Creation Myth

If I am to be realistic, saying that I would write something everyday during the creation process of ‘An Open Letter…’ was a bit ambitious. Originally, I had thought that writing would help me through the process to organize my thoughts and keep my emotions under wrap. However, it felt like the writing was starting to make me more crazy. Or maybe there is no way around it, I’m just going to feel however I’m going to feel. The feeling that I was about to lose my shit, along with not many hours of sleep at night kept me away from the writing pad throughout this past week and a half.

I don’t usually have trouble sleeping at night. Once I am out, I am out. Most of the time the only thing that will break my slumber is my cat reminding me that “it’s feeding time….” I do have the disposition of not going to sleep at a sane hour. I’m usually up till 1 or 2 in the morning. I found myself really giving into that natural desire to stay up way past anyone who is a productive human being, or not on drugs will. I don’t do drugs anymore, but for quite awhile I used to partake in the ones that would keep you up for days. Real drugs. Never was really into smoking weed. I would if it were around and people were sharing but I can honestly say that I can’t recall ever purchasing weed from a dealer or anyone else. I know crazy right?? In fifth grade, they told us marijuana was a ‘gate-way drug.’ I guess I ran past that gate straight to the ‘fat rails of cocaine train.’ When I got sober, I cut the drugs out too. They were contributing to the misery and for a long time I thought they were my main problem. If only I did not have to go on these insane alcohol-fueled cocaine binges every weekend my life would be OK. Actually, I just wanted to take the cocaine out of that combination and still have the ‘alcohol-fueled binge’ part. However, it IS that first part that needed to go. As long as King Alcohol was part of the equation, anything that followed afterward was going to stay. Let me tell you, it can get a lot worse than cocaine. I thank God I never got wrapped up in some of things that I was heading towards. I love to say I would never try shooting heroin, but at one point in my life I said I would never touch alcohol, and even after alcohol came around other illicit drugs. At one point, I wouldn’t even let my friends that got down with that stuff into my house if they were partying like that. A few years later I found myself being completely hooked on it. The stigma of drug addiction in our culture has improved from where it was in the early 20th century, however there is still an attitude amongst people who are ignorant, that addicts and alcoholics actively ‘choose’ their life. It’s not that simple. I haven’t met ANYONE who said to me that they woke up one sunny morning and said “seems like a nice day to become a homeless junkie….” or “gee, I really think I ought work on my cirrhosis of the liver….” It doesn’t happen like that. Once you are caught in the rabbit hole, it’s very difficult to get out. So I can’t say that I wouldn’t ever become a needle junkie. I didn’t get that far but, I went from experimenting with alcohol for the first time at age 18 to pretty much full-blown alcoholism and cocaine addiction by 22. I know what it’s like to stay awake on that shit for three days straight and keep going back till I’ve wasted everything on the temporary high. It sucks. Especially once that drug starts working in reverse. The euphoric feeling and numbed up face and mouth is quickly replaced with feelings of extreme depression, paranoia and thoughts of suicide. I experienced this first hand. I won’t get into the science of what happens to the brain while on that drug, but it’s nasty and if you want to learn just look it up on wikipedia or something. So today that I no longer do that stuff, or drink, going to bed a little bit late sometimes is much less consequential than it used to be.

I remember watching the clock when I was on that shit and seeing the hours dwindle away until I had to make it to ballet class or to theatre for a two show day. Nothing parallels that feeling of dread. Having to dance after coming down from a couple bags of Colombian marching powder. But I did it over and over. Today, it makes dancing with a head cold or coming off the flu no sweat at all. Nothing is worse than having to dance with a nasty hangover. People sometimes ask me, “how did you do that??” I always reply, “had to support the habit somehow!!” It seemed like dancing became secondary for awhile, but since I got sober I have been able to tap into my true sources of creativity. I used ride that slow train to nowhere of artistic creativity being fueled by excessive drinking and drug use. Thinking that I could somehow connect with the ‘tortured soul.’ What a crock of shit. Proved myself wrong there. Never needed any of that stuff to be creative. In fact, I don’t believe great artists, musicians, writers, choreographers, actors etc. create BECAUSE of our internal neurosis, I believe we create IN SPITE of it.

