Two television shows have recently made a huge impression on me: the BBC Janet Baker documentary, and “Fosse/Verdon,” the fabulous story of that artistic and personal partnership. And as I finally have a chance to stroll around in the mountains as summer begins, I’ve been processing what exactly those shows are shaking loose in my head.
All 90 minutes of the Baker documentary are wonderful, luminous, worth every musician’s time. But what stays with me most is the beginning, when the interviewer asks Dame Janet about her early retirements: why did she step aside when she was still singing and had more years ahead of her? And Dame Janet says – well, performing is frightening. And performing from memory is hard and gets harder. I got a lot from it but it cost me a lot too, and at a certain point I thought, enough.
Such a simple statement, but it just hit me between the eyes – because it’s the thing we all know, and the thing we pretend isn’t so. Sure, we talk about our anxiety with our friends, but to really show weakness as a performer is still straight up taboo. “Don’t think I couldn’t replace you a hundred times over,” says the young Bob Fosse’s manager to him – and we all know that’s true. So we make sure we always look strong, happy, confident.
But I just skipped to another show, sorry. If I really start writing about “Fosse/Verdon,” this post will stretch into June, so again let me say what stays with me most, especially in relation to the Baker documentary. The brilliant series uses iconic moments that come to stand for entire states of mind, ways of dealing with the world. One is the frenetic tap-tap-tapping of the young Bob Fosse as he dances: it’s joyous, energetic, precise, obsessive, terrifying. The other is the change on Gwen Verdon’s face during her famous Sweet Charity curtain call. As the audience chants her name you can see her go from disbelief to gratitude to the realization that she is exceptional. That she is a star.
What an audacious thing it is, to decide to simultaneously make your living and express yourself with your body. Tap-tap-tap: as you work toward mastery and excellence, you are dogged by the fear that those things might fade. And then, eventually, you may gain the wisdom that they will. So why do you try? It’s some combination of the things in the face of the great actress Michelle Williams during that curtain call: hunger for the audience’s approval, gratitude for the audience’s reaction, and maybe the realization that you have power to sway the audience.
All of this is in my mind as I take a morning hike at 7000 feet, in a totally different world. Here, I’m happy for feet and knees and hips and lungs that will carry me along a mountain path. I’m not in fantastic shape but also not terrible, and this is fine with me – I’m chill about my body in general in a way I am not chill about my body at the piano. But on a hike, although I can remember what it felt like to be 35 instead of 55, the fact that I used to be faster and stronger doesn’t dampen my joy.
In the clear air, my mind’s own tap-tap-tapping is always fainter and sometimes totally disappears. But it’s almost always there: the music I have to learn, the master classes, the teaching schedule, the performances. My own combination of fear, confidence, gratitude, and hubris: I’m writing this down with concern/confidence/gratitude in the audacious/hubristic belief that it might resonate with you.
In our current way of connecting and communicating with each other, the ways in which we curate and market our images are more sophisticated than ever. They’re not new – think of Robert and Clara Schumann’s diary, which they wrote together with an obvious eye toward readership, a kind of extremely low-tech blog. The letters left behind when prominent people died were always curated by them or by their allies, if not their enemies. Fosse/Verdon explores beautifully the ways in which our work is both our story and our curation, transparently true and slickly suspicious all at once. Performing is so tricky, and everyone performs for everyone else. In our era, people are working hard to examine that kind of social performance, to understand and change it. Yet it’s easier than ever to curate different versions of ourselves. That’s tricky for those of us who are really good at it.
There’s such power in an artist like Janet Baker saying that what we do is frightening, along with the many other things it is. Something else we can do when we connect is to say simply what is true. It is so noisy in this world that you might wonder if such statements matter. Maybe in this age we are finding out that they can. I believe that they can.
And I believe something else. At the end of the tap-tap-tapping, all of it (the required practice and study, the worry of being passed over, the stress of the schedule, the weight of comparison), in the middle of the musical collaborations, there is such unbelievable lightness and freedom. It feels like it felt on the path this morning. And that’s such a gorgeous paradox of this human journey, that something so antithetical to simple existence – obsessive, dedicated practice – can lead you back to the very center of your being, where you can walk simply as a small part of a huge, beautiful world.