Dining Room Compositions

My son is in piano lessons. When Buddy practices piano at home, he is usually struggling to learn a new piece. However, on days like today, when he has practiced enough so that his assigned pieces are memorized and he has very few mistakes, we turn our dining room into a stage that rivals Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center.

Buddy will set up his favorite toy Doggie Meh* as the conductor. Perched on top of the piano, Doggie Meh directs the show’s star pianist and musician, Buddy. Buddy also plays the role of lighting designer, choreographer, and artistic director. Using what he calls “color lights,” a gift he received from Santa last Christmas, and a strobe light that he bought with money he earned doing extra chores, Buddy sets the mood by carefully crafting his light design. Between pieces, he will coach me: “No Mama, not like that. Do this one,” mimicking my improvised movements. He tends to prefer my improvised ballet-esque moves more than my more modern and comedic movements. I do my best to be a good dancer and compositional improvisationalist as well as props master. I dance around the dining room and kitchen areas with various props (anything lying near or on the dining room table is fair game – backpacks, lunch boxes, utensils, the newspaper, etc), trying my best to capture the musicality of his short pieces as he practices his staccatos and legatos. Different movement qualities. Different music qualities. Mama and Buddy studying the same things. Staccato. Legato. Buoyant. Laughter. Frivolous movements. Nonsensical theatrical ideas. Our dining room, our home, becomes a true creative space. Buddy and I have a piano practice quite unlike any other. Piano practice becomes a blessing–allowing me to create and play and rehearse with my child all at one.

*Doggie Meh is featured in “Reflections” the MPA Project dance film.

I’m Not the Only One with a Show

The last week of March 2015. Tech week for Dancing the Mural. I have 5 artists flying or driving in from out of state: two of them arriving the day of dress rehearsal. I have pieces that are being finalized and set during tech week. I have dress rehearsal. I have long rehearsals leading up to the show. I have three fifth graders from a South Tucson elementary school and one community member performing with us. I have a crew that needs to load in and completely strike (as in take all of the equipment to an offsite storage unit) the show in our site specific location every night. I have a very heavy “mobile” stage that needs moving. My phone number is the box office number and I have tickets I need to print and a box office to organize. I have to make sure volunteers and front of house have things taken care of. I have to worry about security, costumes, and rides of artists. I need to make sure this mobile mural is finished and gets to the location of the performance. And I am also dancing in four out of seven choreographies premiering in the show.

I am the epitome of heroic leader, which by the way, is the standard model for modern and contemporary dance companies. One dynamic leader – a la Martha Graham, José Limón, Alvin Ailey – the driving force pushing a company, an art form, the dance field forward. The model has not changed much for the dance community since then. So here I am, juggling and struggling in an outdated model; a one-woman force carrying a company on my back, singlehandedly running a community-engaged multimedia art performance.

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And my org was nominated for a Governor’s Art Award so I have to travel the 4 hours to Phoenix and back on Tuesday night of Tech week, in the middle of the madness, in the off chance that we win (we did not). And the EmcArts program, which I am now a fellow of, changed the date of the first Arizona seminar to the morning of the show’s opening, so now I have to attend that. (I show up late and the facilitators are not impressed.) I have a million and one things to do, fires to put out, artists to calm and reassure, details to smooth over. I am at my wit’s end. The house is a mess. I am a mess. Spread so thin. Being pulled in a thousand ways.

 

And I am not the only one with a show. Thursday morning, the day of dress rehearsal, at 9am, my son has a school play. The annual Easter performance. I never miss his shows, which usually run 2 mornings. Knowing full well I can’t make the Friday morning show (given that dress rehearsal will run late, I am directing/producing/performing in a show that evening, and I am already booked for this EmcArts thing), I go to the Thursday morning show.

It was a cute show. He was a roman solider. I was exhausted. But I arranged the company’s Thursday rehearsal schedule around that show so I could make it. I think I went straight to rehearsal after his show. I think I worked straight from 10am-midnight that night. I think. I can’t quite remember.

But I was there. Tired. Exhausted. But I was there.