I thought of making separate writings for every day and try to recount what I was going through. Put it in chronological form and sort of ‘act’ like I had written it real-time and delivered on my initial promise. I decided not to since another initial promise was that this would be raw; real and honest. How could it be honest if I was bullshitting about when I was actually sitting down to write this? The days kind of molded themselves together and before I knew it I was finishing the ballet. ‘An Open Letter…’ was officially finished in it’s structure on Wednesday, April 28 2017. Of course, I added some finishing touches to it in the following days. I had intended for it to be done the previous day. I thought that there would easily be enough time, but I overestimated. That day, there were a lot of extra things happening that were pulling my focus. I also felt like I wasn’t managing the flow of rehearsal well. What ended up happening was me trying to rush through stuff and not being happy with it. I can honestly say, it was the one time I felt like I was being an asshole to work with. Maybe I was just imagining it but for a second I tried to look at my behavior and thought to myself, ‘if I were dancing would I think this guy is being an asshole??’ Ultimately, I think the source of it was fatigue and the fact that I just wanted the piece to be done. So, after that day of rehearsal I went home and decided to take a deep breath and turn off. I threw on the video games and just did nothing even remotely associated to thinking about the ballet. Had to consume time with mindless entertainment to give the brain a reset. I’m not ashamed of it. Sometimes, that stuff is useful. The next day, went in and choreographed the remaining two minutes within an hour and it was done.

It felt like I could breath again honestly after having my head in a vice for a week straight. Of course, I didn’t truly feel that relief until I had seen the piece danced in the costumes. My goodness are they amazing. My costume designer Emily DeAngelis did a fantastic job. My next writing will feature more in detail about the costuming, but what I will say now is that Emily and I kind of see eye to eye on a lot of things. We see eye to eye on a lot of the messed up shit that goes on this world. Emily is one of those few people that understands that the broader aspects of society connect to her personal surroundings. Too many people live in the bubble where they have their ‘own world’, and then there is the ‘rest of the world.’ They think that their everyday surroundings and interactions are not part of that ‘rest of the world’ and that ‘rest of the world’ is something that only exists on television, in the newspaper and on social media. But I have news for everybody that is reading this that ‘rest of the world’ IS yours too. Everything we do is essentially a product of it. Every personal problem we encounter is one way or another connected to the broader zeitgeist of society. One thing that Emily has helped me with is not being timid about presenting these things through this art. That’s why art exists after all. I think Emily depicted this all very well in her design.

I had that moment while I was watching the first costume run, and then the lighting rehearsal yesterday. That moment, where I ask myself ‘how did I choreograph this?’ Or rather a more accurate question is, ‘how do you choreograph?’ I thought to myself ‘this is it.’ Not ‘this is it, I’m done, finished learning I have arrived at the apex of my life.’ But rather ‘This is it. This is the feeling of fulfillment that I look for in creating this art.’ It was serene. It was serenity that was built from turmoil and anguish.

Today is my first day off since two Mondays ago. I don’t count the other days off since I was working on my own even though they were technically ‘days off.’ Today I didn’t think I had to try and visualize any movement or think of a story, or plot line, or wonder how the heck I am going to come up with a piece that is 32 freaking minutes long. Which is comforting, but I can feel that somewhere out there that this ballet exists. The dancers are at home and they are idle, I am idle; but somewhere out there this ballet is existing. Even if it is only through neurons and electrical impulses in the brain. This ballet exists MORE so than my fake, imaginary, self-image that I will NEVER live up to does. That is what life is about, and that is what makes life worth living. It’s worth staying up late at night to dream about.

Day 1

7:00 AM the first alarm clock goes off.  Just like every other day, I try to trick myself by programming soothing iPhone stock music that some guy is probably chilling in the Cayman Islands with his millions he made from this one jingle  to hit me as I come out of my slumber that began 5 hours earlier.  Of course, I let it go till 8:30.  I have a horrible habit of not waking up with enough time to really have any kind of a routine in the morning.  Never been a “morning person.”  I usually have time to wake up, and thank whatever force in the universe is out there that I get to experience another day, whether you want to call it God or something else is quite meaningless.

