I had an honest-to-goodness life changing experience this morning. So much so that I’m actually grateful to the dog for waking me up at 4:30 a.m. (I wasn’t at the time…)
Because I had a few hours before the rest of the family was going to be up it was the perfect time to watch a movie that I had saved for just me. No one else wanted to watch it so I settled in as the sun was peeking over the horizon and hit play on Michael Jackson’s This Is It.
Like every other person in the world who was a teenager in the 80s, Michael Jackson was an integral part of my overall coming-of-age experience. I remember seeing him first do the moonwalk on the Motown 25 special and the gatherings of friends for weeks afterwards trying to figure out how it was done and practicing on the kitchen linoleum. I remember my brother and I being overjoyed that we were asked to babysit on the night that the Thriller video premiered on MTv because that family had cable. I remember sitting on the bed in my friend’s room as we took turns re-enacting the dances from the Beat It, and Billie Jean, and trying to discern what MJ was saying during the Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ breakdown part. We all loved him and felt fiercely connected to him somehow.
Anyway, I started watching this movie, which chronicles the rehearsals for what was to be Michael Jackson’s 2009 London concert titled “This Is It.” He died 18 days before the first concert date and most of the footage in the film is the rehearsals. It’s a fascinating look at all of the many parts that have to come together flawlessly to put on such a spectacular and extravagant performance and I was left feeling the weight of the tragedy that a show of this magic and magnitude would never actually be seen.
But that’s not what struck me the most deeply. What caught my attention throughout the entire movie was that every single person involved in the production – the dancers, the singers, the musicians, the lighting crew, the stage crew, the sound guys, the special effects team – EVERYONE was performing his or her task at 100%. There was an electricity in the air that was almost palpable through the television screen. Everyone was working at their highest level, fulfilling their true potential, and it seemed as though each cog in the wheel was feeding off of every other person’s exhilaration and enthusiasm.
Of course every single member of the show crew was thrilled and honored to be working with Michael Jackson and Kenny Ortega (director of the concert as well as the ultimate film) but even so, I was amazed at how everyone was completely immersed in their tasks, fueled by the common goal of making a phenomenal, unique, transcendent form of art through music and dance.
I was especially awed by the dancers. Not only were they highly skilled (and chosen specifically by Michael himself) but during each rehearsal that I saw, they were always performing at heightened show level. Often times while practicing people will do the steps without facial expressions or emotions. Or musicians will play the songs as written but save their improvisations and energy for the performance, or dress rehearsal. But all of the performers were working HARD, holding nothing back, sweating and fighting for breath at times, as if the audience was filled with thousands of screaming fans, instead of a few crew members scattered around on the stadium floor. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Now, it was made very clear in the film that MJ always gave his 100% and more in everything he did and he even made a speech about asking everyone to continue giving him their ALL as the rehearsals led up to the show. This was the expectation and everyone rose up to what he demanded. But this got me thinking a few things…
I thought about why I have often felt exhilarated after seeing a live performance, especially of something musical. I remembered being taken (reluctantly) to see The Lion King on stage and when it was over I literally had the feeling in me that I wanted to be a better person. The show truly touched me to my core and made me want to excel more in my life. I have had similar feelings after seeing other Broadway shows as well as live musical performances. I believe that this is the true purpose of art – to awaken something inside of ourselves that stirs up creativity and the desire to make something more of ourselves. I know people can get this from experiencing visual art and reading exceptional writing as well. This is the magic of live performance, when everyone is focused on the same goal of uplifting and transporting an audience while they are passively sitting in the dark.
It also makes clear why there have been times when I have NOT had those transformative emotions kindled within me. A few of these come to mind: I saw an opera singer perform a live one-woman show (not an opera with a libretto – her show was a collection of songs she chose) once and while her voice was lovely, there was no emotion behind the performance. She simply sang song after song, with excellent diction, good intonation, well choreographed hand motions…but the whole thing left me feeling kind of empty inside. It didn’t inspire anything – it was almost like witnessing something happening two-dimensionally. It was technically fine, but there was nothing energizing or galvanizing about it.
I also remember seeing a fantastic Broadway show with the original cast. It was toward the end of most of the leading players’ run, it was a matinee, and everyone just seemed tired and lackluster. I don’t blame them – it is incredibly difficult to sing, dance, act, change costumes, remember lines, remember blocking, keep in synch, and do your best performance at absolutely full capacity 8 times a week. Believe me, I get how hard that is. And although I enjoyed the show, I noticed that I did not feel the same euphoria and spark within me when it was over. The performers were “calling it in.” Which honestly is probably fine for most of the show attendees. But it wasn’t for me.
The same goes for when you see professional athletes not performing up to their full potential in a game. It’s also why when these competitors DO give it their utmost all, the stadium comes alive and people cheer their hearts out for the full-on, leave-it-all-on-the field atmosphere that I believe we strive for at events like that.
I myself am a performer and in the early part of my career I was always worried about something. Number one was usually was how I looked (which was always not good enough). I was also concerned with how I sounded, if the audience was going to like it, if the sound was going to work, if the show was going on too long, and even things beyond my control like he temperature of the venue, the well-being of my musicians, and whether or not we were going to be asked to perform our encore. I was consumed by all of these what-ifs and those never really allowed me to be fully present and enjoy the splendor of what was being created spontaneously in those moments of time and space. I was never fully comfortable, never truly giving it my all, and I’m sure it showed in my performances. I doubt the audience ever had any inkling, especially because they all seemed to be having a rollicking good time, but my incredibly perceptive and loving husband would tell me afterwards, “I could tell when you let go and started enjoying yourself.” I would always be like, “Really?” And he would answer, “Yeah, it was at this point (and he would tell me where, which was usually about halfway through the third to last song) when I you finally relaxed and became part of the music.”
I saw this “becoming part of the art you are creating” while watching the dancers and musicians backing up Michael Jackson in this movie. There was no worrying about if the steps were right or if they were playing the right notes. It was all about being in the exact moment, feeling the here and now and being a full part of it, even in rehearsal. No one was phoning anything in, all of their energy was focused on the present and the contribution they were making to build something far greater than the sum of its parts.
I wonder if we can live our lives this way. Not just while we’re performing, but in everything. When we’re talking with our kids, can we be fully present with them, listening and paying attention at full capacity, rather than have our minds focused on the laundry we still have to do and the bills that need to be paid. While we’re working on a document for work, can we devote our energies to that task only, pouring all of our efforts into it instead of stopping every few minutes to check email or answer texts. When we’re doing anything that requires our attention – mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, cleaning the garage, cooking dinner, watching a movie, talking with friends, planning a family get-together, etc. etc. – what would happen if we did those things 100%, full-bore, and holding nothing back? Would we feel more satisfied? More fulfilled? More successful?
I think so. And what if we approached our creative endeavors with the same concentrated energy and devotion? What incredible and innovative masterpieces could we create? What new goals could we accomplish? What new heights could we attain?
I know that for me the times of being self-conscious and suppressed are over. Those dancers and performers showed me the beauty and magnificence of what can happen when a mind, body, and spirit can all come together to fully experience and inhabit limitless intentional energy and connection. They showed me that when you give 100% the mistakes don’t matter. The wardrobe doesn’t matter, the sound doesn’t matter, and the end result doesn’t even really matter. What matters is the doing and the accomplishing and the feeling that you couldn’t have possibly given any more.
“I would ask you to give me your all. This is the moment. This is it. God bless you.” – Michael Jackson