Creativity and Training Part 1
The Newness of Creativity
Just this past week I had the opportunity to perform at a gathering of the Boise, ID dance community. The event featured a potpourri of dance genres performed by an equally varied community of dancers. Contemporary, ballet, hip-hop, flamenco, tap dance (that was me), were all celebrated. There were additionally two companies that presented dances with dancers of all abilities. It was a lovely, gracious, and celebratory event. For my part, I improvised an a capella solo, and a duet with pianist Justin Nielsen structured around the Sonny Rollins tune Doxy. Doxy has a deep tap dance reference to Eddie Brown – one of the dancers of the older generation. If you like, you can check out my interpretation of both in my recent performance.
There is a common interaction I have following events like this. After the show members of the audience will come up to me and express their joy and curiosity around my performance. In our brief conversation the fact that I improvised the entire piece often comes up. When it does, the common response I witness is a pause, eyes widening, and what feels like an inner shift of sorts. What they thought they saw – an extremely skilled predetermined performance – now is completely reframed.
“You made all of that up?”
Really good improvisation is a wonder to witness. The Savion Glover’s, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s, Max Roach’s, or Jimmy Slyde’s of the world have a way of overflowing with inventive choices such that they draw you into their world. We experience a sense of immersion for the duration of our time with them. This sense of immersion is common across the arts, predetermined or otherwise, especially the performing arts, like live theatre, stand-up comedy, or live music. So, what makes improvisation so captivating?
In bearing witness to an improviser, we are brought into the process of creative power. Creative power centers around moments of choice. Choice-making is the central skill of improvisation. When we witness an improviser in action, we get to see the choices the improviser is making as they happen. We are there with them, as they are making their choices. Once a choice is made, there are no second chances – no going back. The moment is done and by the time we realize that, 15 other moments have already gone by. Improvisation is a practice of being present and attentive to the moments. As witnesses we may begin to realize that we too must be more present and attentive to the moments if we are going to reap the full effect of being witnesses. If our minds wonder even for a moment, we might miss something, and that thing might be the sweetest moment of the whole time we have together.
Aside from presence and attentiveness, there is a kind of anticipation that accompanies the experience of improvisation. It is the anticipation of something new. In every moment of improvisation there is the spark of creativity. Something new, I mean really new, might happen. This kind of newness is not just the kind of newness that comes with a new day, the passing of time, and the continually changing context we may find ourselves in. It is the kind of newness that interrupts old patterns and assumptions and has the power to set a completely new course. It is the kind of newness that brings us into a new world. In improvised performance it is something new for the audience to witness, and something new for the performer to execute. Both parties experience something new together.
Many improvisers aim for these kinds of the moments. They are moments of shared discovery, and they are not ever guaranteed. They are the outcome of an ongoing process of seeking; at the risk of missing the mark; and the willingness and practice of doing so in public. These moments seem to be rooted in the trust of the interaction between training, gifting, and love.
I’m planning on getting more into the relationship between creativity and training next week. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, especially in light of the idea of formation. For now, it is important to say that the choices improvisers make are deeply rooted in the intense training they go through in their particular form. Tap dancers, for example, learn steps, and also learn how they can vary those steps. We study the interplay between space and time, movement and sound, choice and personality, so that we build tangible skills within the form of tap dance in order to make good choices in the moment. We practice the art of choice-making at high speeds. The more we practice, the more confident we become in the choices we make within the form. The more confident we become, the more creative we think we can be, reaching for new kinds of choices.
Gifting is pre-disposition. Many improvisers are pre-disposed with the confidence to make choices unencumbered by fear, anxiety, or some other stress. Many will easily find within themselves a playful disposition that lends itself to the kind of communal discovery discussed earlier. Many will have a pre-disposition of open-handedness that will allow their imagination to receive new ideas with greater ease than others. Some will have a pre-disposition to share with less sensitivity to the exposure of such sharing than others might experience. These pre-dispositions all contribute to the speed with which an improviser grows into their craft. Many are pre-disposed to these ways of the improviser. Many more will find their way into them with training.
What can be said of love, other than without it, experiences of training, acknowledgement of gifting, and witnessing newness, can all become sorely lacking. Love, willing the good of the beloved, is the life blood of all the goodness that can come about from a moment of discovery, even the pursuit of such moments. So many variables are at play when thinking about what makes a moment of discovery. Without being rooted in love, improvisations can fall flat (at the very least), or be vehicles for much worse (overtaken by impulses to anger, contempt, selfish desire, or manipulation, for example). In the freedom of improvisation, the inner person is exposed – at least in the most honest of moments. That love is the overwhelming governing force behind the person making the choices is necessary to engender the kind of trust that allows for communal play, the possibility of something really new coming to life, and the willingness to go through the risk of exposure that gets us there.
Good Improvisation is Good Choice-Making
Goodness in the world of improvisation is defined within the confines of each form. For tap dancers, there are years of history, aesthetics, and standards of knowledge and execution that improvisers are measured against. There is an added level of complication when standards of the market begin to interact with standards of the form – do your improvisations compel people to pay money to engage with your work? The way we define goodness affects our journey towards becoming good improvisers, good choice-makers. Our definition of goodness will focus our training, hone our gifting, and refine our understanding of love.
In the meantime, we experiment. Improvising within a form allows us to conduct specific experiments in time. Tap dancers have practice sessions, rehearsals, and study time (watching video or listening to music) that allow them to focus on testing their ideas and abilities. Practitioners in other forms have similar practices. However, improvisation, the art of choice-making happens all the time in the context of life as well. In this broader context, focused experimentation is harder to come by, or may be even non-existent. Life is continually moving. It is hard then, if not impossible, to stop life while we conduct a rigorous experiment. How then may we experiment with the choices we make in our own life?
Here would be the place to begin an extended conversation about the practices often discussed under the subject of spiritual disciplines that have been tried and adopted throughout the ages by those pursuing intentional inner formation or transformation. It is a much longer conversation than I have room for here. Instead, for now, I will simply recommend this book: Renovation of the Heart, by Dallas Willard. It is dense and thorough, and should be read slowly. However, it is the most complete unpacking of the process of inner formation that I have read. Dallas is a follower of Jesus Christ, and so the book is written from that perspective, but would be beneficial, I think, to anyone attempting to engage in the sacred journey of who they are becoming.
Beyond such an in-depth conversation on spiritual disciplines, there is this that should be said:
In the normal activities of things, life need not stop for it to change. Small experiments may be tried with little risk. Practice, study, and testing out our ideas can become part of our life. They can become part of all that we do. In so much as we are pointed in the direction of intentional formation, and in light of the many challenges that arise as we attempt such things, small, low-risk experiments, are one thing we can do that may lead to a growing confidence in making new choices, in allowing for new possibilities, and ultimately experiencing a new kind of life.