Saturday, 14 March 2015

Hitting the wall

I've been reflecting a recently on the process of building a performance, or more specifically, a point in the process which I like to call "sitting on the floor crying". I've mentioned it before and upon encountering it again recently, I decided to look a little deeper into it.

Now, I'm not saying that literally sitting on the floor and crying is a necessary part of my process, it's more a descriptor of what it feels like than what happens. What I am referring to is the point where at about 60-80% of completion, I hit a wall and just don't know how to continue. I might decide I hate the music and don't want to dance to it at all. I undoubtedly start to doubt my ability. I may even start contemplating giving up and not doing this performance at all, or any more ever! A friend recently described it as when the dance behaves like a toddler who sits down in the middle of the supermarket and refuses to budge.

A couple of years ago I  began to recognise this as an inevitable part of preparing for a performance. More recently I have begun to recognise it as a necessary part of preparing for a great performance.

Creating a new performance is a learning experience. Or it should be. Every new performance should push you, technically, artistically or both. If you aren't pushing your boundaries you aren't learning. If you aren't learning, you aren't growing. If you aren't growing then you are dead in the water. There is only a limited opportunity to keep dancing the same dance before  you or your audience start to tire of it.

If you really challenge yourself, then there will come a point when the learning curve becomes so steep, so intense, that it feels like a wall. A dead end. You can take a step back and trot along at a more comfortable level, or you can push through it. Pushing through it is when the magic happens, but it's never easy.

In my experience, at this point I usually go into extra technical mode. I start thinking in beats and bars and which steps will fill the void that stares back at me unblinkingly every time I try to dance. The result of this is usually a bit bland and clinical, as you might expect.

It was at this point recently when a friend suggested I rewatch this video, so I did. I would recommend that you do too.

It reminded me that I was getting wrapped up in the wrong things, thinking about the performance, the audience, the technique, whether the music was right, the deadline, rather than just... making good art.

So I sat down and I thought about what I could do to put the focus where I wanted it to be, on the message, the story, the emotion of the piece. I wrote a list of things to try, to help me get through the barrier and keep on dancing. Here they are:

Watch dancing. Similar and different performances for inspiration. How have other dancers expressed similar ideas? Don't overanalyse, binge on dance videos for an evening and let it soak in and inspire you.

If you have a tendency to try and pile in all your complicated technique in a tight spot, try reprioritising.

Sit down and dance the music just with your upper body and expression.

Choreograph some really simple steps or footwork first, then put expression and arms on top. No fancy hips or layers. You need your feet in place so you don't fall over, but after that concentrate on arms, face and bearing. Once you've nailed that you might want to put something more complex on top, or you might find it's pretty powerful as it is. Don't always feel you have to fill the silence.

Listen to the music. Properly. Concentrate on what the drums are doing. Listen again and concentrate on what a particular section of the melody does. Slow it down (there's some great apps like Audipo or The Amazing Slow Downer that help with this) and see if there is anything subtle in there that you are missing. Sometimes a subtle drum embellishment  or variation in the bass line will give you something to put your layers to that isn't so obvious or expected.

Get feedback. Ask a dance friend or teacher to appraise the work you have done so far. Or try a community like and post a video. A good critique will include advice about what is working, as well as what isn't. Sometimes what it really takes to get past a block is reassurance that actually, despite what you think, you are on the right track.

Specialised tuition. Ask your regular teacher, or another teacher whose performances you admire, for a private lesson. They can support you through the process, teach you some new steps or even choreograph a little to give you a leg up.

Sometimes the block is technical. Sometimes the only way to make the performance meet your vision for it is to raise your game technically. So take some time out, go to classes, workshops, dance DVDs, you may already have something in your collection that you could revisit.

Most of all, don't give up. Take a break if you need, but come back to it, and own it like only you can.

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