Limitation and Innovation: the Art of Making it Work Anyway

On Monday, I went to a lecture by Twyla Tharp about her book The Creative Habit. Her talk included some ideas about how to develop creativity and stories of her own experiences as, peppered with a fair share of strong opinions and unfiltered sass. But what really interested me was hearing the about her modest choreographic beginnings and the extent to which her early career was shaped by adaptation to circumstance.

Her presentation stressed the importance of structure as a framework for creative innovation. This principle, though it might sound a little contradictory to someone with a more romanticized notion of free-flowing creativity, should ring true with anyone who has ever taken an improv class and realized that the instruction “go across the floor without lifting your left elbow off the ground” results in a lot more interesting movement than “just do anything,” or even anyone who has found themself making more progress on a paper during a few hour-long breaks between classes than a completely empty Sunday.

When we work within rules and limitations, we more fully realize just how much freedom we have within that limited space, and we innovate by necessity as we figure out how to negotiate around these barriers.

However, “structure” doesn’t have to mean a clean, organized, plan that you’ve established for yourself. For all of Tharp’s emphasis on efficient planning and preparation, much of her creative success seemed to be guided by different type of structure and restriction: the random twists and turns of life and the rocky financial landscape of the real arts world. In other words, realities that she couldn’t and wouldn’t have planned for.

In fact, even her choice to pursue a choreographic career was directed not by great plans or inspiration, but by a simple practical dilemma. When asked why she started choreographing, she said:

“I wanted to dance and I had no one to dance with.”

Yeah, I know that feeling, too. But it just gets more interesting from there. Working with shoestring budget and little professional experience, she was creating dance in unconventional public sites before even touching a proscenium stage (she claimed to have invented flash mobbing). Following almost the reverse of the typical narrative of the site-specific postmodern choreographer who rebells against their traditional theatrical background by “breaking the fourth wall,” she began her career by pushing dance into the public sphere simply because she didn’t have money or space for private performances–sometimes you can’t afford a fourth wall.

She eventually made it to a stage, but her career path continued in response to practical circumstance, as she ended up crossing over into film, motion capture, Broadway, ballet, and horse-ography based on who was offering her a job.

This isn’t to say that unconventional circumstances alone can create creative innovation. Rather it’s the way she responded to them, facing both roadblocks and unfamiliar opportunities with stubborn perseverance, practical savy, and brilliant mental flexibility. She had to make it work.

Maybe that was part of the point about preparation: that it will equip you to handle unexpected changes and challenges. Or maybe her views are just more reflective of her more stable current work process as an established choreographer.

Regardless, the talk got me thinking about how artists are very much affected by the constraints of the “real world” both for better and for worse. And maybe a large part of whether they limit us or push us forward depends on how we adapt to them, how well we can play around the boundaries. Whether we can refuse to say “no” and make it work.


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