“People who have worked with me say I am ‘innocence in action’. They say I have the unselfconsciousness of a child. Maybe I have. I still look at the world with uncontaminated wonder, and with all living things I have a terrific sympathy. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to imagine that mice and squirrels might have feelings just like mine.”
“Everybody in the world was once a child. So in planning a new picture, we don’t think of grownups and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us, that maybe the world has made us forget, and that maybe our pictures can help us recall.”
I love fun. Who doesn’t! Unfortunately once we grow up, we either forget all about it or our idea of fun becomes warped. My fondest memories are those of me (as a child and a teenager) being together with my skiing team friends at various skiing centers in Austria, or at a summer camp in Croatia. The daily schedule was gruelling with hours and hours on ski slopes and in the gym but in the late afternoon, after a short nap, we would still have enough energy for a blast. We’d have pillow fights, we’d play hide-and-seek in the hotel hallways, on an occasion two other girls and myself took a bath and played with plastic ducks, splashing around madly until we heard our coach yelling in front of the door that we were flooding the arcade on the floor below. Those were great, fun times. I was a shy and quiet child but I easily transformed into this rowdy, goofy kid, laughing and playing pranks and just thoroughly enjoying myself.
When I was nine and we were at a summer camp our coaches took us dancing. In later years I realized that that was the most important day of my life, it was the day when everything changed and ever since nothing has been the same. On the dance floor I realized that dancing came to me as naturally as breathing. We arrived back at the hotel well past bedtime and while the girl whom I shared the room with was chasing a black widow spider, trying to capture it in the bathroom for the night, I sat on my bed blissfully happy. I felt I discovered something special, something precious. I felt music charging through my body like an electric current.
Skiing and wind-surfing remained my great passions but dancing became my obsession. I somehow felt that it was ok to be obsessed, it was ok to be driven by obsession. In a few years’ time my friends no longer felt like playing, they felt it was below them. But I longed for pillow fights and our silly, funny games. While I danced I was at play, I was having fun, I could experiment and fool around. And for the time being everything was as it had always been. Everything was alright.
The troubles started soon enough, though. I realized to my dismay that I was beginning to be perceived as a woman. I was mortified. I couldn’t bear it. At the age of thirteen I should have known that nature would inevitably take its course and my body would begin to change. But I had never thought about it. I had believed that being a child on the inside, I would for ever remain a child on the outside as well. That with the power of my childish and childlike soul I would defy nature and live for ever as a girl version of Peter Pan. One day as I was dancing I conceived of a plan and stuck with it diligently for four years. After just a couple of months I started to reap the rewards: my growth stunted, my body stopped getting curvier. I was happy: I was going to remain a girl forever. And our dog was getting chubbier by the day.
It was around that time, that I decided I needed a teacher. The only problem was that nobody knew about my dancing. The dance felt so sacred to me that I was even afraid to utter the word “dance”, lest I take away half of its magic. One rainy afternoon I was sitting in front of the TV, flipping listlessly through the channnels. All of a sudden I saw this grumpy dad in his armchair flying through the roof of his suburban LA home all across the globe, right down to Tanzania. It was such fun! I loved it. I felt the video was made for children just like myself. I loved the next part too: his pre-teen son with shades, an electric guitar and a single black leather glove and his mum, stare at the night sky through the hole in the roof where the grumpy dad hit it and mum says in this serious voice: ” I think, your father’s going to be very upset when he gets back.” And then whoosh back to Africa: wonderfully tall men are seen dancing in a savannah and in their midst is a black man with a white face. Of course I knew who he was. I loved his moves, he was divinity in motion. And I decided right there and then that I might as well learn from the very best.
During the next weeks, months and years I spent hour upon hour upon hour watching his videos, his live performances in concerts. I would study and analyze and dissect his every move. I would tirelessly take notes, describing the exact position of his feet, the angle of his body, how exactly his arm was outstretched, but basically I’d describe just the overall feel of his moves. I’d write something like: Smooth and golden like spreading honey on warm toast. Or: BAM! Angry and aggressive like lightning. It’s important to correctly inhabit every move, if you want the overall feel of the dance to be just right. Then I practiced and practiced and rehearsed until the dances came to me as easily as breathing, really. I was just as comfortable being a pharaoh in Egypt, as I was in a 30s tavern (I don’t like the use of the machine gun, but I love the detective’s concern about Annie and besides this is still one of my very fave choreographies. It’s such great fun and in my opinion one of the greatest music videos of all time).
Sometimes I was Daryl – just a young boy trying to figure out the best way to deal with the violence of the inner city and with peer pressure. Sometimes I danced on the shores of the river Jordan. I knew that on the dance floor I was getting dangerous. 🙂 With time I would just come up with my own little choreographies but mostly I’d just freestyle. I beamed! I felt I was tapping into some ancinet secret, into the magic of expression preceding all words, all language.
And meanwhile my peers grew. And all of a sudden I found myself in grammar school, though I was so absorbed in my dancing, that it took my a while to notice it. Guys that just yesterday were little boys wanted to be men, girls that not long ago skipped rope with their pigtails bouncing up and down at the sides of their heads all of a sudden wanted to look hot and sexy. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to make of it. What I found most disturbing, though, was that they started to hyper-sexualize everything. I wanted to save them all from growing up too quickly. A year later I would read The Catcher in the Rye and I understood: it hurts badly when the kids won’t let you save them, especially when you know what a precious thing it is they are wo willingly leaving behind. My peers talked about having sex, I talked about my plushies and Winnie the Pooh. They talked about getting drunk and getting stoned, flying high and falling low and I talked about the joy of hot milk and freshly baked cookies before bed time. And all of a sudden no one understood anyone. I couldn’t understand how anyone can bin their childhood just like that. I treasured the exuberance, playfulness, creativity, imagination and resilience of childhood more than anything else and I knew that for a long, long time I don’t want to have anything to do with the strange, bleak grown-up world, where there was no magic and no enchantment.