Usually I will brew some coffee on my fancy pour-over.  Takes about 15 mins to heat up the water and slowly pour over the grounds to give me just the right kick in the face to start the day.  Today however, the worst nightmare of any coffee-loving, over sleeping, procrastinator happened.  There was NO COFFEE.  On this very important day in which I could more than use that little glass mug of liquid joy grown in the hills of Costa Rica or some other exotic location, I was OUT OF COFFEE.  I must have forgotten to restock amidst my craziness yesterday.  Needless to say this was not shaping up to be the best way to start out the week.  I figured since I had no coffee I had no reason to kick back and relax before heading off to the 10AM ballet class, so I showered real quick and hailed an Uber down to probably one of my favorite spots in Richmond, Lift Coffee Shop & Cafe down on Broad St. near Jackson Ward.  I used to live right next to the place and would go there everyday.  Since moving to north side last year I don’t go as often anymore but it’s still a special place.  Living there you could sit outside at Lift for breakfast or lunch, or just a mid-day coffee and watch a whole weird cast of characters walk up and down the block.  My brother Connor and I would give them names.  There was “Fritz”(who I believe actually goes by that name) an old gentleman in a wheelchair who is prone to be a loose cannon at times.  He lives at the Clay House right outside another old apartment of mine and frequently hops coffee shops.  At any given time you will see him riding his electric wheelchair through Starbucks, or Lift, or wherever he hasn’t pissed off the clientele in the last month to get himself banned.  I remember speaking to him once and telling him that I am a ballet dancer and choreographer and he went on for about 10 min talking about how he wrote a libretto that hasn’t been recorded to or played.  I guess he might be a composer, who knew?  Who knows if it’s not the most brilliant thing since Stravinsky?  Maybe one day we’ll find out.  Then there is another guy who we dubbed “Genghis Khan.”  Genghis Khan is an Asian man who is a staple of Richmond in my eyes.  You have to see him to believe him.  He walks around laughing hysterically at nothing, randomly pausing throughout the sidewalk to silently practice some weird form of Jiu-Jitsu poses.  A man of few words, he looks like he hasn’t brushed his teeth in five years and his finger nails look like he’s been rummaging through Keith Richards underwear cabinet circa 1985.  He commonly asks people for stuff, and if I have an extra quarter or a cigarette I’ll bum him one.  He calls me “Uncle.”  I don’t know if that’s what he is trying to say or if it is something else in his native language.  I have no idea if the whole thing is a total act the guy puts on to get people to feel sorry for him and give him stuff.  He is banned from even going into Lift but still hangs outside in the spring and summer months.  One time I saw him literally pouring out milk from the cream and sugar station into his own personal mug, and the baristas behind the counter were like “Hey, you can’t do that……” but he just kept on pouring it and walked out.

It’s stuff like this that interests me.  Stuff that is “out of place.”  The weirdness of life is something so beautiful and inspiring to me that I feel uncomfortable in sterile environments.  There is nothing worse than the DMV, or any other government building for that matter.  Don’t get me wrong you will see some characters there, but the atmosphere of a government building is so banal and useless.  It sucks the life out of everything.  One has no choice but to be depressed in those places.

Beauty doesn’t always come from a landscape of cherry blossoms, or an ocean front, or in Renaissance architecture.  Beauty can sometimes be found in the thing that we find the most unappealing one the surface.  The fact that I can find these weird cast of characters hanging out around coffee shops in Richmond, amongst a bunch of “normal” people who dress and act like they are smart going through their day is beauty to me.  Watching Genghis Khan laugh I sometimes wonder if he is laughing at all of “us.”  I wonder if he is actually the sane one and he’s laughing at all of us crazy people.

