ArtistMotherWife is an occasional series in which I will explore topics related to the intersection of marriage, motherhood, and maintaining one’s career in the arts.
Around 4:30am, I did the thing that all the pediatricians practically beg you not to do: I pulled the crying baby out of his pack and play, took him back to our bed, and snuggled him in as securely as possible in a desperate attempt to get him to sleep soundly for the next two hours. I try not to make a habit of this, mostly because I don’t sleep as well as I should when he is in the bed with us, but I’ve learned that there are times, such as show weeks and while traveling, that even a not-so-great sleep is better than no sleep at all. And since we were dealing with a “double whammy” that night – show week and traveling – I knew that a few hours of co-sleep would probably do us all good.
Motherhood, like choreography, is often a delicate balance between doing what people say you should do, and doing what you find works best in the moment. The words of critics and doctors, of former professors and mommy bloggers, all perform a fierce, twisted tango in your brain as you try to do your best to parent your little one or bring your creative vision to life. When you first start out, the voices of the others tend to take the lead. But over time, your begin to trust your own gut a little more, and your own style – be it parenting or choreographic – takes its shape.
It was from that delicate balance that the choreography for Week 41 emerged. I was invited to dance and choreograph for Movement Source Dance Company about a week before I suspected I could be pregnant; it was the start of a year of rather dramatic change in my life. I remember sitting across from Mary Anne Herding, the director of the company, inwardly freaking out with joy at her invitation. After nearly a year in Phoenix, I finally felt like I had found my new dance tribe.
The elation was to be short lived, unfortunately. By the time that spring concert rolled around, not only was I the mom of a 6 month little boy, I was also living in Tucson, about 90 miles southeast of Phoenix. I was determined to at least fulfill my commitment to the company as a choreographer, even if the pregnancy and recovery from an unplanned c-section meant I couldn’t participate as a dancer. For about 6 weeks I made the trek up the I-10 every Wednesday, slipping away from my domestic life for 3 hours of creative play and choreographic exploration with dancers of Movement Source. Here, the delicate mommy-artist balance reached it’s most painful expression: The guilt of leaving my little guy, who was just starting to experience separation anxiety and whose sad little eyes haunted me as I backed the car out of the garage, meshed with the joy of a few precious hours to pursue my artistic pleasures and get back to my first love, dance.
The title of the concert was Alone, Together, and all of the pieces reflected on that theme. At first, I set out to create a dance about Bessie Coleman, the first black woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license in the U.S. History and intersectional feminism are nerdy passions of mine, and I have dreams of creating a suite of dances based on female aviators throughout the 20th century. But as the saying goes, “A baby changes everything,” and that is true even of choreography. About 5 weeks after the baby was born, I was preparing mentally and physically for our first full day alone, after my husband returned to work and our families left. As I arranged his little bouncy seat, several blankets, and a supply of coffee and snacks, I turned to the baby and said, “Okay, buddy, are you ready for our first day alone together?” And in that moment away Bessie flew, for the time being at least, and a new dance took flight.
I decided to use the choreography to explore the complexities of the postpartum experience. For me, this included intense joy, adrenaline, pride, and exhilaration but also anxiety, isolation, and a host of other unexpected emotions, as the baby, my husband, and I all adjusted to our new roles individually and in relationship with one another. I had been struggling to navigate those conflicting emotions, yet another balancing act with which I would learn to live as an ArtistMotherWife. I was hesitant to put it all on stage, especially since I didn’t feel like I had a great grasp on what I was feeling from moment to moment. Almost immediately I heard those voices in my head: It’s cheesy. It’s cheap. It’s too niche. It’s too personal. It’s too emotional. It’s too soon.
The idea would not subside, however, and soon enough I realized I had to ignore the other voices and follow my own creative instincts. As it had so many times in the past, the choreographic process became an outlet, a way to process, express, and release a complex range of feelings. The challenge would be to create a final product that would be not only healing for me, but also clear, accessible, and relatable to the audience. To help strike this balance, I started by focusing on the movement. If I could find clarity of intention in the movement, it would hopefully help the audience understand the underlying emotional place from which it was created.
