Shifting From a Creature of Habit to an Ever-Evolving Artist Revitalized My Career

January 28, 2022

Many years ago, I had an experience at the Museum of Modern Art that rocked me hard. At a Willem de Kooning retrospective, there was a timeline of his career that detailed his stylistic shifts. Among other things, he worked as a house painter, a muralist, an abstract expressionist, a sculptor, then in figurative landscapes before returning to abstraction. I had an epiphany: Of course he worked on different things as he became interested in different ideas or was exposed to different influences. He evolved as a human. Why wouldn’t his art reflect that?

At the time, I was in the early stages of my transition from ballet to contemporary dance. I’d known how to be a ballet dancer, was well-versed on how to lead that daily life. It wasn’t easy, but it was familiar. And while discovering the contemporary, postmodern scene was invigorating, it was also disorienting. I’d walked away from the aesthetics, routine and people that I’d known.

Our field requires commitment, and for people who don’t want to disappoint, breaking up—with a director, a company, a show, a genre—can be a challenge. As dancers, we lovingly invest in relationships and repetition, but this can also render us creatures of habit who are particularly resistant to doing things differently.

I hadn’t realized it when I was in the thick of it, but my knowledge of the dance world then was myopic. Even though I’d left one chapter to begin the next, I was still looking backwards more than I was able to look ahead. I kept comparing myself to the dancer I’d once been, in part because other people kept pointing out how much I looked like a ballerina when I’d execute contemporary work. I did myself no favors by getting stuck in the labels I let others put on me, and the labels I put on myself.

Sometimes when we work exclusively on behalf of a singular idea of “right,” one way can easily become the only way. Devotion can be a vacuum. We become so laser-focused that we exclude the possibility of options,­ and we might find ourselves stuck, whether it be in a particular style or a certain work situation. But when you don’t—or can’t—allow space for change, you impede your growth as an artist. Even when we say we want to “improve,” we often forget that that itself is a form of change!

Woman with short curly hair wearing sleeveless black dress
Meredith Fages. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan, Courtesy Fages

“While change is most commonly considered reactive, it can also be proactive.” Meredith Fages

With an expansive mindset, change doesn’t have to be so precipitous or vertiginous. Allowing ourselves to be insatiably curious can help to unzip narrow notions of success and identity, thereby softening our perceptions of what’s at stake in a career transition. The words “pivot” and “resilience” have gotten a lot of airtime during the pandemic, yet their definitions are invaluable. In this era of the Great Resignation, many dancers are rethinking their career paths. It’s easy to forget that while change is most commonly considered reactive, it can also be proactive. What if moving forward could be less about negating prior experiences and more about pulling back the layers of an onion? It’s all part of a whole.

I took my first improvisation workshop at age 27. The opening prompt was to move in response to elements in the ornately decorated room. The instructor, Todd Williams, offered a sample demonstration, during which he endowed the smallest body parts, like his little toe, with the same power for expression as the more obvious parts. In a mere 15 seconds, I experienced a radical paradigm shift that helped dislodge a mental block that had been holding me back. I’d never considered that my own body could be a spontaneous, generative force, or that I had the agency to invent movement that still celebrated the clarity of line that I spent so many years honing in ballet.

When I did venture back to a ballet class after five years away, it was with a newfound peace. At that point in my contemporary work, I was no longer adamant about breaking away from or disguising my past. I let it carry me forward, and my artistry deepened. As de Kooning once said: “After a while all kinds of painting becomes just painting for you—abstract or otherwise.”

What artistic adventures will be found on the timeline of your retrospective?

Making Growth Manageable

With micromovements, we can start small and invite fluidity in on a daily basis.
Postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay is known for sounding her wakeup call in blunt language: “Turn your [expletive] head!” If that doesn’t resonate, consider these concrete, actionable steps to become more comfortable with change:

  1. Cross-train your brain. Investigate something you know nothing about.
  2. Reinvest in action verbs. Be purposeful in how you taste, touch, harvest, concoct, share.
  3. Reacquaint yourself with wonder. Be moved by the beauty found in unexpected people, places and things