Once I finally got my caffeine laced coffee beverage and a bagel toasted with cream cheese, on I went to work.  The short walk to the studios I couldn’t help but put on the Philip Glass etudes I am creating “An Open Letter…” to and just straight up dread my existence.  However, that was short lived.  The anxiety I felt last night went away within the first twenty minutes of my rehearsals.  Gone.  Poof, it was like I wasn’t even present for it.  That’s what I love about creating in the studio.  When I am dancing, “Matt” the self-image, ego driven “Matt” is very much present.  My concept of my own self-image dances around my brain (no-pun) and it becomes very difficult to shut off.  Which is why I can easily become miserable when I’m just dancing.  Not while dancing, but all of those moments in between.  If I am not cancelling that image of self out with SOMETHING then it’s a quick trip to crankyland.  The  reason being is because I will NEVER be able to live up to that fake, contrived self-image I create in my mind.  I may think I am that, or that I can become that but the reality is I NEVER will.  So I have to cancel it out somehow.  Well choreography is a great tool for me to do that.  Maybe for some, it’s the opposite but for me when I create in the studio I feel my self-image drift away.  It is not there.  When I am released of my imaginary self I become more in tune with REALITY, because in reality my ideal self does not exist, he is nowhere.  Of course, I don’t always choreograph.  I can cancel that ego out with anything.  I have found playing the guitar helps for me.  Going to punk rock shows is fun.  Meditation is a great tool.  If I am not doing something that is unrelated to dancing ballet ALL the damn time then I’m likely to get frustrated or angry.  That’s just the way it is for me.

Now, on the flip side of choreographing it can be difficult for me to give up control.  I don’t mean control to anyone else but there comes a time in the process where you just have to let it go and let it be what it’s going to be.  After all, I am not the one dancing so I can’t possibly physically control everyone else’s body for them.  That can be a bitch, it can stoke some anxiety and fear but it’s really not too bad.  Once the first few shows are over I usually find that I can sit back and try to enjoy what’s happening on stage.

It was a great, productive first day of rehearsal.  The first hour and 45 minutes was not with the entire cast.  I had some good time to work on solos and duets which was nice to sort of warm me up to being in front of a whole company of dancers.  Dancers that know what the hell they’re doing and know when people are full of shit.  These dancers are incredible, they treat everything with the same amount of respect and will try anything.  I can’t express how lucky I am to be able be around them.  I honestly feel like they are holding me up as I am plunging into this void of the unknown.  It was a good mood, and I was given more drive to create “An Open Letter…” as the day went on.

Around lunch time I allowed myself to check my iPhone and learned of the terrorist attack on the London Parliament.  4 people killed and over 40 injured along with a police officer being stabbed to death in a place that could be said to be an altar of liberal Democracy.  Business as usual.  We are pretty good at killing each other it seems like.  I wonder why it even makes the news anymore, it’s not news.

“An Open Letter…” will display these events in a more stripped down form.  It deals with issues like these and others and presents them in a more flippant, almost cartoon character likeness.  My goal is maybe if some people can see a more basic form of what I perceive to be actually happening we can find SOMETHING to agree upon.  Even if that thing is, we don’t have to kill each other anymore then that’s some kind of progress.

The second movement of the Ballet was finished by the end of the day, which I never thought would happen.  I have been at war with this second movement since about January, but I think today we created a sound structure for it that I like.  Out of thin air I look up and the clock says 6:15 PM and I’ve just experienced this full day of rehearsal and yet I have no idea how it happened.  I ask myself the question that I have heard other choreographers ask themselves. “How do you choreograph?”  I plan to work on the third movement tomorrow, but still the future is unimaginable.   6:30PM rolls around and my “self” comes back to me as I walk to Starbucks for my evening mocha.  It’s fine to have it when I’m walking around town, I need it just enough so that I don’t get run over by a bus.

 

-Matthew Frain

March 23rd, 2016 12:52 AM

The Night Before

My name is Matthew Frain, and I am a lifelong dancer.  I have danced professionally for about 10 years, the last few of which I have been creating my own choreography.  Tomorrow, I will embark on the main rehearsal process for a new creation that will premier in 10 days.  I have already created about half of this ballet throughout the year since August.  As I write this, I am in the midst of a neurosis and a madness that I think only the truly troubled weirdo will identify with.  I spent the entire day in the house, didn’t leave once except for calling up a friend to come pick me up, to go spend some time with other friends that help me to maintain sobriety.  Oh yeah, by the way I am a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 4 years and some change.    But before any of that, I am really  just a regular dude.  I am not writing this to  mystify my self-image or this art into some elitist bullshit that separates me from you.  Instead, I am trying to share with you my thoughts and emotions throughout this journey while at the same time, not completely lose my mind.  I have had works performed by professionals with my name on it within the past three years.  However, this is the largest project I have taken up and the first time a work of mine will be featured on a Studio Series for the Richmond Ballet.