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You Look Happy Today

This past summer into fall, I worked every single day from August 3-October 3. I had a total of 40 rehearsals and 14 performances plus grants, photo shoots, out-of-town board meetings, production meetings, guest lectures, and award ceremonies. I worked straight through. No days off. All of Buddy’s after school activities – swimming, piano lessons, and tae kwon do – were canceled during that time frame because my work schedule was so intense that I could not manage with his regular activities. In general rehearsals were twice a day, 9am-noon, then 6pm-10pm. Saturdays were 3 hours of technique classes, then afternoon rehearsals until 6pm, Sundays 10am-6pm. I was never home. I did not see my family. The house was (is) a mess. There were many many nights that my boys ate cereal or worse, fast food for dinner because I was not home to cook. And, as I may have mentioned before, my husband may prepare a meal once every six months or so. I am lucky laundry was done.

August 3-October 3 was a long time. I was so sleep deprived; the dark circles under my eyes were so large and so dark my husband said it looked like I had black eyes. I was grumpy every morning. Sleep deprived.

It’s cyclical. The never ending workload, the crazy rehearsal schedules, all my time, energies, and talents essentially donated to small non-profit arts orgs. This cycle takes a consistent toll on me and my family.

After the last show I produced for my company closed, Buddy mentioned to me a few times in about a two-week period, “Oh you look happy today” or “You are smiling” or “You don’t have a mean face.”

I knew I was stressed, but I had no idea that my son was seeing me with angry stressed out faces for months on end. And that it had such an impact on him that he noticed the difference when I actually had a pleasant expression and smiled.

My poor baby.

In my experience(s), there is a lack of support systems for women choreographers, women of color and Latinas in the arts, and artist mothers. I am all three. I am torn because there are so few Latinas in dance and choreography working in the themes and aesthetics with which I work. I want to keep working, fight the good fight, and have a positive impact on the field. Yet, I wonder if it is worth it.

Tears at the Bus Stop

Collaborating with theater companies is interesting. They love to rehearse. And I mean LOVE to rehearse. 6-10pm, 5 days a week, or 6-10pm 4 days a week AND 10 am-5pm on weekends at least 6 weeks at a time. And I get it, they need that rehearsal time. But this rehearsal schedule is BRUTAL for me and my family.

During a recent theater collaboration, Buddy spent a lot of weekends at my in-law’s house. First it began on Saturday nights because I would rehearse late and then have to be back at rehearsal the next morning. And my husband, well, for the most part, he isn’t the stay home and make a meal and take care of the kiddo type of guy. All I can hope for is that he doesn’t give me a hard time when I drop the kid off with him on my way to the theater, he feeds him a decent meal, and that puts the kid to sleep at a decent hour. For now, that is all he can (or will) handle.  And my Saturday nights sans child, I usually spent them on a date with my husband. Because, even though I was exhausted, this was the only time I have to spend with my husband all week. If we do not have a date night, I will see him less than 15 minutes a day for a 9-10 week rehearsal and performance run, and that schedule is really problematic for a marriage.

At first, Buddy loved staying at my in-laws. All the unhealthy processed foods and sugar he could ask for, unlimited cartoons. It was fun. But that can get old after a while. Once the Thursday-Sunday performances started, the once a week sleep over at my in-laws evolved into both Friday and Saturday nights. My husband started waking up with the kiddo to make him lunch and take him to school on Friday mornings so I could sleep in. But the two full days of watching the kiddo without me in the house (I was also taking a technique class every Saturday morning before the show) was not something the partner was up for. Buddy grew tired of Nana’s house and he started to miss me.

The last Friday of the show’s run, I woke up around 6:30 am to walk Buddy to the bus stop with my hubby. It was then I told him he would be staying at Nana’s house again that weekend. He started bawling “NO MAMA!!! WHY?!? WHY, MAMA, WHY?!?!? I MISS YOU!! I MISS YOU MAMA!! NOO!! WHY?!?”

My son missed me. Yet I hadn’t gone anywhere.

I felt guilty, like I was a terrible mother for not spending quality time with my son when time is sacred and childhood is precious and fleeting. I also felt resentful, bitter, and angry that I was sacrificing so much time away from my family for so little pay and so much unnecessary drama that oftentimes accompanies theater productions. I promised myself then and there I would never again commit to that type of rehearsal schedule and for so little pay. It isn’t worth the sacrifice.

