Note: the following story is completely true.
Only the names have been changed to infect the ambivalent.
While at the Festival last weekend in London, I noticed during one of the open practice sessions a couple working on some moves. They were pretty incredible moves, too – risky lifts, strenuous moves, the kind of thing that you can only do with a partner you know and trust on a visceral level. I commented on how amazing they were, and that I hoped they’d perform at the evening’s showcase.
My new friend Mark, a chap from northern England, grimaced. “Yeh, that’s Alec and Amber. They’re pretty amazing.” He nodded towards the woman, who at that moment was in an extreme backward arch supported by Alec’s strong hands. If he slipped, even slightly, she would have crashed to the floor headfirst. Yet her eyes were closed in complete focus, the line of her body relaxed and moving with the choreography. “What’s going to blow your mind is: she’s his ex.”
I blinked. Suddenly that level of trust was colored by a whole other set of realizations.
Do Who You Love
Mark went on to tell the story, which at first is one that is all too common in the arts. A couple meets in practice, or during a show, and discover that within the realm of their passion for their art, they click. In dance, it’s being able to read each other’s bodies, to the point where you know where your partner is going to move almost before they do. That can come from practice, but occasionally, for whatever reason, it can happen with someone just on some sort of neurochemical level.
It’s a lot like falling in love – in fact, I know a blues dancer who has said she “…falls completely in love with my partner for about four minutes there on the floor.” And it can lead to some amazing partnerships, not just in dance. Bogey & Bacall. Miller & Nin. Brad & Angelina. Gaiman & Palmer.
Or, in this case, apparently Alec & Amber. Mark told me that they had torn it up in their local scene for a while…until they tried to integrate the rest of their lives. That’s the thing: you can have someone who you can dance beautifully with, who you want to dance with for the rest of your life, but you don’t dance all the time. Things as banal as snoring or as complex as religion can get in the way.
The urge is to retreat back into the art – into the place where things seem right, natural, easy. And for a while that can result in some amazing work, beauty created out of the passion not just of two people for their art but for each other. For a time, that art can be embodied by the partner.
The rest of life keeps coming back, though. You have to sleep sometimes, and earplugs can only do so much. Sabbath day keeps coming around, and every time the difference in beliefs can put another sliver between you. Even worse, that dissonance starts creeping into the art, too, and the dance isn’t quite as easy.
Fake It Til You Break It
That’s when artistic romances become really ugly. Especially if this is related to your profession, it is very hard to admit that things are not working. You can present a face to the world of artistic unity and conjugal bliss, but in private the silences get longer, the physical contact fades, until all that is shared is the occasional planning session for scheduled appearances and rehearsals. This is also the time when Someone Else appears; someone who seems to offer that connection on a different level than the art, that fills that need for a sound night’s sleep or a partner singing hymns alongside you. Is this new person going to be as close a connection within the realm of art? Probably not, but that’s the insidious thing about our psyches: we can convince ourselves of just about anything if we want it. I’ve had many a coffee with a friend in this kind of situation who either is explaining, passionately, why things can get better, why they can make it work – or why this new person will, with enough practice, be just as good as their current partner.
I try to be a good friend. I don’t argue, I just listen. I let them talk, and reflect back to them what I see in their eyes. They rarely are able to fool themselves for very long.
Alec and Amber had apparently had a pretty volatile breakup, though Mark didn’t go into details. Alec had found a new partner, and the two had gone their separate ways. Unfortunately, that new partner had not lasted long, and Alec found himself needing to perform again at places like this festival. That’s where their story differs from most artistic couples who break up: Amber joined him, and they found that they still could find that magic, that connection, on the dance floor. Others, like me, could see it, easily. Frankly, it was mesmerizing.
And heartbreaking. As they moved together, in more and more complex, rapid, and downright dangerous moves, I felt as though I could see a kind of desperate hunger between them. It was probably me projecting, but it knowing about their past I felt as though I could see that desire for the love they shared. If they could only find it through the dance, that had to be enough. In some ways it made it more beautiful; so much care, compassion, desire, poured into their moves.
I saw Alec afterwards being congratulated by another performer. “You two have such great chemistry!” they said.
Alec’s shoulders slumped, and he looked down at the floor. He sighed out the most regretful “Yeah…I know…” I’ve ever heard.
If You Can’t Love the One You’re With,
Love the One You Be
There’s a lot to learn from the story of Alec and Amber, but the one that I’m taking with me comes from her own take on things. I talked with her briefly about how she’s able to deal with the dissonance between what she’d hoped for with Alec and what actually was. I know I’ve had crushing disappointments in relationships in the past, and to create art as thoroughly passionate as the two of them did would frankly have torn me up inside.
She said that it came down to the idea of being the best person she could imagine. “I just try, every day, to be a little better, a little more like the kind of dancer that I would want to dance with.” As for the hurt that comes with love lost? “I just try to take care of myself as if I were someone else.” Since she can’t rely on the relationship she’d hoped to have with Alec, she relied on the relationship she had with her art, and let her time with Alec be an expression and deepening of that.
I don’t know if I could do that in similar circumstances. But I’ll tell you this: I could watch Alec or Amber dance for hours, individually.
Together? I could watch them forever.