Agnes de Mille left the company performing Rodeo, her landmark ballet, to choreograph a musical on Broadway. Months later, she had the opportunity to see how the show was doing in her absence. What she saw horrified her: “It was unrecognizable,” she wrote. Without her presence to keep the dancers in line and maintain standards, the ballet had wilted. Or at least she thought so.
The beauty of writing is that the entropy happens all by itself, in your head. I’ve had this sinking feeling many times when revisiting a piece of work left a little too long in a drawer. I guess I’m used to it. For her part, De Mille took it hard:
All changed, all passed. There was no way of ensuring lasting beauty. Verily, I wrote in water and judging my work with a dreadful dispassionate vision, perhaps it was as well.
De Mille turned to fellow choreographer Martha Graham for advice. Characteristically, Graham had no interest in a pity party. Thankfully for us, de Mille wrote down exactly what her legendary peer told her there on the sidewalk outside Schrafft’s restaurant:
There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.
That’s the most beautiful and complete thing I’ve read on the subject of art. What else is there to say? Naturally, De Mille pressed for reassurance anyway. Would she find no satisfaction in her work as an artist? None whatsoever, Graham replied without hesitation:
There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. And at times I think I could kick you until you can’t stand.
Keep the channel open or expect a spectral kick from beyond. And say what you like about Martha Graham, the lady could kick.