I don’t think that one is impressed with one’s own work. I can’t imagine such a thing. It’s a question of getting it right; it’s not a question of admiring it. —Mavis Gallant
Replace ambition with curiosity. —Nancy Stark Smith
The work is never done. Sanctuary always needed. —Steve Paxton
Choreography should flow from desire and curiosity. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hyperventilating mania of grants and approval from critics and colleagues that I can forget what is most important: studio practice. Studio practice is a path, a touchstone, and anchor. No one can take it away from you.
Studio practice should not be about accumulating objects (shiny hard-edged shapes or ideas). Studio practice must be a porous verb. It should be about undoing and listening until hunger emerges.
Rehearsal can be studio practice. Bring the same integrity to rehearsal with a group that you do to solo studio practice. Don’t let a desire to be friendly or popular affect aesthetic imperatives. That last sentence is ludicrous but needs to be said. When creating something with performers you respect, resist making decisions based on what you think the performers want. Listen to what the work wants and put that first. There is a time in creative process for collaboration–for multiplicity and ambiguity. There is also a time for authorship–for the clarity and coherence of a single articulate voice.
For women, rigorous artmaking can be understood as a feminist act in that it subverts that most unfortunate people-pleasing proclivity that society ingrains in us. We’re in an era where old school models of making work (the hierarchical master filling empty vessels i.e. dancers) are fading away and unfashionable. Everyone wants to approach choreography as a collaborative score. But under the choreography as score paradigm, sensitivity to collaborator/performer desires can obstruct or distract from attention to inner voice. Virginia Woolf, commenting on Coleridge’s remark that “a great mind is androgynous,” wrote this in A Room of One’s Own:
The androgynous mind is resonant and porous…it transmits emotion without impediment..it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.
Woolf remarked that the typical male writer possesses “such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself…[he has] never been thwarted or opposed, but had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked.”
Sounds like a good place from which to make a dance. And yet. Despite these advantages, Woolf’s archetypal male voice has a handicap: it is too bound up in its own ego, its own “I”-ness. Indeed, Woolf thinks male writers would do well to write more with the “female” part of their brain: “Poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father.” Psychologist Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice, has proposed that girls think and self-identify through relationships more than boys. Are women pre-disposed—by virtue of cultural influence or otherwise–to be more responsive to performer/collaborator desires than male choreographers? Hate to dip my toe in essentialist waters, but if this is a tendency, it’s one we need to monitor.
As female choreographers, when we are creating abstract art—work without an easily accessible personal or political engine–we need to tap into a deep sense of authorship. Not ego, but a sole author’s stewardship–a parental dedication to what the work needs. Choreography–even if it abstract–must come from a singular, searching place. It can be a search experienced and shared by others. But it must remain essential to the dancemaker.