Seven Questions for Pico Iyer: Build It, They Will Come


This summer, we are greatly excited to have an amazing travel writer and philosopher at the Chicago conference. While Pico Iyer may not seem a typical choice for the dance field, over the next seven days, we will unveil a little about his thought process, and why he is exceptionally relevant to us as we move toward the next decade. Members of the Dance/USA Board formulated seven questions for Iyer to ruminate on. His responses over the next week are truly thought-provoking and inspiring. We hope you will join us in Chicago to continue this conversation.

In addition, we have asked several members of Dance/USA and the Board to provide their personal take on our four program envelopes at the conference: Management, Artistry, Technology and Audience Engagement. In coming weeks these articles will help get you ready for our conference.

Q. We’re facing some rough economic and political waters in the arts. In the face of such rough waters, shall we: A) focus on changing our structures/organizations/support systems for dance in order to protect the art itself from needing to adapt; or do we B) support the art in adapting to our current realities?

A. That of course is the critical, and unanswerable, question, now more than ever: how to balance the needs of the soul with those of the world and how to follow one’s dreams without leaving reality behind altogether. It’s so easy to follow one’s art to the exclusion of all else, and end up with mere indulgence; it’s so easy to tailor it to society’s demands and end up with mere compromise.

At the same time, as Cyril Connolly said decades ago, it can be better to have your soul (and little audience) than to have an audience and no soul. If you are an artist—dancer or musician or writer—you’ve essentially committed yourself to satisfying your imagination and not your bank-account, and the only reason to pursue your discipline is to go places you could not go otherwise, and to find and then deepen, challenge, expand your inner world. So for me the first priority with any art must be self-expression; and if that is strong enough or distinct enough—as it can be with anyone—the audience will follow along with it. Whether it’s Virginia Woolf or Picasso or, no doubt, Nijinsky, the artist is the one who travels so deeply into herself that the world finds itself leaving its presumptions behind and entering a similar state of depth and concentration.

In order to live in the world, one has to make sacrifices: to support the writing that I love, I have to write as many as ten articles a week, often on subjects that don’t thrill me. And in order to support my family and those around me, I have to take on assignments that I’d never consider in a perfect world. But I do that always with a view to the fact that this is the payment required in order to pursue something much more substantial and inward; it’s the price of admission to the life of my dreams.

The purpose of dance, of any art, is to offer the world what it does not have enough of otherwise; so compromise, capitulating to the world, makes no sense at all. Do what you can to pay the bills, so that you can do what you love to settle some higher and more invisible account. The most important thing, I believe, is to try to live without regret and to ensure, as Thoreau so memorably had it, that you don’t die feeling that you never lived. If your art brings you fewer resources than another job, live more simply—and find, perhaps, that having fewer needs, as Socrates famously said, is even more conducive to happiness than having more things. And if your art is strong, it will strike the right chord in a stranger at some time, in some life-changing way. Build it and they will come.

Born in Oxford, England, to parents from India, Pico Iyer was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, while officially growing up in Southern California. He is the author of seven works of non-fiction, including Video Night in Kathmandu (cited on many lists of the best travel books ever), The Lady and the Monk (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in the category of Current Interest) and The Global Soul (subject of websites and theatrical productions around the world). He has also written the novels Cuba and the Night and Abandon. For a quarter of a century, he has been an essayist for Time magazine, while also writing constantly on literature for The New York Review of Books, on globalism for Harper’s, and on many other topics for venues from The New York Times to National Geographic. His most recent book, The Open Road, describing more than 30 years of talking and traveling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, came out in a dozen countries, and was a best-seller across the U.S. He has been based for the past 20 years near Nara, in rural Japan, though he is still often to be found making stops everywhere from North Korea to Ethiopia, and from Bolivia to Easter Island.
Photo: Pico Iyer at the Dalai Lama's temple in Dharamsala

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