The beginning of a new dance, for me, is always a little bittersweet.
There is lots of joy, for being able to do what I love, and bring ideas and emotions to life in a meaningful way. There is also gratitude, for the healthy body and mind that allow me to live a creative life, and for the teachers and mentors who have helped me to develop my talents. There is the thrilling anticipation that comes with any new beginning, and the satisfaction of moving ahead with a new chapter in my artistic career.
But then, there can also be a sense of something bordering on despair. At the onset of a new project, I am always filled with questions:
With all of the thousands of choreographers in the world, what role do I play? Is it worth the time, money, and energy to make dance at this point in my life? When so much effort must be spent on the logistics – everything from securing rehearsal space to soliciting an audience – how do I stay centered on artistic process? Even the most talented and prolific choreographers in the world struggle for recognition, audiences, and financial stability – why do I expect it to be different for me?
While journaling this week I found myself writing another, more direct question: “Why do I want to choreograph?” January is National Choreography Month (NACHMO), and every year I look forward to this “choreographic kick in the pants”. The changing of the calendar provides a great opportunity to reinvigorate my creative practices and reconnect with the joy of movement-making. But while I have been really excited about the idea of making a new dance this year, the actual process has filled me with more of the bitter feelings than the sweet ones. I just wasn’t finding it as fulfilling as I once had. So I had to get to the heart of the matter: If choreographing isn’t filling me with the same joy it used to, why am I putting myself through this, anyway?
I think it is a question with which most semi-professional or “slash artists” wrestle. (Slash artists is a term I picked up from author Brene Brown – as in “lawyer/painter” or “teacher/cellist” – people who practice an art on top of another career. In my case, I practice choreography on top of my paid work in dance education, administration, and writing.) If the creative work is not paying our bills, it should at least feed our souls. When it stops doing even that, why bother continuing?
And yet, I have been making dances since the age of 7, and any time I step away, I find myself missing choreography terribly.
I came up with three main reasons I have been drawn to choreographing throughout my dance career. While everyone has their own personal reasons for pursuing creativity, I think these might resonate with other dance-makers as well:
- To express something that is personally meaningful to me – something I’ve lived through, a story, a relationship, an emotional experience, etc.
- To shed light on a topic of interest or concern. The bigger picture stuff – societal or cultural issues, historic events and their repercussions, current events and their impact.
- To satisfy a musical or kinesthetic itch. Sometimes there is a pieces of music that just begs for a movement interpretation, or a gesture or shape that won’t leave my head.
I’ve done many, many dances based on personal experiences, and to be honest, I’m just not excited to go there again. I’ve also seen many, many dances based on other’s personal experiences. Some of these can be incredibly moving and relatable for the audience. However, sometimes they can come off as simply satisfying the choreographer’s need, without concern for the viewer’s experience. There can be a real “take it or leave it” attitude in the modern dance world. It can be easy for us as choreographers to get wrapped up in our personal expression, obsessed with our creative processes. But, if we aren’t making a conscious effort to to connect with our audiences, we shouldn’t be surprised when they decide to leave it.
With that in mind, I want to make something more relevant to the world around me – a world that is seeming quite scary lately, but is also filled with deep and sometimes hidden joy. But when I think about tackling a large topic, I find myself equally caught up. What can I really contribute to conversations about the giant issues like war, crisis, inequality, or political melee from my comfortable perspective as a white suburban woman who has lived in relative ease for her entire life? How can I contribute artistically to conversations around these issues without seeming like an imposter, a poseur, an outsider? Would research allow me to tackle these unknown areas authentically? What stories are worth telling, and whose perspective matters in the telling of them? The dance world seems increasingly fascinated – and rightfully so – with work that explores political and identity-driven themes. I am always proud to be a part of a community that uses our art for such important work, but it does make my past solos about ex-boyfriends feel pretty insignificant.
In grad school I read a quote that went something like “It’s no use trying to make work that is like someone else’s. The world already has their work- now it needs yours.” For the life of me I can’t remember the exact wording or who it is attributed to, but the spirit of it has stayed with me. Even when I am doubting myself – as I am now – this quote helps me to trust the process. Yes, right now, I have no idea what my dance will be “about.” But I do not know that I am inspired to create something, and if I put in the work, the rest will reveal itself.
So, I guess that is where the third answer above comes in. When all else fails, just start moving. To be honest, musical and kinesthetic impulses are usually not my main inspiration, but it’s good to recognize that they can be just a valid starting place as theme or message. Sometimes a theme will reveal itself in the process. But sometimes it won’t and the dance will “just” be about the beauty of a body moving in space. That is okay, too.
So, now I am going to face my fears, go into the studio, and start.