Saturday, November 21, 2015

Creative Process Speech at The President's Faculty Dinner and Lecture

Creative Process speech given at the President's Faculty Dinner and Lecture for Webster University at Bissinger's Historic Chocolate Factory in St. Louis on August 20, 2015.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Creative Process

In Making Your Life as an Artist, Andrew Simonet writes, “The scientific method and the artistic process are the two most robust problem-solving methodologies ever developed. Take either one away, and our world would be unrecognizable.”

As an artist and educator, my life is built around the practice, study, and teaching of the artistic or creative process. I am passionate about it. It is what excites and energizes me to get up each day and walk into the classroom or studio. However, incoming freshman dance majors, students choosing to pursue fine arts degrees, often are more able to recite the scientific method, or even elements of critical thinking, than they are stages of the creative process.

I imagine that this is partly because we do not give creative process much weight in our education systems and partly because these students often believe in the myth that creativity is something that starry-eyed, eccentrics are gifted with and the rest of us, the level-headed, rational, or even mathematical types, just cannot learn.

Ken Robinson speaks to this in Out of Our Minds, saying “If someone tells you they cannot read or write, you don’t assume that they are not capable of reading and writing, but that they haven’t been taught how. It is the same with creativity. When people say to me that they are not creative, I assume they just haven’t yet learnt what is involved.”

So I teach, study, and practice creative process, which has different approaches and frameworks, just like models of the scientific method or critical thinking. I personally teach a seven-stage model that goes from ideation to generation to development, forming, composing, performing, and reviewing. I believe whole-heartedly that creativity can be learned…and I am going to tell you why I believe this.

You see, I have a confession to make. One that may cause me to lose the respect of my colleagues in the arts, I hope you all respect me in the morning, but I feel I must come clean…in High School…I was on the math team. I know, embarrassing.

I was far from the starry-eyed, eccentric with the gift for creativity. I was not a “natural.” It was something I had to work on tirelessly and passionately. So, naturally, I believe in the ability to teach and train someone to be creative. But it is more than that, I believe that the creative process is a skill that is as rigorous and necessary as the scientific method for life in the 21st century.

At the University of California San Diego, faculty and student researchers in the Department of Cognitive Science take creative process seriously too, so much so that they undertook a detailed ethnographic study of the creative process of British choreographer Wayne McGregor.

McGregor is artistic director of Random Dance, which he started in the 1990s, and has won scores of awards and distinctions some of which include five Olivier Awards, one Grammy, and the title Commander of the Order of the British Empire. For this study, they attached video cameras at every angle in the dance studio in addition to a 16-camera motion capture system, had teams of students lining the studio perimeter with notebooks documenting every minute, interviewed the dancers daily and the choreographer 22 times, administered psychological tests on all involved, and documented their diaries and journals.

Among their findings was that the methods of instruction McGregor demonstrated always fell in one of three categories: Showing, Making On, and Tasking. In Showing, McGregor demonstrates the movement information he is passing on and asks the dancers to replicate it.

The second method of instruction is Making On, where McGregor makes movement on target dancers, using them as architectural objects. Instead of McGregor generating ideas from within himself, he interacts with others in the moment, letting their bodies, their personalities, and their skill influence the creative process.

The third method of instruction is Tasking, where the choreographer poses a movement problem and asks the dancers to solve it on their own. The choreographer allows the dancers to discover movement information for themselves, only guiding the task assignments. You can view a Ted Talk by Wayne McGregor using these three methods here: Wayne McGregor: A choreographer's process in real time

Here is something intriguing from this study. The researchers found that the movement information gathered from Showing was high quality and efficient, but lacked novelty. By high quality, they mean that it often leads to ideas that make it into the final presentation, presumably because it comes from the most experienced movement maker. By efficient, they mean that it takes the shortest amount of time to come up with usable ideas. I’m the choreographer, I teach it to you, you do it, quick and easy. And, by lacking novelty, they mean that these otherwise high quality and efficient ideas seldom break new ground, they rarely lead to innovation.

By contrast, the third method, Tasking, was highly novel but low quality and inefficient. The most innovative ideas came out of Tasking, but they took time to get through the multitude of low quality answers to the movement problem.

This study told McGregor, with all his awards and distinctions, that the ideas he directly created through showing were far less innovative than the ones that emerged through his dancers in Tasking. That, as he loosened his grip, more creativity entered.

This finding, that the method whereby the expert, the most experienced mover, acting alone to generate movement ideas is less innovative than tapping into the creative innovation of others can be hard to swallow. It challenges our long held myth of the individual genius, the solitary expert who grips tightly to a concept until they discover what the masses could never see.

And yet, this realization gets to the core of creative process, that simply focusing harder in one direction to find an answer likely will not lead to innovation. In order to increase the chances for innovation, we need to also widen our focus to see the multitude of possibilities. We need to integrate our critical thinking with creative process.

