Collaborating with dancers

What kind of choreographic process is most conducive to encouraging dancer creativity? For some choreographers, dancer creativity is not integral to the creative process. In what I’ll call the “old-school genius” model (e.g. Merce), the opportunity for creativity falls almost exclusively to the choreographer. Dancers partner with the choreographer to shape movement, but not to make such decisions like where movement happens in space or how to achieve the overarching vision for a work. That is increasingly an outdated approach. (Whether this trend is related to the increasing predominance of concept over vocabulary in modern dance is a topic for another day). Instead, modern dance choreographers now typically rely heavily on the dancers with whom they work not only to generate vocabulary, but also to problem-solve at every point in the creative process. Indeed, everyone in the dance world now “collaborates” and everyone is a “collaborator.” But not all collaboration is created equal.

Two recent press articles bring fresh perspective to the issue in non-dance settings:
“The New Groupthink,” Susan Cain, New York Times, Jan. 13, 2012
(“Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”)

and this:
“Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2012
(“Debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”)

Lehrer’s article in particular attacks the central assumption behind brainstorming—namely, the importance of having a nonjudgmental environment. It seems, instead, that creativity thrives under a bit of stress. When ideas are challenged, rather than just simply noted without comment, creativity benefits.

(What would Liz Lehrman think of this? Isn’t her feedback model predicated on containing judgment?)

Since reading these two articles, I have been thinking about what makes collaboration with dancers unique. What is unique about the choreographer/dancer relationship? And what factors support creativity in the unique setting of the dance studio? I say unique meaning different than a corporate or office or other artistic environment.

First, there is a higher level of vulnerability within the choreographer/dancer relationship than in other settings. Why? Because we are dealing with the body. We are processing ideas through the body. When you dance in front of another person, you are exposing yourself in a different way than if you simply voice an idea.

Perhaps then it is therefore even more important in the choreographic environment to give dancers enough time and space to work independently on problems/tasks before they are seen and evaluated. Every dancer is different—some need more privacy to create than others.

Part of the choreographer’s job then is to evaluate what each dancer needs in order to be most creative. More challenge and resistance to their ideas or more privacy and independence? More solitary creative time or more time being live coached and challenged on the spot? This is a subtle but crucial form of leadership in the studio—mediating relationships and process so each person in the room feels safe and productive.

In the business world, perhaps these conditions go without saying. Not so in the dance world. I’m interested in improving my toolbox in this department. Dancers out there–any opinions on what conditions facilitate your creativity when in the studio with a choreographer?