by Nancy Van Ness
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed my beloved teacher, the aged but distinguished former Denis-Shawn dancer whose approval usually mattered to me. In that moment, however, the joy of dancing held me so enthralled that I did not care what anyone thought. To my surprise, I saw her approving scrutiny. I had never before realized how much she wanted me to succeed, how invested she was in my dancing. Later, when I set off to begin my own career, she gave me the ultimate gift - the notes and scores for her class.
Forty Years Ago - I was flying. The other dancers and I, in lines, executed jumps across the studio, immediately turning and coming back - jumping over and over again - propelled by music from a pianist skilled at marking the rhythm for dancers. Though one of my feet touched the floor briefly at regular intervals, my consciousness was only of my soaring body. The physical work was very vigorous, but in that moment, it seemed effortless.
That was exactly four decades ago, but that exhilarating experience and moment of encouragement from my teacher have sustained me many times in my life as an artist. When the money runs out, when I don't know where the next opportunity or the next gig is coming from, when I am looking for support for the company I founded and don't know what will happen, when life seems tenuous and precarious, I will suddenly find myself back in that light filled studio with the piano pounding - defying gravity - easily, joyously flying. Remembering that time, I know that no matter what, I must keep going. I also know that the art I make is good and that it is the most important thing in my life.
Van Gogh said that artists make art. However, the prevailing belief in this society is that artists today make money, or the “real” artists do anyway. Anyone who doesn't is a "wannabe". While now prints of Van Gogh's Sunflowers hang on walls all over the world and his Starry Night is reproduced even on neckties and china, he might not be recognized as an artist today - just as he went unrecognized in his own time. He, however, knew the truth. Artists make art. They make art because they have to, not because of money they may or may not get. Van Gogh made art in spite of huge obstacles throughout his life.
My journey as an artist has been more driven by the joy of creating and less by expressions of anyone's approval or other outward marks of success. Looking at footage of my work recently, I was struck by how, though never perfect, it does conform to the artistic aims I hold. It felt rather like being God on the seventh day: surveying what I have created and knowing that it is good.
Though my dance work has been gratifying and is an achievement in the history of Western dance, I am not famous. No dance critic sings my praises. The audience for my very avant garde modern dance is small, but I still know that my work is important and good. Of course I would like for others to recognize that. Whether they do or not, however, will not determine my future. I cannot live without doing my art.My dance work is so innovative that I have yet to find a use for it that makes money. I relate to Virginia Woolf who wrote in her diary that the world didn't seem to need the book she was laboring to create, that most people would never be interested in it or even understand it. While she is today a very well known author of considerable influence, I doubt that many people have read The Waves or To The Lighthouse. Movies about her establish her fame, but most people who know about her haven't read her oeuvre. It is challenging; it requires effort to understand.
Audiences are challenged by watching my dance in much the same way. It does not use the conventions that people in the West expect to see in dance. It does not have steps. It is not done to music, but rather is the impetus for its musical accompaniment. The music itself is also challenging. Not unlike Woolf's readers, however, those who experience American Creative Dance performances are often transformed by them.
It doesn't sell. Or, at least, I have not yet learned how to sell it.
What I have learned how to do is to make that particular kind of art and attract a few stalwart colleagues who like making it with me. We have brought joy, pleasure and insight to audiences in this country and in Europe.
In spite of the prevailing view, we are real artists. And in spite of all appearances, I expect that we will be recognized sooner or later.
My colleagues and I all have to scramble to keep alive. One key is versatility. We have learned to use our talents and skills in a variety of ways that sometimes both pay the rent and lead to other interesting things.
In a darkened movie theater on May 2, 1998, I had an epiphany that profoundly affected my thinking about what art is and what it should do. That evening, I was humoring my young friend Thea on her birthday by taking her to see a film she was interested in called Déjà Vu. At the time, after several decades of "high art", I had seen very few films and felt I was slumming a little.
The musical score featured American standards, including one of Frank Sinatra's versions of These Foolish Things. I whispered to Thea, "That is really good!" She looked at me with a slightly ironic lift of an eyebrow but refrained from asking me which rock I had crawled out from. Obviously, she agreed.
I saw that film at the cinema eight times - I, who could count on one hand the films I had seen in the last twenty-five years! It opened many new doors for me. I began a serious study of the life and oeuvre of Frank Sinatra, which led me to appreciate not only his talent and skills, but also his generosity as a performer.
