The Big Intensive 13th – 18th December 2010 at Sadlers Wells

Thoughts and reflections, drawing some connections in relation to my choreographic practice.

In December, I spent a week at Sadlers Wells, London participating in a project called The Big Intensive. Together with 15 other selected choreographers we spent a remarkable and inspiring week looking closely at how we make, how we view, what we notice, how we make connections, how we overcome stumbling blocks in our creative work. And we did all this in the context of a carefully designed programme of sessions shaped by Emma Gladstone, with the support of an enviable array of amazing artists, and without the pressures of having to produce a ‘thing’. It was a week of thinking and talking and trying ideas and reflecting and not being the leader or the person of responsibility!

Liz Lerman, whose well known critical response process I have been utilising in my own work for the past year, facilitated the first half of the week together with her colleague, John Borstel. It was wonderful to finally meet Liz, and to have the privilege of being exposed to her extremely unique and thorough approach to creating work, and supporting artists to make the best work that they are able to make.

Certainly a central focus for me was on practicing giving and receiving feedback. Feedback being an essential part of the process of creating new work. As much as anything, it was a zooming in on our attention to seeing, to listening, to noticing. I feel that I come away with a much more alert range of observational skills, and a whole stack of tools in my back pocket for practical use in the studio – idea generators, ways to get through problem moments and a far more detailed understanding about the utility of feedback for artist and for viewer.

More particularly I feel that the week provided the space for me to recognise that my strategies for working are as ‘good’ and as valid as any other. Within this supportive environment of thinking and questioning, my understanding of my own process became clearer and I was able to draw together a series of connections, patterns that enable me to work most creatively. In moving beyond the parameters of that week, it is now my aim and my challenge to implement some of that clarity I felt very practically in the process of working – what are the conditions that I need to do my work best? what resonates strongly? what doesn’t? what is essential for me to do my work? what is not? how to create an environment where exciting things can happen?

During the session ‘improvising life’ my attention was drawn to where the turning points in my life have been – were they mostly chance/spontaneous/improvised decisions, or carefully thought and planned decisions? And in this, I started to think about how life unfolds, and in turn how that is so inextricably linked to the art that unfolds. In making connections we can see how a body of work reveals itself through a series of connections and encounters. Chance encounters happen constantly, and we make choices about which we choose to acknowledge – the challenge in creating art work is to know when to grasp the opportunity presented, when to notice and pay attention to it.

If feedback should be about making me want to go back to the studio and work, then what is it that I seek in feedback that will create that desire? In reference to this, I had one clear realisation: what is most useful to me is to be asked a series of pertinent, probing questions (rather than direct critique) that engages me in a dialogue with the questioner/audience/with myself, between me and the work. This enables me to create space/distance with the work so that I can see where the weaknesses are and where changes might be useful. The important thing here is that I find the problems AND the solutions – aided by questioning from outside – rather than being told the problem and given a solution, neither of which come from me. If I receive direct criticism I can find it very difficult to digest without becoming defensive. And it was rightly pointed out that being in a space of defensiveness is a space in which we stop learning. It often feels like a personal assault and I acknowledge that I need to feel safe to make bold choices. In light of this, from feedback, I seek openness, honesty, questioning, integrity and in varying degrees, affirmation. Most of all I seek dialogue, to re-excite me in the rigor of my approach to my line of enquiry – whatever that might be.

Some questions that came up that I think are worth giving consideration to: what is the nature of support? where does the resistance come up? why?

I had an extremely personal response to the session that we had with dramaturg, Ruth Little. She spoke about how the nature of the universe at large operates, and in accordance how the process of creating art is no different. Like life, art observes the generating forces of the universe: always in motion, it is constantly creating and responding to the tension between order and disorder. Relating chaos and complexity, the sciences of change to all humanity and therefore, also all art work, Ruth’s talk struck a deep chord with us all. Humans search for patterns in the chaos surrounding them, indeed almost all neural activity is dedicated to making patterns – creating meaning. And it appears that our universe is rooted in a collection of recurring patterns repeated across all life forms. Yet, whilst humans are always in search of creating pattern, in order to make sense of the world around them, these patterns are only interesting because they also get disrupted.

