Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Third Thing: How do we Tell the Dancer from the Dance?

William Butler Yeats wrote on of my favorite poems titled, probably appropriately, "Among School Children." Yeats' meditation ends with the following lines,

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we tell the dancer from the dance?"

I always love the fact that Yeats wrote this after walking through a Montessori school in Dublin and while he is obviously ruminating on life at sixty years old (this poem is particularly poignant and inspiring for me as I have just turned sixty myself), I think he hits upon a fundamental truth about creativity in those last lines. There is a unity between the dancer and the dance that provokes an inseparable oneness. When is what we are watching "the dancer" and when is what we are watching "the dance" becomes impossible to tell.

And in the last month we have had three authorship seminars at CITYterm that have led me to ponder how that that oneness occurs, and perhaps how we can create it ourselves.

Three weeks ago we had a seminar with writer Amy Waldman, author of the novel The Submission. During the course of the dialogue one student asked about whether there had been any epiphanies that she had experienced during the writing of the book and why she thought they had occurred. Her response was to describe how she had been walking down the street one day and wondering why one particular character was so cliched and ineffective when "it suddenly occurred to me that she needed a sex change! That was the problem, the character told me--she was a man. So Lucy became Sean, and everything began to flow again. I just had to listen to what she was telling me."

Last week we attended a performance of the play, Sleep No More, in a 10,000 square foot theater, five stories high in Chelsea. The play goes on for three hours but no spectator's play is the same because it is constructed as a giant "choose you own adventure story" that takes place in countless rooms of a hotel with characters from the play running from room to room performing different scenes. Which means, on some level, you are no longer just a spectator, you are creating the play yourself because you are making some of the creative choices. In the authorship seminar following Tori Sparks ("Lady Macbeth") was asked a question by a student about how the play changes for her as an actress precisely because she has to respond to choices made by the audience. She replied, "There are times when I am acting but I am also watching the audience do something I have never seen them do before, and I have to decide why they are doing that and how should I respond."

And then the other day the production team of a One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro came to give a performance for us. This is a one woman show, but there are eight different characters who make appearances during the performance. In the seminar after the show, Kate, Adrienne and Louis (the singer, director and writer) were asked about how the show had come into being. What became clear as they talked, however, was that the show was still "coming into being." What was most remarkable was that they talked about the show as though it were a living thing--something that had a life of its own and was itself making decisions which way it was going with every performance. They even talked about lines that had emerged just for the performance we had just seen.

What had happened in all of these seminars was that each of the authors, in totally different mediums, had created something that was independent of their control. Amy was creating characters, but they were telling her what to do. Tori had a script, but the audience was helping her enact it. Kate had a musical show but it was morphing with every performance in ways that were not her conscious choice.

Each of them had created what my friend Eder has dubbed, "the third thing." The third thing is the relationship that gets created when the artist both talks to but also listens to, what is being created.

If you do this well enough, you really cannot tell the dancer from the dance because what was once a separate dichotomy has become a synergistic whole. That is what Yeats saw at the end of his life--you cannot tell the dancer from the dance, if that relationship exists.  But, the paradox is that you have to create the "third thing"--the relationship--before you can get that unity.


Last night, as I was mulling these ideas over, the movie that appeared on the screen was Top Hat with Fred Astaire. And there on my TV screen was the literal visual representation of what Yeats was talking about--the dichotomy had become a unity. So, I did a little research on how Fred Astaire developed his dancing technique and his relationship to it.

First, I looked for what Ginger Rodgers might say about working with him. As she described it, "Sometimes he'll think of a new line of dialogue or a new angle for the story ... they never know what time of night he'll call up and start ranting enthusiastically about a fresh idea ... No loafing on the job on an Astaire picture, and no cutting corners."

And then for what Fred Astaire himself said,  "For maybe a couple of days we wouldn't get anywhere—just stand in front of the mirror and fool around... Then suddenly I'd get an idea or one of them would get an idea... So then we'd get started... You might get practically the whole idea of the routine done that day, but then you'd work on it, edit it, scramble it, and so forth. It might take sometimes as long as two, three weeks to get something going."

Often I think that one of the hardest parts of teaching experience-based learning is that have to figure out how to generate and tap into the "third thing." It is not enough to teach just how to dance, you have to figure out how to end in a place where no one can tell the difference between the dancer and the dance.


  1. So I've never really been that into classical music--It's more up my dad's and my grandma's alley than mine, but I went to my roommate's band concert this weekend, and oh, boy. Third thing abound.

    My favorite thing is to watch the conductor--moving with the rigid jerks of a puppet on stings--and knowing that just as much as he's controlling, directing, and guiding the's controlling and directing and guiding him. I love to watch the musicians feet tapping, and to think how they're making and hearing the music simultaneously. It comes out of them, and into them, at the same time....How WILD is that?

    I love your blog, David.


  2. If only Yeats had seen some "Twirly Dancers" moving in unison with Jerry, Phil, Bill and the boys during a "Playing in the Band" or "Dark Star." He would have gotten "it." And what many dancers and listeners loved about the Grateful Dead was exactly that "Third Thing." The relationship between the band and their audience was totally based on the trust that the thrust of the music would be a symbiotic sonic relationship with what the band was playing and what the audience was swaying, straying, extrapolating... Ah Big Juan now calls for a long languid ride through Corrales with my BoBPoD....