Dance Dance Revolution

Pain and sacrifice are needed to be a good collaborator. You must check your ego at the door, give yourself fully to a new collective identity, learn how to give and take, choose trust over distrust, be ready to fail, and commit to the unfurling nature of process.

It is worth it.  A good partnership brings fresh inspiration, useful limitations and a supportive structure. The pushback of collaboration can carry you to places you never might have traveled to on your own. Most importantly, its challenge provides great training for any kind of creative intelligence.

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If collaboration is boot camp for creativity, then post-modern dance is boot camp for collaboration. In 1972, a dancer named Steve Paxton and a handful of his friends at Oberlin College got together, rolled around, hurled themselves at each other, practiced falling and improvised their way to a radical new dance form. They called their invention “contact improvisation”, which Paxton described as

“the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion—gravity, momentum, inertia. The body, in order to open to these sensations, learns to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain quality of willfulness to experience the natural flow of movement”.

Contact Improv (as it is often called), is a movement language that emphasizes responsive reflexes and generates choreography from the alchemy of bodies in contact with one another. Paxton’s experiments with this mindful movement of the body turned traditional dance on its head and laid the groundwork for postmodern dance as we know it today. Contact Improv has qualities both edgy and raw as well as smooth fluidity. Its influences are apparent in the work of Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and many many other seminal choreographers.

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My first introduction to all of this was in college in the nineties. My friend Abby insisted that I come to her contact improvisation workshop. Nervous to be out of my element, I was relieved to find myself in creative paradise. This was not the “five, six, seven, eight, chasse, two, three, four, and keep it pointed six, seven, eight…” sort of dance I had been accustomed to. Not at all. This was playful, unselfconscious and gloriously body positive.  We experimented with finding true responsiveness to touch and impulse, weight bearing and giving, and moving as a single entity.

Contact Improv is fantastic practice for becoming a solid collaborator. Yet, as Paxton points out, it is important to remember that we are always collaborating with something. Even when alone.

“Solo dancing does not exist: the dancer dances with the floor: add another dancer and you have a quartet: each dance with the other and each with the floor.”


CREATIVE PROMPT: SMALL DANCE

Steve Paxton created an exercise called “Small Dance”. It helps you to feel creatively attune, relaxed, and to realize that you are constantly collaborating with your body, gravity and the floor.

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Further reading and resources:

I highly recommend seeking out a class or jam session. Contact Quarterly has a directory of teachers and centers. Take it from me, you do not need to be an expert to engage in this practice.

American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History by Margaret Fuhrer, traces that richly complex evolution of Dance in America.  From Native American dance rituals to dance in the digital age, American Dance explores centuries of innovation, individual genius and collaborative exploration.

 

Contact Improvisation by Cheryl Pallant.
In most forms of dancing, performers carry out their steps with a distance that keeps them from colliding with each other. Dancer Steve Paxton in the 1970s considered this distance a territory for investigation. In this book the author draws upon her own experience and research to explain the art of contact improvisation, in which dance partners propel movement by physical contact.

Georgia O’Keeffe, her barrel of bones, and finding your thing

Art fairs are now everywhere, all the time.  The pressure is always on, and I think I should move my studio to Siberia or the desert.

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Georgia O’Keeffe found her escape from the noise when, in her forties, she discovered the Great Southwest. Already a successful painter who was recognized for her closely framed flowers, O’Keeffe sought new subject matter and distance from a complex romance with photographer Alfred Steiglitz. In 1929 she found in New Mexico what she described as:

such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’

She would spend the next decade traveling back and forth from New Mexico to New York and Lake George. Eventually she made a permanent relocation to Abiquiú, where she would live and paint until her death at 98.

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For me, the magic of O’Keeffe lies in opposites. Joan Didion described her as “simply hard”, and copious photo documentation concurs- she is American’s Marlboro Woman. Her radiant paintings, however, with their wavering forms evoke the very softest of experiences. Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: blunt and the same time swept away by mystery; solo and yet entwined with lovers. When speaking of her art she managed to be mystical and contrarian all at once and when making art she found the infinity by zeroing in.

Georgia’s mind reveals to us that the ineffable and the concrete are not in conflict. In her own beautiful words

“abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can clarify in paint.”