The dance begins in darkness, with the gorgeously minimal strains of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Femiel filling the space. I tried to create a sense of isolation among the dancers, through use of both space and movement. The dancers, alone in their own corner, take turns repeating their own motifs of rocking, swaying, and bouncing motions. (This idea came to me in the middle of the night, as I cycled through all the various techniques I used to get the baby to sleep in those early days.) I asked each dancer to create their own motif pattern for this section, and by watching their movement I was able to imagine characters emerging. Each dancer seemed to take on a “new mom” stereotype. Nikki was calm and matter-of-fact, with an attitude of “Yes, I might be completely sleep deprived, but why do I need to be angry about it?” Kelly was soothing and nurturing, but with a glimmer of “Mama Bear” beneath the surface; the type who would take no sh*t from anyone who tried to get between her and her little one. Omaya came across as hyper-vigilant, thorough, and always alert, wanting to do things “by the book.” Miquella seemed to be running on pure adrenaline, exhausted but and energetic, uncertain, but eager to try her best. These characters, while not an overt part of the finished dance, helped inform the different relationships that developed through the movement and I think gave the dancers a framework through which they could approach their performance.
I always like to include at least a little collaborative movement generation in the process, as I think it helps the dancers feel authorship of the piece and can inspire a more authentic performance. In addition to their own rocking motifs, the dancers also collaborated on duets inspired by the prompt “dressing a stubborn infant,” as my little guy developed a habit of rejecting diapers and clothing almost from day one. In these phrases, the dancers incorporated a lovely blend of pulling, pushing, yielding, forcing, and molding that ended up evoking not only the idea of getting that stubborn baby into clothes, but also figuring out your new life with your partner.
I brought some pre-choreographed movement to the process as well, most notably a thematic phrase that was mostly generated while holding the baby. Dancing with the little one in my arms changed so much: my range of motion, dynamics, and use of space, just to name a few. Once I had the basic movement patterns and footwork, I added gestures and port de bras developed from the baby’s arm movements. I took a lot of photos and videos to help document his cute little arm patterns and poses over the first 5 months of his life!
Once the movement was established, developing the relationships between the dancers became the focus. I didn’t think it was necessary to have a precise storyline, but both the theme and the music called for some sort of narrative arc that I felt could be best expressed through the way the dancers related to one another. The first half of the piece explored the isolating aspect of being a new parent. I tapped into the emotions that flowed through me during the long sleepless nights: feeling completely helpless not being able to console my crying baby, or completely drained from marathon midnight nursing sessions, or completely lonely sitting in the dark once he finally fell asleep, terrified that any movement toward the cradle might wake him and start the cycle all over again. It was my hope that parents in the audience might kinesthetically connect with the repetitive rocking and up-and-down movement of the dancers, while those without children could still appreciate and relate to the feelings of being isolated, alone, and stuck. Throughout that first section, I had the dancers find moments of eye contact, without giving too much direction as to what those moments meant or should feel like. This provided a sort of natural set up to the second movement, which was all about the familial bonds that develop over time.
I wasn’t sure how I wanted the second section to evolve or how the dance should end until a few days after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. I was (reluctantly) listening to yet another news story about the gunman when I learned that his mother had passed away a few months earlier. As an educator and especially as a mother, I had been filled with rage and frustration over the shooting and our society’s continual lack of action to make our schools and streets safe for children. But in that moment, I found a strange sense of empathy. It was absolutely true that too many mothers were going to bed that evening heartbroken over the loss of their children at the hands of the perpetrator. But for the first time, I saw him as something of a heartbroken little boy, unable to cope with the loss of his own mom. Of course this does not justify in any way what he did or the pain it caused so many people, and I’m still mad as hell about our country’s attitudes toward gun violence. In that moment, however, holding my own son close and thinking about all those whose lives were forever changed by this greatest of losses, I experienced the parent-child bond in a powerful new way. That bond would become the focus of the second part of the dance, and ultimately the piece would end with a celebration of the deep and lasting ties that would form in spite of, or perhaps because of, all the postpartum chaos I had been grappling with for so many months.
To me, the best dances are the ones that live in the delicate balance between indulging in self-expression and finding ways to be accessible to a broader audience. By combining my personal postpartum experience with the more universal theme of the parent-child bond, I hope that Week 41 found that balance, at least in a small way. If nothing else, the process helped me to appreciate the balancing acts in my own life, rather than feel burdened by them. My baby won’t always want to be brought into bed to snuggle to sleep, so I’m learning to enjoy those moments (as safely as possible), without the co-sleeping guilt. Opportunities to collaborate with dancers that you truly connect with on projects you feel truly passionate about don’t come around often, so I have to savor them even if they mean taking some time away from family life. Life as an ArtistMotherWife will always be about that balance – finding it, losing it, enjoying it, resenting it, loving it, and at times even hating it. No matter what, however, I believe it will be worth it.