The Ego of Performance

Posted on March 16, 2012

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A modified version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring Kindle Fire Arts and Culture magazine from 2009. A limited number of these were printed.

The Ego of Performance

I’ve been watching the unfolding in the flow arts community for the past 9 years and have noticed the most consistent of things in every one I have ever met: we all have egos. You could say it is a performer thing, but the reality is, it goes way beyond that – it is a human thing. Being a performer simply puts our egos in the forefront of our experience because we’re putting ourselves out there – at which to be looked, hopefully admired and eventually, critiqued.

When I was younger, I had mistakenly thought the idea of having an ego was a “bad” thing. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to learn a few things about that thinking. These distinctions I offer to you now.

Ego Is Necessary

Ego is a very necessary aspect to our self-identity. It is the part of us that allows us to individuate – to separate from our parents, our families, our friends and our community. Having a healthy and strong ego allows us to take pride in ourselves, to love ourselves, to get up and look at ourselves in the mirror and appreciate who we see, what we create and how we go about being the person reflected back at us. In that sense, ego is a very necessary part of who we are.

The ego itself helps us sculpt the unique essence within each of us and while it might be true to say we are all the same and we are all one, it is equally true to say we are all different and we are all unique. As my friends the Shamanic Cheerleaders say:

You are a freak… just like everyone else.
You are unique… just like everyone else.

Having the ability to navigate the reality of our simultaneous conditions of sameness and differentiation relies on a healthy and present ego. Our sameness has us recognize that one being has the same inherent right to life as another and that nothing anyone can say or do can take that away from each human. A life is a life and our ego is here to preserve that sense of life. In this way, we are all the same.

Now the other side of this equation — the part about our differentiation — that’s where it seems the challenges begin. It is so easy to be in a space of openness and love for all humanity when we look at each other as a part of our selves and see that we are all one. Yet differentiation is the thing each of us brings to this world that no one else can bring because we are each unique in what we have to offer.

How then do we begin to differentiate ourselves from other people and performers without getting on an ego trip about it?

Facts vs. Opinion

I think the biggest answer to this question comes by understanding the difference between reporting and interpreting. Reporting involves observing what is going on in a situation and giving a detailed account of what one has witnessed. In contrast, interpretation assigns meaning to the things that have been experienced.

To make this more clear, let’s imagine Sally is reporting about a fire dancing show:

I watched a fire dancing show that ran for 2 hours. There were over a dozen acts from around the world and I counted at least 500 people in attendance.

Now imagine Linda giving her interpretation of the same fire dancing show:

I saw a long show with lots of artists and a huge crowd. There were a bunch of performers who are really well known who did a really awesome job.

This table may help illustrate the difference between the two accounts.

Reporting by Sally Interpretations by Linda Thoughts
2 hours Long show Some people may think 2 hours is long; some may not. 2 hours is measurable on a clock and can be mutually agreed to.
Over a dozen performers A bunch of performers When describing performers, what does “a bunch” actually mean? Over a dozen is something that can be counted, and again, mutually agreed upon.
At least 500 people in attendance A huge crowd Again, “huge” is relative and “over 500 people” measurable
Acts from around the world Really well known We can know where the artists are from; when it comes to “well known,” by what standard is this being measured?

After examining the statements, you may begin to notice the general difference between a report – statements of fact that can be confirmed- and an interpretation – opinions based on interpretation of the facts.

Why Reporting vs. Interpreting?

When a person reports what they see without interpretation, it can be very useful feedback for the performer. It can assist the artist in getting an accurate and clear reflection of what their performance looked like. When a person offers an opinion about the performance, it opens up a whole other can of worms. Each of us has our own idea of what works and doesn’t work in performance. Some people prefer to watch an artist who dances, some people prefer to watch an artist that does cool tricks, some people like to watch an artist that creates a spectacle of themselves as they perform.

When we give and get feedback from other artists, it is important to understand the criteria the viewer is using when making their determination about our show. Knowing what the standards are can help us understand the feedback in a way that is useful.

Put differently, if an artist were to say, “He wasn’t very good,” after watching a performer, I have to ask, “Good at what? What were you looking for? What do you value?” Since we all have our own preferences, the opinions we offer are generally based on the preferences we have. The reality is, there is no objective criteria by which all artists can be assessed. Put differently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art is about creating beauty.

I tell my students when they begin studying with me to use self-to-self comparison through time rather than self-to-other comparison to measure their progress. Because each of us is unique, our journey and skills with learning and performance will also vary. It is therefore, in many ways, useless to compare ourselves to others.

On the other hand, comparison to others helps us grow by allowing us to recognize where other people are creating and performing things that we can learn from. By assessing another person’s performance and recognizing what is effective v. ineffective — an assessment of the nature of the experience — we can grow in our own practice.

Ultimately, feedback allows us to grow. It is a necessary part of our process and allows us to see blind spots where we might not have known them to exist. Through a more clear picture of what we are doing in our performances, we can begin to expand our experience and grow in our artistry.

6 Helpful Tips for Giving Feedback

Here are some tips to use when giving other artists feedback.

  • Get permission first. If you are offering feedback to someone else and they are not interested in receiving it, this can create an uncomfortable dynamic and waste time. Be sure that the person you are communicating with actually wants to receive your feedback.
  • Choose your words intentionally. When giving and receiving feedback, remember to differentiate between what is factual (“you only did 7 different moves and you repeated them again and again”) versus opinion (“you don’t do many moves”).
  • Balance the feedback. It is equally important to give critical feedback as it is to give positive feedback. Critical feedback allows artists to grow while positive feedback keeps artists encouraged by their accomplishments so far.
  • Feedback is contextual. That is, the standards by which you offer critical feedback to an artist spinning for 6 months versus 6 years are likely to be different. Consider carefully to whom you are talking and what feedback will be most useful for their current level of skill and experience.
  • Sandwich the critiques. Psychological studies indicate that offering positive feedback, then constructive criticism followed by positive feedback is often the easiest to take in. Think of the positive feedback as the bread and the constructive criticism as the messy stuff in the middle. Just as the bread helps transport the messy stuff in the middle, the positive feedback helps artists take in the critical stuff.
  • Remember the journey. Learning, in any context, is like climbing a mountain. You could focus only on the mountain peak, yet this will only have you focused on the future and the destination. You could also focus only on the view below, yet this will only have you focused on the past and where you have come from. The journey of learning is about balancing your perspective so you keep the destination in site while remembering where you’ve been and always appreciating exactly where you are: on the road of discovery.
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