Friday, June 6, 2008

More than the sum....

By Paul Gordon Emerson

What makes a dance company work? What are the intangibles of success -- the things that don't show up in the box score? For me the most fundamental ingredient lies with the people in the studio, in the company, being far more than the sum of their individual parts. There are lots of ways that that can be realized and expressed, but one that isn't talked about enough is the "extra mile" ethic. Today was one of those days. 

Here at the end of the season, 7 days from the 2007-2008 season's last major public event, everyone is tired. Everyone is nursing injury. Some of those injuries are more significant than others, but every nagging knee and aching ankle affects our ability to get things done, and when you're a week out getting things done is absolutely essential. You don't take the stage at the Music Center at Strathmore half prepared. You got all in or you don't go in at all. But you also have to be smart about what that means. Its easy to say "I don't care how much it hurts, I have to dance full-out." Wrong. You have to dance smart and, sometimes, you have to dance not at all. Kathryn whacked her neck totally out of place, and while she would have fought through it she did the right thing -- she went home to take care of it. That's actually the epitome of teamwork and of professionalism -- know your limits and adhere to them. 

But that's not what this is about. This is about Gisele, who is the newest member of the company. This is about someone who has walked into an established culture and done so carefully and quietly. But more, its about this -- today, after Kathryn left to take care of herself, Gisele stepping into ALL of Kathryn's parts in "Folksay" having never rehearsed them with the cast. She watched in the back. She studied. She observed and she learned. And suddenly, instead of a crippled rehearsal things got done. And while we were working on "Ghost of Tom Joad" I spotted her in the back, in the corner, learning Kathryn's movement. I didn't ask her to do that. I didn't even THINK to ask her to do that. But I damned sure saw her doing it -- out of sight. It wasn't for my benefit. She wasn't trying to impress anyone. She was being a teammate in the the very best sense of the word. 

If I were to give a young dancer a word or two of advice about how to make it in a dance company, I would recall today. I would remind them that dance companies are a team. They make it collectively or they fail collectively. And they succeed when people do things without being told to do them. They step up. They make sure that, in a moments notice they can walking into a part, or onto a stage, and keep the company running at its best. You'd think this would be obvious, but its not. 

My respect is earned by many things, but one of the most fundamental ways to earn it comes from the intangible -- and that is in the recognition that a successful company is more than the sum of its parts. I've watched this season as Ja'Malik has made sure he knew parts that weren't his, just as, in years gone by Eileen Mitchell would stay in the studio sometimes right through lunch to be absolutely sure she was ready to nail her parts. Those things matter. Deeply. They are about caring for the people with whom you work -- all of them. Not just because someone might get injured and you need to step in for them; for the other people on the stage whose work has to be honored and respected. And they are about respecting the audience and the stage. For me that's motivating. It makes me work harder because I know that people are in there doing more than you ask. 

Christopher, who isn't even supposed to be dancing, is in the entire concert. He's the Rehearsal Director. But he was needed and, wrecked knee and all, he's on stage. I could run down the entire list of dancers in the company and give you an example of where they are going beyond. Today was a specific, but special, illustration. Today was something that sets a tone, sets a standard, and does so without calling attention to itself. Things done for the right reasons are usually done quietly. You just set out to do them and that's the end of it. 

What could have been a wreck of a day became a very good day. That's what makes a company work. That's what makes a team. And today was a reminder of how rich, remarkable and unexpected that can be. 

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