Perfecting the Mad Dash

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Buddy and I have a saying to describe one of our mother son rituals. It is called the MAD DASH. Right now, we only have a Mad Dash every Tuesday. Last year, the Mad Dash was every Monday and Wednesday. When I have shows or an insane rehearsal schedule, like when I am working with a theater company, the Mad Dash can be every day.

What is a Mad Dash you may ask? A Mad Dash is when I have 30 minutes or less to pick up Buddy from school or an activity, drop him off at daycare or with his dad, and get to rehearsal or a technique class. It is a Mad Dash because Tucson is a city that is very spread out and the interstate does not run directly through town. That usually means red lights every half a mile at 35 miles per hour driving.

The Mad Dash can be very anxiety producing, stressful and involve a lot of yelling on my behalf. A Mad Dash may also involve some road rage on my part especially if the Mad Dash is close to a performance I am directing and producing, or when I have grant deadlines.

As an introvert who takes a long time to warm up and get in the zone to work and write, cutting up my concentration by running all over town stuck in traffic when I have a deadline looming is insanely frustrating because it is a large distraction (See Blog Post #1). The Mad Dash can also be insanely stressful, especially on days when I leave the house at 7:45am and won’t be returning until 11pm that evening. On these days, I have to be on top of everything: homework, piano books, water bottles, snacks, rehearsal bags with notes, music, costumes for dancers, lap top to get work done in parking lots, outside of speech therapy, or choir, wherever I can find a moment. Buddy has learned my “please turn green, please turn green” mantra I say to the lights every half mile. And he knows when I say “gas pedal” I mean “get your shoes on, pick up your things and get out of the door 5 minutes ago.”

Lately, however, with the whole company hiatus thing, my stress level is much lower these days and the Mad Dashes have been upbeat and something fun that we laugh at and joke about. For example, the Tuesday Mad Dash usually begins with Buddy racing his friends to the parking lot after choir rehearsal and ends with a guessing game about who will arrive first at the rendezvous point for the Buddy drop off at a Jimmy John’s parking lot, me and Buddy or my partner. The significant other usually wins.

Right now, that Tuesday Mad Dash happens between Buddy and my rehearsals. Buddy is in the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and studies piano so now he and he is also a performing artist with rehearsals and call times and shows. I was always sad that my husband retired from dance right after we got married. Now I think it may be a good thing. I can barely juggle two performing artists rehearsal schedules! I can’t even imagine trying to coordinate three! And between Buddy and me, I foresee many more Mad Dashes in the future.

The Precedence

Less than six months after founding, my company received a grant to apply for 501c3, non-profit status. Looking back on it now, it was an interesting reaction to the grant all around. I was not excited nor did I celebrate. I got to work right away, I hit the ground running and did not look back. I had work to do and a deadline by which to achieve it. I felt pressure and the need to succeed after receiving this small investment. My founding board president, however, had the complete opposite response. Her reaction was “I guess we have to do this now.” I was dumbfounded by her reaction. Of course that is what we were going to do. That is what we set out to do and I had that headstrong attitude…. I never fail.

Those who have applied for 501c3 status know that the process is long, time-consuming, and filled with lots of paperwork and technical language. All the Ts have to be crossed and the Is and Js dotted, or heaven forbid, the application is rejected and an org has to apply again. The application is also expensive and the grant my company was awarded would only cover one application. One try. It was the organization’s one shot. Pressure.

Having experience working on federal grants at the University and after successfully applying for my husbands’ green card by myself, I decided to do the application in house. And that meant I would do the application. Me, working at home, just me. And my son.

I did the paperwork for the c3 when my son was 9 months old. At a time when he was learning to stand. At a time when I was weaning him from breast feeding. I worked on the application during my down time from work. I was teaching 2 classes back then. It was supposed to be 20 hours of work a week but it was more like 30 or 35. Like artists, adjunct faculty are overworked and underpaid. There I was, In between lectures, office hours, grading, and managing teaching assistants. I only had child care for my UA job. All the dance company work didn’t pay, so the expense of childcare was not justified. Especially for my husband. My mother-in-law lived 45 minutes away and was unable to help due to ongoing family problems. It was me, working from home. With my son.

