My mother painted birds. My English mother came to the US with her English husband and two small English children, a passion for art, and raw skill. One Christmas, my father bought her a set of paints and she set to work. She was drawn to nature and specialized in birds and flowers. Watercolor was her medium of choice. The most striking element of her work is the detail in the feathers and, to me, the dew drops on the flowers. She received a fair amount of local notoriety for her art and instilled in us- her two English born and one American born kids- a love of art that has continued long after she has passed away.
I am the American born child of this arts-loving English couple. I have letters from my Nana, my mother’s mother, referring to me as the “American doll.” As a kid, I was often aware of the difference in my upbringing because I used words that the other kids thought were funny. For example, we said it was “spitting” out instead of “sprinkling” and I wore “knickers” instead of “underpants”. But then there were the words that my creative father made up and passed off as common language, which I later found out didn’t exist in either English or American English. Being from Merseyside, he also told me he went to school with the Beatles but didn’t know why they stopped calling him. (My mother did watch the Beatles at the Cavern Club, probably around the Pete Best era). And I got my own back….after seeing Ringo in Rockefeller Center while I was living in NYC, I called my Dad and told him that I saw Uncle Ringo but he acted as if he had no idea who I was. My dad rolled and rolled in laughter.
Where am I going with this? Art making: specifically, my mother’s attention to detail and my father’s creativity. I find it fascinating how or where people place value on a ‘finished’ product.
It seems to me that dancers that are trained from an external perspective- those taught to imitate line and shape instead of re-creating it for themselves, place importance on synchronicity and clarity of execution. There is value placed on the cleanliness of the group rather than the detail of an individual movement and the opportunity to see this movement become unique as performed my multiple bodies. I am all for clean dancing. I am all for pretty pictures. Yet, I find art making to be in the exploration of these possibilities and not necessarily the drilled, machine-like demonstration of skill. I once had a student that watched Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire and commented that she thought it was messy and should have been cleaned before they taped the performance. I think my mouth may have fell open. I realize not every dance speaks to every person but I was surprised that she had not been moved by the music, the movement, and relationship between dancers due to some discrepancy in degrees angles of the arms, and so on. In considering her background and resulting aesthetic preferences, her comment should not have surprised me. And, had we had more time to work together, I hope her view of ‘quality’ dance would have expanded.
When dancers are encouraged to shed this initial regimented impression of the creative process and are invited to explore movement, detail can be just as clear but with potentially more meaning. Even when working in a line-concentrated medium (say, jazz or ballet), the approach to the movement and the nuance found within is what brings the choreography to life. Sometimes we need to momentarily leave behind what we’ve been taught and focus on what we can create, even if it defies our personal definitions of dance. Then, if needed, we can marry these two concepts and find brilliance in what may ordinarily be ordinary dance. In my view, this is the source of artistry.
This is precisely why I feel improvisation should be used in all kinds of dance classes, especially dance technique classes offered through private studios and in public schools. If not allowed to ‘create’ movement, it is difficult for budding dancers to claim movement as their own and can be more difficult for audiences to connect with them as performers beyond the admiration of physical skill. Dance is an incredible physical discipline that can feature athleticism but we need a distinction between sport and dance. This is expression and communication. How can we cultivate new voices if never allowing these young artists to figuratively clear their throats?
As educators, we need young dancers to understand how their bodies work. I think it is a shame that by the time they get to college, a dancer may be able to whip off multiple pirouettes but cannot balance on one leg. They may expend way more energy than should be required because they have no sense of true placement and need to adjust position before entering a movement. They’ve been taught to imitate and not re-create.
As I have said before, I like to work conceptually first and physically second yet that hasn’t always been the case. As I develop as an educator, I embrace the abstract and move to fill in the detail. We need to shift weight before we may dance.
My life is full of the abstract and preparation for detail as we expect our second child to arrive this April. As she moves and rolls, bumps and delivers quick jabs to my ribs, she moves from an abstract idea of “having a girl” to distinct ideas of what her personality may be like. I feel our identities taking shape. I am eager to share with her our family history, in creativity and detail. She’s our little bird and she’s a work in progress. Though, aren’t we all?