I was perceived as weird, as an oddity and I was myself keenly aware of my overall otherness. I became a loner, a recluse. But as a teenager I was self-confident, I had a lot of pride. And somehow I felt I was right and all the rest were wrong. It never even occurred to me it might have been the other way around. I felt my peers were all messed up, that they had figured it out all wrong. To drink and smoke and be self-absorbed doesn’t mean you’re grown up but it does mean many other things. To be grown up is to be responsible and loving, to be genuinely caring and compassionate. And I was trying my very best to develop these traits. To be a big child doesn’t mean to be childish, but to be childlike, to be playful and joyful and earnest, to love innocent fun, to be exuberant and wildly creative. And I strived with all my heart to keep these things alive in me. I firmly believed that I can have the best of the two worlds: the best of childhood and the very best of adulthood.
As i studied Michael’s dances, I inevitably began to study the artist behind those moves as well as the man behind the artist. Michael was refreshingly childlike but at the same time he was a sophisticated and mature adult. He loved to play with children, to listen to them and he let them explain the world to him; he loved climbing trees and he loved to laugh. But at the same time he took care of his vast financial empire, he orchestrated world tours, he was a musical savant and a music video (short-film) pioneer. But what I admired most in him was his social philosophy. I grew up listening to his social anthems and protest songs. Man in the Mirror is still my favourite song of all times. I especially like his performance with the legendary Andrae Crouch Gospel Choir as well as his performance of the song in Bucharest (Dangerous Tour).
As a child and a teen I firmly believed that the world Michael sang about was a possibility, that it was within our reach. I believed in a world where people live united in love, where there is no division or strife among nationalities, religions, races, between genders, between the rich and the poor. I internalized his messages, his plea for understanding and kindness and they’ve become the fabric of my being.
During his life Michael donated 300 million USD to charities and befriended and helped many (terminally) ill children, of whom best known are Dave Dave (a burn victim), Ryan White (a haemophiliac with AIDS) and the little Hungarian boy Bella Farkas, who needed a new liver to live and Michael and his team wouldn’t rest until they found it. On tours he would personally go and buy a whole van of toys and would then spend the afternoon checking each toy to see it was intact, installing batteries and making sure everything worked just right. After the concert terminally ill children would be brought backstage on stretchers and Michael would hand out the toys, he would sing to the children and encourage them. If it gave them enough extra energy to live one more day, it was worth it to Michael. In every city where he gave a concert he would visit either an orphanage or a hospital. Those were the things that greatly inspired me.
I wanted to be just like him, so I found my own little ways to bring some joy and happiness into this world as well. I realized that even without any money, you can make people happy, you can make them smile. It’s always possible to offer understanding, to give a hug, to squeeze a hand, to refrain from judgement, to send a greetings card, a poem, to buy a Zimtzuckerl for a magician-fiddler on the corner of the street in Vienna.
Many years later I’m still a kid ( and a bit of an adult too). My top three books of all time are children’s books, I love to watch cartoons, listen to lullabies, I love to laugh and be silly and play make-believe. These things save my life every day. I know that without them, the chronic illness would have broken my spirit many years ago. But with a lot of laughter, playfulness, some silliness and a lot of resilience even a disease as horrid as mine can be dealt with. In her insightful book M Poetica: Michael Jackson’s Art of Connection and Defiance, Dr. Willa Stillwater makes an observation along these lines: An amazing thing about children is their resilience. A child living in a poverty-stricken country still wants to play and so does a child with cancer and a child who has experienced tragic personal loss, like the loss of a parent. In such circumstances adults tend to withdraw from life and shut down emotionally, they try to avoid pain, which might be a natural response but often avoiding pain becomes even more numbing than the pain itself and you start dying inside. Children on the other hand remain open to life and despite the harsh facts of their situation retain a spirit of playfulness.
Pablo Picasso felt that every child was an artist but he also acknowledged that it was difficult to remain an artist once you grow up. I have kept the little artist within me alive. When I create I’m at play and play wakes me up, it makes me alive inside and it nourishes me emotionally and spiritually. I cannot dance, of course, but I write little poems and short stories, silly stories and lullabies. The point for me is not to excel, not to be good at it, but simply to give it my all, to lose myself in the joy of doing it. This act of joyfulness can take any form we wish: gardening is an art, cooking is an art, being a manager is an art. There are so many ways to bring some beauty and hapiness into this world. And art is powerful. It can change not only individuals but entire communities (just think of hip hop, the power of which transformed violent inner cities into places brimming with creativity). It can change the world.
I’m reluctant to publish this post because I’m uncomfortable with it being so personal. But I’ll do it still, because I want it to be a tribute to the magic of childhood, to the transformative power of art and the man who was Music Incarnate and a serious artist to the very being of his core. He extended his art to the way he lived his life and inspired me to try and do the same. To try and live more musically, to move gracefully and beautifully through ups and downs of my life, just like a dancer.
p.s: Photos of Michael were taken from Michael Pictures. Thank you.