Although I was preparing a performance of my high art modern dance at the time, nonetheless I was transformed. For the first time in my life, I consciously set as a goal to be a generous performer. Not just excellent, but generous as well.
Opening up to this new way of thinking led me to explore how to use my own talents and the potential of the company to create more accessible art.I began a journey through different dance forms that took me to corners of the world I had never thought I would see. Though it took me over a year to get there, I decided to take up partner dancing. That path led me to the competitive ballroom dancers of the former Soviet Union, the best in the world. I trained with them for seven months, hating every minute of it, but growing to love them in the process.
In turn, ballroom dance directed me to Argentine tango, which I loved immediately and which opened up yet another new world. I spent time in Buenos Aires, a place that had never interested me but one that I came to love. My leading role in a very funny romantic film called Tango Passion was another by-product of taking up tango. My friend and visual artist Jaime Davidovich says it may lead to a new career in film for me!
For years people said to me, not always kindly, that my life should be on television. So American Creative Dance hired writer Ronnie Koenig to create a pilot for a sitcom based on us and our lives as working artists in New York. We have yet to get that produced, but someday we may.
All of these crazy activities and experiences are ways to keep going. Artists must make art. They cannot live without it.
As a five year old making my performing debut dancing on the stage of the Mosque Theater in Richmond with a pit full of musicians and theater technology that was excellent for the time, the thing that struck me most was the light. Like others I know who have performed since early childhood, I had no stage fright. That comes later for many of us.
The light, however, was new and unexpected. Decades later, in the company of a visual artist and her husband, I saw the movie starring Neve Campbell as a professional dancer, The Company. There were shots that let the audience see stage light from the performers' perspective. My friends were transfixed, as I had been at age five. We look out into the dark. That dark is alive and expectant, holding its breath, waiting to know what we are going to do.
•I love intimate chamber performances where the audience is close to me. I like that people can hear us breathe and see us sweat. One of those intimate performances took place on a bitter cold night, in a tiny theater in which the back stage areas were not heated adequately. Lena, our principle vocalist, and I were to perform a piece of our repertory called the Rondo. We were wrapped up and had to move continually just to keep warm as we waited to go on.
Lena loves metaphors to describe the creative problems we perform and she likes to fix the sequence of them in her mind right before we go on stage. Still in our warm wraps, we joined hands in the freezing wings and whispered, "up north, lead, up north, milonga, up north, lamentations..." Then, when the stage manager told us to do so, we pulled off our wraps and walked out onto the warm, lighted stage.
It is magic. We are suspended in time. We take our places without hurry. We are relaxed; this is our natural home. We sense the waiting audience behind the dark. We take our first breath together and begin.
This is one of the best performances of our lives, effortless, the work taking over and pouring through us, one of those peak performances that come to us if we just keep working. They cannot be forced, they come unexpectedly. They are so powerful that I will do anything just for the chance to have another.
One of these peak experiences every decade or so is enough to keep me dancing. Artists make art.
About the Author
Nancy Van Ness, founder and Director of the American Creative Dance group in New York City, is a 61 year old modern dancer who has taken up tango in recent years. Always serious about dance, she went to Buenos Aires to study with one of the greatest maestros of that form. Having spent decades in a unitard in small black box theaters making "high art," she is now sometimes seen in slinky dresses dancing tango con alma y pasión in tango salons and at international dance concerts.
As an unexpected result of her tango dancing, she was cast as the female lead in Tango Passion, a romantic comedy set in a tango salon. Tango Passion is now being featured at film festivals, most recently at the 2007 Boston International Film Festival. Van Ness says, “It is a romantic comedy about people my age instead of young lovers. I took on the role partly to confront stereotypes about who is lovable, who is attractive, who is even visible in our culture.” Filled with many surprises, it is about a couple whose relationship has definitely not lost the spice of life.
Van Ness was, however, shocked to find that the medium works in ways she hadn’t understood before. The exhibit "Dangerous Beauty" at the Chelsea Art Museum elucidated what was troubling her about having played the role of the luscious Claudia in the film.
Van Ness created an innovative, avant garde system of dance and musical accompaniment for her company, American Creative Dance. The troupe’s dance work requires performers to be creators; they do not perform dance classics. All dancers use their own bodies to make art, they do not have an impersonal instrument such as the musician, the painter, or the writer does. But using one’s body as a tool involves risk. Dancers in this troupe create their work in plain view under the audience's eyes. For further information please visit American Creative Dance.
Nancy Van Ness lives in New York City.