So far, in my experience creating new work the night before the first rehearsal is always crazy.  Questions, doubt, disbelief, frustration and the typical ‘feeling of impending-doom’ lurk around the corner every few minutes.  It really is a special feeling.  I am not complaining, nor do I want to appear morbid, these are not problems they are blessings.  Whatever  you are feeling right now in this moment reading this whether it’s good or bad, if you’re human you know what that big four letter word is.  FEAR.  It’s the most beautiful thing out there.  People can be afraid of being afraid.  I used to be a lot, and can still be sometimes.  Fear can cause me to act out in many different ways.  Fear of not having what I THINK I want or need.  Fear of being alone.  Fear of being homeless.  This basic primal instinct to survive I used to cloak as being ambition, or drive.  Which most of the time pushed people away from me instead of closer.

Today, it is different.  I look at fear as a reminder that I am still living.  I embrace it.  Earlier today, the thought popped into my head: “Why do I even try to do this? Create? Choreograph? Why?”  If it’s always going to feel like this before I start creating something then damn, give me an application to McDonald’s or sign me back up to drive for Uber (there is no shame in doing that work, I used to be an Uber driver part time, it’s not easy! And to the folks at the McDonald’s on Chamberlayne Ave. Get your shit together!)  But then that thought was replaced with “because this is what you want to do….”  Duh.  I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time and now I have the opportunity, this time, in this moment, to create.  What am I expecting?

My last work entitled “Inventory” turned out to be a lovely experience.  I remember the night before entering the studio to start I was feeling exactly as I do now.  I was working with an original score by friend and mentor D. Randall Blythe.  Randy’s kind of taught me how to be sober, and still do this art thing.  Without him, I’d be in the gutter because I don’t think I would ever have stopped drinking.  At the time I got sober, I needed to hear from somebody who was more “unique” and “special” than me to tell me that…. Dude, you’re not that freaking “unique” or “”special.” I use those terms flippantly.  If a rock-star front man of one of the heaviest of heavy metal acts who tours the world can be sober, so can I.  End of story.  It’s not a veiled ego-trip to cut myself down.  Anyone who has ever recovered from the disease of alcoholism or addiction knows that the idea of being  “unique” or “special” could kill you.

I remember getting new music from Randy everyday, working and trying to fill out the tracks and make them into the piece that was performed in March of 2014.  It was exciting,  I felt so much emotion well-up when I saw that thing performed the first time.  Not that I had any illusion that it was the most amazing piece of dance ever made, but because I found out I was capable of creating something.  Two years prior I could barely go a day without sucking down a six-pack and a fifth of Jameson just to feel ‘OK,’ my ballet career is in SERIOUS jeopardy and I want to be hit by bus. Now, suddenly I’m watching a piece with my name on it being performed by an outstanding professional company.  Wait, somebody asked ME to do this?!  Those are just some of the gifts that have shown up along this road so far.

“Inventory” was a piece that was very much centered around a personal struggle of “life on life’s terms” and dealing with taking that long stare in the mirror at the end of the day. How an honest appraisal can give someone freedom, much like it did for me.  This new work I am creating is a bit different.  It is very much about US.  Yes, US. Us as a people, as a species.  This is a socially conscious work and a warning about where we are headed as a people.  In the early, early days of conceiving this ballet I have been weary of diving into disclosing the nature of this ballet.  For “Inventory” I felt I was putting myself and my life out there.  For this ballet I am putting myself out there in a different way.  I am putting myself out there to make an appeal to society.  An appeal to pay attention and think.  This ballet will not be bashing anyone, or presenting any opinion about anything, it will present narratives and scenes from an objective viewpoint, told through the art of ballet.  Many of these narratives and scenes are things that we have seen happen in our society over the past year or so.  Some of them may be disturbing, some of them may be sad, some  of them might be funny.  This socially conscious work will be called “An Open Letter…”  I invite you to come back here for the next 10 days to hear about this journey.  To see a form take shape, hear my thoughts and emotions.  But most of all because I would like your support and positive energy with me.

-Matthew Frain

March 22 2:01AM