DANCEMAKER and the Creative Process

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The movie Dancemaker is about preeminent choreographer Paul Taylor. Taylor has inspired and created work at the forefront of the 20th century modern dance. The film shows the world of creativity, love for modern dance and how it began, as well as how much physical work and brain work it takes to create a piece of art loved by many around the world.

Taylor takes us into his place of work and shows how he spent nights putting together dance numbers that he could teach his students. But his journey did not start off big and happy. It took a lot of work to create what he has today. He had to start from the bottom and work his way up. And only his faith and love for dancing kept him reaching his goal.

Paul Taylor was born on July 29, 1930 in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. He started a dance company in 1954 and worked with icons like Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Taylor went on to establish a massive repertory with his company and created a distinct, acclaimed mode of choreography in works like “Esplanade” and “Arden Court.” He’s won many honors and awards, including a 1992 Emmy Award.

In the film Dancemaker they show the inside story on how Taylor’s version of modern dance was created. Highlights include:

  • When they premiered in New York. One of the debut pieces was about relationships based on physical attraction.
  • Also, the time they performed in India. Even though the dancers saw massive poverty in India, the Indian people made a fancy stage for them under a huge tent.
  • In India, they performed a dance number for one of their fellow dancers who passed away from AIDS. The music stopped working midway through their performance, but the ensemble used their breathing to remain perfectly in sync. When the music turned back on, they were in exactly the right place.
  • The camera also followed Paul Taylor around the streets of New York City, interviewing him about where all his creativity and ideas come from.

The purpose in watching this documentary was to reflect on the creative process as it pertains to the performing arts versus the literary or language arts. The following includes some of the discussion questions the movie inspired in us, along with Kamillah Muhammad’s and Mrs. O’Donnell’s written responses:

What does a good piece of choreography have in common with a good piece of writing?

KM: Creativity, imagery (interpretations), a storyline of any kind.

OD: Tension, suspense, having the audience/reader engage with a piece is created by specificity in both dance and writing. Attention to detail. Whether it’s attention to the choice of a specific word or the execution of a specific step. All serious works of art don’t just entertain, but comment on human nature in some way. We see that in Taylor’s piece where the dancers move painstakingly slow but don’t quite touch – addressing the struggle to make genuine human connections. In dance, you literally “show” don’t tell to convey these insights, because there’s only movement onstage – no speaking – but writers “show don’t tell” by describing pictures in words

What does this movie teach us about any creative process, whether you’re working with words or with bodies?

KM: The fact that a person can have a dream about something and make it come to life whether it’s transformed into words on paper or with your arms and feet on the dance floor.

OD: Takes me back to the idea that artists, creative people, are people who have found a process that allows them to discover their feelings and ideas on a certain topic. It’s not so much that artists or creative people have that much more to say than anyone else, it’s that they are curious about the world, interested in saying SOMETHING, and they’ve found a process that allows them to discover what they have to say. For some people, that’s dance, for some people that’s writing, for some people it’s both, and more.

Is there any value in make the drafting and brainstorming process more interactive, social, mimicking the collaborative process that is the process of making a dance? If so, how could you do this?

KM: Yes, there is value in brainstorming processes. You make your thought more clear and detailed out. Sometimes when you freely write you miss a lot of important details and your storyline becomes off topic.

OD: One way we have practiced making the writing process more like the dancing making process is to sketch our images before write them, just like a choreographer might use Laban Notation to map out dance formations or a set designer would make a blueprint for the set. Reading aloud your work to yourself is an invaluable tool for a writer. Hearing your own work, especially when someone other than yourself reads it aloud, is similar to a choreographer watching external bodies carry out his “work.” I’m noticing when I’m making these comparisons that the writing process is social and interactive, but it’s just on a much tighter, more minimal scale than dance. But good writers find small ways of making their process more interactive and social because this is essential to any creative process.

What are some differences in the way that pieces of choreography are preserved versus pieces of writing?