Because when we grip our ideas tightly, whether they are our artistic babies or our research, we can hold them up and say this is so, and it is likely to be a high quality concept that others—students for example—can learn efficiently. But that grip can squeeze the life and creativity out of it.

When we present our ideas to others and let them work with them, by presenting them in performance or publication, we let others engage with our ideas—knead them, prod them, test them, critique them—we open up to more creative potential, but at some risk.

And when we completely loosen our grips and gently provide the support, for others to engage, not just with our ideas, but, with the creative process itself—which can be messy, slow, even risky—we open to the path where creative process can lead us to innovation.

We have all gripped tightly to our areas of expertise, because, afterall, expertise is a survival skill…we need to publish and present for promotion and longevity. But, as our world becomes increasingly more digitized, globalized, and outsourced, creative process may be an even more vital survival skill for the 21st century. Yes, there seems to be little time for the messy, inefficient path that is the creative process…but what are we missing by not walking that path.

Others have already started down that path. The Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University have been working to add the Arts into STEM to make it STEAM. Discussions started by Senior Editor of the Harvard Business Review Katherine Bell’s article, The MFA is the new MBA, bring to the forefront the value of creative process in the business field.

So, I cannot help wondering what would happen if we allowed creative process to work within our university and local communities the same way we do critical thinking?

What would happen if I stepped out of my individual silo of expertise and into the liminal space that exists in the university or community at large to explore research that combines fields not usually considered congruent?

What would happen if, instead of following the well-trodden path of almost every other organization and institution with the practice of professional siloing, we made creative process a priority?

In our current climate where organizations are struggling with enrollment, funding support, and a changing landscape, continuing to just do more of what has been done in the past offers little promise. To paraphrase Maslow, if the only tool we know is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We need the creative process and to apply it to the issues in front of us, because as Ken Robinson puts it, “We will not succeed in navigating the complex environment of the future by peering relentlessly into the rearview mirror. To do so, we would be out of our minds.”  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Remembering Luigi

With the news of the passing of jazz dance legend Luigi, I dug up this online article I wrote 15 years ago about him. With a deep bow of reverence to the man and his contribution...

Class with Luigi

On the back cover of Luigi's Jazz Warm Up, movie star John Travolta says, "Luigi always defined Jazz dancing for me in the same unique form that Jack Cole did."  As I cut through Manhattan's Central Park on my way to Studio Maestro, where 75 year old jazz dance legend Luigi currently teaches, I am reminded of the movie Staying Alive - the sequel to Saturday Night Fever.

In Staying Alive, John Travolta plays an ex-disco dancer who turns professional Broadway dancer. While the script and the acting of Staying Alive were poor (a tradition that has been carried on by other dance movies such as Showgirls and more recently, Center Stage), John Travolta, restrained to only a few small dance combinations and a loin cloth, looked surprisingly professional.

As legend has it, Travolta studied dance with Luigi to play the part.

The Movie Stars' Teacher

A list of Luigi's past students reads like a who's who of movie, musical theater, and dance celebrities. Liza Minnelli, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Ann Reinking, Madonna, Patricia McBride, Christopher Walken, Jacques D'Amboise, Alvin Ailey, Michael Bennett, Twyla Tharp, and Susan Stroman are just some of the names that sought Luigi's tutelage.

With all this flipping through my mind, I barely remember the walk from Central Park to the front door of Studio Maestro on 68th St. I open the door with a mix of anticipation and a healthy dose of skepticism; anticipation for meeting a living legend and skepticism about what makes this man so special (just because that is my nature).

We Meet...

Immediately I feel warmth and friendliness in the studio atmosphere. Both Luigi and Francis Roach, a main teacher of Luigi's technique, are present and I am excited to learn that Luigi himself will be teaching the class.

In introductions we learn that a common bond connects us. Luigi, Mr. Roach, and I are immigrants from Ohio (myself being from the town of Litchfield, population 450 - and no, I never cow- tipped).

Eugene Facciuto, later to be nicknamed Luigi by Gene Kelly, was born in Steubenville, Ohio. In his early twenties, already a dancer, he was partially paralyzed in an automobile wreck. To speed his recovery he developed dance exercises that safely rebuilt his body. These exercises and the philosophy he developed with them became one of the first standard jazz dance techniques. Since the 1950's Luigi has been passing his technique on to students around the world.

"Where did you hear about my class?" Luigi asked.

"I've heard about you from everywhere," I reply (okay, I admit it was not one of my best responses).

"Ahh," he chuckles with an ironic smile," I am being rediscovered."

The Class

I find myself in class with an eclectic group of 15 other dancers. A group of students with their teacher from Atlanta huddle off to the side to stretch. A middle-aged man practices balance exercises that I am soon to learn are part of the class. One of the regular students wears a sleeveless shirt revealing muscled arms and tall, dark looks. I chuckle to myself thinking that he resembles the Tony Maneiro character Travolta played in Staying Alive.

