Sunday, 13 January 2013

How do you generate your ideas? Lessons from dance

So the last two weeks for me have mostly been about using every spare minute to start setting out ideas for my new choreography project, Anything Goes, which is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre this June.

People often ask me how easy it is to do choreography, or where/how I learned how to do it. Part of it was an obvious transfer of skills: I first started teaching kids to dance at my local ballet school when I was 14. At that stage, I was being taught a routine, then being given responsibility to re-teach that dance to a large room full of small girls and boys. That was fairly easy as, by that stage of my own dance training, I'd been taught to pick up new combinations of steps pretty quickly. Layering on from that, i.e. from remembering an order of steps, as a junior teacher I was then learning how to pass on knowledge about how to recreate those steps. You learn how to break down an action into its most basic component parts so that people learning from you can see how to build it back up.

Those two parts are the fundamentals of dance teaching. The last layer for choreography is then of course the creative part: listening to a piece of music and feeling what movement would look good/express effectively what is happening to a viewing audience.

Me, appearing in Follies, 2008
You first start learning to express to music pretty much the first time you go to a dance class, aged as young as three. They will put on a piece of classical music and tell you to "be a fairy", or "be a monster", and you will throw your little self around, twirling, hopping and crouching for the thirty seconds or so until the track ends. It's essentially just another kind of creative play, which young children do extensively as part of learning and development. It's imaginative, not to mention a lot of fun as you learn to be completely individual (and generally at aged 3 you're not learning to twirl, just point your toes, so that's great too).

Most of us lose the opportunity to be truly creative as time goes on. But having an outlet for creative expression is such a joy. Everyone should have something - whether that's dance, writing, cooking, music, craft or something completely different. I think people sometimes have a fear of being creative, or think that they can't do it. But I honestly think that it's the same as anything else; you get better at it the more you do it.

I'm completely in awe of great choreographers. A great piece of theatre makes you literally gasp. I can remember sitting open-mouthed through some great productions over the years, my heart beating faster, my spine tingling, my toes tapping. I would never claim to be as good as anyone who does this for a living, and consider myself lucky to have had so many opportunities to do this on an amateur basis. I can't claim to have had any formal training, and couldn't claim that how I do it is the "right" way. But this is how I do it, and it's worked ok for me over the years!

By the time I left home at 18, I was regularly teaching new routines to other children at my dancing school: single dances for exams, larger group dances for theatre performances, as well as drama classes. For each new thing, I would be listening to the track, and "hearing" what sorts of steps would fit with that music. I'd also be thinking about the style of the music, drawing on influences from that genre. Most often with this kind of dance it was purely about expressing the feel of the music rather than a huge amount of story telling.

It was when I got to university and moved into more choreography for stage shows - mostly musicals - that I began to also think about how what was happening in a dance reflected the story that was being told. I'd be looking at similar stories told through dance, researching styles on the web, looking back at dance DVDs, and reading what I could from the text if there was a song as part of the music. I'll spend a lot of time sitting, thinking about a piece before I'll even get up and try any combinations out. I'll also draw a lot on influences from other dances I have seen, taking combinations of steps and re-weaving them in a way that fits for the new thing I'm working on. I'll also be thinking about the stage available: looking at patterns and shapes that will make something visually pleasing to someone watching.

Thinking about it, there are a lot of parallels in coming up with dance ideas to any other new creative process. Generating new ideas relies on a combination of:

  • Research: identifying what has worked successfully for others before
  • Learning by example: building on the above, I feel no shame in saying I am inspired by great work I see others do, and use that as inspiration for my own creative direction
  • Auditing: consideration of needs, motives, what is the message trying to be put across
  • Brain-storming: you'll come up with as many crap ideas as you do good ones, but that's an inevitable part of any creative process
  • Chunking: I'm a massive fan of breaking down something large into many smaller parts (see previous comments on this): tackling small sections makes a difficult project more manageable
  • Setting structure: the chunks need to hang together as a whole: taking a bird's eye view is important in all projects before you start to lay anything out. In dance I do this by story-boarding before I choreograph anything
  • External feedback: if I'm ever really unsure, getting third party feedback is always a safe bet. It's likely that you'll also be able to improve your ideas by shaping and building on what you already have with a fresh perspective from someone else.
I've been teaching dance for more than half my lifetime now, so it's fair to say I have experience when it comes to doing this. Yet it isn't always easy. Some days an idea will just flow, others will take agonising amounts of time, and at the end of it I'll still not be 100% sure whether what I have is quite right. It's easy to feel stuck in a rut, or to worry that new ideas really aren't all that "new". In business, getting around those same concerns involves stretching your creative brain and being able to tease out something innovative. Over the Christmas break I finally got around to reading the CIPR's innovation and creativity toolkit. As well as laying out how creativity works, it presents a range of different techniques, from mind-mapping to questions to stimulate story ideas. It also has a fantastic number of links to tools and resources. The CIPR also run some excellent creativity seminars - it was a while since I attended one but a great way to refresh if you're feeling stuck for ideas generation.