University of Oregon Commencement Talk

Ann Rodiger was honored to speak at the University of Oregon commencement ceremony for the School of Music and Dance on June 13, 2009, having received a Distinguished Alumni Award. Several colleagues, students, and friends have requested that we post the talk on the Balance Arts Center blog, so here it is!

Thank you and congratulations to the graduates and your families. I am very honored to be invited to speak with you today. It is wonderful to be back on the U. of O. campus and see all of the growth and expansion that has been going on here.

So, what’s next? I’m sure the question is on the table for many of you. Some of you may be clear about your plan of action and some of you may giving yourself some time before you make definite plans.

I would like to use a short article written by FM Alexander entitled “About Golf” as a jumping off point for some thoughts that may be of help to you no matter where you are at the moment. Alexander, who was a movement educator, talks about how, frequently, golfers are told to “keep their eyes on the ball,” and even though they know how important it is to keep their eyes on the ball, they still seem to loose eye contact with the ball at critical moments during a swing. Although none of you will be receiving a degree in golf today, our task is really the same: to keep our eyes on the ball as much as we can.

Our ball, the ball for us as dancers and musicians, takes many forms and comes in many sizes, from the small ball of developing and refining our skills to the much larger ball of our overall purpose.

A small ball, for instance, might be:
1. feeling the weight of the violin bow and then using the right amount of effort to move it across the string
2. working on the initial movement of the foot in a tendu and following through the metatarsals to pointed foot
3. or finding the suspension of your breath before you sing a phrase

A middle sized ball might be:
1. expanding your field of awareness and
2. understand how to connect with the other players in a string quartet or the other dancers in your piece of choreography.

And a very large ball, which is the most important ball, is to keep our overall global purpose in mind and remember what we have to offer as performing artists.

In looking at this largest ball I think we are all very fortunate to have found a profession that we ourselves are passionate about and enjoy participating in. And, we have found a profession that has the direct potential to be uplifting and life changing for many other people. We are involved in providing opportunities for people to step away from their daily lives to gain a different perspective on whatever is happening in their lives at that moment.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This event was comprised of four evenings of opera, sometimes up to six hours each night, within one week. As we, the audience, were taken on a journey through this long tale, I felt myself and saw others around me being washed again and again by the sounds of the orchestra and voices. Everyone around me was moved and touched very deeply by the experience, at all levels - the physical, emotional, intellectual and the spiritual. That is the potential that each of us in the performing arts has to offer to others.

In order to offer this transforming experience to others we have to be clear and honest with ourselves as to our individual focus and motivation. We have to know what our ball is, so we can keep our eyes on it! We need to find out what is important to us as composers, choreographers, performers, and educators, what motivates and inspires us. Where is the juice? What is essential? What is it about operating in the non-verbal, aural and kinesthetic senses that is attractive to us and is so vital?

I invite you to look underneath your immediate response to that question and to explore what is at the core of your personal ball. There is no doubt that there is something underneath your initial response that is a driving force. Steadfastly pursuing this understanding is what is going to lead you to whatever comes next. It will allow you to take what you have learned and experienced here at the University of Oregon and guide you to something very satisfying.

Let’s return to the golfer. The golfer’s aim is to get the ball onto the green and into the hole, ultimately in one stroke. The strong stimulus of this goal can sometimes become a trap, in that the desire to achieve the goal creates habits that limit the choices the golfer makes. Taking his eyes off the ball happens again and again because the golfer doesn’t recognize that there are other choices he or she can make to accomplish the goal. Perhaps he repeats his habitual actions more forcefully and in a more entrenched way as he thinks that is the only way it is going to work. This is what gets the golfer in to trouble. He doesn’t realize that he has to be available to make new choices as he sets up the shot, addresses the ball and takes the swing, choices that might even feel wrong or unfamiliar or unknown.

This same principle applies to us. We need to allow ourselves to be flexible, creative, and open to new approaches, to our desires and aspirations. Alexander is asking us to suspend for a moment our knee jerk responses to what we want to do. Stop the automatic pilot. In other words, don’t just whack the ball. Pause and take a moment to notice what you are about to do and see your various choices and possibilities.

I didn’t know what the Alexander Technique was, or even that it existed, when I left the University of Oregon, and I had no idea I would be practicing it now in New York City. By following what I love to do and sticking with that, I found my way to a profession that incorporates all the things that I find to be juicy: movement and dance, sound, vibration, the “ah ha” moment of understanding, discovery, and expansion. I now work with dancers, singers, musicians as well as others, including golfers, with their awareness in action. I work with their whole being to refine their thinking and movement coordination so they can best express themselves and accomplish their goals with more ease, balance, and fluidity.

In closing, let’s look again at what we offer as performing artists: our largest ball.

We create the space and time for people to learn, grow and connect with themselves at the deepest levels, to understand at that unspoken essential, vibrational place where we all connect as a whole. As we stay in touch with and hold that field of awareness, we create situations where others can find that flow and experience the field it creates for them. This is the field of possibility and creativity, and the field where one can experience his or her essential being-ness. This awareness is invaluable. You have a wonderful stance from which to start and the skills to make a difference in your own life and the lives of many others.

Keep going. Keep learning, keep practicing and going to class. Keep reflecting, recommitting, and reconnecting with the essence of what you do and what you want to achieve. Keep your eyes on the ball as you take you next swing, and remember your purpose for doing so, as that will sustain you through whatever comes your way.