The memory that is seared into my brain from this time in my life is an image of me. Sitting at my desk in my small one-bedroom apartment on an exercise ball, desperately trying to finish the application. And my son at my leg, trying to stand, trying to climb up my knee, so that I could hold him. But I could not. I had to finish this application. Me, alone. Stress. Pressure. I kept brushing him down off my leg, back to a seated position, back to the floor. So I could focus on work. No child care. Stress. Pressure. So I could get the application done. No child care. So I could finally have space to do choreography I envisioned.

Pushing him to a seated position so I could work, so I could choreograph, so that I could dance. That set the precedence for the years to come…

Lactating on Stage

I was back on stage performing six months after my son was born. I had no business being on stage. I had had a two-year absence from dance at that point, and I was never a technically strong dancer to begin with, and I had no idea how to move my new body.

Plus, I did not have much time to recover. I had to return to work six weeks after giving birth. Adjunct Faculty at the UA did not have maternity leave, or benefits for that matter. And not only did I need the job to cover medical expenses, but I also needed the income to immigrate my husband.

So there I was, teaching six weeks after giving birth. Sleep deprived. Struggling with postpartum depression from all the large life transitions that happened to me in the span of a few months. My hubby was living in LA at the time and dealing with my brother-in-law’s bipolar manic episodes (although he was not diagnosed yet and we did not know what was happening). With my husband still living in another state, I was basically a single mother at this point in time. I depended on in-laws, such as my mother in law or my husband’s cousins, to watch my newborn child, or I would take him in with me when I had to teach because I could not afford childcare and living expenses on my measly adjunct salary. My few-months-old son attended my classes, and faculty and research meetings in his car seat carrier more than a few times. All of this drained me spiritually, emotionally, and financially.

So why on earth did I put myself on stage only six months after having a child and two years of not dancing at all? Because I was commissioned to create three pieces based on the experiences of undocumented students in the local community college. Not wanting the opportunity to pass me by, I said yes, figuring I could find a handful of dancers to work with me and I would not have to be on stage. I needed three dancers, preferably Latin@. I found one dancer, yet my husband, a recently retired professional folklόrico dancer, wouldn’t even commit to the project. No rehearsals every other weekend when he was in town. He just flat out said no. And I couldn’t find anyone else. I was so desperate for bodies, I put a visual artist on stage. And I felt I had no other choice: I needed to perform. Oh, a foreshadow of things to come…

The rehearsals, combined with work and mothering a nursing newborn, took a toll on my body. I came down with lactation mastitis, which is so incredibly painful, three times while breastfeeding. Feeding times often fell during class and rehearsals, I could feel myself leaking. The milk ducts were full, then they clogged, and I got the very painful infection. I felt like I had to suck it up and deal with it. Deal with the pain and the infections. I could not change my class schedule at the University. My schedule was at the mercy of sabbaticals and professors buying out classes. I had no agency to negotiate and I couldn’t breastfeed or pump as I lectured in front of 180 students. And for some reason, perhaps the exhaustion, the lack of a support system, or my inexperience as a mother, I did not even consider bringing my son to rehearsal and breast feeding him there when he needed it.

To add to the madness, the director who commissioned the piece had a hard time securing affordable rehearsal space…again a foreshadow of things to come…and got us free space 45 minutes across town. Which meant that it took 3 hours of travel time, round trip, to get to rehearsal (30-minute drive to my in-laws, 15-minute instruction time for the baby, 45-minute drive to rehearsal, then rinse and repeat to go home). There were hours away from my child that were physically painful.

I should not have done it but I did it anyway, and this performance was the catalyst for creating my company. (Read more about this here). Looking back, this performance was also the complete foreshadow of things to come. Seven years later, all these things — difficulty finding dancers, affordable rehearsal space, and child care — still plague both me and my organization. Seven years later, the same struggles, the same battles. Go figure!

All of this work, all of the physical pain I incurred, all the time away from my son, culminated with a one-night performance. I was standing on a table in black beginning the piece that was my solo. It was a small intimate theater with 120 seat house. Sold out. It was the first section of my piece. The beginning of the dance. My baby is in the audience, six months old. As soon as the lights start coming up, slow fade, I start to leak. I am lactating on stage before the dance piece even begins. I pray the pad in my nursing bra which has a sports bra on top, absorbs all of the milk and it doesn’t show. Prayers answered. It didn’t.