Class begins. As if to punctuate Luigi's reputation as teacher to celebrities, Phylicia Rashad (better known to television fans as Claire Huckstable, sports fans as Ahmad Rashad's wife, and to dancers as Debbie Allen's sister) pops her head in to watch part of class. Luigi focuses on carriage of the upper body. His elegant and fluid style exudes confidence. I find myself marveling at the perfect alignment of a 75 year old man who can still kick his legs above his head while using proper technique!

The Technique

One of the unique aspects of the class is his use of the word "technique". Many classes today use the word to mean anatomical facility or mechanical efficiency. The dancer with the most flexibility, highest développé, most pirouettes, and the greatest leaps is considered technically proficient. This is not so for Luigi.

Luigi focuses on the quality of the movement. To him, the quality is the technique. The two are inseparable. Great energy is spent on learning to do even the most basic steps with "proper technique". Many dancers can do highflying tricks, but do not have a grasp of proper technique.

In contrast, students of Luigi's technique (like Tony Maneiro - er...I mean I think his name was Alexander) do a series of simple looking step-touches, ball changes, and glissades that leave the impression they can without a doubt perform amazing leaps and multiple turns! It was an incredible phenomenon.

Star Quality

I once saw Chita Rivera perform at a fourth of July show (at Disney World - yes I was working for the Mouse). It opened with some high-energy young dancers flying across the stage. Each dancer was allowed a diagonal pass across the stage to do their most impressive leaps. The audience watched placidly.

Once the stage had cleared Chita Rivera entered from stage right and slowly, graciously walked to the microphone at center stage. The audience was mesmerized. Jaws dropped (including mine). And all she did was walk.

So Why is Luigi a Legend?

Half way through the class I had an epiphany. I figured out what was so amazing about this man's technique. Because Luigi teaches quality of movement as technique from the very first step, students of every level learn to move with incredible confidence and amazing stage presence.

Ever look with a critical dancer's eye at Liza Minnelli and think, "She isn't doing anything difficult - but she sure looks great?" This is why so many stars have taken his class. He teaches them how to move in a way that conventional classes have forgotten about. He teaches them to move from the inside. In the rush to get the legs higher, quality has been lost. But Luigi still has it.

Passion for Teaching

Combine my revelation with the fact that at 75 years old Luigi approaches every moment of his class with determined passion and his uniqueness is revealed. Luigi lives to pass on his technique. A bottomless well of passion for teaching feeds the blood in his veins.

An Invaluable Lesson

Jazz dance students looking for the latest trendy steps, cutting edge style, and tricks will not find them in Luigi's class. But the lessons students are missing by passing over his class are crucial. Call it stage presence or aura or star quality or whatever you like - Luigi knows how to teach it.

I left class feeling both enlightened and honored. Although it was only my first class with the man, his 72 years of dance experience jolted me like a chocolate covered espresso bean.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The 4 Es of Evaluating Programs

One day I walked into my office, overwhelmed with what lie ahead. Treading water inside my head, making a to-do list was a release valve that took away some of the pressure. As I finished, I looked at the list, paralyzed where to begin, what to do first. I plugged away for hours and hours until the end of the day I realized, I had gotten little of importance accomplished.

I reflected back on my choices of what to work on from my list and it seemed that all the small inconsequential busy work sucked my time and energy. My mind tricked me by procrastinating through meaningless tasks. My subconscious dictated that I could not give my full energy and focus to the meaningful things until I had cleared away, cleaned up, and taken care of all the loose ends. The result: I never touched the meaningful things.

What’s worse, I realized how many tasks on my list did not need to be there in the first place. So, I devised a system to simplify my list by deciding what was worth taking on and what was okay to say no to. These 4 Es keep me focused in the direction I want to go and help guard against the multitude of distractions that can take get me turned around. In work, I use them to evaluate what projects, programs, and tasks to reinforce, revise, or drop.

At the National Association of Schools of Dance conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, I shared the 4 Es with colleagues following a presentation. From the response in the room and the questions that followed over the next three days regarding the 4 Es, I realized that others face the same dilemmas. We all need some way of evaluating what is essential, what is effective, what is efficient, and what is excellent.

Ask yourself, does this project, program, or task align with core values? If so, how closely? Is it merely extra?

"Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials." ~ Lin Yutang

Often, we try in our programs to do too much. We try to be everything to everyone and take on projects that do not align with who we really are as people, as departments, or as institutions. If it is essential to your core values, say yes. If not, figure out how it can align with your core values or drop it.

Ask yourself, does this project, program, or task bring about the desired outcome? How can we measure its effectiveness?

