This Ballet Tells the Story of Our Generation

In a ballet, the position where a woman is draped over the back of a man, their arms following a ropey curve down his torso, might connote romantic love. But this ballet is unlike the others. This is Potential Energies, and here the confusion of arms symbolizes the the uneasy relationship between the artist's dreams and the responsibilities of adult life.

The brainchild of pianist Sugar Vendil, Potential Energies is a modern ballet devoted to depicting the millennial experience. It is directed by Vendil, composed by Trevor Gureckis and choreographed by Barbie Diewald. Pairing five musicians with five dancers, it explores the hope of the millennial artist and its twin pitfall — the banality of survival — through the braided movements of each dancer-musician duo. Together, each couple might be understood as one artist divided by competing requirements: creative freedom and lower-rung Maslowian needs. At its heart, the ballet suggests that the life of the artist, particularly the artist of today, is one of duality, creative passions and subsistence vying for time.


Image Credit: Mickey Hoelsche

The mission behind Potential Energies is one that particularly resonates with an audience of 20-somethings. After all, to be a millennial artist, Gureckis told PolicyMic, "means be innovative or go under." He elaborated, "There are so many talented artists in our generation. We were raised on dreaming and going to 'dreaming' university. No one really got into how we were going to survive after college and then everything got so messy with the Recession." Gureckis, Vendil and Diewald have embraced innovation, composing and choreographing in tandem while finding new ways to finance the performance.

To be an artist, especially in the high-priced city of New York, means to directly confront the conflicts of dreaming. The average apartment rental price in Brooklyn, where this performance was staged, exceeds $3,000 per month, whereas the average dancer wage is $16 per hour. The team even nicknamed one scene in Potential Energies "Rude Awakenings."

For many of the millennials, the realization that few artists are able to make art for their living and that fewer still find straight paths to success has led to abandoning creative work. But these hardships are not exclusive to millennials, and as Vendil elaborated, "Philip Glass was a cab driver when Einstein premiered. Being a struggling artist is absolutely not uniquely a problem for millennials. Being an artist is supposed to be this hard: You're trying to live an ideal life of making something you love everyday. So regardless of the economy, no one should be surprised at how hard it is to be an artist. What should be more surprising is how hard it is to find a decent day job."


Image Credit: Mickey Hoelsche

Vendil, Gureckis and Diewald agree that whatever barriers to entry exist, innovation and initiative are requirements of being an artist today. This DIY ethos, combined with signature millennial Internet savvy, has been one of the animating forces behind Potential Energies from the beginning, when Vendil composed a Facebook post asking friends to recommend a choreographer for a new collaborative project. Through this post, she found Diewald, and later, the group launched an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, reaching their goal to raise $10,000 with 159 backers in just under a month. Rather than viewing the Internet as a blackhole, the team behind Potential Energies has used their tech-literacy to expand their artistic community.

The result is an interdisciplinary performance in which Gureckis' music pivots between haunting passages of minimal instrumentation and fraught flurries of notes, as Diewald's choreography circles through arrangements of evocative movement tropes. Mirroring the tension between the millennial artist's hopes and struggles through formal hybridization, the musicians' parts were composed such that they would be able to move, play and interact with the dancers.


Image Credit: Misaki Matsui

The dancers also pull at the musicians, requiring the musicians to fight to continue playing and so, at times, the music itself is altered by the dancers' interruptions. In fact, some of the most poignant moments in Potential Energies occur when together a dancer-musician pair gesture toward failure. At one moment, a dancer's movement appears to derail a flutist, the note careening. A dancer repeats a charming series of isolated motions— wagging a finger, swinging a cradle, curtsy-like swishing— before interrupting twinkly trills of piano. Later in the performance, propulsive cello and violin instrumentation seem almost to act as the engine driving the torque of reeling dancers. In each of these instances, even youthful aspirations are overtaken by the force of convention, responsibility and, of course, economic realities.

If art imitates life, in Potential Energies art imitates a life of making — and sometimes not making — art. For a generation that tweets about Twitter, this meta-art performance manages to both represent millennial challenges and to push beyond them with grace, power and, most of all, a sense of possibility. It pirouettes on the idea that what will save millennials from despair is innovation and collaboration. When we marry music and dance, technology and community, composition and surprise, we can't always get what we want, but we just might create art more beautiful than what we need.

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Tracy O'Neill

Tracy O'Neill is a writer based in Brooklyn. In 2012, she received the NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum, Grantland, and many other publications.

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