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my own circus act

I had the true pleasure recently of attending a performance of Les 7 Doights de la Main’s miraculous circus production Sequence 8. This was a production I had seen before—three years ago—and I had also seen their PSY, as well as their work in the revival of Pippin. I consider myself a huge fan of their work, and I really loved Sequence 8 when I saw it a few years back, so I was glad for the opportunity to attend again.

To me, it is one of those pieces that is so self-confident and thoroughly prepared that it exists as its own perfect thing. There’s a comfort in knowing that these artists have been performing this show for many years, on stages all over the world—they know the piece inside and out, they know each other in that necessary way you should know someone who is going to flip you in the air and then catch you, and the joy shared among all the artists involved is palpable. And yet, this confidence is only the springboard for the spontaneity that is part of the thrill of acrobatics: just because an act was executed flawlessly once doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to happen again, and the performers must always be present and focused in order to both perform the moves beautifully and also maintain safety. These performers are all pros, of course, but there was a clear awareness that in work of that kind, anything is possible; one missed step, one tilt too far, and the body crumbles.

It is curious to see the same production three years apart. I spent the subway ride home thinking about who I was as an audience member the first time I encountered this piece, compared to who I am this time around. Three years isn’t an enormous amount of time, but it was a period of transition—I live in a different place, I’m no longer in school, I’ve encountered people and art and experiences that have expanded my understanding of the world and my knowledge of my place within it. The first time I saw it, I was impressed by the physical performances and the overall impact of the piece. This time, I most responded to everything going on around the piece itself, as well as underneath it—the spine, the undercurrent, the true essence of what I was seeing.

I consider myself a patient person, but I think attempting to carve out the life of an artist at the age of 23 living in a world with so much noise and advice and expectation, trying to figure out what structures are already in place and how I fit or don’t fit within those structures, would test the patience of any person. In the educational setting, answers come quickly; I’m learning that on the creative path, they don’t come quickly at all, and even when I feel like I’m taking steps forward, all I’m doing is accumulating twelve additional questions for each one answer. I actively try and take the long view—after all, what I’m after is a full life, filled with things beyond what I can imagine today, and early answers now seem suspicious to me, like eating Thin Mints for dinner: immediately satisfying but not sustainable, leaving me once again starving half an hour later at best, with a stomachache at worse.

Sitting at the circus isn’t by any means the first time I’ve seen someone else do something and thought “holy hell, I wish I could do that.” Actually, I have that thought all the time. That thought is usually followed by a variation of “they’ve been working on that for years, I’ve never even tried it, who am I to expect to be able to ever do it like they can.” Watching others do amazing things always makes me feel extraordinarily behind. Behind on what, I don’t always know, but it’s a mixture of being insignificant and small and unimpressive. I don’t like this impulse—I’m trying to work on being excited and supportive in the presence of greatness, as opposed to immediately focusing on me, me, me, holding myself up for a disappointing comparison, because usually when I’m fortunate enough to see something extraordinary, it’s not about me at all. But our impulses are our impulses, and instead of simply selflessly applauding, I’m often also thinking in the back of my mind “step up your game, kid, or you’ll never be up there.”

Now, I have no grand expectations of achieving some pinnacle of amazingness. Well, sometimes I do. Or at least, I hope it happens—I see the people who have done incredible things and I want to be with them! I used to not like this attitude but, you see, it’s part of who I am and I have to live with it. It doesn’t help that time moves forward, and the days progress whether or not I personally feel like I’m progressing, and it’s always the temptation to believe that I’m working towards something—something far away, I don’t even really know what it is yet, but I’ll know it when I find it. When that hunger is productive, when it pushes me out of my comfort zone so I can live life presently and fully, it’s a fantastic thing. When it knocks me down, keeps me focused on my own selfish goals…well, those are things I don’t like as much.

And yet, it’s that hunger to do something that keeps me excited and engaged. Being a young artist-type person requires a lot of patience, I’ve been learning—even when I think I’m being as patient as possible, the universe needs more of it. Not yet, kid, take your time, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Okay, I can dig that. The higher the climb, the more worthwhile the view at the top, right? When I accept this long road for what it is, I’m more aware of what a fun road it is, filled with mini adventures and awesome stops along the way. When my patience wears thin, it’s easy for me to blame my past: oh, if only I had been reading the right books when I was 15 years old, I wouldn’t feel so behind, who allowed me to reach the age of 23 without reading any Jane Austin? Also I should have practiced piano more, because then be so slow at playing a chromatic scale with my left hand…oh and why was I so worried about trying to be cool in high school, that was such a waste of time and energy, I should have just been a recluse because by now I would have read all of Shakespeare and Ionesco and Pinter…Why didn’t I wake up an hour earlier in college and built a real yoga routine, I’d probably be able to do a handstand by now…and so on.

