Today we had a Dance Gala matinee, our last performance of the first week. We’ll have a few days off, so this is my last backstage recording for several days.
I’m going to miss my dance gang. The camaraderie backstage is one of the best parts of being a musician, and working with college students brings that out even more—their unjaded excitement about having an opportunity to perform together is refreshing to someone who’s spent several decades in the trenches with the Freeway Philharmonic. Each night they gather backstage during the preceding piece to do their last stretches and warmups, and then they gather in a little huddle.
It’s a sweet ritual, and it reminded me of a ritual we had in the St Olaf College Orchestra of gathering together before each concert for about ten minutes of “Devotions.” St Olaf was a church school, and sometimes the devotions were religious in nature and creeped me and others out a bit, but most of the time the speaker for the night shared secular thoughts about the challenges and privileges of performing together.
I asked Chaz the first night I saw it, “Are they praying?” The University of Iowa is, obviously, a state university, but inappropriate public prayer is so rampant these days, one wonders, right? She laughed, “Oh, no—they’re telling each other, ‘Don’t fuck up!’ I taught them that.”
So a few nights later, I came up behind them, waited for a pause, and said what needed to be said—with a big grin, of course. They cracked up and wished me well, too. It’s a ritual we’ve repeated each night since then. Last night I rested my chin on the shoulders of the two circled in front of me, and I got a little purr in response.
Today I did the same, said my line, and got a welcoming, “Do you want to come in with us?” So I set my horn down on the floor inside the circle and joined them for the arm-in-arm huddle. I wouldn’t dream of sharing the privacy of their backstage moments together here—there’s something sacred about that—but I will say that their welcome was wonderful, and their smiles to us during bows seemed a little wider and richer this afternoon.
Ritual is powerful, and here’s a word of thanks to the dancers at UIowa who are reminding me of the place and power of ritual backstage. Live performance together is a privilege for us performers. Don’t let anyone’s exhausted cynicism about the indeed-challenging business of the performing arts tell you otherwise. We call that blasé attitude “professionalism,” but that’s not what it is.
A kaddish for the cynicism.