Points of Connection
I’m writing this the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at a time when world events make me wonder whether we, as individuals and societies and nations, will ever think of one another as equals. Serendipitously, I came across an interview with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater artistic director Robert Battle in which he speaks about dance’s role as an equalizer.
Last November Battle accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Alvin Ailey, awarded posthumously by President Obama. Ailey, Battle says, “was a humanitarian. He was completely open—open to different languages, different sounds, different music, poetry, and open to the poetry in each individual.” It’s this kind of openness that enables us to form connections that transcend our differences.
It’s easy to get absorbed in the what of dance and think only occasionally about why we dance: to express ourselves, to communicate, and thus to connect. One of Ailey’s most universal points of connection was his 1960 dance Revelations, set to a score of spirituals. Battle says, “. . . [T]here was something about these spirituals, and seeing these people who were African American identify with their own Christianity or spirituality, that had to do with recognizing that ‘I’m human too.’ ” Later he says, “[Revelations] starts with ‘I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned’—I mean, who hasn’t felt that in some way? . . . No matter your religion, your color, across the street or across the ocean, people connect to the humanity in that work.”
Battle has said that “seeing Revelations is as important as knowing who Martin Luther King was—that these are two essential things to understand America.” Both Revelations and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he says, “hold up a mirror to our society so that people could see how beautiful they are.”
But you don’t need to wait until MLK Day to get that message across to students; any day will do. Show a video of Revelations; set a dance to those spirituals. Talk about dance as an equalizer, and how by reflecting the good and the bad in society, we may find the power to preserve or change it through art. —Cheryl A. Ossola
The computing industry has figured out something we arts folks already knew: failure can be your teacher.
Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, is full of dreamers. Computer engineers start companies on the strength of a single software or app idea; eager investors gamble on untested companies. The reality is that most such companies will fail to return investors’ money—let alone become the next Facebook or Airbnb.
In recent years, perception in the tech industry of its frequent “failures” has shifted. Once an embarrassing derailment, a startup collapse is now almost a badge of honor. Tech people openly discuss and analyze their mistakes in blogs, the media, and even a convention, FailCon. While a common mantra, “Fail fast, fail often,” celebrates risk-taking, the idea has also taken hold that innovative businesses should embrace their mistakes as learning opportunities.
Dancers and others in the arts already know the value of mistakes. Years in the studio, searching the mirror for self-knowledge, teach us that we won’t get it right the first time. We know how to try, and fail, and learn from that failure; how to adapt, onstage, to the unexpected. Day after day, year after year, we know how to persevere—not blindly, but intelligently.
Of course, some mistakes in life and business are disastrous, and no teacher wants to fail a student. While the demise of a tech startup may mean only that no one got rich, for most business owners, company collapse is much more than a setback.
But in most areas of life, we do get second chances, and our mistakes, our little failures, aren’t final. The media chatter about Silicon Valley’s acceptance of failure simply reminds us that in the classroom, onstage, in relationships, in parenting, and yes, in our businesses and workplaces, we can face our mistakes and allow them to be our friends. They are essential to the learning process. They are part of the journey. —Tamsin Nutter
DSL editor in chief Cheryl A. Ossola is a former Dance Magazine associate editor and a freelance writer for San Francisco Ballet. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco.
Berkeley-based DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter is a former marketing writer at NYC’s MoMA. She trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School, and danced with Regina Nejman Dance Company and others.