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Following on the heels of Mike Henry and Garret Ammon’s beautiful collaboration, Intersection, the Lighthouse Teen Council members started their own partnership with the Ballet Nouveau young choreographers last night. About 30 of us—5 adults, 15 young dancers, and 10 young writers—made a big circle on Ballet Nouveau’s squeaky gray floor to talk about a theme for our project titled In the Along (taken from the last line of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward”).
The dancers, so comfortable in their skin, sat close together, shoulders touching and backs straight. Us writers sat further apart, legs crossed, notebooks waiting in front of our tennis shoes. For the next nine months, the writers and choreographers will be shaping vignettes all connected by the theme they decided on: “Awakenings.”
An apt name, considering it’s our first collaboration with them, and as one young artist put it last night, “We all wake up every day, and then after we’re already awake, we hopefully wake up again.”
When I was teaching high school full-time, I wished that the creative writing part of my class could take up the entire period. Watching the students write was to watch them fully inhabit themselves. Hunched over their notebooks, they retreated into that cave somewhere in the center of their heads, the scary place with a spiky ceiling and dark corners, where memory and imagination might be more accessible because of the quiet. I knew this was the time during my class that I was interacting not with a single part of a student’s being but with the whole child, straining to see and feeling along unfamiliar walls.
It’s the same cave, maybe even deeper and darker, when you put two artists in a room together and ask them to learn each other’s languages. How to move? What to say? Where to go? Scary!
When we got to Ballet Nouveau, we watched the dancers through the observation window, their bodies arching above the floor, their feet turned out when they did their graceful, gliding runs past us. We moved out of the way, pens in hand, and wondered where to put our feet. Despite the respect I have for dancers and my hope that their movements would work perfectly with the young writers’ words, to be honest, I was thinking, Oh boy, this could be awkward.
Reaction can be rare in a young writer’s life—actually, in any writer’s life. There are no observation windows where people watch us write. (Thank God.) But the truth is, opening the window to a group of other artists last night was a lot less awkward than the lone writing process can be.
To work with young people is to be reminded that we’re all made of the same stuff—constant thought, hesitation, and ultimately, a sense of hope that’s not conjured to counteract negative situations, but rather is built into our bones. Put two of them together (or 25), and the prickle in the air that they are the “progress-toward” is palpable.
The coolest part about watching them was when the writers and dancers exchanged their work. First, each writer read something they had written. Then, the dancer they had been paired up with had to react with a movement. When I walked past Claire, one of the young writers, she was sitting on the floor in excited anticipation of her two dance partners who had stood up to pull ballet shoes onto their feet. They were about to show her what her words looked like once they’d been unbuckled from the page. When they performed a weeping willow-ish piece for her, she was beaming beyond any time I’ve ever seen her class.
To put my thoughts about collaboration in a more obvious way I’ll say this: writing alone can be depressing. For me, trying to be a writer comes along with the anxiety of not-writing, of the bleakness of the book publishing industry. I find that I’m often thinking on the national level—how many hundreds of people are getting books published while mine sits untouched? (Or, at my worst: how did that talent-less woman get her book on a shelf at King Sooper’s?)
Collaborating, however, brings everything back to the local level, to the here and now of creating something that will move a group of people, even if that group is only two-people strong. (And in the history of change, isn’t that how the most powerful movements always start?) Watching the writers and dancers interact last night reminded me of why I am a writer and why I am a teacher: to see that success does not always mean being on a shelf; it can happen in a single room.