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New Mexico was her place. The land felt right, the light felt right, and the beauty resonated with her deeply. She tooled around in a Model A Ford, which also doubled as a painting studio, and took frequent rambling walks.  O’Keeffe began collecting skulls, bones and pieces of the desert that she could take with her. By the end of her first few summers there, she had filled the Ghost Ranch windowsills with feathers and finds. She had also amassed a barrel of bones, which became the source materials for her series of iconic bone paintings.

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It seems that  world has always pined to see her work through Freudian and symbolic lenses: wanting to understand her flowers as sexual, and her skulls as morbid and so on. Georgia rejected all that.  In this inspiring video Georgia O’Keeffe sets the record straight about the story of the bones:

“People think they are about death.  They are not about death.  They are simply shapes that please me.”


This creative exercise, inspired by Georgia’s barrel of bones, is about careful observation of shape and form.  It is also about discovering inspiration and paying homage to what simply pleases you.

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FIND YOUR THINGS: A COLLECTION OF SHAPES

  1. Select a home for your collection- window sill, dresser top, shelf etc.
  2. Think about a type of objects pleases or interests you- bottles, feathers, wires etc.
  3. Keep a look-out for these things – in your house, on the street, in the woods
  4.  Build a collection over time
  5. Admire your objects. Look closely, relish the peculiarities, enjoy the whole
  6. Take a picture of your collection and share it #TCHCollection or email to thecreativehours@gmail.com

 

Further reading:

Georgia by Dawn Tripp, A recently released work of historic fiction that paints a picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s early life, her romantic involvement with Alfred Stieglitz and her journey against odds to establish herself as an independent and successful artist.

 

 

Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity, produced by the Portland Museum of Art, this book brings together a lifetime of portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe from artists and photographers including: Warhol, Stieglitz and Webb.

 

 

Portrait of an Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle,
Georgia O’Keeffe, an excellent biography of one of the most original painters America has ever produced, who left behind a remarkable legacy when she died at the age of ninety-eight. Her vivid visual vocabulary had a stunning, profound, and lasting influence on American art.

HAIL CAESAR, and how we get great ideas

Last night I attended a special screening of the Coen Brothers’ brilliant new flick, Hail Caesar. Ethan Coen was there for a Q&A following the film.  What a gift. I love the Coen Brothers, whose films have included Barton Fink and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, True Grit and Fargo, to name a few. Their movies always serve up nostalgic charm laced with poetic/pathetic humor and philosophy. Hail Caesar certainly delivered. Set in the 50’s in a fictionalized movie studio, starring George Clooney, Josh Broden and Scarlett Johansen, Hail Caesar is a frivolous caper in which a pupu platter of Hollywood genres are joyously jumbled. Run to the theaters ASAP if you haven’t seen it already. If you loved  Singing In The Rain, this movie is for you.

Singing in the Rain

It is always great to hear an artist talk about process and the creative life. As Ethan was describing the nature of his collaboration, the inception of Hail Caesar, and how he and his brother had come up with the idea for the film, I had an epiphany for The Creative Hours: We back into our big ideas. Ethan and Joel had a funny image in their heads. A pleasing lark. A tickle, a spark. They imagined a dashing and bewildered guy in gladiator regalia, sitting in a swank mid century pad on the California Coast sipping a Mai Tai. That image, which made Ethan and Joel crack up, is the seed from which the film started. The Coen Brothers did not set out to make a profound movie about movies, or a philosophical comedy. They did not start with an outline or an agenda. They started with a nonsensical shard of an idea.

There are a lot of scientific methods out there on how to be creative. Creativity has become a business. However, in all the brainstorming, mind-mapping, Post-it™ laden pedantics, I have noticed a gulf between innovation strategies and how most artists arrive at great ideas and creations.

Creative people understand the wisdom of intuition. A million visions may appear each day, but occasionally one stands out. Why?  It is hard to say…it just seems promising.  It is what we are in the mood for–even if we have no idea what awaits. Trusting our senses, we follow the trail and let the map unfold as we go. Eventually the big idea makes itself known and in the end we arrive, surprised at how we got there.

We do not build our great ideas from the big idea up. Often stellar and complex ideas are backed into by trusting a spark of imagination. Let your mind wander, start small, trust the path, and go see Hail Caesar!

Further Reading:

 

Interviews with the Coen Brothershttp://www.amazon.com/Coen-Brothers-Interviews-Conversations-Filmmakers/dp/1578068894/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&qid=1456545695&sr=8-1&keywords=coen+brothers+interviews&linkCode=li2&tag=&linkId=acfebea2f6f0ad9b78aa9553f68c613d, from the Conversations with Filmmakers series.