LivingArts: Wandering in the Work

We continue our series of LivingArts Hamilton blogs featuring guest writers from a variety of arts disciplines across the community. This week, we're pleased to welcome Hamilton-based dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of Form Contemporary Dance Theatre, Lisa Emmons.

As I write this I am sitting in a cafe, having finished my catering shift, about to head to rehearsal.  Tomorrow I am teaching a creative movement and contemporary dance classes, then have a grant writing meeting before rehearsal for the company I lead, Form Contemporary Dance Theatre. It is the life of a dancer/performer/artist; many roles, many hats.

I want to share my experience of letting my train of thought unfold and meander versus keeping my imagination and focus on a straight and narrow path.  I believe both are incredibly useful ways of working.  Choosing which one to engage and why has been a profound distinction for myself. It is like choosing whether to improvise to get your body moving; letting your sensations and body guide what should be done, or using ballet, yoga, pilates or another codified training system to move. Both are very productive for different reasons. Do you find yourself doing this? Sticking to a specific idea or task? Maybe it is more useful to let yourself explore your stream of consciousness? 

Photo credit: Christian Peterson, Powerhouse at Frost Bites 2018 at the Westinghouse Headquarters

When I allow my thoughts to run wild, I find solutions that I was not expecting.  I cease thinking in words and I begin processing in sensations. This allows me to step out of the limits I unconsciously place on myself. It is opening the gates to all that is possible. 

When I focus on a distinct idea and path, the choices are limited and therefore easier to settle on. I become clearer in communicating my ideas to the artists I am working with and my choices are aligned with the vision of the work.  I feel that end result is more cohesive and then the experience for the audience is more satisfying. 

Rather than choosing between the two I want to find a way to get the best of both by creating a thesis for the choreography. Twyla Tharp calls this thesis the  “Spine of the Work” in her book the Creative Habit. Creating work by selecting a clear idea for the spine/thesis and allowing all ideas and choices to relate to that idea allows for the work to become coherent.  The spine is a fram and guide for the creation.  I often let myself brainstorm as many ideas and possibilities relating to a specific “spine”.  Then I have an arsenal of choices at hand that relate to the thesis when I go into the studio. 

Photo credit: Christian Peterson, Powerhouse at Frost Bites 2018 at the Westinghouse Headquarters

There have been times when I do not have a “thesis”.  These creation times involve a lot of joy! Letting my mind ping pong and indulge in every thought. I am moving and creating for the sake of moving and creating.  Dance doodles. These doodles are sometimes used in future works.  Often they evaporate and are never seen again. I also let my mind explore and daydream about “Spines”.  Daydreaming is one of my favourite pastimes and layering in the idea of wandering in a specific thesis still allows me to wander in the work. 

What do you prefer?  To meander and try many ideas? Or stick to a specific thought? To create clear and cohesive work I think one does need a thesis. What do you think?