Princeton Arts Profiles

Breaking the Rules; Finding the Meaning

The goal is not to be correct, but to create meaning, communicate that meaning, and hopefully find personal fulfillment in the process.   

grace-2“Where is the movement? You must show movement!” I have taken off my headphones to ask the professor for feedback as she wanders the room. Together we stare at the bright dabs of paint forming a dancer’s body on my canvas.   

It is a painting of myself performing with Expressions Dance Company, the oldest student dance group on campus. The saturated lights form a pink and blue gradation along the musculature of my legs, and long shadows leak from my feet. The original photograph is by an alumnus who left his primary job and has made himself the resident photographer for the company. I want to recreate the photograph with paint. But how can I create movement on a still, flat surface?   The syncopated pulse from my headphones lures me back into the dance.   

Before an eager audience, my hips swivel in a wide circle. I am a marble flicked by a finger and sent rolling around the rim of a wide bowl. My upper body reverberates; it, too, is affected by this outside being. It punches me in the stomach causing my abs to contract and me to fall backwards and away from the dark sea of my peers. Will they notice that I have lost control?   

Muscle memory catches me and sends me slowly sinking into a plié while my right arm glides up my torso. A sense of calm ensues as I fixate on my rising hand floating toward the ceiling. Goodbye hand. I study it as it goes, my hips dropping lower with each pulse. I am drowning into midterms week and reaching for help. Beaten down by finance networking sessions and fighting shamelessly for the job offer. As my body simultaneously sinks and grows I wonder, Will it snap? But when it reaches its peak I forget my day-to-day worries and actually feel I have reached my full potential. Through dance I escape. Through dance I accomplish.   

This is the moment portrayed on my canvas. In high school I would have been satisfied, but at Princeton, to recreate is not enough. I have mastered the rules and played by them, but I have not yet broken them. The canvas is still motionless.  It took the duration of the painting course to realize that likeness to myself had no correlation with the success of the work. Technique, too, was a variable I could remove from the regression. My painting professor was not looking for a correct copy, just as my modern dance company showed only moderate respect for the ballet forms that I once thought were law.   

In both academic and extracurricular life, people at Princeton assume I know the rules and then ask me to abandon them. The goal is not to be correct, but to create meaning, communicate that meaning, and hopefully find personal fulfillment in the process. The arts at Princeton have taught me to push a work beyond its physical reality, and as the canvas danced away from me, and as the tension between my hips and hand increased to the point where I thought my body might break, I felt a level of joy and purpose not easy to attain in other areas of my life.