Things I’ve Learned This Year (2019)

Hey all and congrats on revolving around the sun again! It’s truly revolutionary. Though I haven’t been as present here lately, I’m back with little assortment of things I learned this year  (like last year). 

Input and environment are as much a part of artmaking as output.

I began the year feeling that I didn’t have the right environment, audience, collaborators, or knowledge to effectively make the work I was most interested in. While prior commitments kept me making, I decided to spend more of my spare energy surrounding myself with people and ideas that inspired me, rather than initiating projects. My choices may not have seemed productive or professionally focused from the outside, but I trusted (correctly) that my work would be soon to follow my changes in perspective. 

Exceptionalism is usually incorrect and deeply overrated.

What’s better than claiming a trophy spot as the first and only something? Researching and highlighting the (perhaps under-acknowledged) work of those who came before you. Connecting with and supporting others with similar experiences and aspirations. Holding the door open for others to join you. 

Hierarchies of performance are pretty arbitrary.

I’ve continued to perform in a variety of environments from concert stages to nightclubs to schools to art exhibits to festivals.  Things that are not as correlated as I once believed: many people attend, how much rehearsal (or even training) is needed, how much it’s paid, how invested I feel in the work, and how “impressive” the gig looks on my resume. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–each performance experience offers a different type of value–but it has made me further detach from hierarchies of prestige within the dance world and prioritize projects on my own terms. 

No level of wokeness exempts people from human psychology.

No one is too feminist to remain in an abusive relationship. No one is too vocally body positive to struggle with eating disorders. No one is too informed about psychology to need therapy. Human brains remain human regardless of education or politics. Let’s accept this reality for ourselves and others so we don’t overlook or further stigmatize our struggles.

If you’re terribly embarrassed by your past self, that’s just a sign that you’re growing as a person…

…so I guess I should be proud to be deeply embarrassed by who I was less than a year ago. Though I cringe, I also thank previous versions of myself for awkwardly and openly stumbling through ideas, spaces, and roles they didn’t yet know how to navigate so that I can move through the world a bit more smoothly today.

People can have great politics but be bad humans.

(For the record, no, I don’t think the reverse of this statement is equally true.)

A healthy relationship with conflict is essential. 

It’s equally harmful to arbitrarily stir up conflict with no purpose and to be too averse to conflict to assert any values. (I have sometimes fallen into the latter category.) Choosing when and how to productively engage in with disagreement and criticism is a skill that I’ve come to really respect and prioritize developing.

Words are less important than the meanings behind them.

People can use the same word to mean different things and different words to mean the same thing. There are people doing great work without the perfect terminology attached to it, and there are people skillfully co-opting the language of social justice for marketing or personal manipulation. Language is an important tool to help us understand each other’s perspectives but when we over-fixate on words and miss the perspectives behind them, we end up picking the wrong battles.

Everyone is an authority on their own experience.

Any room I am in is filled with people who have lived different lives than me and know things I don’t. Though this once made me afraid of leader/teacher/facilitator roles, I am learning how leading a room can be about authorizing, organizing, and channeling the wealth of knowledge, rather than trying to provide all of it. 

Life Lessons From Improv

I’ve heard that life is a dance. More specifically, I think it’s an improvisation. You can tell because as with most improv situations, a whole lot of people are doing the same thing over and over, wondering if they’re doing it wrong, looking at other people, wishing they had done something cooler, and wishing someone would just tell them what to do.

But seriously, there are some lessons from improvisational dance (at least from my experience) that can apply to just about every other aspect of life:

  • Spontaneity requires practice: the first time I heard of an improv class, it sounded like an oxymoron. How could someone teach you to do whatever you want? In reality, though, thinking on your feet is a skill like any other that gets better with use. The more I took improv classes, exposing myself to new challenges and forcing myself to generate new ideas day after day, the more comfortable, successful, and creative I could be in each new situation (and of course it’s still a work in progress!). Whether you’re concerned about test taking or first dates, it helps to remember that while “just winging it” is a perfectly valid approach, it will typically work better if you have some winging experience backing you up.
  • There is freedom in restriction: tell people to move however they want and they will probably automatically resort to their five most frequently used moves. Tell people to travel across the floor with their chin on the ground using only circular movements and they will probably discover some things they have never done before. When you have absolute freedom, it’s easy to stay within your own self-imposed limitations of what you do and what you are. External rules and restrictions can force you out of this comfort zone and make you realize additional possibilities that you’ve been ignoring all along.
  • Know your habits to break them: once I realized that my natural tendency was to move at a snail’s pace, I was able to push myself to find more varied and interesting rhythms in my dancing. In a more general sense, you can’t change until you really understand and accept what you are right now.
  • Commitment trumps judgement: sometimes you find yourself doing something weird/bad/stupid/uncomfortable. You can get caught up in thinking about how weird/bad/stupid/uncomfortable it is, and pull away from the task, or you can keep going with it as if it’s the most brilliant thing you’ve ever done and see where it takes you. This latter type of unapologetic commitment is often enough to make viewers believe in the abilities of a performer, whether they really deserve it or not. In other words, no one is going trust your choices unless your do–or at least unless every inch of you acts like you do.
  • It probably wont happen again: then there’s the times when it does go right, when your crazy experiments flow into something that looks and feels great, leaving you wondering “what just happened?” Unfortunately, while these moments can be an inspiration for future choreography, you probably won’t be able to recreate them perfectly. The sooner that you accept this, the sooner you can start creating new fabulous moments instead of endlessly chasing after old ones.

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.

I Make Things.

Some of this week’s creations:

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I was really into jewelry making when I was 10 to 13-ish. I even had an Etsy shop for a while. Since then, it has kind of slipped out of my life, though I usually get back to it on breaks. My current jewelry binge is reminding me what I love about it, though. I get to start with things–beads and wires and chains and pliers (rhyming unintended) that I can touch and thread and twist–and designs come from that. Plans are unnecessary. I like to make sense of forms as they happen. For me at least, ideas are often best when they stem from a physical place. Nothing gets creative juices flowing like actually doing stuff with actual stuff.