Teaching Not Creating

I spent the afternoon working with students at James Madison University today. I first taught an improv class to 35+ dancers and then started rehearsing the Big Group cast for My ocean is never blue - which will combine The PlayGround with the student dancers. It went really well and I'm the good dancing-for-6-hours kind of sour.

It is so interesting setting My ocean is never blue on yet another group of dancers. When we were originally creating the work it was a real process of trying, changing, developing, dropping, editing, discussing and figuring it all out. Now, that same section that took many hours and rehearsals to develop takes almost no time to "teach". I'm struck by the difference between creating a work and teaching it. I try and guide the new dancers through a process to experience some of the same development that the original dancers did, but it is not the same - I am artificially leading them through the steps instead of us discovering the steps through the process together. This has to effect their experience, understanding and maybe even their dancing.

Tomorrow I have rehearsal with the dancers from 10am until 5pm so we will be going over everything again, add in some new stuff and start putting it in an order. The PlayGround's core company comes on Sunday so we can put it all together.


Kimani Fowlin's "Womantra"

A Journey for Performers and Audience

by Daniel Burkholder

Choreographer Kimani Fowlin slowly rocks in a fetal position within a red sand circle at The INOVA Arts Center at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Audience members move to the edges of the room. A couple enters the red circle as they bend down to gently place one of the rocks each audience member was given into Fowlin's hand. With this act the couple crosses the line between performer and audience, and is an apt metaphor for the performance.

“Womantra” continues as Fowlin rolls, crawls, walks and finally propels herself outside the safety of the circle into the presence of artist/performer Teri Wagner. Confronted with this possible mother figure or goddess, Fowlin sacrifices herself as she is manipulated, tied up and led away with the audience following.

Wagner washes Fowlin's feet in a large ceramic bowl in the middle of the second gallery. Fowlin, for the first time, acknowledges the audience as she playfully splashes them with water and the work, quite suddenly, shifts from a private act to a public one.

In the third gallery Fowlin enters a trance-like dance as she follows a snake-like path of flower petals. Fowlin appears lost in increasingly intense rhythmic, African-derived movement, but breaks out to make momentary contact with audience members. Fowlin, exhausted, falls into an embrace with Wagner.

In the final gallery Fowlin and Wagner thoughtfully walk, use simple gestures and quietly recite a poem. The work ends with each audience member placing a rock onto the alter of goddess figures, abstract sculptures and the performers' family pictures.

“Womantra” is an important journey for Fowlin, rich with images and symbolism. But this performance is not only for her as the audience is invited to reflect on their own, sometimes winding journey.


Complementarity / Integrative Collaboration

Feeding off my last post I wanted to comment on a book I've been reading - Creative Collaboration by Vera John-Steiner - in which she marks the difference between complementarity and integrative modes of collaboration.

Complementarity collaboration is acknowledging that "each individual realizes only a subset of the human potential that can be achieved at a particular historical period" (pg. 40). Basically, each person brings their unique skills to the task at hand. The synergetic coming together of all the participants' skills creates a product (thing, performance, whatever) that would be impossible with out the contributions of each individual. This is probably the more common form of collaboration.

Integrative Collaboration consists of individuals suspending differences in regard for the making of something new, unexpected and revolutionary. John-Steiner uses the example of Picasso and Braque in their quest to create Cubism. For a number of years they explored the same concepts, daily looked at each other's work, wouldn't "finish" a painting until the other said it was finished and some paintings are even signed by both of them. John-Steiner writes that this melding of artistic goals needs a prolonged period of committed activity, thrives through dialogue, risk taking and a shared vision.

When thinking of complementarity collaboration the examples that come to mind are most performances where the movement, music, lighting, costumes, text, video, everything else are all created by different people - usually organized by one person that's the director or choreographer. The example that comes to mind most readily for integrative collaboration is Goat Island Performance Group out of Chicago - they seem to have come together to create works that transcend individual preferences - I'm not sure it feels like that on the inside, but from the outside it seems this way.

My experience with improvisational performance certainly moves back and forth between, or should I say along, this continuum. Often when performing with Sharon Mansur, who've I've performed with for over 18 years, I feel we are in an integrative mode. What we do together is so singular to what we do together, it is only possible with that history. In other situations I see that people clearly bring their different skills - the amazing dancer, the funny one, the one who likes to partner, the talker, etc... - and these meld into a whole.

Obviously both these modes are valid though I do wonder how we can identify which modes works in what situation - what works best when? Is it a matter of time, outcome and/or individual personalities? All? Something else?


