On a balmy November day, we were privileged to attend the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities awards at the White House. Among the luminaries awarded were dancer Twyla Tharp, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, writer Madeleine L’Engle, opera composer Carlisle Floyd, and remarkable architectural historian/teacher Vincent Scully.
One of our duties as National Council members is to recommend to the President recipients of the National Medal of the Arts. The initial nomination is open to the public, and we have simplified the process on http://www.nea.gov , so should you desire to make a nomination please nominate worthy individuals to us.
My highlight of the day was to be able to congratulate in person the accomplishment of Twyla Tharp whose revolutionary combination of classical discipline and ballet technique transformed modern dance. She noted that the last time she was at the White House was to accompany Martha Graham for her reception of the Medal of the Arts. She wanted to honor, in receiving her award, her mentor and to thank the N.E.A. for our long time support for modern dance.
When I was briefly considered for the position of Chair of the Endowment two and half years ago, I was interviewed by the assistant to the President in domestic affairs. Escorted to the West Wing of the White House (which, unlike the spacious image from a television show, is cut up into small offices so many can work there; cramped like a college dormitory.) I remember being interviewed by Margaret Spellings, now the nominee for the Education Secretary. As I spoke to her, I found myself insistently advocating for dancers. She asked me why I was so passionate about dancers. “Martha Graham said that ’the dance is the mother of all the arts,’ I know first hand a dancer’s struggle to continue their craft which is so limited by time and physical demands.”
But afterward, I did wonder, too, why I was so “passionate” about dancers. Perhaps it’s because I cannot dance at all, or know very little about the craft, and I have seen tears of young dancers involved in trying to make sense of why they continue to seek opportunities despite setbacks and financial difficulties. Getting to know young dancers at my church, befriending a fellow parent (Jonathan Hollander) at our children’s public school who is a choreographer, or going to see brilliant, aggressively physical performances of Elizabeth Streb with my children, I have begun to experience the world of arts in a different way.
Recently, at my current exhibit “The Splendor of the Medium” in New York, I stood in front of a new painting, speaking to Pennie Ojeda, the international liaison for the N.E.A., about how my own paintings have begun to be affected by dance. “I recognized that my own way of painting was a dance, moving about the painting laid on the floor, freezing, via my brushstrokes, the movement of my body, the drips, and spreading of colors. “ She then noted how the video of “Nagasaki Koi” seemed to be choreographed, Koi fish and colors slowly becoming, in their backward swirls, their splendid whole.
Scripture (Psalm 30) speaks of how God turns “our wailing into dancing.” Art is inevitably driven to our physicality, and both the potential and limitation of all of our craft will remain hidden in our bodies. In this fast techno culture in which engagement with the movements of our own bodies is restricted, we may be tempted to ignore such an age-old principle of our being. But I suspect that all artists will eventually return to explore the direct connection with the physical and ethereal. I suspect that, in that moment, we will again celebrate the “mother of the arts,” and applaud those who so sacrificially gave their energies, sinews and bodies to the passion endowed to them. In that sense, dancers advocate for our whole humanity as they dance; we, by advocating for them, affirm the gift of physical grace, though limited by time and space, and witness for but a fleeting moment, gravity defied.
“I am absorbed in the magic of movement and light. Movement never lies. It is the magic of what I call the outer space of the imagination. There is a great deal of outer space, distant from our daily lives, where I feel our imagination wanders sometimes. It will find a planet or it will not find a planet, and that is what a dancer does.” Martha Graham, Blood Memory (Doubleday)
Also recommended reading: Holding On to the Air, Suzanne Farrell, (recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, 2003) , UFP publishing
P.S. While I was at work on this issue of Refractions, I received a sad note indicating the passing of dancer/actor Gregg Mitchell. He collapsed while onstage with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Kennedy Center. Though I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, I know that many Refractions readers did. May God comfort his family and friends at this time of sorrow: and may our longings be fulfilled as God turns “our wailing into dancing.”