OD: With both literature and dance, a certain select, informed group of “experts” decides what is worth preserving and passing down, what belongs to the “canon,” and what isn’t worth reading over and over again. I would argue that the process of preserving literature is more democratic than the process of preserving dance because everyone reads literature in school, and not everyone receives a dance education in school. So you’ve got millions of public school teachers planning their curriculum based on what they think is important to read – arguably, depending on the school, the state, the national system, there is more variance in what children/teens/young adults get exposed to with literature. In dance, it’s a smaller group of people and it takes considerable more work to preserve a dance (real bodies, in real time, being paid for their rehearsal time) so what’s preserved and re-experienced is a smaller body of work? Now, in writing this, I’m not sure. Is this true? What do you think?

Do you see major differences between the way dancers hone their technique and the way writers hone their technique?

KM: Not really, I think that their techniques are similar.

OD: Let’s see… honing technique… to me, means, practicing regularly when you’re often uninspired. Channeling nervous energy (a theme that the dancers discuss in the film). Revisiting, revising. I guess it’s a hopeful lesson – if you’re a dancer, if you’re a musician, if you’re an actor, chances are you have the raw materials to be a good writer. Because you understand the creative process, and what it requires: focus, discipline, vulnerability…

Do you think writing is typically as emotional a process as the process of making dances?

OD: Having experience dancing and writing, I personally don’t experience the act of writing as emotionally as I do the act of dancing. I experience publication as emotionally as I experience dancing. Think about it – any time you rehearse with other dancers and choreographers in a room – it’s like publishing something. Because other people can “see” your work. It raises the stakes from the get-go.

It’s interesting when Paul talks about how hard simply walking onstage is. Have you experienced a moment in writing where the simplest thing is the hardest?

OD: In the movie Paul Taylor describes walking solo from upstage left to center stage as an excruciating process. In writing, I would compare this to writing about universal topics – like love or war. Those topics may seem simple to write about because they have so much inherent drama and conflict, but because they are so universal (like the universal movement of walking), they are really hard to write about well. Often the best writing that amateur writers produce is about really small, specific things – getting at the universal from the side.

A lot of the dance world (as you can see) is recreating old revered works. How do you think the process of inspiration and emulation and paying tribute to other creators works differently or similarly in the writing world?

OD: I believe that one thing amateur writers could benefit from is imitation writing – where they try on the styles of published poets, short story writers, playwrights, creative nonfiction writers, before they work so hard at “developing their own voice.” Maybe this tradition of emulation and tradition is something that writers can borrow from the dance world.

Notice that Paul Taylor says he comes into the studio with a list of numbers, “not knowing what he’s doing.” He is discovering what he wants to say with his dances as he creates the dances. This is what we are striving for as writers. Being comfortable not knowing what we are doing and discovering what’s inside us. How comfortable are you with starting writing before you know what you want to say?

OD: My own experience with writing is that what inspires me is language. Often I come up with a title or a phrase that inspires an idea for a blog post, an article, or a poem. It’s working with the form – vocabulary, syntax – that inspires the content. I lean on language to find out what I want to say.

What are some of the challenges of the dance-making process versus the challenges of the writing process? How are the challenges different? What’s easier/harder about making dances? What’s easier/harder about writing?

OD: I think the layers involved in both creative processes are challenging. First you have to learn the steps, aka, put words to the page. Then you have to self-correct and analyze your own form – whether that means awareness of your own body or awareness of your flaws as a writer. I guess as a writer once you put words to the page the self-correction piece is not easier, but different because you have something external to work with, whereas in dancing you have to self-correct as you dance. You have to identify and apply that self-correction at the same time. Then, in dance, there’s the process of forgetting technique, and performing your piece in the moment, with all attention to the emotion your trying to convey. In writing it’s challenging because you don’t get to just sail through a piece once you’ve practiced it, and embody it. Once you’ve refined it, you just hit post or mail in your manuscript and let others enjoy it.

What other questions about the creative process or comparisons between writing/dance-making did this film spark in you? What other ideas presented do you want to discuss?

OD: Paul Taylor’s personality interests me. He comes across in the film as something of a contradiction – vulnerable, cold, arrogant, insecure, sort of the personality you would expect from a venerable choreographer… I guess I’ve reached the conclusion that all creative people have “strong” personalities in their own ways, to have the drive and passion to create in the first place. What does it mean to have a “strong” personality? How can that look different in different creators? I wonder, are there certain personality traits that are similar among artists?

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