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Creativity: The Case of Liz Lerman

Photo by Lise Metzger.

I recently attended three events associated with the biennial Dance in Vancouver Conference, sponsored by the Scotiabank Dance Centre. Coming into art from a lifetime in the sciences, as I have, I was at the same time thrilled, inspired, and deeply moved personally by those experiences. 

The first event was the first public showing of a segment of Experiments. This is a dance production I’ve been working on with Gail Lotenberg, choreographer and artistic director of LINK Dance Foundation, to communicate the essence of science as a way of learning about the world, and about ourselves as curious beings who want to understand. As explained earlier in this space, Experiments is the second collaboration between LINK and groups of scientists. Although this 10 minute performance was just an early, partial draft (a snippet, really) of a performance that will open next spring, it amazed me to see how it had deepened, matured, and grown more accessible in its structure and symbolism since I last saw it.

The timing of the Experiments performance was perfect, because so many dancers, choreographers, funders, and other performing arts professionals were in Vancouver for the conference and available to provide feedback to the choreographer following the performance. But how can a whole audience of strangers usefully communicate with one individual? That process was facilitated by Liz Lerman, founder of the Liz Lerman Dance Exhange in Maryland, who was here to receive Simon Fraser University’s prestigious Jack P. Blaney award for Dialogue. One of the many accomplishments recognized by Lerman’s award was the critical response process that she demonstrated immediately following each of two Experiments showings.

A key element of the creative process in any field, from science to literature to the performing arts, is to produce finished products from rough ideas. Having ideas is one thing, and we’ve heard many times that “good ideas are a dime a dozen”. It is quite another thing to make them real and make them work. In science, experiments often fail at first and we have to tune them to make them work. I must edit and edit and edit my writing before it starts to feel right, then I edit more after I ask others to comment.  In sculpting, I make thousands of adjustments to forms before I declare them finished. And I am discovering that it is no different in choreography. Performances evolve. 

Dancers spend months rehearsing, bringing productions closer and closer to some particular choreographic vision; that part is obvious. We practice and we get better.  But I hadn’t really considered that the vision itself keeps changing too, just as it does in other creative pursuits. Perfection is a moving target, and that’s where Liz Lerman comes in.

By structuring her critical response process around some simple principles such as trust and safety, it yields a rich source of valuable information about works audiences have just seen, with a minimum of embarrassment to anyone, with safety for everyone, and with a kind of laser-beam specificity that gives the feedback power and punch, maximizing its usefulness to the choreographer. 

Brilliant! And brilliantly effective.

In a brief introduction immediately after the performance, Lerman outlined the importance of feedback in developing works in progress. She stressed that to be effective, feedback must be respectful, must express the responder’s own experience of the work and not just his or her ideas about it, and must not offer advice unless it is asked for. She outlined four separate categories of feedback, and promised to allow them in successive steps of the process.

Statements of meaning.  Responders state what is meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting, or striking in the work they have just witnessed. Some comments were raw and emotional, expressing something powerful and personal about the responder’s experience. Others, more cerebral, were couched in the choreographic language of symbols, gestures, and movements in addressing meaning. Both kinds of statements were useful. Interestingly, it took gentle guidance by Lerman to keep the comments focused on the work the audience actually saw, rather than on imaginary ideals or on suggestions for improvement.

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