History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.


Morning doves by Hazel M. Vaughan

My mother painted birds. My English mother came to the US with her English husband and two small English children, a passion for art, and raw skill. One Christmas, my father bought her a set of paints and she set to work. She was drawn to nature and specialized in birds and flowers. Watercolor was her medium of choice. The most striking element of her work is the detail in the feathers and, to me, the dew drops on the flowers. She received a fair amount of local notoriety for her art and instilled in us- her two English born and one American born kids- a love of art that has continued long after she has passed away.

I am the American born child of this arts-loving English couple. I have letters from my Nana, my mother’s mother, referring to me as the “American doll.” As a kid, I was often aware of the difference in my upbringing because I used words that the other kids thought were funny. For example, we said it was “spitting” out instead of “sprinkling” and I wore “knickers” instead of “underpants”. But then there were the words that my creative father made up and passed off as common language, which I later found out didn’t exist in either English or American English. Being from Merseyside, he also told me he went to school with the Beatles but didn’t know why they stopped calling him. (My mother did watch the Beatles at the Cavern Club, probably around the Pete Best era). And I got my own back….after seeing Ringo in Rockefeller Center while I was living in NYC, I called my Dad and told him that I saw Uncle Ringo but he acted as if he had no idea who I was. My dad rolled and rolled in laughter.

Where am I going with this? Art making: specifically, my mother’s attention to detail and my father’s creativity. I find it fascinating how or where people place value on a ‘finished’ product.

It seems to me that dancers that are trained from an external perspective- those taught to imitate line and shape instead of re-creating it for themselves, place importance on synchronicity and clarity of execution. There is value placed on the cleanliness of the group rather than the detail of an individual movement and the opportunity to see this movement become unique as performed my multiple bodies. I am all for clean dancing. I am all for pretty pictures. Yet, I find art making to be in the exploration of these possibilities and not necessarily the drilled, machine-like demonstration of skill. I once had a student that watched Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire and commented that she thought it was messy and should have been cleaned before they taped the performance. I think my mouth may have fell open. I realize not every dance speaks to every person but I was surprised that she had not been moved by the music, the movement, and relationship between dancers due to some discrepancy in degrees angles of the arms, and so on. In considering her background and resulting aesthetic preferences, her comment should not have surprised me. And, had we had more time to work together, I hope her view of ‘quality’ dance would have expanded.

When dancers are encouraged to shed this initial regimented impression of the creative process and are invited to explore movement, detail can be just as clear but with potentially more meaning. Even when working in a line-concentrated medium (say, jazz or ballet), the approach to the movement and the nuance found within is what brings the choreography to life. Sometimes we need to momentarily leave behind what we’ve been taught and focus on what we can create, even if it defies our personal definitions of dance. Then, if needed, we can marry these two concepts and find brilliance in what may ordinarily be ordinary dance. In my view, this is the source of artistry.

This is precisely why I feel improvisation should be used in all kinds of dance classes, especially dance technique classes offered through private studios and in public schools. If not allowed to ‘create’ movement, it is difficult for budding dancers to claim movement as their own and can be more difficult for audiences to connect with them as performers beyond the admiration of physical skill. Dance is an incredible physical discipline that can feature athleticism but we need a distinction between sport and dance. This is expression and communication. How can we cultivate new voices if never allowing these young artists to figuratively clear their throats?

As educators, we need young dancers to understand how their bodies work. I think it is a shame that by the time they get to college, a dancer may be able to whip off multiple pirouettes but cannot balance on one leg. They may expend way more energy than should be required because they have no sense of true placement and need to adjust position before entering a movement. They’ve been taught to imitate and not re-create.

As I have said before, I like to work conceptually first and physically second yet that hasn’t always been the case. As I develop as an educator, I embrace the abstract and move to fill in the detail. We need to shift weight before we may dance.

My life is full of the abstract and preparation for detail as we expect our second child to arrive this April. As she moves and rolls, bumps and delivers quick jabs to my ribs, she moves from an abstract idea of “having a girl” to distinct ideas of what her personality may be like. I feel our identities taking shape. I am eager to share with her our family history, in creativity and detail. She’s our little bird and she’s a work in progress. Though, aren’t we all?

