At a recent Creative Church Conference, I was asked by director Jessie Nilo to collaborate and accompany Andrew Nemr, a tap dance virtuoso, educator, choreographer, and TED Talk Fellow. The idea was simple: Andrew would share his story, both verbally and with expressions of dance, and I would be available on stage to interact with him musically throughout the hour-long performance. The thing was, this interaction would be completely unscripted and improvised. A simple idea—but as I had never accompanied a tap dancer before, I realized from the onset that this would bring me to the edge of creative risk.
It was agreed that we wouldn’t—and really couldn’t—rehearse. But we met to sound check and discuss the format of the evening. My first attempt at joining Andrew with the piano was clumsy, awkward, searching. I was unsatisfied with my playing and approach, and I was continually distracted by the movements of his feet, which so casually defied the very laws of physics. I began to realize—in ever increasing degrees of anxiousness—that Andrew was no ordinary tap dancer. So I did what musicians do when we improvise: I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and listened.
This is when a series of little revelations came to me. The first was that Andrew was not just a dancer. He was a legitimate and accomplished percussionist. In fact, he was playing rhythms that would challenge most drummers. As soon as I understood that, playing the piano with him began to make much more sense. The second was that I shouldn’t think about trying to play a song. What I should do instead was try to play an emotion, a mood. This opened up the musical door in a very different way, as my approach became part jazz musician and part film composer. The third revelation was that Andrew was a genuinely nice guy with a deep soul. And the best thing I could do to prepare myself for this performance was simply to get to know him better. Over the afternoon, I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations about art, life, and the history of tap.
The next evening, as Andrew and I took the stage, I set my trepidation aside and gave it to God. After all, the best thing I could hope for was to get out of the way and allow the Holy Spirit to move in him, in me.
Andrew floated from speaking to tapping and back again. I tried to discipline myself to not pre-compose in my head, but allow him to set the tempo and mood and then follow him. Andrew moved seamlessly from song to story, from expressing with his feet to expressing with his mouth. And I followed the best I could, from contemplative to bouncy to melancholy to hopeful. At one point, Andrew simply turned to me and encouraged, “How about you start?” and I launched into a completely out-of-tempo musical foray that felt more like a conversation than a song. Above all, it was an exercise in being aware of the ever-present moment—not overthinking the future nor second-guessing the past, but staying fully present in the now.
In short, it was an exhilarating, nerve-wracking, musically-fulfilling experience. Andrew was such an accommodating, gracious, musical partner. The audience responded with great appreciation. And I felt God present in each moment. I don’t think you can ask for more than that, really.
I was reminded of a number of truths that I think apply to all artists, regardless of skill level or medium of expression. Here are a few of them, stated briefly:
1) It is in the wake of great risk that there exists the possibility of great art. As I’ve blogged before, risk comes in many forms and degrees, but there is no great reward without it.
2) Artists don’t just express art. We express emotion.
3) Art is dialogical. Art is a conversation we have with our collaborators, with our audience, and ultimately with God.
4) Artists are servants. We serve our art by letting it be what it needs to be. We serve our collaborators with acts of mutual submission. We serve our audience through the giving of our performances. And we serve God through the yielding of ourselves and our agendas to His inspiration and purposes.
5) Artists create in the physical reality of time. And being present in any particular point of time—spiritually and emotionally and physically—is what helps us define and experience the ever-present moment. The best moments are shared, with others and with the Spirit of God.
Reflecting now, I thank God once again for the moment that was this performance with Andrew. It was a great reminder to me that all of our art is simply a dance before the Lord.