Friday, July 22, 2011

The Thrill of Mastery


Last night I went to a flamenco club. It is gospel truth that it takes time to understand the language of an art form, get familiar with its patterns of stopping and starting and developing ideas, understand its aesthetic, tune in to its particular way of communicating between artists. Yet still art can by-pass familiarity and go straight to the gut or the heart or the feet. There was no way anyone in that audience, from naive tourist to lifelong aficionado, could not feel the spectacular virtuosity on display on that stage. And it didn’t hurt that it was a small club.  I was in the second row, literally sprayed by the dancer’s sweat as he pirouetted at the end of a demanding improvisation.

From the two guitarists to the three male singers and rhythmic clappers and the male and female dancer, magic was abundant. The staccato rhythms of the feet were matched by the interlocking of clapped hands and strummed guitars, with a communication between all that was visible, palpable and far beyond what any of us ever achieve with mere words. I sat next to two flamenco dancers who clapped along and nodded in appreciation of the nuances I’m sure I missed, and with my friend Sofia on the other side who was enjoying the verbal improvisations and poetic images of the singers, much of which I also missed. But no matter. As I said, it was clear to all that there was something present far beyond the norm of even this passionate art form, that everything fell into place and the heart was wide open. Though it got a small laugh, it was perfectly natural that one of the singers spontaneously kissed his fellow musician on stage in appreciation of what had just happened.

Flamenco leans heavily to the element of fire, beginning at a heat many art forms just barely suggest at a moment of climax. But like any art, it needs to be forged in the flame of discipline, its wild excess tempered and contained by the forge of form and structure. We all have the possibility of feeling passion unbound by our usual protective coolness, but it is the hard work of these dancers, singers and musicians that allows us to feel and remember.

Mastery in any field is thrilling to behold. We need to witness it to keep reminding us what heights this human body, mind and heart is capable of. We already know what degraded depths it can achieve, reminded far too often in every newspaper story. So to be in the presence of a masterful performer or worker in any field, be it a skateboarder, contortionist or basketball player, is to renew our amazement at what the body is capable of. And when the body connects with the heart, as in flamenco, that astonishment grows in geometric proportions.

In 1993, I met with a group of fellow Orff teachers in the Zephyr Café in San Francisco and we decided to meet once a week to explore the kinds of things we did with our kids in the classroom for ourselves. Out of those weekly improvisations, some pieces emerged built from our collective imagination and before we knew it, we began to share them and perform. We called ourselves Xephyr (X for the xylophone) and besides performing at several prestigious Orff events, including the Salzburg Symposiums of 1995, 2000 and 2006, we gave concerts in San Francisco. Part of each concert turned into a workshop involving the audience, who then performed themselves. We discovered that our elemental approach made the audience feel comfortable enough that they could imagine “ I can almost do that” and they felt encouraged to try.

This was a different animal altogether from the Flamenco show. I imagine no one in that audience was thinking, “I’d like to go on stage and dance with these folks.” I remember going to a concert with one of the Xephyr members to a group doing similar integrated performance at a very high level and he turned to me and said, “”Oh, yeah—that’s what we forgot. Virtuosity!” and we both laughed. In its exquisite genius of evoking good solid music and dance from simple elements, the Orff approach helps awaken the feeling that everyone is part musician and dancer and truth be told, I loved the concerts we gave and the unique way it involved the audience. The problem with mastery is that it dazzles and astounds and can make people feel smaller. But mostly, I think it does elevate us through our vicarious participation in the flash and the dazzle and remind us to work harder in our chosen field. In fact, the Xephyr members were virtuosos, not of specific music or dance, but in our craft of teaching. Time is too short to master more than one corner of creation—we indeed must pick and choose.

And about to board a plane to San Francisco and begin my fifth course in a row on Monday, I suppose teaching is my equivalent of passionate foot-stamping, clapping and singing, my flamenco burst of passion forged in some 30,000 classes with children and workshops in my spare time. Olé!!

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