Vanessa DeWolf, Leah Vendl and I got to talking during Velocity’s Body Book Club meetup, part of the series around AmyO’s current show.
Vanessa asked about our respective processes, what informs it. I’ll refrain from sharing Leah and Vanessa’s answers and leave it to them to share if they wish. But I found the meta-question quite difficult to answer. Those of us with a definite process easily slide into it, but struggle to itemize otherwise intuitive steps.
I vaguely recall the answer I gave on the spot, but honestly had to think about itemizing the answer some more long after that conversation ended. How would I define my process? Could I define it concretely enough to allow someone else to repeat it?
I think of my process in distinct phases: Vision, creation and composition. Many choreographers and dancers enter blank and experiment until something catches them, but for me I am frequently moved to do a piece by clear images in my mind. The journey from those images to the final product does change the piece, but vision primarily informs my work. I can’t imagine this is an original idea, and each of these phase concepts always interweave, but in each phase one of those three ideas is the main focus.
I frequently enter a project with a solid idea. Pretty much every project is inspired by a specific vision. My vision rarely, if ever, presents a complete picture of how it’s going to be. They are ideas between nebulous gaps where I may have anywhere from some idea of how to link them to absolutely no idea at all. They may be single, incomplete pictures, where I would have to completely fill in the rest of the piece from scratch. A good portion of this process takes place internally, sitting down, standing up, almost anywhere. Big ideas come to me from anywhere, from listening to a song, seeing something interesting, or just a wild-running imagination producing an out-of-nowhere image worth bringing to life. Ideas eventually strike me that I feel compelled to produce.
And that’s where the creation phase comes in. When it comes to formally defining my creation phase process, my closest approximation is Danielle Agami’s Gaga classes. Danielle frequently comes in cold turkey, and bases her class instructions on intuition, how the room feels, how she feels, what she observes, etc etc. She starts by committing to a simple choice of movement, and the class evolves from there based on observations and experience… somehow leading each class to a uniquely profound experience she has never offered before and will never offer again.
This is similar to how an improv scene would play out. Performers enter a scene with no idea (outside of a cursory suggestion or assigned format) what will happen next. Players enter the scene and immediately commit to a choice to do something, embody something, say something, become someone. Everything that happens is an offer which informs the subsequent choices of all players on stage, and the scene grows from there into a full story. Everything you do in an improv scene is truth that is honored rather than ignored or forgotten. You do this because you have to give your audience a show, everything you say and do can clearly be seen by your audience, and they will see and remember everything you do and say.
It figures that as an improv guy that Danielle’s approach would suit me. It’s the exact same way an experienced improviser approaches a live scene… except her role is clearly always defined: To constructively direct an improvisational dance class. And the student’s role is to follow her instruction and see where it goes.
I remember one session during her SFDI workshop when we were moving on the floor and she suddenly instructed, “Direct yourself, as if you were teaching this class… to yourself. Instruct your movement in a way that will eventually, naturally, get you to your feet.” This workshop had several epiphanaic moments, but this note was supremely profound. To create and develop work is in effect to direct yourself, the body being your student and your mind being your director or instructor.
In any case, during the creative phase I enter the studio, start with any one aspect or image I have in mind and start moving through it. If I have a full sequence or choreographed moment in my mind, I practice bringing it physically forth.
And this is where my body begins to offer feedback, and my inner director follows. Sometimes what I do feels great and it invites more movements, more progressions, etc. Sometimes what I have in mind isn’t feasible or do-able. Sometimes I try something I thought interesting and it’s actually quite boring, uninspiring, or doesn’t go anywhere of use. Contrary to the kid-gloves of most peer feedback sessions, I’m very blunt with myself, which pushes the process forward.
None of that is to say I immediately discard what doesn’t immediately work. Images strong enough to bring me to the studio don’t just go away or get rendered irrelevant the second they don’t immediately work to my liking. I try things again, re-try them in different ways, maybe figure that something will work with practice, adjustments or different wrinkles. Like a sculpture, this process often molds my initial ideas into something better and, most importantly, something alive and presentable to an audience.
The creation stage is not a sequential flow-chart process. It is quite nebulous: Work on a given moment or sequence could last a few seconds, or could last hours. It could invite work on building choreographed sequences, or I could leap from one item to a separate item elsewhere in the still-developing piece. And I could make these shifts at any time for any reason.
There comes a point where I have created enough solid, connectable material to build a complete piece (or I’m up against a deadline 😛 though these two points frequently fit together well), where I shift to the composition stage. In many respects I’m performing composition during the creative stage, but it is in the final stage where my process focuses not on finding key moments but putting the key moments I have developed together.
This is where my inner choreographer gets tough and decisive. This works. This does not work: Change it. If this part is not working, figure out why and make a choice: Change whatever you need to in order to make it work, or cut it and do something else. Do what it takes to put this sequence of key moments together so it makes sense. Make this piece complete. Tell a clear story or make sure everything fits together in an order that makes sense. The hardline not-taking-your-bullshit approach you’re taught to never use with your peers in an exploratory setting is the approach I take with myself.
(I would obviously be more forgiving choreographing a group, but would also have to take a more rigid, organized internal creative process to effectively prepare for directing a group. The tradeoff for being this way by myself is that I free myself to make snap decisions on the fly. Groups don’t adjust as quickly due to the communication factor, and they certainly don’t respond as well to blunt instruction.)
Whether or not my decisiveness yields the correct or best decision is not as important as my need to act decisively. If a choice for a given trouble spot is clearly sub-optimal but the most workable solution for that spot, then I go with that decision unless a superior decision presents itself. Yes, many times I made a committed choice on a spot only to later, spontaneously, accidentally discover a better choice to which I subsequently committed to action and memory. I’ve lost count of the number of these happy accidents in my solo pieces: They happen frequently and these discoveries do pepper the composition phase of my pieces.
Ultimately, if I don’t end up with a completely choreographed piece after this piece, the foundation is solid enough to inform any needed improvisation between choreographed parts.
Meta-deciphering the path of this process took me a while. It’s mostly intuitive and a process I largely process in the moment. It is a process that has produced several pieces, is producing some more and will produce more.
P.S. How does my process work when coming back to re-work pieces? Obviously I have a largely complete work, so the vision and composition phases are mostly complete. I return to composition with much of the work already pre-made, so that can shorten or inform that phase second time around, depending on my needs and goals for the re-work.