What Artists Teach Us About Fear, Anxiety and Life

There is a dancer I know who before a performance had so much pent up emotion – anxiety, excitement and fear running through his body he had to run up and down stairs until he exhausted himself.  He would then leap onto stage sweaty and breathless and let pure talent animate his supplicant body. He would perform stunningly to the standing delight of his audience, the mild surprise of his choreographer who couldn’t coax such power in rehearsal and an artist infused with the joy of his own signature performance.

His teacher and choreographer, protégé of Martha Graham, would advise him when he couldn’t do a triple spin and plant himself forward facing; ‘The audience doesn’t know my choreography.  If you fall, fall well and incorporate that into the dance.  Do not make me look bad.”

We who watch performers – living art – do so with a detachment that allows us to opine on technique style and talent.  But for art to be transformative, technique, style and talent are only the training wheels for the true artist.  The same goes for painting and poetry and all artistic expression really – and life itself for that matter.  All art is eminently physical and while we can train our fingertips, vocal chords and toes, art is really an act of the soul coming through the instrument of the body.

And this is where fear becomes the flame that sears away all that is not true and authentic in our expression of art.  To paraphrase Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (tik n’yat hawn), all your emotions are of you.  If your consciousness is the mother then all your emotions are your babies.  They are of you and need your attention to be resolved and integrated.  It does not serve to resist anger or fear but to hold it gently and ask it what it wants of you.  So many times, the seed of a frantic emotion is nothing but a piece of misinformation that has embedded itself into a mind long before it was filtering truth from fiction.

It is the courage to be vulnerable and work magic through that rather than imposing hard technique or style onto talent.  Talent developed authentically will create its own technique and immanent style – perhaps one quite unique from what was first imagined.  The soul of an artist is like that.  It creates its own circumstances to free itself from the bondage of the mind where fear resides with its dangerous and erroneous opinions. Real performers know what it is like to be real.  They risk all opinion and are real anyway.  And we love them for that.  They blaze a trail for the rest of us.

For an artist, or anyone who wishes to live authentically (which is living life as art, essentially) mastery does not come from technique, but from transcending that which is not real and knowing what shines through unsullied is your art.  This is the greatest gift of art in painting, prose or pas de deux (sorry about that).  This is where entertainment and performance take leave of one another.  And this is where an audience will be moved by the experience of intimacy and the artist’s tacit invitation into his or her own vulnerability – overcome – as a gift to the audience.

Roberto Bolle, Photograph by Luciano Romano

Roberto Bolle, Photograph by Luciano Romano

Real art is a mutual exchange and it is honesty and the willingness to be real that powers the paint brush or comes forth in a voice from the heart or in a grand jete – higher and longer than the one in rehearsal. Artists are our role models for feeling fear and doing it anyway.  They offer a way out of the woods of mediocrity in whatever our personal endeavors ask of us.

Life is a continuous act of creation.  We are each works of art. If we are willing to hold our own fear gently and accept its message to be true to ourselves we release all limitation and accept ourselves as a glorious work of art in process.

I want art in my life that takes a chance.  Misses a note and shares a smile at being human, who paints outside the lines, shares something tender in a story, falls on stage and leaps onto dancing feet.  I want to be real. I want to feel fear and do it anyway.  Because when I have faced fear and walked up to it I have discovered that the wall I called fear was a harmless mist of illusion.

With love, Marilyn