Jill Johnson Quote

Commencement Address

Jill Johnson, Dance Director, Harvard University and NBS Alumna

To the graduating class of 2018:
Today, we honor you, because now you will write our history in art. And you will write art into our history.  
Everyone here has told you what they know. And what they know is now yours. 
Now, you will look to the world for inspiration, and it will look to you for the same. 
 
Have you ever watched a bird sing? They put a lot of effort into it. Our first music came from birds, from nature. Birds taught us to sing and dance and defy gravity—none more than our beloved, operatic Canada geese. Watching the geese fly between warmer and colder climates in V formation, traveling, I’m reminded of a dance company: though each bird is different, each flying improvisationally, they can appear from the ground to be moving in one sweeping motion toward the horizon in the same direction, synchronized by instinct.
 
The poet Mary Oliver’s masterpiece is called Wild Geese. It goes like this:
 
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees, 
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
 
Welcome to the family.
 
The poem’s first line, “you do not have to be good” is a provocation, and can be troublesome. We all want to be good, especially when others have shown us the consequences of behaving badly. But my read on this particular line of Mary Oliver’s poem is this: you do not have to obey. 
 
To be clear, I am not advising graduates to break any laws except, perhaps, the laws of gravity.  
 
But I am suggesting this: gone are the days that demand a dancer’s blind obedience. And with that evolution comes an artist’s profound responsibility—to be a guardian of art, and also to be a citizen of the world. 
 
You, the new artists, can help enlighten those who would reject the social contract, deny science, defy ethics, offend decency and celebrate mediocrity.  
 
If entertainment reflects our world, art challenges our worldview. This is not to say one is better than the other, nor that entertainment can’t be arty, or art be entertaining. But there is a difference. 
 
And where art meets entertainment is true pop: it is Swan Lake and Revelations; it is Beethoven’s 5th and BeyoncĂ©. It’s Mercy, Mercy, Me, it is Give Peace A Chance, it is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. “The revolution will be live!”*
 
Here is why we need artists like you: on those occasions where opinion is confused with fact, where entertainment is confused with art, the dancer articulates ideas for which there are no words. We go beyond. 
 
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The quest to perfect your art will fuel you for a lifetime, but remember that perfectionism is a trick played by the ego. Cultivate discernment, empathy, curiosity and radical optimism. Don’t get too attached to your own ideas, and never allow your prejudices to be your conviction.
 
You have been given the gift and the privilege of one of the worlds best dance educations, one that will facilitate your greatness. Each of you has a singular voice. You can and you must use it, together, in a polyphonic celebration of “soulcraft.”**
 
Even when you are challenged by the most rigorous choreography, the most demanding physicality, the most daunting travel and performance schedules, as many here will be, you need only turn inward, to listen, to be guided by the moral compass and passion for artistic creation that has led you thus far. Then, with humility, turn outward, and rejoice in the clear sky of opportunity you now inherit. 
 
We need you to fly above us now, to fly away to discover new places and stories. Then, bring back what you find, tell us your story from an aerial view, and remind us we are all alive at the same time. 
 
You've learned the rules. Now it is up to you when to follow the rules, and when to shatter them. Keep telling the truth of the natural world with the human body. Archive and curate your work. Test the limits of your creativity in how you practice and perform, and know those limits. Collaborate freely and generously with your trusted colleagues. Teach and learn from them, firm in the knowledge that art is not a competition. 
 
We cherish you. We treasure your wonder. We applaud your perseverance. We welcome you to this world of art. 
 
Now you go. We’ll be watching! Fly as far as you can.
 
Sources:
Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese.” Dream Work, The Atlantic Monthly Press (1986.)
 
* Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” From the album A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970.)
 
** Dr. Cornell West