What I’ve been learning this year is that there is a difference between playing catch-up and having steps awaiting me on my journey that are different steps from those around me. I’ve also been learning that remembering this is much easier said than done. It’s hard to get excited about being on day one of learning how to do cartwheel when you’re sitting in the audience at Sequence 8 watching humans your age who clearly mastered the cartwheel 16 years ago, and have gone on to master a billion other impressive things in the years since. It’s difficult for me to push through the first seven pages of a brand new play when I just attended a finished production the night before, the whole time sitting in my seat thinking “I’m so behind, I have so much to do if I want to catch up, this is impossible.” I used to stand in dance classes and resent those kids who had been in ballet since the age of three, who were executing quadruple pirouettes out of boredom while it required every ounce of focus and nerve to get my body to spin around one time. Again, the blame—why didn’t my parents make me take ballet or gymnastics from a young age and not let me quit, I could’ve been a prodigy if someone had only set me on that path!

Obviously, this isn’t true, and I shouldn’t expect it to be. A composer I tremendously admire sat in front of me and said “Most of us have some of the tools and some of the natural talent but together that only adds up to 20% of what’s required, so we have to work really fuckin’ hard for the rest of it.” I thought, YES! Most days, at my present 23-year-old age, I walk around feeling like I’ve accumulated 7% of what I need, and it’s going to take me a century to accumulate that other 93%. Artists have talked about this before—having the vision of where you see yourself, the awareness of where you are now, and the fear of the enormous gap between the two. It’s hard to stay excited about the present when the present feels so distant from the ideal.

I get hung up on this a lot. A lot a lot. That’s not productive, though—another writer I admire said to me “You have to find the ideal in your present.” This comes back to being aware of what is in my control and what isn’t. I’ve been applying for jobs recently, and it was a much easier process once I realized that I can’t control whether or not someone wants to work with me, but I can control how I present myself. I can’t control if I’ll win a major award with thousands of dollars attached to it by the age of 30 so I never have to work a day job ever again, but I can control the work I put into the world and the way I treat other people. I can’t control when I’ll finally be able to consistently stand on my hands, but I can control practicing every day, being tenacious, knowing that the effort will always add up into something.

Again, easier said than done. I watched acrobats last night thinking about how incredible it is that they’ve been working at this for years. Maybe it will take me years to make the things I want to make, or maybe it will come sooner than I think, but I don’t know, and I have to find a way to accept that, because otherwise the road that’s already all kinds of challenging will only become miserable on top of it. It’s a daily thing, for me, and I don’t know what the future looks like, but I do know that it’s coming, so I have to put in the work now to prepare myself for whatever it is when I get there. The world seems to be telling this to me, and now I have to work on listening and applying.

There was another thing I noticed at Sequence 8—whenever a performer was executing a routine, the performers who weren’t a part of it were crouched on the periphery of the stage, never taking their focus off of the person flying through the air, ready at any moment to jump up and catch them if they were headed in the wrong direction. I knew I was supposed to be watching the person hanging from the trapeze, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the people in the corner, who were saying “go for it, take the risk, do what you’ve trained to do, and if things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, someone will be there to catch you.” This is the thing I always forget when I’m contemplating taking a risk: there will always be someone there to catch me when things don’t go how they’re supposed to and I feel like I’m plummeting. Sometimes they will be people I know well, sometimes they’ll be strangers who really are that generous. And, when I’m not the one spinning through the air, I’ll get to be that person for someone else: hopefully not needed because things work out how they’re supposed to, to thunderous applause…but there just in case it doesn’t happen.

We need those people in these risky days, and we need to be those people. Everyone’s trying to figure it out, trying to jump into the air and do what they’ve been working on. Some days there are big jumps, and some days are for keeping our feet on the ground. I might not be ready to jump so high yet—after all I’m catching up stepping forward at my own pace. I don’t know what it feels like to flip across the air after letting go of a trapeze—I must admit, I’ve never tried it. But, I have to imagine, whenever I feel like I’ve put in the practice and effort that I can and the only option left is to fully jump into the unknown, the resulting feeling will be something unlike anything I’ve known, equally filled with suspense and ease, and so so good.

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