Just because something is essential does not mean it is necessarily effective. Some things we do, some projects continue, simply because they have been going on for a while. Measuring its effectiveness helps decide whether to continue. If it can be fine-tuned, do so. If not, drop it.

Is the program, project, or task designed in a way that directly leads to the outcome? Is there a leaner way to do it?

You have determined that it is essential and effective; now, find the most efficient way to accomplish it. Clear away wasted steps, redundant procedures, and bureaucratic knots. Avoid wasting time and energy.

Does the quality of this program, project, or task reach a standard of excellence?

The old saying goes that if something is worth doing it is worth doing well. After determining that it is indeed essential, effective, and efficient, and clearing away things that are not, means that you have the energy and resources to focus on doing it well.

My to-do list still swells to the brim at times, but now I am more confident that those items are more essential, more likely to be effective, continually being adapted for better efficiency, and, because of each of the preceding thresholds, meeting the desired standard of excellence.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Transmodernism: Integrating the Art and Science of Movement

This Thursday and Friday (Mar 14 & 15, 2014) I will speak at the research symposium Transmodernism: Integrating the Art and Science of Movement at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I feel excited and privileged to be part of this community of movement artists and specialists that I deeply respect, exploring the potential of movement in the 21st century. When most people think of dancers, they envision fit, active, lithe creatures. They don't often think of dancers as nerds. But, if you define nerds as people inordinately passionate and mentally fixated on their particular interests, then dancers can be just as nerdy as anyone. And, I say this lovingly, this symposium promises to prove it.

My presentation, Transmodernism in Dance, will explore my research of Dance Paradigms using the Gravesian Framework which I have outlined in this blog. I continue to find new depths and wrinkles in this area of research. Currently, I have been exploring its application in a variety of ways:
  1. As a conceptual framework for mapping (and teaching) the history of concert dance;
  2. As a tool for dance composition teaching (and practice) that elucidates the relevant principles found in artistic eras/paradigms;
  3. As a system of pedagogical methodologies for reaching each student with motivations and appeals appropriate to their individual value systems; and
  4. As an administrative guide for organizational leadership.
In addition to these applications, my most recent interest lies in the integration of this framework with a larger, integral framework that includes, not just stages of development, but also multiple dimensions, intelligences, states, and types. But those are topics for another day. If you happen to be in Milwaukee this week, please join the dialogue.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I Don't Get It

Artist Molly Brennan installing sculpture
At a faculty event recently one of my senior colleagues shared that she just doesn’t get art, or dance. While that disappoints me in some ways, I found her honesty refreshing. The natural urge to search for meaningful patterns in life, leads many, when looking at art, or dance, to the same exasperated revelation: “I don’t get it.” The truth is, more often than not, there is nothing specific to get. Art can be, but is not often, about communicating a clear, specific message. From my perspective, it is most often about the experience, the spark of connection, between the artwork, the viewer, and the artist—not the message. For example, a series of singular events, makes no attempt to convey a message.

Rather, the work developed out of an exploration of three continuums: the micro to the macro, the biological to the technological, and the fragmented (singular) to the connected (series). If I arrived at any final message it might be Leonardo Da Vinci’s quote:  “Learn how to see. Realize everything connects to everything else.” But even that is not purposeful. The dance that developed while exploring the three continuums is its own animal; it does not exist to serve the delivery of a message. It just is.

As I observe the rehearsals, I have learned to see that for the continuum of micro to macro, the video collage begins with cells, some life affirming and some life negating, and expands to images of the cosmos. The dancers, paralleling this continuum, begin in an amoeba-egg-organic shape and develop throughout the piece to wild, disparate individuals, each swirling around their personal axis.

For the continuum of biological to technological, the work integrates organic movement phrasing derived from developmental movement with technological elements through projections of video footage, interactive multimedia, and technical athletic movement.

For the continuum of the fragmented to the connected, the simplest use of this is seen with the dancers working in pairs, groups, and then individually. More subtlely, movement phrases ‘on stage’ parallel the ‘off stage’ performer working the projections. And, with the use of pre-recorded footage of audience members in the lobby before the concert, the viewers also participate as performers projected on stage. Furthermore, the sculpture, created by art student Molly Brennan, integrates the inorganic and organic as well as the ceiling shapes of the theater into the stage space.

Is there a message? Not purposefully so. My own bias and view of the world, one that sees inter-connectivity as universal, seems to have unconsciously shaped the work.  But that was an accident. Besides, why try to get across a meaning in movement when it could more succinctly be put into words like Leonardo did long ago. Freed from the idea of art as a form of literal communication, the dance can just be. 
“Learn how to see. Realize everything connects to everything else.” ~ Leonardo Da Vinci

Monday, April 8, 2013

Teaser clip from studio rehearsal of a series of singular events

Be warned, these are clips from a studio rehearsal with unfinished costumes...just a peek (quite literally) into what is coming up this weekend!