General Musings: The play’s the thing

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
– Carl Jung

As I often explain to my young (and not-so-young) charges and to others I encounter in my employment, a large part of what I do each day is not so much connected to the teaching of material (ie sequences of movement to be replicated by a class of students). Rather, my focus is often guiding students in their own compositions, helping them create material effectively and passing on the tools of choreography as well as the technique of dance. But what exactly does this mean in practice?

There are (broadly speaking) two ways in which one can lead a creative workshop. One approach would focus on the skills of composition – the shaping and refining of material into a structure. In songwriting terms, this would probably involve a verse/chorus type structure. If it were a choreography workshop, we would look at ways of shaping material using compositional devices (unison, canon, contrast) and motif structure (ABA, ABC and the like). There is of course value in teaching compositional structure as a set of skills – the structure of a piece governs the relationship of the audience to the material, and good composition presents material to its best advantage. Most students need to learn structural tools in order to create effectively.

But structure is not the only thing that might be taught in a creative workshop. Students also require guidance on how to create material in the first instance. Unless we subscribe wholly to the Romantic principle (with which I have never had much truck) of inspiration as some kind of semi-divine, unconscious experience that rises up before the artist and drops a poem/painting/global Number 1 hit into his or her brain fully-formed, then it is always artistic good practice to find new ways of creating material from an idea or mood.

The bolt from the blue is nice when it happens, but I think it’s also important to recognise that inspiration (rather like intuition, as argued by Malcom Gladwell) is as much a product of experience and learning to recognise an idea that works as it is unconscious “inspiration” in the Romantic sense – maybe even more so. We can certainly learn to recognise the good idea when it comes, by playing with as many ideas as possible and seeing what happens. New ideas for the creative processes can be introduced in a workshop, just as structural and compositional ideas can be. Sometimes the most satisfying learning experiences can come from somebody outside of ourselves suggesting a new starting point and offering feedback, leaving the rest of the exploration to us.

What might this play look like? To begin a new creative strategy, an artist might set themselves a particular challenge that forces them to think in a new way – like translating a phrase of movement 90 degrees around the body to create a new movement vocabulary; or creating a phrase on the floor, then translating it to a standing phrase; or deliberately choosing different body parts to begin with. A student with lots of ballet training, who often uses upright movements and classical balances, could be challenged to create a phrase entirely on the floor. A student with a jazz or street-jazz background who uses lots of isolations could begin with a pathway rather than a series of actions, and find new ways to fill the space. We might simply start from a different place – beginning with the end of a motif, or working up from the rhythm rather than down from the melody.

There comes a point (or points) during a career where it’s important to throw out everything you thought you knew and have a stab at something that’s completely new and rather uncomfortable. I think it’s important to embrace the idea that the resulting work might not immediately be your best, but you can learn new things in the process that carry your creative work forward. Artists of all forms with successful careers often show distinct periods following a particular development or paradigm shift – whether the artist is Picasso moving from Impressionism to Cubism, or U2 changing tack from The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby. Artists who don’t experiment and embrace new processes tend to stagnate and produce work that, however well-crafted, feels very samey.

Deliberately deconstructing one’s usual working practice in order to find new ways of making can be extremely challenging, especially if one has found a comfortable and familiar process that seems to work. But the results can be extremely satisfying.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

– Scott Adams , ‘The Dilbert Principle’

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