I was especially excited about this talk, given that the new project I am working on, ‘The Nature of Things‘ looks precisely at this subject matter: dynamic patterning found in organic matter, and what happens when that patterning gets disrupted, changed, put under pressure. As well as re-exciting my interest in the content of my current line of enquiry, Ruth re-affirmed my feelings about how the choreographic structures of the work must also reflect the ideas contained in the content. If the root of motion is non-causal, non-linear, then it makes sense for choreography to also manifest as non-linear. Further, given that all living systems are dynamic and networked – web-like, connected and related (ie non-linear) it seems necessary that this is fully realised in the choreographic structures I devise. Living systems exist in a non-equilibrium state at the edge of chaos. If there was perfect equilibrium, there would be no life. Therefore in order for there to be life, the system needs to be put under pressure, where retaining form requires effort and force. This constant shift between order and disorder creates contrast and variety which is where interest lies. In taking this on board, I see the enormity of the task I have – to create structures/frameworks that are solid enough for the performers and the audience to be able to create enough of an anchor – for the patterns to established enough for them to be recognisable, but simultaneously to give up enough of my control to allow for life to still exist – for the performers to have the autonomy to make active choices in the moment of performance that will put pressure on the system (as a highly sophisticated, and interconnected ecology), that will disrupt, that will create change.

As with good feedback, I was reminded that ripe questions are essential for creative environments. Asking the right question, at the right moment takes you into a place of heightened pressure where many things are possible and nothing is predictable. Go inside that turbulent state and see what you find there. Moments of change are moments of high risk. In this place of risk, we must trust that the body will self organise, just as living systems self organise. The interplay between determinism and chance is where creativity lies.

During a very brief session with composer, Matteo Fargion towards the end of the week, this examination of establishing pattern, and then creating change was raised once more. This time with reference to rhythmic structures. Matteo suggested that a useful question to ask about a section that is causing problems is, is the rate of change changing? If so how is it changing? This can often provide clear indicators about which direction that section needs to move in.

A few hot tips to share: Create the ‘strength’ of the thing. Find its strength until it needs to change. Establish a rhythm before making changes so that there is time for recognition – there is always a tendency to do too much too soon. If you make a change, change two things. It is more noticeable  and keeps the audience with you. ‘Just the material in its strongest form, and then the next’ rather than, ‘all this stuff i can do with my material’.

All of the work that was covered is useful in every corner of life, and I wish that it was a compulsory ‘life’ course for everyone – it clearly reflected my feeling that art is part of life is part of art… For the purpose of this piece of writing, I have focused on just a few of the sessions, and a few of the speakers. Sheela Raj provided an invaluable start to each day – opening our bodies to breath, to the ground, to the sky and to each other. This physical connecting before the talking started each day felt important and nourishing and fitting. I appreciate the insights and thoughts that Martin Creed, Matthew Bourne, Steven Hoggett and Kingsley Jayasekera brought to each of their sessions. And finally I would like to thank all the other members of the group: for the diversity of their thoughts, responses, attitudes, perspectives and experiences.

i come away with a heightened sense of seeing, of noticing. i come away with a desire to get back into the studio and start working. i come away realising that i am always working choreographically, on my ideas, even when i am not in the studio, because all of life feeds the work and is necessary – the studio time is just a more concentrated series of moments in that process – everything that comes before and after is essential also.i come away feeling re-affirmed in my capabilities, with renewed confidence and trust in myself as a maker and a thinker – that my strategies for working creatively are as good as any. i come away thinking that the Big Intensive achieved all that it was seeking to with me!

Thank you.

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