Collaborating Side by Side

Sunday we had our first rehearsal for the upcoming performance at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts with my company, Arachne Aerial Arts, Coyaba Dance Theater and Devi Dance Theater. This performance will feature these four companies collaborating to create an evening length work. For this process we'll be collaborating side by side - at least to start.

When we met to discuss this project I proposed that the four companies would, at the beginning, work independently developing material for the work. Once this material was developed we would show the different sections that have been developed to one another - which is what we started doing on Sunday. From here each director, independently from one another, will construct an overall structure for the work - this would include putting the sections in an order, overlapping and juxtaposing sections, etc. From there we would come together and, really for the first time, begin a discussion to arrive at some type of consensus.

At first this was difficult because everyone wanted to discuss ideas for beginnings, or "what ifs" and such things. I encouraged us to not do that and keep to our own camps until our individual ideas were better developed. And we have, for the most part, and it was very exciting to see everyone's rough drafts on Sunday.

I'm very interested in different modes of collaboration. I have been in situations where some form of consensus is used - everyone has to eventually agree to the decisions being made, more or less. In my work with my company we are often in what I call "director-driven" collaboration - different people offer suggestions, or develop movement material, or are involved in the work in a creative way, more or less, but the final decisions rests with the director. For this collaboration process I wanted to bring in a little independence into the process - an extreme of this mode is the Cunningham/Cage mode. I wanted to use the independent mode of artistic collaboration for this project because I wanted to keep each companies' point of view and aesthetic unique to itself. If we had begun to make consensus or negotiate too soon in the process I feared there would be a softening of the aesthetics into something more similar to one another. I wanted us to have stark differences, to not necessarily fit together easily, and to then have to work it out.

For this process I'm not thinking of myself as the 'director', but instead as a facilitator. I'm working to move this project along, but not bully my ideas to the front of the line. It's a challenge in some ways - partly because I've been working on this material for 3 years and, honestly, I'm very opinionated. So, this whole process is a challenge in many ways.


Coming Back to "ocean"

Today was the first rehearsal back with the performers who'll be in the next, and probably, final version of "My ocean is never blue". My company and I have been creating, re-creating and performing the work for 3 years and this fall it will have its final performances - one at James Madison University and the other at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The first performance at JMU will feature our core company of 5 dancers with an additional 8 dancers from JMU. The second performance at CSPAC will be a collaboration of The PlayGround (9 dancers) with Arachne Aerial Arts, Coyaba Dance Theater and Devi Dance Theater. These four companies will be adding to the foundation of the work my company has created over the course of this project. Each company will have their own section within the evening length work as well as being in sections together. The performance will feature over 25 performers with live music that includes Jonathan Matis, a piano quartet and African water drums. We're very excited about all these performances and I'll be writing alot more as each project continues to develop.


The Aftermath

Last Friday was my last day of my first MFA semester and now I'm back home in DC gearing up for the "year". I don't want to leave the semester too quickly because I'm afraid the learning will drift to the background without staying useful or tangible in my present. So, right now, tonight, what feels palpable?

1. writing - oddly a theme for this summer was about writing. Both guest teachers really honed in on writing. First we did a week long workshop on Modern Pedagogy and spent a lot of time writing and rewriting our 'teaching philosophy'. Then Elizabeth Zimmer (dance critic, formally of the Village Voice) taught an intense intro to writing dance reviews. Some really great advise for me - and I need plenty of help with my writing.

2. Whittling down. I made two works this summer - both part of a longer work that is slowly evolving - and both were minimal and at times quite emotional. The beginning of my solo (5 minutes) was me simply doing a very slow walking pattern in 5/4 while I carried a tree on my back. People found it both odd and emotional (or was that how they describe me...). I began to refer to both my works -partly in jest, partly in homage to - "Butoh Bausch". I tried, in each work, to get rid of anything and everything that wasn't necessary - tried to whittle it to its core.

3. Collaboration: I'm going to be writing about collaboration a lot in the next year since I'm doing a large research project looking at modes of artistic collaboration - but, this summer was also about collaboration. From the very beginning, in different situations, we were asked to work with fellow students. This makes sense from number of points of view - getting to know one another, learning from our peers, etc. Because of these instant collaborations we were all forced to accept decisions we maybe wouldn't always otherwise except - we were trying to play nice. It brought up some interesting questions about collaboration and holding one's artistic purity in check. For example, how hard do I push an idea or opinion in this situation? How often do I just step back and accept other people's suggestions even if I'm not totally fond of them? What happens when aesthetics collide - do you have to try and work it out? What's the difference between an academic situation and a professional one?

The semester gave me a number of things to think about, hopefully they will stay on the surface even as my life gets busier and busier.