Le Mot Juste

by Clarinda Mac Low

We’re all sitting together, breathing, bounded by mortality, waiting to be transformed.

Performance is where one minute lasts a lifetime—one moment out of so many, burned into your brain and body and echoing. One moment of transcendence can last an awfully long time. It’s outside of narrative time. It’s stuck in you, and the images recombine into a kaleidoscope of the time-just-after when you suddenly knew you’d been changed.

How do we get there?

In this tangle of time-based art, how do we know when to edit? One powerful simple experience—intensity and process all packed into one small length of time. How do we know what to keep? Writers struggle for le mot juste. Are we struggling to find l’image juste? Or le movement juste? L’experience juste? Here we are, bracketed by inescapable biological time—we have just this much time and no more and we want to make A LASTING IMPRESSION. This question of what to choose to fill our allotted moment, it creates deep anxiety. Why this set of actions in this sequence? What “works?” Is it entirely subjective?

A woman in a pink slip and comfy slippers standing on a square of thin wood in a down spotlight, pouring flour into a metal bowl. The flour creates a cloud in the light and Nina Simone is singing.
There’s two other women dancing in unison downstage and a guy at the side doing something or other and and and. But just that woman pouring flour was enough, more than enough. It contained the feeling-idea that the piece seemed to be looking for (so far as I could tell).

But what do I know? Well, I know that I’ve been putting too much in all my life. If most of the work I’ve made had had some careful surgery it would have been…something. On the other hand of course sometimes too much is just enough and there’s nothing worse than too little. How do we know?

I wish I could pass on some fool-proof algorithm, some formula that leads to the best of all possible moments. I wish I knew it. Or. I’m glad I don’t know it, I’m glad it’s not there to pass on. That struggle, that continual combination of instinct and logic, pruning shears and blanket statements, internal work and outreach, yes and no—that’s the work. That’s the fascination. Figuring it out is what increases your wisdom and makes you grow. And anyway, le moment juste is different every day, as mutable and temporary as the cells that grow and die in us every second.

Note: In honor of the inauguration, please read last month’s blog, all about the Obama moment and the joy of hybrids.

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