I’m always curious about how people in different fields work with their ideas. When I talk with painters, sculptors, musicians, or engineers, designers or managers, there are the same challenges again and again, but different techniques and vocabulary for working through them.
Yesterday I interviewed Allegra Searle-LeBel, Director of the Stimulate Dance Company in Seattle. And we talked about all sorts of things, from creative process, group culture and more. I focused on her thoughts on creativity from the perspective of a choreographer.
SB: How many people are in the company and what are their backgrounds?
ASL: We have 8 performers right now, including me. And we have two folks who are on sabbatical. About half the group are choreographers as well as performers, and that’s intentional. Some have more of a theater background, and some have more dance, and that’s intentional too.
SB: There are always three questions people ask in every field. The first is how do you get ideas? Or how do they move through your organization?
I get ideas for pieces all the time. I have a notebook and I write them down. Sometimes I write whatever the nugget was – the thing I saw, or heard, or thought. I can write that down and the nugget is enough to remember it later. Sometimes I have drawings, or movements or words. It’s a little trigger for remembering later, and I’ll come back when I have the time and energy. I’ll go back and project into these ideas and see which are available to me and see where the idea goes. Sometimes I don’t need the book – I’ll have an idea that’s been bugging me for awhile, waiting for me to find the time to work with it.
In general, in the group, someone starts with an idea, and they propose it. We have a proposal process. They write it up in email, what they’re thinking, and what the background is. They send it to the directors and then we sit down and have a conversation. What’s the right context? How many dancers? Right now we have 3 pieces in development and 22 pieces in our repertory. We have all these different elements, text, video, movement, script, improvisation or music and in that conversation we talk about the tools we need when developing the piece. But the first rehearsal is always a conversation. There’s a wide range in what happens after that, but as a very rough estimate we do 10-12 rehearsals before we get feedback from others in the company and maybe 8 to 10 more before we’d perform it for a real audience. It can be much more if the piece is more elaborate, or has more people involved.
The second question is, as a choreographer, what to do when you get stuck?
If you haven’t gotten feedback yet, get feedback. Open up a conversation. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own mind, and the conversation can get me out of that. And because dance is such a social art, a conversation makes the art happen. Makes it flow. I might go for a walk. Or put it down for a day or two and come back to it. But I try not to stop working on it when its really stuck – sometimes I might need to care for it, and love it a little more. Give it a little tenderness and patience. Sometimes taking time away is the right thing, but often it’s better to dig in more. Not that I’m going to get the right answer immediately, but any other answer might show me something that frees me up again. I also try to change direction, which is obvious with physical movement and choreography. I’ll change direction. I’ll watch from a different angle, or videotape and watch that – see it from a new angle, or take something out, or add something in. I look for way to change it, take something out and see what happens, or change the order. And then perhaps put it back how it was. I know I can always put something back so there’s no fear there. And I know my dancers are comfortable with a process like this, where we’re open to finding our way.
The third is how do you know when you’re done? Tell me about a piece that was particularly hard to complete.
For one piece years ago I had far more rehearsals then I do now, and in it I detailed every single move, look, breath – every nuance was detailed, and it was just for a 3 minutes long piece. It did go well and I’m still proud of it. But have I ever made a piece in the same way? No. I have never been as obsessive. Now I choose my minutia. I don’t let just anything happen. There is minutia that matters. But what changes everything is now I know the difference between the details that matter and the details that don’t.
That’s a great point. You can only learn about finishing by finishing. Until you say ‘I’m done’ and put it out there. Only then can you see what happens and learn from it. But if you never allow yourself to finish one piece, you’ll never get better at finishing them.
Last question. I noticed from your website you perform in unusual places. People’s homes, public spaces and often in business workplaces during work hours. What’s the reason for this?
We started out with the desire to perform for our community, and our friends. And we ended up making shows that were accessible and enjoyable to people who didn’t know how to talk about dance, or who were intimidated by dance. We didn’t start doing it on purpose but we realized we were doing art education as a side effect of our choices. But figuring out how to give people their own experience in dance, and how to make them connected is really gratifying. One way of thinking about this is that dance is a game, and it’s our job to make sure people can understand the rules.