Kelvin Vu began studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance in 2011 after graduating from Yale University. After performing with Project Thrust and Sharp & Fine in San Francisco, he joined the Batsheva Ensemble in Tel Aviv in August 2013.
I started writing and sketching in a journal in my freshman year in college, when Moleskine notebooks were trendy, and I thought I was going to become an architect. Despite intentions to start a daily practice, I’ve only written intermittently and drawn seldomly. Even so, I’ve managed to fill a few notebooks, and thinking that there might be something worthwhile in each, I’ve kept them all. I recently looked through the ones I wrote in since leaving college and came across some surprisingly prescient entries.
In May 2012, at the beginning of my first summer intensive at the Conservatory, I wrote this:
“The fantasy–the dream of what I want–is not to be a dancer. It’s the pursuit of dance that I dream about. The kind of pursuit that leads to the brilliant display of information and the blaze of intelligence and consideration. Is it pretentious or somehow disingenuous to want to be fiercely intelligent? Perhaps this is the problem–the desire to be something in lieu of the pursuit itself. On that note, a thought from Christian’s class–the unknown and its importance. What is the point of pursuing something you already know–what could be more worthwhile or more engaging than the exploration of the unknown?”
And a couple weeks later, at the end of Session 1:
“Thinking about the ‘why’ of dance…and what makes the Conservatory so special. The odds are not comforting–how many of us will stick with dance and end up being able to survive off of it? Probably very few. But that’s not the point, or at least not mine. A group coming together, working, learning, exploring, growing together…there’s something that’s so magnificently youthful about it. The ephemeral quality of hunger and discovery and love in concert–nothing is more inspiring. I hope to never lose that hunger or love…”
After another year and another full summer at the Conservatory, I moved to Tel Aviv to start working with the Batsheva Ensemble, the junior counterpart to Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company. I moved blindly, having only been to Tel Aviv for the two-day cattle-call audition the previous spring. The move marked a lot of firsts for me: my first time living outside the US, my first company contract, and my first full-time job of any kind after a lifetime in school. Despite my best efforts, I found myself indulging in the notion that then, my life as a professional artist would begin, that this new chapter would be filled with gravity and momentousness and perhaps, admittedly, a bit of glamor.
In many ways, these feelings were not inaccurate. I felt an added sense of responsibility to research and perform Batsheva’s repertory and to invest in Gaga as my primary philosophy and toolbox. I felt the pressure to drink the institution’s Kool-Aid and to immerse myself in Ohad’s ideas and the universe he’s created. I had a contract and official duties to fulfill as an employee.
Further, life as a dancer in a major rep company certainly felt different. The numbers paint a specific picture: one company, seventeen colleagues, more than 120 performances, five programs, four tours to six different countries, 45 weeks of work. The benefits of the job paint another: a salary, health insurance, paid vacation, physio treatments, good studios, per diem on tours, receptions. During the first months, I remember feeling like Dorothy, plucked from Kansas by some mysterious whirlwind and dropped in new territory. I found the novelty and sheen a bit intoxicating, but I also felt wary that maybe my ruby slippers didn’t fit so well or that someone had spiked my glass of Kool-Aid.
I recalled words that Yale’s then-Dean-now-President Peter Salovey offered during the opening days of my freshman year in college. He told us to look around and to remember two important things: that Yale could replace us with an entirely different class of students who were just as capable and deserving and that also every single one of us would feel that at some point, Yale had made a mistake and admitted us by accident. At the beginning of my season with the Ensemble, I felt both of these things–that there were many other dancers who could have taken my spot and that I was embarrassingly underqualified.
I wrote home to Summer, who simply suggested to work but not worry because, as she explained, worry erodes trust. Per usual, she was absolutely right. Of course, there are many worthy dancers in the world, some of whom I replaced when I joined the Ensemble, and others who will eventually replace me when I leave. And as a new member of a junior company, it’s natural to feel underqualified. That’s partly why I came to Batsheva–to feel that I was the worst in the room again and to subsequently feel that I had the most to gain. But remembering and trusting why I auditioned for Batsheva in the first place–Gaga, Ohad’s ideas, the repertory itself–brought me back to a place from which I could work and grow.
Now with only a few weeks left in the season and with the benefit of hindsight, perspective feels easier to find. While the composite experience of my first year in the Ensemble is necessarily nuanced and layered, the most important takeaways now seem refreshingly simple. Despite all of the newness around me, I found that I could depend on the reasons why I went to Yale, why I chose to dance, why I enrolled at the Conservatory, and why I ultimately moved to Tel Aviv. What seems like a constant uprooting or change of path has been anything but. When I remember that the everyday work and my own curiosity are at the center, the progression of new environments makes so much sense.
photo by Kelvin
That said, the journey hasn’t been free of potential distractions, of tourist traps, of fields of deadly poppies on the way to the Emerald City. Something I realized early on is how easy life could be, like how easy it could be to go to bed late or to eat junk food. How easy it could be to not stretch, to not stay in great shape. How easy it could be to rest on the fact that I have a contract with a salary and health insurance. How easy it could be to stop working and feel entitled to be complacent. But at the same time, I also realized how hard and bland it would be to live the life that resulted from such easy choices and that such a life is simply not worth it.
I also realized the true responsibilities–and privileges–of being a professional artist. There are the most straightforward ones. To stay in shape, to stretch, to grow, to develop–these goals are supposed to be built into the system of professionalism. There are, however, the more existential ones, which often take more effort to identify and prioritize. Right now, I love where I am because the philosophies of Gaga and the work at Batsheva interest me the most, but my explorations in dance and my commitment to art have to extend beyond this company. For me, being a professional artist includes realizing that this will hopefully be a very long journey and that it’s up to me to continue the conversation and research. Of course, the present is important and, for now, highly convenient, but it would be vastly premature to consider these years the peak of my career.
I recently read an article detailing a study published about a year ago that analyzes our perceptions of our own change and potential to change. Researchers in this study found that we tend to underestimate how much we can and will change in the future as compared to how much we’ve changed in our past. They call this the “end of history illusion.” This misperception is intuitive, but the danger comes in how it affects our decisions and how we make them because thinking that our steepest growth curve is behind us cuts short our personal timeline and openness for radical transformation. I’ve been toying with this concept for a while, and it seems appropriate at this point in my dance journey. It’s tempting to think that I’ve left behind my gawkiest days and that this latest version of me is somehow closer to the ultimate one. But, when I really think about, that would be selling myself short and it would prevent me from seeing all of the potential forks in the road where the most interesting lessons lie.
I have no idea how my time in Batsheva will end or where I will go after, but for now, I’ll keep in mind something Summer once told us during my year at the Conservatory, that the pursuit of the thing is the thing. And I’ll also keep in mind a more recent journal entry, in which I wrote, “Keep building. Aim for many, many dirty first drafts. Keep the glory days at bay.”
–Kelvin Vu, May 2014