An experiment in pen and ink by Hazel M. Vaughan

A Love Clear and Simple

A couple weekends ago, I bought a bar of soap. Not just any soap. The best smelling, most decadent, exfoliatingly brilliant bar of soap I’ve ever purchased (from the Olive Mill, in Saugatuk, in case you were wondering). When telling my husband about my love for this bar of soap, he said, “wow, and it is made at that little store in Saugatuk?” “Well, no. It is made in Provence, but I can get it at that little store in Saugatuk.” I continued, “ But it smells of sage and has wheat bran for exfoliation and….who knew a simple bar of soap could make me so happy.” He said, “Yeah, coming from Provence and full of all that stuff…it sounds simple.” Smirk. And with that, he got me thinking.

If I would like to consider my personal aesthetic for fashion, beauty, and so on as simple, how would I describe my dance aesthetic? The word I have come up with is functional.

That same weekend, I had the opportunity to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform at the Power Center in Ann Arbor with my dear friend and fellow DITA fan, Sherrie Barr. (This AND soap…It was a big weekend for me!) While Paul Taylor is not always my favorite choreographer, I still consider PT’s work to be a “sure thing” for me. I will walk away having enjoyed at least one piece very much, perhaps another somewhat, but overall I feel satisfied, nourished, and have learned something new.

On the Friday night program, the company performed Orbs (1966) and Also Playing (2009). Truth be told, I had difficulty following the narrative of Orbs, but I didn’t care. I was able to watch the construction of the movement, the innovation within the movement vocabulary, and ponder such things as the change in dancers’ bodies from the time the piece was created to now. Currently, dancers are so focused on cross-training that I often find myself bored from the lack of nuance that I usually find so endearing in first and second generation dancers- regardless of company or genre. Technical prowess is a beautiful skill to have, but I would much rather watch someone with style and an identity onstage that compliments the choreographer’s perspective. This allows me to get to know the dancer without ever having shaken their hand. (Speaking of shaking hands…I also met dance legend Dan Wagoner at the PTDC concert and shook HIS hand…really, REALLY big weekend for me!!)

One of the qualities I find so appealing in Paul Taylor’s work is his clarity, particularly in his earlier works. He has a set repertoire of movement, clear organization of space and time as well as movement, and incredible–even absurd–wit. He has a distinct voice and while I would consider his work to be virtuosic and athletic, these attributes have never been used for the self-indulgence we so often see in “contemporary” dance these days. Very simply, his movement supports his point. And it is this point, or conceptual clarity, that for me separates concert dance from commercial, often the good from the bad, and perhaps the dance from the dancing.

This reminds me of a quote by famous NY Times dance critic, John Martin, in which Martin defined modern dance not as “a system but a point of view.” For me, this really is what separates dancing from dance. As I have mentioned in a past post, I could extend this to my feelings toward jazz (as we’ve come to accept it) versus modern. But this also taps into my prejudice against so much of the dance readily digested by audiences today. What is its function? And whom does it serve?

When watching shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” I often feel cheated. I love that mass America is consuming dance on a regular basis. Yet it is the skewed focus of the choreography, the feedback, and the presentation of dancers (as well as dance training) that concerns me. Frankly, I find little of the choreography to have any focus at all beyond fanning egos and promoting much of what I think is “wrong” with the dance world, namely “tricks”. Such an emphasis on complex and non-communicative movement parlays into problems on multiple levels. These levels include dance education: in which talented students may be belittled for not being able to execute such movement and ultimately turn away from dance; dance appreciation, in which dance is dismissed as athletic feat; and dance administration, where choreographers with a point and a clear voice may not be funded due to their lack of public “accessibility.” I wonder, if starting today, would Paul Taylor make the cut?

So, how do we restore the art to our favorite art form? I think it begins with simple honesty. Why am I dancing? Why am I creating dance? Why do I expect people to value this? Why am I compelled to create this particular piece? Am I considering this concept from multiple angles and perspectives? Am I enriching the lives and creative journeys of myself AND my dancers? My audience? What does this motion infer? Does it support my concept? Could it be misinterpreted? Essentially, we follow the same process we do for professional writing, with the repeating question, “So what?” With this line of interrogation, I am not trying to create a generation of self-doubters. But, I would like the current generation of artists to doubt their first responses and demonstrate some higher-level thinking. When we do that, we not only restore the art in dance, we also restore the culture. Clean and simply. Smirk.

Happy cleansing.

Originally published by Dance in the Annex.  http://www.danceintheannex.com