Friday, November 12, 2010

Watch and learn

If you're an artist, everyone in this world has something to teach you, even people who are less skilled than you in a particular discipline-- even people with no training whatsoever. Once I realized this for myself, I've been able to learn so much about my two main creative areas of interest-- dance performance and writing stories-- through simply observing my reaction to the work of other artists.

This might sound kind of saccharine or sentimental, like "Everyone has something to share!" "Everyone has a unique and beautiful creative voice!" I do believe those things (for the most part), but that's not what I'm trying to say. What I really mean is that by being a mindful consumer of art, it's possible to learn things you can't learn in a classroom setting.

Allow me to provide an example.

Every time I watch a bellydance performance, I do the following:
-I pretend that I've never seen or heard anything about the dancer(s) I am watching before in my life, including the style of bellydance they normally perform.
-I try to ignore indicators of skill level unrelated to the actual dancing, such as the way the dancer is costumed.
-I try to abandon any feelings of competitiveness towards skilled dancers.
-I try to forget what I've been taught compromises a "good" versus "bad" performance, or even "good" versus "bad" dance technique.
-I try to pretend I know nothing about the current trends in bellydance (as I know that my natural tendency is to dislike trendy things simply because they're trendy, and that's not really fair).

As I watch, I try to think about the following:
-What stands out to me the most? What do I think I'll remember later?
-What do I think the dancer is trying to convey? What are their intentions for the performance? If I can't tell, why is it confusing?
-How is the dancer interpreting the music? Do I find it effective?
-When do I find myself losing interest or focus on the dancer? (i.e. when do I have an attention deficit moment and start thinking about bacon or the scientific method or somesuch?)
-When does the dance transcend a simple display of technique or skill? When does it have the ineffable quality that makes things interesting to me? When does technique (good or bad) stand in the way of conveying this ineffable quality?
-Does the dance make me feel anything (besides hungry or sleepy)? Why? Do I like it?

and, just generally speaking,
-What parts of the dance 'work' for me? What parts don't?
-How can I integrate what I've learned into my own performances?

Sometimes you will not be able to articulate why you like (or dislike) something, and that's fine. This isn't the same as dance criticism; you don't have to be able to support your feelings. In fact, your irrational likes and dislikes are really what make up your particular sensibility as an artist. It's important to recognize them for what they are, rather than ignoring them or trying to justify them with logic.

I have found that, more than anything else, this kind of exercise has helped me develop my creative voice as a dancer. By ignoring what I think I am supposed to like and searching for what I really respond to deep down in the hideous pitch-black depths of my abyssal soul, I have figured out what I want to convey as a dancer, as well as what I am not interested in pursuing.

I do not think I could have done this just by taking classes and watching videos of myself. Teachers can tell you what they think makes a good performance, but they can't tell you what YOU think is compelling, and most people are far too anxious about their own skills as a dancer to detach and actually learn things about stagecraft while watching their own videos.

I don't think that it's good enough to watch only popular dancers. In fact, if you only watch your favorite dancers, you've compromised the objective of this exercise from the outset. This kind of learning requires that you turn off the part of your brain that reminds you what other people say you should like so that you can learn what you really do. It's not about figuring out who is a good dancer and who is not. Remember that even amazing dancers present lackluster performances from time to time, and lackluster or neophyte dancers sometimes come up with amazing performances. Moreover, it's frequently easier to learn from a performance from a relatively unknown dancer, simply because it's easier to forget what you know about them if you really do know very little.

Over time I have also learned to distinguish between things that I enjoy and things that really resonate with me. I don't emulate everything I enjoy. I can't-- I don't have enough time. I have to spend my time working towards what I deeply want, not the things I have a passing interest in. I'm also learning that some things work excellently for one dancer and terribly for another-- even if both dancers have roughly the same skill level-- due to factors like personality, training, body type, and physical limitations. There are things I wish I could do, or that I wish would somehow start 'working' for my body, but I can't or they don't so I spend my energy elsewhere.
Remember-- unless you are a true prodigy, you can typically choose to be great at a few things or mediocre at a lot of them.

Through observation, I've learned that I don't care about style or genre any more. I've become an omnivore. I tend to really enjoy the performances that make me stop thinking about technique. When I watch some dancers, I feel like the actual physical movements they perform become transparent and almost disappear, becoming a window to a deeper kind of communication. I enjoy the same thing in books-- when I forget about the words I am reading and feel transported into the raw experience, that's when I'm really hooked.

So, that's my creative goal-- to create this experience for other people, this kind of post-analytic state of pure enjoyment. You might find (or you might already know) that your objective is entirely different, and that's awesome. This goal isn't THE goal, it's just my goal. Watch quietly, and hear your inner voice tell you what yours is.

1 comment:

  1. My mirror neurons are always picking up on the habits and movements of other dancers that I watch. Unfortunately it has casued me to incorporate not only good techinique and moves that I see, but frequently the bad.