Thursday July 19, 2012

Twenty dancers, one after the other, told stories going back to the times when they were learning to dance, or discovering dance, or getting their first break. And after they talked, they danced.

As each man spoke, two or three others would improvise around him, spinning together, holding each other, playing off each other -- an Argentine dancer in toe-shoes from Les Ballets Trocadero leaping high -- a Swiss-born Flamenco specialist making the floor echo with a New York tap artist and an Indian classical dancer with bells on his ankles. A dancer from Maui sang a blessing an octave below his speaking voice.

Afterward I stood on the porch, looking out at the torches along the path, and felt the kind of high I've felt playing music at 3 a.m. at a cider-pressing festival, or sitting in an outdoor hot tub under the maple trees, watching fire spinners and waiting for Hurricane Irene.

It's been a long time since a show moved me like this. The Berkshires are rich in talent and energy, and I've found music and art and theater that entertained me, soothed me and made me laugh. This show did too, but it did more.

It reminded me of the difference between entertainment and art. Reading a well-written mystery story is a simple pleasure, and it eases my mind on a fractious day. Reading a novel takes more time and energy, but it changes me. I look up from it whole, clear and unselfconscious -- sure for awhile that I can build the life I intend.

A book that thinks through what the characters are thinking and feeling, that makes its world three-dimensional and its people real, and keeps its momentum all the way, is far harder to write than the kind of picture-puzzle book that runs only on plot.

I feel the same in a theater. "From the Horse's Mouth," on this summer evening at Jacob's Pillow, reminded me how intensely a performance can move me, and it's a rare thing.

It takes honesty and incredible patience and passion to make a show like this. It takes good artists -- and good critics.

These dancers have made their way; they are succeeding. Some have family who helped them; some had family who rejected them; some had no family outside the theater. They were looking back to the time when they had to prove themselves -- when they didn't yet know they could do what they loved.

So the night was all about confidence. It was that moment in the film when the actor lifts his head and straightens his back and goes out to face the lights -- for one man after another.

And every one of them had a mentor, a critic, someone who had told them how to do what they wanted to do better. They remembered what these people told them, 10, 20, 50 years later.

It's the best gift I know, to have someone take the time and care to think about something I've made. Jane Austen calls it "the compliment of rational attention."

As a reader, I have woken up to a good review. I may agree -- I may argue -- but I go into a show with sharper attention because someone else has paid attention.

As a writer, I have learned more from honest critics than from anyone or anything else.

In graduate school I admitted for the first time that I was working on a novel, and in my last year there I took a workshop with five companions who had written longer work. I gave them my first, incoherent effort at a 350-page draft -- one I had worked over and re-written for two years. It's one of the hardest things I've done, and one of the best.

They could see what I was too close to, and they could help me see what I wanted to do. When they told me the book really started on page 150 -- and they were right -- then the shape of the book I wanted to write became visible, like a whale swimming under water. Indistinct, refracted, too big to be believed -- still, it was there. They made me believe that I could touch it.

After that, cutting the book in half was more than easy: It was imperative. Knowing what I wanted and what I had to do made me fly.

The best critics I know can see more than what is wrong in my writing -- they can see what my writing can be, and they can help me make it so.

Criticism has a creative side. And it calls for honesty, as much honesty as good writing. That novel workshop worked because I trusted my critics. I knew they wanted my work to succeed.

After nearly five years at the Eagle, I would add that any good critic walks in wanting work to succeed -- but, above all, he cannot lie about it.

Coming here, I have learned how rock solid a good critic's integrity is. He has to think hard and carefully about each piece. He has to say what he feels. He owes the artists honesty, and the readers, and especially himself.

So I think of my mentors at the Eagle and thank them for listening to me and expecting me to be tough. As much as I have from my parents and my graduate school advisor, I've learned integrity from Jeff Borak.

As an editor, I stand by my writers' responsibility to say what they believe, freely -- as long as they accept the responsibility -- as long as they speak with integrity.

And as a writer, I have to be open to the elements.

While I was waiting for the hurricane, the Mark Morris dancers were stranded at Jacob's Pillow, their last performance cancelled at the end of last summer. When the rain blew sideways around the cabin, they all went out naked to dance on the mountain.


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