(or My Quest to Be Less Damned Polite)
By Alice Irene Whittaker-Cumming
I wonder whether my piece, Vivian, is authentic. By that I mean: does it reflect the ideas and emotions that are important to me? Does it communicate what I want to say? Does it come from my quiet and wild core, rather than being formed based on outside opinions? If I saw the piece objectively, would it resonate with me? Would I like it? It can be hard to tell.
People intuitively sense whether a piece of art comes honestly from the artist, or conversely, whether the intention is clouded. We as an audience sense which moments waver versus those that strike a chord. This goes for film, pop songs, literature, painting, photography or, of course, choreography. You can have the same ingredients – say, the same two actors in a blockbuster romantic comedy, or the same comedian on an empty stage from one night to another, or a painter with two blank canvasses – and have one creation that hits a nerve and another that falls flat. The difference is whether it is authentic and comes from the inside, or whether or it is trying to be something that meets others’ expectations.
I’ve noticed something in my past and current creations. When I create something authentically, I worry less whether other people will like it or not. Some will, and some won’t. But I know that what I am expressing is what I genuinely mean. And really, people will be displeased with what you do, no matter what it is. You may as well mean it.
Vivian Maier’s photography is authentic. Her photographs are frank, candid looks at human beings in a certain time and place. Mostly on the streets of Chicago over four decades. There is nothing posed about the photographs – at least, not the ones of other people. I feel like her self-portraits are careful and calculated, as if she is carefully selecting how much of herself she reveals. But those photos of others catch a moment that feels truthful. As though we see something about these people that they wouldn’t necessarily want us to see. It feels honest. Rather than polite. This means that the photographs are sometimes secretive, sometimes cynical, sometimes funny. Which, in my opinion, shows us a lot about who Vivian Maier is, despite her best attempts to curate a careful and impenetrable image of herself.
All of this is conjecture on my part, as an artist who is exploring someone else. Dare I say, as an artist who is making her best attempts to curate a careful and impenetrable image of herself? I bring my own biases, and a healthy dose of creative license and romanticism. Throughout the process of creating this work as a Creator’s Resident – and while receiving feedback from my mentor Kate Hilliard, from Resident Outside Eyes Heidi Strauss and Sasha Ivanochko, and from the Series 8:08 audiences over a series of work-in-progress performances – I have had to examine what is authentic to me. Working with the talented, soulful Claire Turner Reid has also urged me to examine my ideas and direction more closely. I have been working at letting go of my urge to establish a finished, polished performance that is wrapped up with a neat tidy bow. More process, less product. Instead I am learning to take more time to observe closely, listen to my inner voice and ask myself questions. Even if that means slowing down. Not to parody Ernest Hemingway, but which moments are good and true? Which are redundant? Which bore me? Which stir me?
This is a departure for me. One that takes courage. Because authenticity can never be perfect, or tidy, or polite. It means that my work may be short, and it may be raw. It may be unfinished. Which aligns well with my personal goal of being more authentic in my daily life, even if that means being less pleasing and less polite. Even if it means being less obedient to what is expected of me (even if those expectations come from no one but myself).
I am seeing glimpses of my authentic self, both in life and in my art. While it scares me to be less pleasing, I like it. I wonder what it will look like as I embrace that self fully, and create from that place? It is a dizzying and exhilarating prospect.
Alice Irene Whittaker-Cumming is an artist and advocate. She has choreographed and performed throughout North America, and her full-length choreographic works include Nightbird, The Canary Wallpaper, Underwood and The Vinyl Archive, which was a commission for Typecast Dance Company. Alice Irene is Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership, an organization that empowers girls and women to live their lives to the fullest. She is a recipient of The Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel Innovation Award, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant and a Toronto Arts Council Grant. She is a 2014-2015 Creators Resident with Series 8:08. She lives on Wards Island.
Alice is part of Series 8:08’s Creator’s Space Residency, an 8-month residency for two selected artists in partnership with Dovehouse Dance Ballroom and two other studios. The selected choreographers work with Resident Outside eyes and show their work at the end of season CPW.