingo. And because all this time those words were lost (giggles), I give them to you now:
We are stardust
(million year old carbon)
We are golden
(caught in the devil’s bargain)
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden
We are literally made of the same stuff as stars. We are better than whatever hurdle is holding us back from our potential. We can and should change the world, to make it what it better. This is why I chose this song for you. This, and the words from the original song (that our version doesn’t include):
I don’t know who I am,
But you know, life is for learning.
You on the launchpad of life, so to speak. (This year would be nothing without its epic puns.) I immediately had inspiration beyond what the audience would ever hear. They won’t hear a voyage of self-discovery as they watch, but it is there because it is you. It is where you are now, it is the trajectory you’re on, for the next few years, and pretty much forever. God knows, I’m still learning too, and I’m at least halfway to old.
I needed to overlay some space transmissions for continuity, and given the choice, I always go with meaning. (I’m making art here.) So as the beat falls away and the vocal sings only “We are…”, there’s an emptiness that I could certainly have left alone. But, “life is for learning,” she says, so I used it for “what do we learn from all of this?” All of the science, discoveries, risks and missions, these disasters, displays of human achievement and dominance. I thought, “How I wonder what ‘we are’… What are we?… What defines us? In all the universe, what is it that makes us? It’s little bit of all of those things.”
So I inserted some sounds from the Apollo 13 mission that form some answers:
She sings,“We are…” and I responded with the clip, “Houston, we’ve had a problem…”
…because what are we, if we’re not sometimes defined by our worst fears coming to pass?
The voice continues, “We have a main B bus undervolt…”
…now, I don’t know what that means, but, when we are face to face with that fear, aren’t we better off when we can name it? So many times in life we can’t distill it to its root cause or communicate it.
She sings again, “We are…” and I added NASA’s statement, “So we have to go to the back side of the moon and come back.”
…because we are also defined in facing those fears, in order to get past them. In taking a risk, letting go, feeling alone, giving up a dream but not giving up hope.
Those guys wanted to walk on the moon more than anything, and out of all of the millions of human beings on earth, they were not only among the very few who were qualified, but also the ones chosen. They got so close, and when disaster struck, they had to give it up if they were going to survive, and even that was uncertain. They had to go into the dark, out of range of communication with Earth, as they went around the moon, and trust that when they came back into the light, someone would answer and bring them home again.
The men in Houston had to own the malfunction to the news media, to America, and to the world, after a prior failed mission had killed some of their colleagues. They were hoping against all hope, a solution still not found and the clock running down, defending both the careers that were their passion, and the pride of the nation in the midst of the space race. All while trying to save their friends’ lives. And grieving.
I hope you live your whole lives and never have a moment when you feel like you’re headed around the dark side of the moon, or worse, sending someone you love into the dark. Or owning something that hurts that badly. But if and, more likely when you do, know that you are defined by the hope and trust that give you the courage to face it, and that the light will come.
Next, she sings, “We are…” and I responded with “Hang in there, it won’t be long.”
…because we are also reassurance to others. And we are where we are only temporarily. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that. Or we have to be there to remind someone else that we are, none of us, alone.
She sings, “We are…” and I responded with nothing.
…because sometimes in life we ask the question and get no answer. We aren’t alone, but there is no response to our call. Sometimes we hear silence, or we are silent. Or we have to wait, and trust, and hope in the dark. But in the quiet, the universe is there, and as in the poem, we are an entirely necessary and deserving part of it. Sometimes, despite the darkness and silence, what is to come… is worth the wait.
Finally, she sings, “We are…” and here, a conversation, the one that put those astronauts back on target to home: “He needs to put his throttle to min…”…“Throttle to min… 29 percent now…”… “Okay Aquarius, and you’re go for the burn.”
…because we are… talking someone through it. Whatever “it” is. And we are only solving that problem when we’re working together. And we are only getting it done when we’re going all in. That “burn” was their only chance. We have to bring our best, every time, whether what we are is life and death, or teaching a preschool child their numbers, or watching a new company take off, or designing a museum, we have to believe in it. What “We are…” is in showing up for life.
And then, we go back to the full vocal. We are stardust. We are golden. Shiny, radiant, beautiful, and connected to everything else in the universe. Everything. All the successes and the failures, of everyone. Friend or enemy or complete unknown.
In the background as you exit are the electromagnetic waves of Saturn’s rings. Rings that aren’t solid, but made of gas and dust and rocks and ice, all coming together to create a circle. Just as you have come together to create something.
I hope I don’t have to tell you that for many years now, you have been admired by all of us, young and old at a distance. Some of us have been lucky enough to get up close and know you better. Some of the little ones have been afraid to, because you’re the seniors. (Or because you’re sassy, whatever.) But we rarely think about all of the parts of your life that you juggle to get here, working together with the sum of the parts of the person next to you, and those of the one next to her, and so on; we see you each as One Amazing Something. We see you shine, like stars, as individuals. We see you create stories and connectedness with each other, like the constellations. We see you as something we can barely fathom in all its awesomeness because of all the parts that make you unique, like the rings of Saturn. You are all of those things to us. To me.
All things considered, I think the scientists at NASA could just as easily find my job unnecessary in a world where we can’t manage to feed people. We could be discovering things. Why dance? Why create art?
They might as well ask, why breathe? Why be alive? Discovering meaning in something that challenged me, going on a journey without leaving my little world, helped me reach into my discomfort zone. The crack in my stubborn wall of opinions is a little wider. I’ll let science keep striving to find answers in the universe, and I’ll keep searching for meaning in my own way, with or without the hard answers they require, with or without their inspiration. There was more humanity in the endeavors of science – even in their disasters – than I’d thought about before. And there’s more science in my own work than I often embrace.
Life is for learning. Joni Mitchell was right.
George Balanchine famously said, “See the music, hear the dance.” And you will bring all of this to life as you move through it, in a few weeks. You can choose to carry as much or as little of it with you as you’d like. But it is my gift to you. And it is art I couldn’t create without you. That has been your gift to me. Thank you.
Your constellation still exists. You form Cassiopeia, and there is truth and humanity in her story. Being connected as mothers and daughters, feeling trapped sometimes by those who love us. Sacrificing things we love to protect ourselves. Feeling set apart from the world sometimes and seeing it turn upside-down before our eyes. You may not be dancing that story, as I thought you would be, but you carry the hard-learned trials of being human inside yourselves as you dance, and you dance because it is a way to free yourself from them.
You’ll do it with telescoping movements (pun intended), because together we stretch ourselves (another pun, ugh!)…with turning and twisting movements, because we see things from all angles, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable …with balancing movements, because life is about that too …with movements that are soft, as we are, and those that are strong, because we are that too. It is hard sometimes. Some movements ground you. Some you’ll grow up and out of. Some, you’ll feel gravity pulling you down from. Some will allow you to fly.
You’ll move at different speeds, or you’ll move at the same speed but different times, because to rush to keep up with someone else would be ruinous to where you each are supposed to be, both here and, in life. And you’ll move in unison, because we have to appreciate those times when it all falls into place and all seems right with the world, those too-rare and special times when we are all together. Special not just because we so rarely have perfect attendance, but because those are times that I will miss as you go out into the world.
So I’ll send you out with one more of my favorite quotes, from Havelock Ellis: Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself.
I am so grateful that the universe, unfolding exactly as it should, put us all in the same room to learn a little something about life together.